Transition Q & A: Kris Gies

Kris Gies earned his PhD in history from the University of Guelph. He is a publisher’s representative at the University of Toronto Press. Follow him @KrisGies.

What did you hope for in terms of employment as you completed your PhD?

At the most basic level, my experience was probably much like anyone else who decides to pursue a PhD: they do so because they’re interested in a particular subject, and they’re just as interested—if not more so—in having a career teaching and researching said subject as a university professor. Not to date myself, but those undergraduate or masters students out there who tell me that they “love what they study” and would “be an awesome professor” immediately remind me of myself years ago: I was one of them.

Even though I have mixed feelings toward the system of graduate education, it is hard to find regret with much of my own experience. During my studies, I was able to travel to places I would have not otherwise, meet people whose friendships I will always cherish, and have experiences that I couldn’t fathom missing out on by taking a different path in life. Throughout, I benefitted from the guidance and occasional “tough love” of scholars whose advice and encouragement was of great help as I strived to reach my academic goals. Of course, I was also able to research a topic I found tremendously interesting. My work on the amateur soldiering movement in late 19th/early 20th century Glasgow was scintillating, electrifying scholarship…

Yet, when it came to that career goal—to become a professor—the rather harsh realities of the academic job market proved a transformative experience, and from that came my transition to non-academic life.

In the year prior to my defence, I applied for tenure-track, post-doctoral, and limited term positions. I went in knowing that it would take considerable work to reach that original goal, and I bought into the standard lines of “there are a wave of retirements just around the corner” and “you’ll just have to send out more applications” given to me by well-meaning yet somewhat naive faculty. With a profile that included research that touched on a number of areas, great student evaluations, a teaching award, degrees from three countries, and experience on committees and as a journal editor, I thought I had what it took to be at least somewhat competitive on the academic job market. However, the rejection letters (or the dead silence in many cases) strongly suggested otherwise.

When you’re used to achieving as most grad students are—be it scholarships, good grades for school work, or whatever—rejection hits hard. And after the first several “there were many qualified candidates” letters, I started to consider if this very narrow path was the right one for me. More specifically, was I ready to keep up the life-draining, soul-syphoning process of assembling dozens upon dozens more application packages (not to mention doing so amidst the continued work of teaching and being an active scholar) to perhaps be one of hundreds of applicants for an opening? Well no, and with that I began to explore what options beyond the traditional route—if any—were out there. Inspired by the few websites available at the time such as Beyond Academe I decided to investigate further.

Luckily my university in conjunction with nearby institutions holds an annual job fair, and I decided to attend this event to see what reaction I would receive from employers. My strategy was simple: aside from learning about the particular needs of companies and organizations, knowing that I could easily be labeled as overqualified, I made it a point to ask what I called my “million dollar question”:

Does having a PhD in history put me at a disadvantage?

Surprisingly, from government to non-profit research to financial service sectors, the answer was that as long as I otherwise met their requirements, was consistent:

No, it does not…

I came from that event inspired, and shortly after even had a email to interview for a financial services company!  While it was exciting, it was quickly consigned to the back of my mind. The goal was still to get on the tenure-track, or at least in a position where that was achievable in the relatively-near future. And why not? Isn’t that what people get a PhD for?

Several months later, I experienced the anxiety and exhilaration of successfully defending my dissertation. By then my academic ambitions were fading fast, but even so it was still rather deflating that after about 30 applications all academia had to offer was a lone sessional (Americans: adjunct) position. It paid so little, included with my contract was a form from human resources to not have income tax deducted!

Living a “life of the mind” and being driven by “a thirst for knowledge” and “love of learning” (or whatever nonsensical platitudes are commonly used to put a positive spin on the dire academic job market) is all well and good until one reaches the point where they have spent years in school, put off moving on in their lives, and became a bona fide master in the art of deferred gratification…

…to only find that the closest they’ll get to that “golden ticket” is a job with less pay and job security than someone working part-time at a fast food restaurant…

By then I was convinced that pursuing the tenure track was a dead end, and cobbling together part-time teaching positions was not only a poor substitute, but also in no way a viable career path. I could do much better.

I didn’t fully appreciate it until at this point, but a happy consequence of the basic need to support myself during my studies was that I had to engage in work outside of teaching. I held a range of positions, including construction worker, office manager, and webmaster.  While at the time it was to avoid going into debt, this experience proved much more valuable as I began my transition. I had work experience. And unlike the teaching positions, when I applied for non-academic positions I was getting interviews!

Of course, luck can play a considerable role. Through fortunate timing, an opening with what would be my employer which was posted before my defence (though interested, given obvious priorities I couldn’t apply then) was relisted shortly afterwards. It readily appealed to my skills, experience, and personality. I applied and interviewed.

A month later, I handed in my paperwork to graduate one day and started my job the very next.

What was your first post-PhD job/What do you do now?

My first post-PhD job is also what I currently do: I am a sales representative for a publisher of educational materials.

What kind of tasks do you do on a daily and weekly basis?

In a nutshell: as the job title suggests, my work focuses on sales and marketing efforts. I promote my company’s titles by crafting and distributing targeted emails to instructors in my sales territory. During the academic year I also spend some of my time visiting university campuses throughout North America. In the course of sales efforts, I handle inquires about our titles, offer course design suggestions, and deliver follow-up customer service. Aside from this key function, I help provide guidance to prospective authors and conduct market research.

What most surprises you about your job?

Textbooks and course materials may seem mundane, but I quickly learned that they can be a source of great enthusiasm. I was surprised by the level of passion and attachment an instructor can have toward what materials they use in their courses. Some books will be the go-to option throughout an academic’s entire career, while others can elicit critical, even hostile feedback. Through that, I’ve come to appreciate that rather than an expense cynically added to the cost of a student’s education, textbooks are considered a fundamental tool and are approached with careful thought and consideration.

