From Academe to Wall Street

Eliza Woolf chats with an English Ph.D. who made a career at an investment firm.
September 24, 2010

Since the publication of my last column, “A Bleak Market,” I’ve received several requests for pieces focused specifically on nonacademic employment options for which Ph.D.s, particularly those in the humanities, are both reasonably qualified for and capable of securing in a timely fashion. Although current job seekers appreciated, as one reader put it, "the honesty and realism" of my take on the 2010-11 academic job market, many are also seeking greater discussion of relevant jobs outside academe. If the academic market is so bleak, in other words, what other options are out there right now for A.B.D.s and Ph.D.s?

As a former medievalist turned director/copywriter in corporate marketing at a leading Wall Street investment firm, Sally White (a pseudonym at her request for privacy reasons) has spent the past 30 years successfully segueing out of academe. After graduating with a Ph.D. in English from Harvard University in 1977, Sally soon abandoned her teaching-intensive tenure-track position and set her sights on Manhattan’s financial services sector. Her transition from the ivory tower to Wall Street, she explains in an interview, entailed a steep learning curve and significant culture shock, but her perseverance, writing skills, and adaptability proved more than a match for the demands of the private sector.

Q. Why did you decide to pursue a Ph.D. in English?

I loved my subject and still do. At the time, I hoped very much to become a teaching scholar and work with brilliant students in a research-oriented universe. In addition, I had just read in medieval history about the French historian Marc Bloch, who joined the French Resistance during WWII and was caught, tortured and killed. That seemed to me like Boethius, the late Roman author of the Consolatio Philosophiae. We were rather apocalyptic back in the day, and I honestly did fear that Nixon – told you it was a long time ago – was going to shut down the universities. Accordingly, because I also read (and subsequently wrote) fantasy and science fiction, I thought of the bookleggers and memorizers of Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. I was going to memorize Hamlet. I can still reel off line after line of it, which means I grouch during productions about the cuts the director made. It was a loving, principled, and probably very naïve decision.

Q. Did you seek, and find, work in the academy after finishing graduate school?

Yes, I had a tenure-track position in a school in upstate NY. I completed the entire degree in 5 years, including medieval variants of languages, and I financed 100 percent of my expenses myself with $5,000 in loans. It was a long time ago – I graduated in the late 1970s.

Q. What factors prompted you to leave academe?

I saw no hope of tenure or of “promoting” myself to a research university because the course load was onerous and would preclude me from doing the quantity of research I’d need. I’d had one NEH grant one summer, turning down a careers-in-business transition program in favor of that (which was a mistake, I see now), and came back to a great deal of faculty politics. I needed more money because I realized that, at some time, my mother would require my help; I was not comfortable with a retro-hippie faculty culture; and – this was the deciding factor – I realized that I was not a true contemplative. For a medievalist to realize this means that she faces two choices: either she goes on in bad faith, or she gets out.

Q. Now you work as director/copywriter in corporate marketing at a leading national investment firm. Can you describe your current position and how you got there?

My job is to provide marketing collateral (brochures, biographies, letters, ads, etc.) to our financial advisers. This involves writing, editing, translating and serving as an interface with compliance. I’ve worked in financial services over 20 years, arriving in New York City in 1980 or thereabouts with the proceeds of a sale of a Buick and some help from home, subsequently repaid. It took a long time to land a position, and I lost several in short order during a nasty recession. I had a great deal to learn. Finally, I wound up in an asset management company and hung on for dear life while I realized I’d make a good financial editor. From there on, I moved into financial writing/marketing/editing; found myself with a talent for translating finance into clear English; developed the ability to work within the community; and started learning various types of investments. For example, I had at least 5 years of working with alternative investments and 6 years of working with bonds. I made a network for myself and built a resume. By 9/11, I realized that Wall Street had become my community, just as medievalists had been. I am very proud of many people in this industry and how they conducted themselves at that time.

Q. What was it like transitioning from academe to industry? Did you undergo a period of culture shock?

OMG. In science fiction, there is a term: First Contact. We have met the aliens, and while we think they’re the people over there, they think the aliens are us (or me). Making the transition from academe to the private sector was a first contact experience. In fact, I floundered until I realized that I had to understand the rules for an alien culture and learn them if I were to survive. It is not a case just of subject-matter competence; it’s a case of understanding corporate cultures, of speaking differently, dressing differently, understanding the chain of command, understanding a workday that is unremitting, less vacation, and in which life paths and experience are likely to be very different. I still sometimes make mistakes, but I can usually figure them out now. After a while, though, I was fascinated by the process.

