Not "either/or" but "and & and": On Being a Scholar and a Business Consultant

In this week's post, Jillian and I's interview turns to talk about applying for jobs post-academia, the struggles of being a PhD in the business space, as well as the invaluable insights a mind trained by a PhD rigor offers. 

I love this post because Jillian makes no apologies for her desire to make a comfortable living (and, gasp, even a 401k!) despite her hatred of capitalism. Yeah, they're conflicting objectives, but life itself cannot be reduced to simplistic binaries of either/or. 

Similarly, the life Jillian has constructed for herself appears to be an "and, and" situation, where she pursues social issues that matter to her-- such as her forthcoming book about adjuncting and her social engagement class that she teaches, alongside a burgeoning career as a consultant in market research. 


JP: Before we get started, I’d like to clarify that what I do is more than market research consulting. Market research is what undergrads with humanities and social science degrees go into right out of college for 35-45k a year. In my first job outside academia, I worked as a consultant at a boutique innovation and strategy firm that specializes in qualitative research and humanistic insight. There I mostly did short ethnographic immersions to answer business challenges.  In my current job, I am a Senior Resident Ethnographer, which still doesn’t quite capture what it is I do on a daily basis because what I actually do is more varied methodologically than just ethnographer. But I have no good name for it.


AH: My apologies for dumbing down what you do. Blame it on my ignorance. What is jobz?

 JP: Thank you. Market Research is basically trend reports and quant testing, some interviewing, but, sadly, its not rigorous or theoretically and methodologically grounded. What I do is a lot of market research, but it’s a different sort of beast. I design the methods to answer business questions. For instance,  I use a range of qualitative methods now and I also lead workshops and spearhead design thinking and human-centered practices . My career path started at an innovation and management consultancy, I do now, what the industry thinks of as ‘business anthropology.’


AH: I just imagined a bunch of anthropologists entering Wharton business school and narrating what they are seeing like a National Geographic special on baboons in the wild and it really made me chuckle. But I digress…  Can you talk a little bit about the concept of “innovation” to the non-business folk reading this? For whatever it’s worth, the way I define the concept of “innovation” in business is basically the ability for creative thinking to make new things that propels businesses forward, i.e. makes them more money and assures their longevity in the future. ‘Errybody wants to be innovative.  

 JP: Innovation is about trying to figure out growth opportunities or changes that are necessary to make. Basically, when you know you need a new direction, we give you a framework.  We build models based upon observable human behavior to help clients understand what their next move should be, and what their market cares about/needs. These models are designed around trying to figure out growth opportunities or changes you have to make in order to innovate. Basically, when you know you need a new direction and are not sure how to get there, or even what that direction is, that’s where we come into play.


AH: How do you want to grow in your career?

 JP: Eventually, I want to do more organizational change work, experience design, and systems level and algorithm stuff with a human centered or design thinking approach. This is why I took my current job, because there are so many estuaries to explore and my interdisciplinary brain really activates in that context. I also eventually want to get out of consumer facing things. I like the consumer, I am curious about people by nature (which is why I got a PhD in Sociology to begin with) but I fucking hate capitalism, and I’m a sociologist, so I want to work on systems level problems.

 Also, everyone in my field hates the boring project, but that’s what I am really interested in. I’d love to design a better HR system or experience that actually adds real human value. Tell me, who doesn’t hate all the bullshit they have to do for HR because we’ve pushed everything onto the individual in the most problematic and alienating ways, which is of course indicative of the late stage capitalism we currently live in. I want to build better systems.


AH: Just to clarify for the non-business folks: “human centered” is a hot buzzword right now, and basically it just means remembering that you are designing products or services for humans. A lot of design thinking for “human-centered” services/products basically tries to integrate empathy and a concern for the individual. It’s humanities for business.


JP: Well, it’s more than that, it’s the buzzword about not forgetting that actual human people need to handle the crap we build, so let’s try not build the literal worst thing for humans.


AH: Exactly, the way I’ve been thinking about the definition of “the humanities” lately has been very literal--- I see the arts, or the humanities, as a way of connecting people to a shared sense of humanity in a way that fosters tolerance and empathy.

 Anyway, let me step off The Importance of the Humanities in Education soap box—

Ok, so I want to get real practical, nitty-gritty here. I absolutely f*cking hate it when I ask people about how they got to where they are and they give some vague non-answer like “oh, well, I just got lucky really” or “It just takes persistence.” Thank you, next.

