New York, New York
In January 2017, facing the uncertainties of the academic job market, I decided to spend my summer doing something completely different from anything I had ever done before, in a place where I had never lived. I ended up working as a senior research analyst at the Research Board (the “RB”), a consulting firm in New York City that advises Fortune 500 companies from around the world on their digital strategy. As someone from a small town in the Midwest who studies sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Neo-latin sermons, I accomplished my mission.
I discovered the RB’s job posting for a “junior research analyst intern” through the UCLA Career Center. The RB was looking for an undergraduate of any academic background who was a “critical thinker” and “excellent reader and writer.” Having seen so many internships that sounded like dreadful, unpaid secretarial work, I was excited about the Research Board’s emphasis on giving their interns challenging assignments. I contacted the internship coordinator and asked about applying as a graduate student instead of an undergraduate. The RB not only agreed, but said that they would consider creating an internship position for me as a senior research analyst.
I didn’t think that my first interview went well. When I had done my mock interview at the Career Center, I had been warned to talk about my skills, not the content of my academic research. But when I got to my interview, the interviewer immediately asked, “Why did you choose to study the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries?” I tried to use my prepared answer about my ability to analyze qualitative data and make creative arguments about it, but he was insistent: “Why the 16th century?” For most of the interview, he asked me specific questions about my research (definitions of fiction in the early modern period, the Protestant Reformation’s effect on literacy, etc.) and only at the end asked me a question about digital strategy (how I thought self-driving cars would affect liability insurance). Of course, I had never given much thought to either self-driving cars or liability insurance, so I was convinced that I wouldn’t make it to the second round of interviews. But I did. And I got the job.
I experienced a steep learning curve in my first week at the office. For the first few days, I didn’t even understand what the Research Board was or what they sold. But I figured it out. The RB is a private think tank that operates on a subscription model. Its clients are the Chief Information Officers (CIOs) of large companies (those with an annual revenue above 10 billion dollars), who pay an annual subscription to have access to the information that the RB generates. In each of its four-month research cycles, the RB researches a topic that is selected by its clients, interviews its clients about their current and future business strategy for that topic, and then distributes an in-depth, customized report to the clients. After the report is distributed, the clients meet together at a two-day conference, where they hear from distinguished guest speakers and discuss the RB’s research findings.
One of the greatest benefits of my internship experience was teaching me the value of my English PhD. I learned that I could…
- Read about an unfamiliar topic and figure it out. I didn’t know anything about enterprise cloud service solutions or digital platforms or big data before I started my internship. But, with several hours of reading, I found that I could be conversant enough on these topics to discuss them with the CIOs of Fortune 500 companies.
- Adapt my writing to a company’s style guide. The RB writes its reports according to a very particular style, which I could imitate from reading examples. The editor of our report was amazed at my ability to match their style. He joked that the RB was going to hire exclusively English PhDs after seeing how I could easily write the “RB way” without instruction.
- Take initiative, discuss my ideas with higher-ups in the company, and carry out projects without supervision. I was lucky to be at a place where I was given a great deal of independence, and my ideas (even as a brand new intern) were valued by senior team members.
In addition to making me aware of my transferable skills, my internship showed me several amazing aspects of the “alt ac” world:
- Short term deadlines! I loved knowing that my writing projects were due in a day, or a week, or two weeks rather than months/years. And if I finished a project early, I didn’t need to endlessly revise my writing. I could send the draft to an editor, who would praise me for finishing ahead of schedule (see below) and move me to the next project.
- Affirmation! I am fortunate to have very supportive mentors in my graduate program, but writing a dissertation is not a process that provides you with positive feedback every day. At the RB, I received praise multiple times a day. As an affirmation-starved graduate student, I loved writing a paragraph and receiving an email from four people thanking me and/or praising me for my good contribution to the project.
- Working on a team! I liked writing in a group, thinking about ideas in a group, and commiserating with a group when we had to work long hours. I’ve stayed late on campus to finish writing a chapter or grading papers, and, at least in my experience, there are no group dinner breaks to eat delicious Mediterranean food and gourmet cupcakes.
- Socializing with the office! It was fun to be on the company softball team, go to trivia night, play bocce ball in Central Park, and be wined and dined around the city.
When the RB offered me a full-time job, starting immediately after I graduated, I thought long and hard. I turned it down for this upcoming year because I missed teaching, but I haven’t ruled it out forever, should another position come along at the RB in the future. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to explore an “alt ac” position, and I’ve found that my internship has rejuvenated me for my last year of dissertation writing.