The Federal Option

James M. Van Wyck interviews Alexandra Lord, who left a tenure-track position in history for a career in government -- and is glad she made the switch.

August 10, 2015

Are you a graduate student interested in careers beyond academia? Consider giving the federal government a look.

One way for graduate students to test the waters of civil service would be to apply for one of the many internships available for master’s and Ph.D. students. To give just one example: an excellent point of entry is the Presidential Management Fellows Program. And jobs in the federal government aren’t just a good option for graduate students. Adjuncts and tenure track professors looking for a change might consider this career path as well.

One academic who made the jump is Alexandra Lord, who left a tenure-track post in a history department to pursue a career in the federal government.

It’s clear that this choice was the right one for her. For one thing, she’s held a string of interesting and important jobs since leaving academe. She’s served as the staff historian for the Office of the U.S. Public Health Service, the branch chief of the National Historic Landmarks Program, and she is currently the chair and curator of the Division of Medicine and Science at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. She’s also been able to publish her own research at a faster clip than when she was on the tenure track. And her belief that the “historical profession suffers when it is defined narrowly” has led her to found two great projects: Beyond Academe and The Ultimate History Project.

Most importantly, she’s much happier in her role as a public servant than she ever was as an academic.

In the spring of 2015, I had the good fortune to host Lord for a series of talks at Fordham University. Afterward, I sat down with her to ask a few questions that would be of interest to graduate students who are considering their career options.

Q: If you could go back in time to your first year as a Ph.D. student, what advice would you give yourself?

A: Don’t be swayed by other people’s views of what is, and what is not, the “right kind of job.” You know yourself best. Although I had worked in a museum for two years before going to graduate school -- so I actually knew and respected Ph.D.s who worked outside the academy -- I bought into the widely held academic view that people who leave the academy do so because they are intellectually inferior to their academic peers. In retrospect, this makes no sense. But somehow I became convinced that any type of career which did not entail being a faculty member was a “lesser” career. As a result, I became extremely focused on what I saw as the Holy Grail: a tenure-track job.

So I stopped asking questions about other types of careers and I didn't take advantage of opportunities which would have enabled me to expand my horizons. One of the things I regret the most is that I spent most of my postdoctoral fellowship sending applications out for academic jobs I knew deep down I did not want.

Q: Graduate students often find the résumé -- as opposed to the CV -- a tough document to write. What advice do you have for résumé writers who are exploring careers outside of academe?

A: A CV is an overview of all your accomplishments. A résumé is a list of the skills and experiences you possess which specifically relate to the job at hand. Employers reading résumés want a very focused document (they are reading lots of résumés!), so if they see one that is filled with extraneous and irrelevant material, they may find it difficult to locate the skills you have that are relevant to the advertised position. When you write a résumé you have to remove things which may be important to you personally but which are not relevant to the job at hand -- and that can be painful!

When applying for jobs, you also need to see and clarify the connections between your academic accomplishments and the skills the employer requires. No job is a perfect fit, and it takes a lot of time to see and then figure out how to highlight these connections. I just started a new job in January and when I applied for the job, I spent about six weeks simply crafting and rewriting my résumé. I constantly carried the job ad and my draft résumé with me and when I was waiting for the metro, picking up takeout or whatever, I would read and reread the job ad and tinker with my résumé. I also do a lot of walking, so I spent a lot of time thinking about the job ad and how my experiences could be matched with the ad. I think by the time I submitted the application, I could have recited the entire job ad by memory, as I had spent so much time thinking about it.

Q: Can you share a handful of strategies that are essential for graduate students preparing for alt-ac careers?

A: I have four suggestions -- one is not to think of this as an “alt” or alternative career! Those of us who have left the academy tend not to define ourselves and our careers in opposition to academe. We see our careers as being just that -- careers that draw on our skills, experiences and education.

More concretely, I think the most important thing to do is to read job ads, for both academic and nonacademic jobs, starting during your first year in grad school. This will help you to understand the kinds of skills you need to acquire -- and you can then focus on acquiring those skills while in grad school.

Apply for internships (paid ones). In all three jobs I have held since leaving the academy, we have offered paid internships to graduate students. Regardless of where I have worked, I have always been surprised by how few applicants we get for paid internships. Colleagues who work in similar places and who offer similar paid internships have also indicated that they have few applicants for these positions. I am not sure if grad students don’t apply for these because they fear that a three-month summer internship will take them away from working on their dissertation or what -- but frankly, this kind of experience can be really beneficial whether you remain in or leave academia.

Finally, don’t hesitate to conduct informational interviews. Outside of academe, informational interviews are very common. These are basically requests to meet with someone working in a specific field so that you can learn about the field. This was something I had a hard time doing because I am really, really pathologically shy! In fact, I was terrified to do this -- but doing it was crucial in helping me find the kind of work I wanted to do, the kinds of skills required to do that work, and the aptitude needed to find and successfully apply for specific types of jobs. I even learned how to apply to a federal job (via USAJOBS) through an informational interview -- and that was what enabled me to make the transition to my first federal job.

Q: Can you give an example of some career-related mistakes you made as a graduate student and what you learned from them?

A: The biggest mistake I made was not thinking strategically about my career throughout graduate school. Like many people who enter graduate school, I had a naïve belief that graduate school would provide me with all the skills I would need to succeed in the job market. Unfortunately, I don’t think that is true even if you intend to stay in academe.

So the biggest mistake I made was in not aggressively broadening my horizons and trying new things. I saw myself as a British historian, so it didn’t cross my mind to think about being a docent in a local American history or art museum. (Ironically, this would have opened doors for me and probably helped me to become a better teacher.)

I also lost touch with the person I was before I started graduate school. I like to joke that before graduate school I had lots of interests. Then I went to graduate school and I became a really dull person with very few interests outside of academia. I lost touch with friends who didn’t go on to graduate school (which was a tremendous loss), and I stopped doing many of the things that I loved, such as small art projects, swimming and things like that.

Not surprisingly, the people who are happiest in graduate school are people with outside and varied interests. I also suspect that these people are better scholars because they are not secluded in an ivory tower -- in the humanities, we are studying people and their behavior, so cutting yourself off from the wide variety of human interactions can, I think, actually result in less nuanced scholarship.

Finally, I think what saddens me the most is that I became very conformist in graduate school. An academic colleague of mine always says that academia is very conformist, and I think, in many ways, this is true. I was terrified that if I did not conform to academic standards of what a graduate student should be and embrace all the things graduate students are supposed to care about, people would think I was intellectually inferior.

To some degree, those fears lingered even when I left academe. When I went to my first academic conference as a nonacademic, I was worried that I wouldn’t be a part of the “in crowd.” But the people (particularly those who I genuinely care about and whose views I value) don’t care that I am not an academic anymore.


James M. Van Wyck is a senior teaching fellow in the honors program at Fordham University, Lincoln Center. He is also the inaugural GSAS senior higher education administration fellow at Fordham University, Rose Hill. He is a Ph.D. student writing a dissertation on 19th-century evangelical fiction.


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