 Your first job outside of academia was at a small boutique that did international research for innovation that loved hiring PhDs. How did you decide to pursue that path? What was the application process like?

 JP: One, I love your passion about the humanities, I think it’s vital for a functioning society. As for my career path, buckle up. It’s a funny story. I read an article about this innovation and management consultancy when I was still at my post doc at Wash U. And I said to myself “I can do that. If I still hate my life in two years, I’ll apply. I probably won’t because by then the book should be done and I’ll have that TT.” I literally put the application date in my calendar two years in advance. And, sure enough, I was still miserable in academia two years later (under employed, struggling, etc), so I applied. It was actually the only job I applied to outside of academia, and I was lucky enough to get it.

 I will say that, after I left my first consulting job and began looking for my next, I applied to anything and everything. I would start out doing really targeted job searches, but by the end of the process I ended up applying to way more jobs than I had originally set out to do. This was also my tactic in academia: apply to anything and everything. The process was excruciating and stressful, but I am really fulfilled in my current position, so it was worth it.


AH: Ok, so even though I am now adjacent to the world of consulting, can you talk about what exactly you did at your first job and your second? Preferably with no business jargon.

 JP: At my first job, I read  reports clients gave us that other consultancies did, conducted research and wrote reports/decks (aka power points). There’s this book, The Trusted Advisor, check it out, it does a good job explaining the role of the consultant.   What I currently do is very similar, the main difference being I have more autonomy in how I design research and the strategies that come from that research, which gives me more pleasure and opportunity to explore and remain curious.


AH: Ok, I think I know what all of those words mean, but for the cheap seats in the back, can you explain it again, in plain-speak?

 JP: Haha, sure. For instance, right now my current job is interviewing people. Just as in sociology, I take field notes and have a list of prepared questions, and I work with lots of anthropologists, so we understand the importance of ethnographic engagements. I work with a team of designers and strategist, and I view my job as helping my team make a final deliverable to our clients that is based on the input of prospective customers/patients/users/employees of my clients. Sometimes I explain my job to others as speaking for the people, in that I represent the people who will be effected but are not in the room. I make sure that every respondent is represented in the final product, I hate it when certain people in the interview process get overlooked because another interviewee is louder or who answers the questions in the exact way that the client wants to hear. I call this the “shiniest respondent,” It happens all the time, but I feel it doesn’t give an accurate representation of the target population, or swath of people, that our clients are aiming to reach. I am still very much a practicing sociologist.

From this research and interviews, we present work to clients. My job is to think creatively in that space as well, meaning that I basically design experiences to help clients understand our findings and how they impact their business objectives, and how we can use that insight to design what we do next. So it’s more than just walking through a Power Point, although I do a lot of that too – its how do we get creative in our delivery so that the client can “own” the findings themselves. Kind of like teaching, I want them to be able to use and understand the material once I’m gone.


AH: Your first job prided themselves on hiring PhDs and even had a vague analytical philosophical context for framing their approach to consulting. How did they train you? How steep was the learning curve?

 JP: ::laughs for a long time:: I was given absolutely no training at my first job, I felt really overwhelmed a lot of the time and that I had no idea what I was doing. They basically tossed me into the deep end and expected me to learn to swim. It was really hard for someone like me who likes to be good at everything and is a serious perfectionist, but it wasn’t unlike how in academia you are given very little initial information and yet, somehow, you design and write an entire dissertation.

 But also, my current job only hires PhDs (for the most part) as well, so I’ve really discovered and fell into a niche space that really allows me to use and apply my PhD training and skills.


AH: One thing I really want to talk about, that I feel gets glossed over A LOT when talking about alt-academic careers is the very real fact that what we do now is not what we were trained for. It’s not what we poured our blood, sweat, and tears into. I miss the myth of a professor position and what I wanted to accomplish with it almost every day, even though all of my current research tells me that that job literally doesn’t exist anymore.

 One thing I’ve found really inspiring about you is your declaration of how you practice fugitivity. That all scholars outside academia are fugitives, and we have to make do and take their shit to make something new with what they leave out. We have to make a living. We deserve stability, benefits, and the ability to save money. BUT we also deserve to still unite our practice with praxis, that is, find a way to do what we wanted to do within the walls of higher education on the outside.

