From PhD to Program Manager at BAM/PFA: Part 2

Welcome back to our interview with Sean Carson, Program Manager at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. Sean also helps to run the Bay Area chapter of the PhDs at Work network. In this post, he tells us about the skills he learned during his PhD and provides advice.

BA: What did you find most useful about your PhD training that you applied to your later work?

Sean: More than anything, I think pursuing my doctorate gave me a whole lot of confidence. I don’t entertain a lot of doubt when it comes to my ability to analyze complex problems or situations and find the best ways forward. My particular job is at an institution connected to a research university, so the decade I spent in academic environments has come in handy.

Experience in digesting lots of new material quickly is a boon in almost any career, I think, enabling one to “hit the ground running” in a new job or on a new project. For myself, the writing discipline I learned by working on articles and a dissertation has been highly useful. I’m no genius, but I can produce relatively clear and passingly colorful prose without agonizing over it for hours, whether for publication or internal communication, and it has served me very well.

BA: How could someone improve their networking skills or their ability to present themselves to a non-academic audience?

Sean: I have a hard time categorizing this as a skill, per se. To the extent that it is, it’s one that only improves with practice. We all speak to non-academics about our work and our lives regularly, and we find a way to explain and make our ideas clear. If there’s a trick to this at all, it’s putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, speaking with an interviewer about your background just as you would with a family member or friend, without getting too caught up in formality.

Sean CarsonBA: How do you translate the skills you learn in your PhD into marketable skills?

Sean: Just about everything one does in graduate school is the same as something one would do in the non-academic working world, or has a close analog. You follow directions, work independently, get results in on time, research best practices, communicate with various audiences and co-workers in myriad ways, approach problems analytically and creatively, sift through loads of data, learn to use new tools and systems quickly, etc. These are all examples of skills many employers look for.

BA: Is there a culture change outside of academia?

Sean: First a couple of caveats: My PhD was more than a decade ago now, and of course I currently work at a job on a college campus, so I may not be the best source of information on this question. Broadly, I think the answer to the question is “no.” I don’t think the culture change from academia to the non-academic job market is markedly different than the culture change from, say, the undergrad to the graduate school experience, or the change from any one job to any other job. From what I know of the graduate school experience these days, I would guess that cultural differences are smaller than ever.

BA: Do you have any comments on the narrative of a “traditional” academic career path vs. an “exceptional” nonacademic career path?

Sean: I would only say, at the risk of sounding like a self-help guru, that you are on your own personal career path, one that has had academic experience as an important factor. You may continue in academia or you may not, your graduate school research may continue to inform your work life or it may not. It can be very helpful to learn about others’ experiences and paths, but in the end there aren’t any rules about this. You are creating your own narrative as you go.

BA: What things can students or postdocs do while at the university to prepare for a nonacademic career?

Sean: Here is where an academic setting can really shine. If you have an inkling that you might want to try a certain career field that’s outside the usual academic path, you can take some courses (or at the very least audit some courses), join student organizations, and meet people. If you don’t know what it is you might want to try, but you know that you want to explore options, there are organizations like Beyond Academia to get you started thinking, and there is a campus full of students, professors, and staff who will happily share information about their fields with you. Actively use resources like the library and online training courses build your skills and knowledge (when you leave the campus, those things aren’t easy and free any more). Perhaps most importantly, tap into the vital energy of your fellow students: find like-minded folks and found your own startup, create a new publication or lecture series, start a music festival (I did this last one).

Thank you for all your advice, Sean!