What are your favourite parts of your job?

My favourite aspects of my work are travelling to some great places, and in the process of talking about books (a hobby of pretty much anyone with some academic background) getting to build relationships with so many people. I consider it a perk of my job to be continually learning new things from the very experts of a given discipline. While my own background is in history, I have developed a greater knowledge of and appreciation for subjects such as political science, anthropology, and social work. The adage about one’s education continuing on after their time in school absolutely holds true.

What would you change about it if you could?

If some of the negative perceptions surrounding textbooks were dispelled. For a host of reasons—some justified while others not at all—my industry is routinely criticized. Even though my company does not engage in those practices commonly frowned upon by academics and the media, as part of that industry it can still be tough winning over others. That is, while I am part of a tight-knit group that is passionate about teaching and learning, and publishing works that will help facilitate both, it is easy for those not in the know to lump us in with those more commercially-minded companies.

In my own way, I aim to counter these misconceptions by conducting myself as someone who provides solutions. As I’m sure many of those reading this will agree, designing courses can be hard. Take into account that my clients also have incredibly full schedules (one thing I do not miss about the academic life) to contend with, and there is an appreciation for someone like myself who is knowledgeable and can connect them to the materials that will help them perform their jobs. I can vividly recall how much of a hassle it was to find the right books for my courses, and that experience is a driving factor in my work. Through knowing what goes into teaching, I consider my sales and marketing efforts as a way of applying my skills and experience in a manner that helps make others’ lives easier.

What’s next for you, career-wise?

What’s next?  I’m not quite sure, but what is certain is that I am thankful to have landed here. Not only do I get to put my PhD to use talking teaching and scholarship with interesting people, but by the very nature of my work I am also in a great position to build a career either here in publishing, or in areas such as business or even in an “alt-ac” capacity. I couldn’t have asked for a better first step from the PhD.

In the meantime, I’ve continued to make contributions to my discipline: Not in terms of research and writing, but rather in giving non-academic career talks to history grad programs. It is a cause I’m passionate about and there is intrinsic value in letting people know that there are others out there of similar backgrounds who have shown that such transitions are possible. While I am far from an expert, it is fulfilling to at the very least provide encouragement and a foundation from which they can begin their respective journeys. To that end, it’s wonderful that there is not only heightened awareness of these issues, but also the growing body of great resources—including this blog—out there. We are all in this together.

What advice or thoughts do you have for post-PhDs in transition now?

I think one of the reasons why I was able to land on my feet was that I knew all along that I could do other things. Not having this confidence can be a powerful barrier for a PhD who finds that the traditional career path isn’t what they hoped it would be and is considering other possibilities. Confidence is necessary not just to promote oneself to potential employers, but to simply begin the process of making that transition into another career. That said, a key first step is to discard any sense of failure or inadequacy on your part for leaving the academic job market. For whatever reason—my guess is that it’s some incredibly resilient cultural norm from a time when professions were guild-based and academics lived in monasteries—there is this sickeningly-strong adherence to constant criticism and self-depreciation within academia. As one gets progressively socialized in that culture during their graduate studies, it becomes all the more entrenched.

By virtue of numbers alone, it is a long shot for even those considered to be top students to land one of progressively-few tenure track positions. Even so, there are plenty of academics and even other graduate students out there who will look down upon you for your decision. Disregard such opinions as the empty noise it is. For good reason, most of the world doesn’t act like this. At its most essential level, you are like countless others out there who decided to take their skills and experience and change careers. Your decision is really not that extraordinary and as a result you are far from alone. The reality is that if you are strong enough, talented enough, and hard-working enough to do a PhD, you will find a career path right for you, and there will be an employer out there who will value what you have to offer. Always keep that in mind.

Now, while the world will not roll out the red carpet for you by virtue of you having a PhD, don’t limit your potential by downplaying your talents and accomplishments. You need to be your own best advocate. Excessive modesty may be a virtue in academia, but it will set you at a disadvantage outside of that world. Arrogance is never good, but at the same time don’t be afraid to promote yourself.

Beyond the very real emotional considerations, start researching fields you are interested in, learn how to conduct informational interviews (you will be surprised how willing people are to help others), identify your transferable skills (you have them), and note the key differences between a CV and a resume (I’ve seen others not grasp this difference and it doesn’t go well). Look to build work experience, be it part-time, full-time, or volunteer; demonstrate that you can put your skills to use. As I’ve mentioned, there is a growing body of material online that addresses the circumstances of the similarly-growing community of people like us. Utilize those carefully-honed research abilities!

You may likely have access to your university’s career services offices. If so, take advantage of their help, but keep in mind that while they can do tremendous work, many such offices are woefully ill-prepared to work with those with PhDs. Take stock of their advice and insights, but again be your own best advocate. Outside of universities, there are also people and services out there who can be of great help.

Above all, if you feel it is the right choice for you, don’t hesitate venturing outside that very small world that you’ve known so well. It will be hard, but it’s hard for a lot of people right now. Even so, you’ll find that not only do challenging, intellectually stimulating opportunities exist, but also that you will come out of it stronger than you ever thought possible.

I’m happy to say that for a time in my life I was an academic. I completed a PhD because years ago I set out to do just that, and then for reasons of my own (and not looking back) I moved on to other things. It had its ups and downs but I got a lot out of my grad school experiences. Despite all the good things, did I miss out on years of better earnings and work experience? Of course I did, but it’s of little use to worry about such things now, and having regrets along those lines doesn’t help one move forward. It’s incredibly easy to get caught up in notions of sunk costs, but I’ve adopted the stance of not letting the PhD be my sole defining characteristic, but rather an experience that informs who I am now and what my next steps in life will be. So far so good.