Nate Meyvis

Advice for grad students seeking non-academic work

This document began its life as an email to philosophy grad students looking for non-academic work. It might be useful to you even if you are not a philosophy grad student, especially if you are looking for work in the tech industry. All feedback is welcome (nate at natemeyvis dot com).

My background / credentials for giving this sort of advice.

I have spent roughly eight years on and around the non-academic job market. I have done recruitment and interviewing at every company that’s employed me and for years I was responsible for recruiting and hiring at a genomics startup. It was my job not only to manage our hiring process but to study non-academic hiring processes more generally. Moreover, we recruited, interviewed, and hired many academics — mostly biologists, but also philosophers, linguists, and other humanities types. I have also looked for jobs several times and have had countless conversations with industry folks who were looking to hire people.

More concretely, I’ve conducted roughly 250 interviews. More than half of these were of candidates with Ph.D.s, and of those, many were people who one might describe as “transitioning from academia” (as opposed to folks for whom there was a well-defined Ph.D.-to-industry path, and who might never have intended to stay in academia). Roughly ¼ of those were humanities Ph.D.s, and roughly 1/3 of those ¼ were philosophy Ph.D.s.

So: I’ve spent a whole lot of time thinking about these issues, though my experiences are necessarily limited. The job market is a very big place; everyone’s experience is limited. I know more about the software side of things and am still closely in touch with the startup world. There are many other sides of many other things, where the advice below might not apply so well.

Finding jobs to apply to

My colleagues have often wondered how they could find a job in circumstances where they didn’t at all know what they were looking for. This is a reasonable concern. We can factor the problem into two parts: learning about job-types and learning how to find specific opportunities.

Philosophers are, in general, particularly skilled at writing and reading. These skills have many non-academic applications, of course; they are central qualifications for many jobs.

A few kinds of jobs that exist (mostly unknown to me ten years ago):

  • Technical documentation writers
  • Marketing writers
  • Product managers (and entry-level jobs in product departments)
  • Operations managers, recruiting managers, HR folks of various kinds
  • Software testers (see below for more on software)
  • Librarians / archivists
  • Consultants
  • “Directors of Happiness”
  • “Business Operations Specialist” (what appears to be an advanced administrative job title at IBM)

How to find specific jobs (also a good way to discover more job-types):

  • Pick names of companies out of a hat. Go to their Web sites. Click on “Careers.”
  • Every month Hacker News, a start-up / technology link aggregator and discussion board, has a “Who’s Hiring?” thread. (Googling “Who’s Hiring site:news.ycombinator.com” ought to turn up recent threads.) Many of these jobs are for coders or other folks with software experience, but plenty are not.
  • Ask around (I know it’s obvious, but many people don’t do this enough).
  • You are likely to have a “non-traditional” background for many of the jobs to which you will be applying. You might lack a background as an editor but be seeking an editorship, for example. Do not despair if you do not meet every desideratum listed on a job ad. Whereas academic job listings often include lists of qualifications that preferred candidates will far exceed, non-academic job listings often contain “wish lists” in the guise of hard requirements. (These generate amusing stories — e.g., about job ads requiring N years of experience in a computer language that did not exist N years ago.) If you think you might be able to do the job, and if the application requirements aren’t onerous, give it a shot. There are no unit charges from Interfolio here.
  • You might, of course, really be less qualified than the competition for that editorship (or writing job, or coding job, or…). It is therefore also useful to consider how to compensate in such situations. One strategy is to apply to startup companies. Such companies are often willing to take on less traditional candidates, for at least two reasons. First, they often offer somewhat lower salaries and less job security than more established companies (they generally can’t afford above-market or sometimes even at-market compensation, and there’s often no guarantee they’ll still be in business in a couple years). As a result, they often have to be willing to accept candidates who are by some traditional metrics less qualified. Second, they often need to get a small staff to handle the whole set of tasks for a company, so they need to find generalists. This sometimes leads to a desire to trade deep experience in a field for general intelligence and aptitude (and a good attitude about taking out one’s own trash, tolerating uncertainty, and so on).

Preparing application materials.

Application materials vary widely, but here are some suggestions:

Attempt to strike a balance between emphasizing the virtues of an academic background and your non-academic preparation, your eagerness for the role at hand, etc. Nobody (or at least very few people) will blame you from expressing positive views about many subjects, even when that might appear to reveal inconsistent preferences. (For example, don’t worry about being enthusiastic about the chance to take on short-term projects that offer fast feedback even if you have previously talked about the immense value in taking on a years-long project undertaken in the pursuit of academic rigor and not an immediate market test.)

Do not assume that the reader of your materials will appreciate the importance of your dissertation subject or of philosophical inquiry more generally. Again, the goal is to take appropriate pride in your work without making too many assumptions about the reader’s sense of its value or its reflection on you. In most cases, a brief expression of genuine interest in a job will matter much more than a strained claim that one’s work is relevant to the job. (People who read these materials often spend many, many hours a week reading such materials. They read a lot of strained claims that X is relevant to Y. Even if they are not as smart as you are, they have very keen noses for this sort of thing.)

