Jessica Langer earned her PhD in English from Royal Holloway, University of London. She runs ideas in flight, a social media and digital marketing consultancy, and teaches at York University’s Schulich School of Business. Find her online and follow her @DrJessicaLanger.
A tenure-track job at a research institution is often seen as the supposed goal of a post-PhD job search. What was your experience? What did you hope for in terms of employment as you completed your PhD?
While I was doing my PhD, I really wanted to be a professor at a research institution. I had a lot of encouragement from my mentors and was very lucky to have the best PhD supervisor on the planet :the inimitable Adam Roberts, who is one of the smartest and nicest human beings I know. I networked like crazy, got a part-time teaching position in the second semester of my PhD at Richmond American International University in London (which I loved!) in which I developed and taught my own courses , and published a ton. I was getting flyout interviews at very good institutions by the time I was in my third year, though I came in second in each of those competitions.
Slowly, though, I came to realize that what I really wanted was to be in my hometown near my extended family, and I decided that I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a professor for the rest of my life. There weren’t any jobs in my field here in Toronto (and even if there were, I’d have been one of 300 well-qualified candidates). I know there’s a lot of gendered complication that goes into the choice I made, but it’s the choice that makes me happiest on a day-to-day basis, and I have never, ever regretted it.
I had worked in marketing pretty much continuously since my undergraduate days except during the 3 years of my PhD, and I’d grown to really love it. The notion that I could go into marketing instead of academia as a “Plan A”, again, grew on me.
I still think that professoring would have been a great job that fits well with my skillset and talents; it’s just not the only job that would make me happy. And I find that I use a lot of the skills I developed in academia – research, teaching, writing – in my day to day work life now in a way that is really fulfilling.
What was your first post-PhD job?
When I moved back to Toronto after submitting my dissertation, I worked for a couple of years as Director of Communications at a private school. It was a good place to land, and although the position itself didn’t turn out to be such a great fit, I learned a lot there.
What do you do now? How did you get started?
About a year and a half ago, I struck out on my own and started ideas in flight, my social media and digital marketing practice. It was kind of a terrifying leap, but I was very lucky in that I’d done a fair bit of networking over the years and therefore was able to develop a solid client base pretty early on. I got excellent referrals from various people in my life and I also did some pro bono consulting for Save a Child’s Heart, one of the best nonprofits around, because I believed in the mission and in order to get experience. I did a lot of research and took a lot of advice. One of the things you must do if you’re going to be successful in business is be open to constructive criticism and see it as a learning opportunity rather than an attack.
What kind of tasks do you do on a daily and weekly basis?
It varies a lot! I run social media training sessions for clients. I go to client sites for consulting meetings on social media, marketing, brand strategy and anything else in my wheelhouse with which they need help. I do a fair bit of detail-oriented execution: I write and disseminate press releases and pitch letters, I write blog posts, Facebook posts and tweets, I find content for social media feeds, I do a ton of research about my clients’ industries so I can keep up to date on the latest news that might affect them. I develop new business: following up with referrals, making calls, writing up proposals. One of the best things about what I do is the variety.
What most surprised you about your job?
Honestly? How much fun it was, and how intellectually intensive it can be at the same time. When you’re in academia, doing anything else with your life is often seen as a consequence of failure, or at least as second-best; marketing especially has kind of a bad rap, because the kind of narratives you’re creating and analyzing are done in order to sell things or ideas, rather than for the sake of art. But it’s fascinating stuff! I love working with clients to figure out how to get creative with the public storytelling and engagement that happens on social media, and how to get their message out to the people who want to hear it, and how to analyze the public response and figure out how to optimize outreach.
What are your favourite parts of your job?
I love the variety. I love the fact that I get to do different things every day, and I get to learn about so many different industries. Most of my clients right now are in real estate, health and fitness, and fashion. I’ll often have 15 different tabs open: one is the Toronto Real Estate Board website, one is the Globe and Mail, one is Shape Magazine, three are different fashion blogs who’ve reviewed my client’s product, two are opposing points of view on the Toronto real estate market….
I’m a bit of an information junkie. I’m always looking to learn new things. I was that kid who would sit and read the encyclopedia. And a lot of what I do on a day to day basis is kind of like that: reading all about vastly different, but always interesting, things that have to do with my clients’ industries.
What’s in store for you over the coming months and years?
I’m hoping to continue to build ideas in flight. I do still publish a fair bit as a hobby, both in my old academic field (I have two book chapters on science fiction and postcolonialism coming out this year) and in the academic field of marketing research (I’m working right now on a research project on unexpected market segments). I want to keep teaching at York University. I want to keep doing what I’m doing, only more so!
What advice or thoughts do you have for post-PhDs in transition now?
The most important thing is: you are not a failure if you leave. You haven’t “failed” as an academic. You’ve made a decision to do something different with your life, and that’s okay. It always astonishes me how so many academics view leaving the academy, or even just deciding not to pursue a tenure-track job, as a cross between betrayal and washout in a way that isn’t the case in any other industry I can think of. A lawyer who starts a successful business isn’t considered a “failed lawyer”, a doctor who goes into law or industry isn’t a “failed doctor”; why in the world would a PhD who decides to do something other than be a professor be a “failed academic”?
Also, it’s important to keep an open mind about the fact that you can contribute good things to the world in so many ways other than being a researcher/teacher. Many post/alt-academics I know despair because they think of leaving as “selling out”, of going to the “dark side”, of somehow betraying their academic ideals. But being an academic isn’t the only way, and maybe it’s not even the best way, of doing good in the world or of using your talents.
Give yourself permission to see, really see, what other wonderful things you can do with your time in order to make a living. You’ll be happier for it.