This is part 3 of a 3-part series of interviews with philosophers who left academia right after grad school or in some cases later. See part 1 to see what jobs they held, and part 2 on how they evaluate their jobs. This part will focus on the transferrable skills of academics.
The burning question of academics who want to leave academia is: What transferrable skills can they bring to the private sector? The responses of the seven people I interviewed clearly indicate that the skills that are transferrable are broad and fairly high-level.
Eric Kaplan (television comedy writer), for instance, explores similar questions in his philosophical writings and his writing of scripts for the Bing Bang theory and other shows “I’m very interested in tension between life and theory and mind and emotions; I explore that both in philosophy writing and in script writing.” He continues, “As I think about philosophy and comedy writing they are quite close to one another because both require keeping two or more incompatible perspectives in mind simultaneously. As a consequence both of them require imagination, close attention to the phenomenology of human experience, skepticism about received opinions and group-think, and precision with thought and language, as well as some skepticism of prevailing intellectual orthodoxies, including the value of precision and skepticism.”
Claartje van Sijl (self-employed counselor): “My education as a philosopher has taught me to continue inquiring at levels where others normally don’t; to question (hidden) assumptions and implications; to suspend judgment; and not in the least it has familiarized me with the greatest philosophical thoughts of 2500 years of history that I can now use as a sounding board for my clients’ and my own reflections. PhD research experience has offered a chance to learn things like complex information-, project- and time-management; writing (in English); independence, responsibility, pro-activity, perseverance. I use the personal PhD experience to recognize and empathize with my clients.”
Zachary Ernst (software engineer at Narrative Science) “As a professional philosopher, if you haven't gotten over-specialized and narrow, then you've got really good analytic and communication skills. So you've got the ability to learn quickly and efficiently. You're also in the habit of being very critical of all sorts of ideas and approaches to a variety of problems. And if you've taught a lot, then you're probably pretty comfortable with public speaking. Those skills are very rare in almost any workforce, and they're extremely valuable..."
"I've participated in a lot of job interviews with potential engineers. We're very selective about who we hire. Most of the time when we decide not to offer someone a job, it's not because they lack the technical or programming skills. We're willing to work with people to get them up to speed on that stuff. But if they aren't intellectually curious, can't communicate their ideas clearly and concisely, are poor at problem-solving, or aren't comfortable collaborating with (and learning from) others, then there's no way we'll hire them. The vast majority of people will fail at those skills, but analytic philosophers are quite likely to have them. A smart employer running a startup knows that they really can't predict what problems their employees will face in six months. So although having a specific set of skills is nice (and can definitely help), it's the general problem-solving, analytic, and communication skills that are really necessary.”
Ian Niles (senior ontologist at Microsoft) “My job does involve some technical concepts and skills, but I think the most important ability that it requires is non-technical, viz. the ability to think abstractly and analytically. I think philosophy is the best training possible for this ability, because philosophical problems are foundational, boundless, and extremely challenging. The technical concepts and skills that are relevant to my job include computer programming, database theory, discrete mathematics, and information retrieval. I didn't have much of a background in these things when I started my career, but they are to a large extent an application of formal logic, and here again my background in philosophy, I think, allowed me to come up to speed in these areas relatively quickly.”
Nate Smith (Quality Assurance Engineer for a network security company): “My particular focus on philosophy of science in my PhD has made me sensitive to issues in methodology. Software development and software testing more specifically have different approaches and methodologies that are out there in the industry, and while I think most people in my job would just read a few books and take a few classes and say, "Ok, this is how software testing is done these days", I'm readily challenging these things and coming up with my own ways of doing things when I think they make sense. It's an industry that has conferences and the like, just like academia, and I suspect I'll start doing my own writing and presenting on these topics when I get some ideas a bit more solidified and I have a little more industry experience. It's nice not having my job prospects and/or tenure on the line, and I can just work on it because I think it's interesting and have things to say.”
Intriguingly, the argumentative skills that philosophers have might even be useful as they apply for non-academic jobs! Nate Smith remarks “Philosophers are great at making arguments, and that's all this is: you're making an argument that you're the best person for this job you're applying for. Once I thought of it this way, it all seemed a lot easier. I had a few different resumes for different kinds of jobs (one for business consulting firms, one for software testing, one for technical writing, etc.), and each served to support the argument for that kind of job.)”