Your materials might be evaluated by software. Do not fail to use keywords (“editor,” “Portuguese,” “Ruby”) that truly describe your qualifications and that the software might be looking for.

Interviewing

There are more interviews and more kinds of interviews than can be usefully surveyed here. Some miscellaneous notes:

There is likely to be some sort of performance aspect to an interview (sample editing work; whiteboard coding; hypothetical discussions of conflict resolution; etc.). If you are rusty at some mechanical aspect of a domain, it is useful to prepare for an interview as one might brush up for a standardized test.

You might face implicit or explicit suggestions that being a grad student is problematically different from being a [whatever you are applying to be]. Of course, these situations need to be navigated in light of their variable particular features, but it might be useful to think through some ways in which being a grad student and writing a dissertation is apt preparation for corporate work. Here are three:

  • The most common desideratum I have read from companies looking to hire remote workers is a candidate’s experience in working remotely or independently. Having written a dissertation would (in many contexts) go a long way toward convincing a prospective employer that you’re not going to watch YouTube all day.
  • More generally, grad students have the chance to prove that they do things and get results. Many employers are looking for people who can reliably get the project finished instead of working only on the easy parts and saving the hard parts for later (forever), fretting about feedback too much to show results to peers or supervisors, etc. Do not forget your teaching experience when you are looking for examples of situations in which you have reliably produced acceptable work on time.
  • The ability to cope with setbacks and failure is often something an interviewer is looking for; most of us have academic experiences of this sort to talk about.

Note for philosophers: It’s not easy to talk about one’s research to a non-philosophical audience. Some interviewers will be interested in your work; others will be rather hostile to the whole enterprise of academic philosophy, and especially to anything that may appear to be a merely verbal dispute. (A prominent person in biotechnology once told me about the philosopher he knew who has the stupidity and audacity to work on vagueness [“it’s just obvious it is a non-problem”].) You might just have to wing it, be honest, and hope for the best. That said, try to emphasize ways in which the problem can seem compelling to those without philosophical training; be accurate without making your interlocutor feel attacked or not heard; try to give your interviewer something to hold on to (you probably have a five-second summary of your work for the academic job market; try to produce some quick summaries that will be accessible to laypeople). Also, many people who do not like philosophy do like “fun facts.”

Many people who might be interviewing you spend lots and lots of hours interviewing people. Their jobs are not always fun. If you can make your conversation more pleasant than the next person’s, you’ll have helped yourself — and brightened that person’s day.

Here and elsewhere, do not assume that your reader or interlocutor is lazy, stupid, or mean (despite what you might have been trained into), unless you have hard evidence that some particular person really is one of those. People generally do not wish to spend their professional lives in the company of people who make such assumptions about them. And spending too much space and time protecting yourself against vicious readers’ misreadings will prevent you from displaying the most important aspects of your background and candidacy. Interviewers will want to know whether you can function in a team and whether you will take a positive, constructive approach to your work. It may therefore be useful to keep in mind the improv maxim: begin replies, even to silly or ill-formed prompts, with “yes, and…” (At the very least, consider using “and” whenever you are tempted to reply with “but.”)

Err on the side of accuracy, of course, but note that the sorts of folks who end up staffing HR departments often overvalue (less-than-fully-articulated versions of) the virtues of straightforwardness, clarity, and confidence. Qualifying your claims may be interpreted as a lack of confidence or as an excess of belligerence. As always, assessing one’s interlocutor is valuable.

Your interviewer is unlikely to know what a premium academic philosophers place on rigor and the close connections that philosophy has with technical disciplines. It might be important to correct such false impressions (gently!). If, say, your work in epistemology has led you to study representation theorems, you’ll often do well to mention those theorems.

Do a little bit of homework. Google is your friend. A good way to differentiate yourself from others is to show that you really care about the job (this is quite a contrast from the academic job market!). Don’t appear desperate, but do appear interested. Ideally you can signal your interest in a way that can’t be faked (perhaps by reading a white paper that the company has published).

If they ask you if you have questions for them, reply honestly, and also consider asking about the job itself. (“What’s the day-to-day like? To whom does the position report? How will my success be judged?”)

A few miscellaneous notes.

Writing is a superpower. Many of us underestimate the effectiveness (both in general and for one’s reputation) of memos, follow-up emails, blog posts, contributions to internal documentation, and so on. Use your superpowers.

It’s generally OK to send a friendly note asking about the status of your application. Things sometimes go slowly or fall through the cracks. If you are polite and if your requests are reasonable, you probably won’t hurt your chances by making such inquiries.

Hiring decisions are often made by committee. What might sound like an informal guarantee that you will get an offer might only be an expression of one person’s enthusiasm (or a misguided attempt to be encouraging).

If you receive a job offer, do not be afraid to negotiate (politely and professionally). The norms here vary greatly from context to context, but in many situations one is expected to haggle a bit. Seek advice from a domain expert if you are in this situation. If the job is in software, read this. (If you think I might know something about the domain in question, feel free to email me.)

Good luck.