 I know for you, this means teaching a class on Civic Engagement to teenagers in Harlem. For me, in many ways, it involves this blog. And writing.  That’s the hard part no one talks about enough: how what we do for money and what we do to live are no longer united.

 Do you feel intellectually engaged with your career that makes you money?

JP: Teaching is really important to me, I feel like I’ve found a way to integrate all the aspects of my academic life in my current life. I use my PhD every day, and teaching is a large part of how I integrate praxis with practice. I also do this, or try to do this, at work as well. Teaching is just how I stay flexible. In my job, I work for the most part with PhDs, under the “insights and design research” division — which consists of UX [user experience] and CX [customer experience] and insights. I don’t always hate my job. Sometimes I really love my job. I’m given the space to grow and experiment. My coworkers are kind, really generous people, they’re supportive and helpful I get validated in a way that never happened in academia and at my first position. So yes, I feel intellectually engaged in my job, but it’s also really important to me to learn, which is what I think teaching is always about. I take nothing for granted anymore, I refuse a life that doesn’t allow me to make money (aka feel less precarious), and remain intellectually stimulated. I require it to thrive and to live.   


AH: Let’s talk about the negative reputation PhD’s have in the business world.

 JP: It’s hard for PhDs out there because we get a bad rap, and sometimes it’s true. People think that we get stuck in the weeds, and can’t pull out to see the big picture. That we’re not good collaborators is also a huge ‘pain point’ (as business people say). And that, to a certain extent is true. Scholarly work is actually highly collaborative, but in academia we don’t showcase or support that part of it.  It is a refreshing  adjustment to work in a way where collaboration is expected. Because I’m a consultant, it’s not about you—there is less ego, weirdly in what do now. Sometimes I feel that I’m not the best collaborator, because I get in the way and also sometimes the way it’s structured doesn’t allow for collaboration. I’m actively trying to figure that out and improve. Because of how consulting works, I haven’t worked with the same people all the time, so I don’t understand how collaboration works, but I want to learn.

 The other negative stereotype about PhDs is that we don’t know how to make money.


AH: But we don’t really know how to make money though….Not to speak for the whole of PhDs out there, but I certainly haven’t figured out how to get rich and I have a PhD. Perhaps our objectives for a PhD are not necessarily money-centered, but I think our skills are important resources businesses can, and should, use not just to make money.

JP: Yes, exactly. But I would add that even in business spaces, anything purely money centered is too capitalist, and we have to get beyond this model. But the same things that make you an excellent scholar in academia also allow you to provide in-depth and invaluable insights that impact businesses on a very real, and measurable, level. What it really is doing work for others for a salary, and in academia it’s actually the same bullshit. I don’t believe in this binary of spaces, PhDs just don’t want to see it so they reduce it that way. If you are at a university, you are still working for a salary, don’t get yourself twisted.

 I just thought of another thing that was a hard adjustment coming from academia—it’s the pace of business. That was really hard in the beginning. In research and academia, everything moves very slowly and very cautiously. So, when I started consulting, I wasn’t sure about the pace. The pace of business work moves a lot quicker but once you get used to it, it’s fine. This has to be done by 5:00 today or I can’t leave the office. Because you job is never ever worth more than that much brain space. Ever. This was a good lesson to learn and one I wish had brought to my scholarly career—this goes back to perfectionism. Just get it done—that’s usually ok and good too, and it is never the last draft, not every word needs to be the final word.


AH: Do you feel like a sell out?

JP: There are times. But I felt like I was a sell out in academia too. I was so quiet and over-eager and so hungry for their acceptance and their anointment that I feel like all of the things I love about myself and my research were stamped out of me.  I was a clever writer before I went to grad school and that was tempered in grad school. In that sense, I sold out in graduate school too because I could not be wrong, I was too worried about being right that I didn’t have the space to explore being wrong and what you learn from that.  Or perhaps it’s also about the space to think creatively.  

 Because of how weird my career trajectory has been, I’ve learn to truly take nothing for granted—all institutions and systems need to be critiqued and we all need to work to build past them.

I left academia because I had to eat. And I do not apologize for that. Nor do I apologize for my desire to make a comfortable living, contribute to my 401K, and not live paycheck to paycheck.


AH: Seriously. The dream.