Advice for seekers of non-academic careers
Eric Kaplan: “there's an illusion that comes from being in school too long which is that life is a series of predetermined tasks and hurdles and there's a linear ranking of people according to how many hurdles they've all hurdled. Recognize that ASAP - life is both much more chaotic, and has many more opportunities if you can be honest about what it is you really want”
Zachary Ernst: “The most important thing for philosophers who are considering a move to the private sector to keep in mind is that they have valuable skills. It's very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that because you've been focused on philosophy, that that's all you can do. This is simply not true....Your academic work is not irrelevant to the private sector. You have skills (writing and speaking, teaching, conducting research, analysis, etc), and your academic record is the proof that you do, in fact, have those skills. Think of yourself, not as someone who's written philosophy articles. You're someone who can synthesize a lot of complex information, critique it, and communicate your conclusions effectively. You're not someone who's taught a philosophy class; you're someone who can take a lot of information and boil it down to its essentials, and communicate it to a novice audience in a structured, organized way. Those are valuable, sought-after skills! ... The process of applying for jobs in the private sector, interviewing, and learning new skills is not like in academia -- it's much more humane. Apply, interview, learn what you're doing well and not doing well, and repeat. Unlike the academic job market where you're lucky to get one or two interviews, you can get a bunch of interviews in the private sector...That not only gives you more chances to land a job; it also gives you lots of opportunities to learn how the process works.”
While a PhD provides valuable transferrable skills, it requires a careful balancing exercise to point to these skills and yet not appear overspecialized or arrogant.
Nate Smith “Employers generally aren't going to be sure what to make of your PhD and previous career. Be prepared to explain why you're leaving and what you were up to in a way people can understand. Some will be a little worried that you’re just going to leave and go back to academia again since you've trained so much for it, so you want to be able to speak to that.
It's good to convince them that the PhD is an asset, but don't overdo it. USE the skills you've acquired to make yourself competetive, but don't point to the degree and expect people to think it has value. Some will, and some won't. I had one interview in which the interviewer said, "We like PhDs, this is great", but another in which I noticed the interviewer had literally crossed out the parts of my resume that described my academic career; I suspect he saw it all as completely irrelevant."
Claartje van Sijl offers specific advice for academics who are thinking about starting their own business “hone the entrepreneurial skills you already have as an academic: you are a creative thinker, self-starter with perseverance, used to positioning and presenting yourself as an expert. Most important of all is your great capacity for learning new stuff quickly: allow yourself to be a novice and make a lot of mistakes. Then just go and expand your horizon.”
Emilie Prattico (independent consultant): My advice would be two sides of the same coin: on the one hand, I would advise against listening to the skeptics. Many people will be very direct in trying to tell you that there's no way philosophers can work in a company -- we are too "abstract", lack "operational experience", "can't connect with non-philosophers." On the other hand, I would construct a real vision, a real project, and not just rely on being a "great thinker" who knows Plato inside out. It's really important to be informed about the field you're interested and to find your place within it, and if your place can include the philosophical dimension of your experience & skills, your project will be so much stronger and will deter the skeptics.”
Finally, several philosophers I interviewed caution against seeing a job outside of academia as a sign of failure or a fallback option:
Nate Smith: “Don't let anyone else tell you what success is. You're not failure for leaving academia. People change careers all the time for all kinds of reasons. I think in graduate school and academic life generally there are these continuous hurdles you must pass that are suggesting something like, "Can you hack it?". Seminar papers, qualifying exams, candidacy exams, dissertations, dissertation defenses, job searches, journal submissions, conference talks, tenure review, and promotion review. Just because you decide not do to it anymore, it doesn't mean the answer to that question is "no". And even if it did, WHO CARES? I can tell you right now, the answer is "no one outside academia".
Ian Niles “Don't consider a job outside academia as "slumming it". Academia, for all of its virtues, instills a fear of the "real world" in students, particularly graduate students. This attitude is often reflected in applications that philosophers submit for jobs outside of academia, and of course it does nothing to endear them to hiring managers" ...
"I think graduate students should think deeply and objectively about what they want to do after graduate school. Rather than reflexively signing on with the first institution that offers them an adjunct teaching position, they should think long and hard about what they need to be happy and where they are most likely to find it. I know quite a few philosophers who ended up taking positions in parts of the country or the world that they never would have considered otherwise, simply because they had invested six, seven or eight years of their lives in a degree.”
The interviews illustrate that, as Zachary Ernst puts it “academia is not the only way to have an intellectually satisfying professional life. For many of us, it's not even the best way. Keep an open mind”. Eric Kaplan is probably right that academia, which presents one’s professional trajectory as a series of hurdles (undergrad, grad school, a bit of postdoc/VAP, tenure track, tenure, promotion to full professor etc.), may make it difficult to think outside of this structure.
At the same time, it requires careful planning, additional training and networking to be successful outside of the academic job market. For that reason, Nate Smith also cautions “If you're lucky enough to have a secondary skill or previous career, don't let it atrophy (especially if you're still in graduate school). Do at least a little with it now and then just to keep up. This really helped me out a lot.”