Q. Based on your professional experiences, do the skills learned in graduate school transfer readily to the corporate world?

They translate well. They do not translate readily because of the cultural bifurcation.

Academics have a tremendous appetite for work and for information. We are born research junkies. Finance has a lot of information of all types. That is a natural fit. Finance needs writers. We can write, although learning to write for industry is an art in itself. We can negotiate, although it’s a different style of negotiation. We probably have less difficulty in working with younger colleagues than people who grew up in corporations. We are great at working with interns, for example. We have a different set of expectations than people raised for careers in business.

The chief difficulty we face, especially in this environment, is that sometimes we don’t realize that A) there’s a case that needs to be made, and B) the burden of translation falls upon us. Human Resources isn’t going to do it; they’re risk-averse and manage upward. Management would not thank them for bringing in a classicist or a Hemingway scholar or a Shakespearean, although the classicist’s gifts for organization, the Hemingway scholar’s understanding of sharp, clear sentences, and the Shakespearean’s frame of reference are all value added. So you do need to network. There are enough Ph.D.s in industry (and we tend to know one another, even more now via LinkedIn) that this can be done, much more than when I started out.

There’s also the problem that some of us with advanced degrees don’t want to pay a second round of dues (which is only human). And there’s another problem that some of us have faced in academe: we can be held liable for the “sins” of our graduate university. Mine was Harvard, so while I benefited immensely from the name and the network, the place antagonized a number of people too. But that happened while I was teaching. At least in industry no one cobbled up excuses about “elitism” and considered them a moral stance.

Q. What is the hardest lesson you’ve had to learn on the path to success outside academe? With the benefit of hindsight, is there anything you would do differently today?

I think the hardest thing I learned was that I was in a First Contact experience with a particularly tough crowd to which I have had to keep proving my worth. Hindsight? I suspect I might have gone for the J.D./Ph.D. degree. I would still have been up to my knees in Latin, but would probably have worked on John of Salisbury rather than the Matter of Britain, and prepared to go into a law firm or into compliance within a financial institution. It would have been much more profitable.

I don’t know if I call it success. I do think I’ve managed to thrive, however, and it’s been a good career. During most of it, I’ve been writing, too – about 30 books written, edited or coauthored; more than 90 pieces of short fiction; nominations for many major awards; and publication in about 10 languages. I’m on sabbatical, perhaps permanent, from that, but I do feel some satisfaction that I’ve got such a fine publication record, and I value what I’ve written.

Q. What advice would you give recent humanities Ph.D.s who are considering, or currently searching for, employment outside academe?

Start preparing early. Complete your degree because you do need to show that you can execute, that is, finish what you started with a degree of style and precision. At the same time, take some time to understand what’s going on in the outside world. You have courses in economics, etc., that you can audit or take for credit; you can go to different schools within your university.

If you’ve already finished, go back to the Office of Career Services, placement, or whatever, and mine its files for alumnae (or alumni), who are in fields that interest you. I like Tom Jackson’s old book, Guerrilla Tactics in the Job Market; I like Pat Meehan’s book Career of a Lifetime; and What Color Is Your Parachute is helpful though rather touchy-feely. It does make you think. I’d do a lot of exploratory interviews. People will give you 15 or 20 minutes to help with your resume and provide some referrals.

Write your thank-yous. Follow up. Realize you’re a beginner. Get yourself some business clothes, not academic clothes; listen more than you speak; and guard your health because this is hard. Actually, that depends. If you’re a physicist and you want to go into hedge funds, it’s easier than being an English major looking at finance or advertising. Learn what they’re looking for and turn yourself into someone with what’s called a “value proposition”: what you can do for them, not what they can do for you.

Do I get homesick sometimes? Sure. Nothing is without regret. But I think my choices have opened me to a much wider world than I knew as a graduate student or an assistant professor.

If you’ve left academe and would like to be featured in a future column, please drop me a line at [email protected]


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