JP: Yes, but I also think we should bring that thinking, and our desire to question the status-quo into every space we enter. That desire to push the boundaries of thought is what makes me good at what I do, and informs my thorough approach to design thinking and strategy.

 In that respect, I don’t feel like a sell out because of the concept of radical pragmatism—I did what I needed to do to have a stable life. I have built a life for myself that is as close to academia as I can get—I have an intellectually demanding career and I have insisted on having the time to teach, to work on my book on adjuncting, and do the work of social activism and social engagement.


AH: That’s so well put. I love this idea of radical pragmatism. Your life is what you make of it. There are times when I feel really overwhelmed with client work, blog writing, and larger writing projects I’m working on. Having a life like that requires more than just carving out time, it’s also about making sure you have enough intellectual energy to do all the things. How do you conserve your intellectual energy?

 JP: Honestly, I don’t conserve my intellectual energy, which why I am always tired. But I accept this because that is what is required of me because I want to live an engaged life, but I am also working on handling my boundaries better. I come from immigrants, we don’t know anything but the hustle. Here’s how I approach work on a daily basis: I zone in and out. I get to the answer I need a lot quicker in business spaces, but I can’t always explain how I arrived at that answer either because I can’t put my process into words well or I can’t explain it to them in a way they’d understand because they’ve never even conceptualized approaching problems like that before. I’m working on communicating better and communicating to a new audience.

 PhDs are basically analysts, we can see a pattern very quickly-- we’re good people to understand humanity in the context of business decisions. Because there have historically been so few PhDs going into business spaces, people don’t quite get our value.


AH: I get that, I’ve also been thinking of PhDs as tools—you can use us to get at an answer that no one else would have thought of because we are trained in a very specific way. The hard part is communicating that value, especially because we are taught to communicate in a very stuffy and jargon-filled way that takes time to first un-learn and then re-learn different ways of communicating. I think of it as code-switching and it’s exhausting. I’m so tired, but it’s definitely one of the most important things PhDs can do for themselves—if we can’t communicate our value, no one else will see it.

I also always feel out of place in business spaces, as if I have to mask how I am trained so that I don’t make anyone feel uncomfortable or confused.

 JP: haha! Yes, PhDs are tools. But seriously, there’s never been a space I feel that I’m fully welcome in. I’m a woman, I’m Jewish, I’m Puerto Rican, I have a low-income background with an elite upper middle-class upbringing, I’m always the outsider within.  I think field-specific jargon is the problem, our world should always be accessible to a variety of audiences. Because I’m an ethnographer by training, a sociologist by discipline and an educator by genetics, I always have a notebook with me and this whole thing has been a whole ethnography of consulting for me. I’m always learning through the lens that my PhD instilled in me, because that’s how I understand the world. And now I fully recognize what an asset this viewpoint is to any industry. But, take that with a grain of salt because I might just have a deluded sense of disciplinary grandeur.

 AH: Well, I’m not sure I agree with that last statement, I think the work you do is very important. And on that note, I can’t think of a better way to end this interview. Thank you for your time, and your insight. Keep fighting the good fight, and get your money half-Jewish half-Puerto-Rican girl.


If you or someone you love is a recovering academic- I highly recommend a. Getting on Twitter, b. finding your niche community of alt-academics, and c. hanging in there, shit’s rough man.  

 If you are an academic contemplating recovery from academia, and don't know where to turn for your next career-- Beyond the Professoriate is an amazing resource, run by some amazing women Jennifer Polk and Maren Wood, who are themselves recovering academics. And I know I am leaving out a TON of helpful resources for alt-acs leaving academia, but I’ll leave career development in the hands of the professionals. Feel free to email me to let me know what you’ve found helpful and I’ll compile a list.  


If you or your department actually wants to enable all of your PhDs to succeed, check out Joe Fruscione and Erin Bartram’s and the forthcoming series Rethinking Careers, Rethinking Academia.

Also: Joe Fruscione, Kelly Baker and the folks at Succeeding Outside the Academy are available for webinars, in-person workshops, and probably bar/bat mitzvahs for graduate students. Their workshops offer PhD students more perspective about the diverse career options they have and how departments can improve their programs by diversifying the traditional career trajectory of the PhD. If any department, or tenured faculty member reads my blog (highly doubtful), that most likely means you are open to workshops such as these. Get in touch with Joe if you are interested in spending your department’s money.

 And, as always, get in touch with me if you have something to share, contribute, or discuss

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