Outside of the Academy: Alumni Share Advice on Launching Unexpected Careers

December 8, 2022

In recent years many Graduate Center alumni have parlayed their degrees into challenging and rewarding careers in the nonacademic world.

GC Alumni & Students
Graduate Center alumni are applying their Ph.D. knowledge in roles in technology, policy, and nonprofit health research and advocacy. Clockwise from top left: Ezgi Canpolat (Ph.D. ’21, Anthropology); Jenna Russo (Ph.D. ’22, Political Science); Melissa (Yong Lin) Huang (Ph.D. ’22, Psychology); and Christopher Baum (Ph.D. ’21, Anthropology)

When Christopher Baum (Ph.D. ’21, Anthropology) was writing his dissertation, he realized what he liked most about his work: being out in the field, and collaborating on projects. Through his years in the Ph.D. program, he’d felt encouraged to move forward along the academic path, but he started wondering if there were other ways to lead a successful life as an anthropologist.

He approached the question as he would any other: through research. He began interviewing people he knew who worked in other fields, as well as some from his program who had experience conducting UX — user experience — research. “Once I learned about it, I was like, This is what I want to do,” he says. “And I found my way in.”

Baum recently started a new job in his field after working for three and a half years as a UX researcher at Grove Collaborative, an e-commerce retailer in San Francisco. Like many other Graduate Center alumni in recent years, he has found satisfaction in his work, and life, by applying the skills and knowledge he gained from his Ph.D. program in the world outside the academy. These alumni come from varied disciplines, yet they share similar advice about how to explore fields outside of academia, and how to launch careers that draw on the abilities and interests that led them to pursue a doctoral degree.

Finding What You Like to Do, and How You Like to Work

Melissa (Yong Lin) Huang (Ph.D. ’22, Psychology) is a clinical research coordinator for the Barth Syndrome Foundation. Back when she was a student focusing on Behavioral and Cognitive Neuroscience, she wanted to find work that fit her interests and also her schedule as she wrote her dissertation. Because she didn’t have any industry experience, she decided to look for part-time or consultant roles — advice she got from a Ph.D. subreddit. “I stumbled upon a listing on LinkedIn that was looking for somebody with a social science Ph.D. or grad student that could help a smaller startup, sort of plan their research strategy and help run a clinical trial,” she says. She got that position, and later applied for another at a different startup. Although that role went to someone else, her interview opened a door at the company. “When they needed some assistance developing a research protocol, they reached out to me,” says Huang. She soon found that she liked the impact and speed of the work. “Contributing to a treatment of some sort is what I found really rewarding,” she says. “And there’s a sense of proactivity. You don’t have a mentor to guide you and say, Oh, there's this deadline. But you’re communicating with internal stakeholders. And things move very fast.”

Huang pursued her interests in applied settings when searching for the job she has now. Barth syndrome is a rare but life-threatening genetic disorder that affects about 250 people worldwide. Working for the foundation “gives me an opportunity to really get to know the individuals, and to build rapport with the families that are affected, and also to help understand what the research can do for them and how their participation is paramount,” she says.

You’re responding in real time to events, and you’re thinking, How does my research connect to what I’m seeing play out on the ground right now.

The sense of impact — and the speed — associated with work outside of academia also appealed to Jenna Russo (Ph.D. ’22, Political Science). Russo started working at the United Nations right after getting her master’s degree from City College, and wound up staying for 10 years. During her time in the Ph.D. program, she looked for some academic jobs, but in the end decided that the policy world was a better fit for her interests. She’s now the director of research and head of the Brian Urquhart Center for Peace Operations at the International Peace Institute. “You’re responding in real time to events, and you’re thinking, How does my research connect to what I’m seeing play out on the ground right now,” she says of her current role. The work “allows me to marry the best of both worlds, where I still get to do research, and I get to stay connected to the literature and to writing, but it’s very connected to the U.N. and to current events. So it’s a really good balance for me.”

Gaining Experience and Skills

The experience that Huong and Russo gained outside academia in the early years of their careers helped them land the roles they have now. Another way to get that experience is through internships. “Right after finishing my classes, I started an internship as a researcher at the UNDP (United Nations Development Project), in New York,” says Ezgi Canpolat (Ph.D. ’21, Anthropology). “When you have an internship, you’re not required to put everything else aside. You can still work on your doctoral research, and meanwhile gain experience or expose yourself to different fields.” After her UNDP internship, Canpolat worked as a consultant at the World Bank for five years. In 2019, she started a full-time position there as a social development specialist, focusing on climate change, social inclusion and cohesion, and gender equality in different regions and sectors.

Policymakers don’t speak the same language that academics speak. Learn how to take your research, your ideas, and your findings, and translate them into a language that the policy audience can understand.

Huang used some of her time at the Graduate Center to develop her computer skills. “One thing that’s been really beneficial is knowing how to do data analysis that is broad-reaching — dashboarding, for example, and creating visualizations that a variety of audiences can understand,” she says. “I took a course at the GC that wasn’t in my program. I specifically looked for one that I could audit, and I’m using it across several roles.” That course was Introduction to Data Visualization, with Tableau. For those interested in learning computer languages, she suggests learning R, and also checking out free online classes.

There are also softer skills worth developing, such as learning to speak about your work in ways that make sense in nonacademic environments. “Policymakers don’t speak the same language that academics speak,” Russo says. “Learn how to take your research, your ideas, and your findings, and translate them into a language that the policy audience can understand.”

Christopher Baum recommends communicating that your work habits are flexible, as well. “You want to make sure you’re meeting them on the level of: ‘Okay, don’t be scared, I’m not going to take 10 years to do a study,’” he says. “You want to tell them that you can move quickly.”

The Graduate Center’s Office of Career Planning & Professional Development produces a podcast, Alumni Aloud, that features tips from alumni about their career paths. The career planning office also offers one-on-one sessions, a downloadable guide, and webinars on career strategies.

Learn More About the Office of Career Planning & Professional Development

Exploring Options Might Be Rewarding in Itself

For Baum, the benefits of working outside of academia have continued to pay off. “People in tech and in businesses really, truly value researchers, because you are expected to think differently,” he says. “You’re the one who's going to stir the pot and try and get other people to think differently.” Another benefit: “I like the strong division between my work self and my personal self.” Now, he says, “I work nine to five, and then I can have time to pursue other kinds of interests, even academic pursuits.”

Stacy Hartman, director of the PublicsLab at the Graduate Center, advises students to learn what the people in their lives outside of the academic world are doing. It’s important to avoid tunnel vision, she says. “We are often trained in skepticism and critique,” says Hartman. “Approach new conversations with openness and curiosity. You might find something that is really interesting to you and that checks a lot of the boxes that you think the tenure track would.”

Learn More About the PublicsLab

And if you decide those other options are not for you, it’s not as if those conversations — and internships, or consulting gigs, or networking interviews — are wasted. As Ezgi Canpolat says, “Even if you want to have an academic career, even if that is your ultimate goal, having these different experiences will enrich your life.” These experiences, and simply being open to possibilities, might even wind up improving your academic work, and, more broadly, your life. “Your research will be better off,” she says. “And you will be a happier person.”

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