From the Ivory Tower to Public Housing – A Humanities Ph.D. in Washington, D.C.


 Patricia Soler (far right) and her HUD colleagues on a site visit at a Tribally Designated Housing Entity

Patricia A. Soler is a recent graduate of the Presidential Management Fellowship (PMF) program at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in the Real Estate Assessment Center (REAC). She is currently on rotation to the Office of the Deputy Secretary where she works on internal communications and project management. She also recently completed a rotation with HUD’s Office of Native American Programs (ONAP). Dr. Soler is an elected member of the Presidential Management Fellow Council at HUD and is actively involved with the Latino Network. She defended her dissertation “Sleek Lines: Art Deco and Brazilian Modernism” in January of 2014 at Georgetown University in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese. Today, Patricia chatted with Beyond Academia about government careers for PhDs. For Patricia’s insights into the Presidential Management Fellow, see her first interview with Beyond Academia.


What first spurred your interest in careers beyond the tenure track?

It was a long process for me. For a number of reasons, I knew that I wanted to start exploring job opportunities maybe a year out from my defense. I loved D.C., and didn’t want to leave. But I also felt like I had said what I wanted to say with my dissertation. I knew based on conversations with other colleagues that had chosen tenure-track or adjunct positions that the wealth of opportunities offered in grad school would not be available to me as a faculty member. It was all about publishing, and you don’t have time for those additional activities. Constant research was not appealing to me. Also, I was stubborn, I refused to believe that there were not other job opportunities out there – that this was all that was all the degree could be. I worked so hard, and learned so many different things. I wanted to know, what else is out there?


So, what concrete steps did you take to illuminate other career paths?

First, I really connected with my extended network in D.C. I knew a lot of people that had stayed in the area, and I learned what they were doing in their careers. I immediately decided that I did not want to go to law school—I didn’t want another degree. A lot of people recommended consulting—what do they do? I started this search to find out what everybody does.


I also talked to my alma mater’s Career Center, which was crushing, because it’s the same one that serves undergraduates at the college. And, they seemed to admit that they did not know how to help me. I really confronted how hard this was going to be. I did sign up for on-campus recruiting, and I came face-to-face with one of my former students, a 22-year-old was telling me about his one year in consulting, and had no way of understanding what I could bring to the table. He knew me in a professorial context, but he’s here to recruit a specific demographic that I did not fit. Friends and former students gave me referrals to get to the phone interview, but I did not make it past that point.

It was very disheartening, but I felt like it wasn’t me—it was the Ph.D. that was weighing me down. I had a truth-telling moment with a friend who was senior at one of these firms. He told me: your resume makes no sense. It doesn’t. You can revise the heck out of it, but no matter how you play it, you’re too educated. It’s going to be intimidating to people, they don’t know what to ask you, and you can never sell that it’s worth it to train you in anything metrics-related when you’re a Humanities Ph.D.  And that’s really the consultant companies want — the quantitative analysis. They don’t understand what you’ve been doing for 7-10 years in this academic program, and it’s too risky for the hiring managers to gamble on someone that does not fit the mold.


So, how did you move on from these setbacks?

Another friend asked me: why are you trying to make yourself into a consultant in the first place? I didn’t know. So, I took a full year to explore jobs and resources: what are my friends doing, what can my university help me with, what can my professors do. Then finally a friend in the foreign service at the State Department suggested that I apply to the PMF. I applied, and I did not get it. But, I spent time on my resume and learned about behavioral interviews. I began to reconsider why I was bombing the job search so far. Before, I had branded myself as a researcher. But, I decided not to talk about research at all when interviewing with the federal government.



So, the Ph.D. really was a liability?

No—not in the federal space. What the federal government craves is fresh blood, new perspectives, and intelligent people. My colleagues think the Ph.D. is pretty cool. But, my interviewers wanted to know I could talk to them in a way that made sense in their world. They didn’t care what I wrote about in the dissertation. They wanted to know that I was going to be a good public servant, work for the greater good. Can you get along with your colleagues? Can you collaborate? Can you perform under pressure and still get the job done on a tight deadline? It’s difficult to let go of people in government, so your interviewers are looking for people who aren’t too individualistic, who excel at collaboration and working across silos.


What do you bring as a Humanities PhD to these agencies?

I think the most basic skills are editing and writing. I never marketed that in any interview, because I thought it was a given. But, people do not assume that you can write. Since then, I’ve seen shockingly terrible examples of writing, and learned that my writing skills are in demand.


Also, I taught for 6 years. I don’t think I’m doing anything specifically with my expertise in Spanish and Portuguese, but my training in Cultural Studies was relevant in the field visits I did on Native American reservations. My supervisors recognize that I can be respectful, professional and empathetic because of my academic background.


Now, I work with statisticians and forensic auditors at the Real Estate Assessment Center. I work within the most technical part of the organization. I did not understand the logic behind this placement, and when I asked why my supervisor made this decision, I was told, “she speaks a bunch of languages, she’s smart, she’ll figure it out.” So, there’s some faith among those that have worked with PhDs before that we can be trained and will do just fine, we’ll figure it out. So we aren’t seen as risky hires at all. And I did find my place.


What do you recommend to PhDs pursuing careers in government?

Develop institutional awareness. PhDs are inclined to play the long game, so we’re well equipped to deal with the federal government. We understand academic bureaucracy. We know where the bottlenecks are, who to avoid for an adviser, etc. It’s the same game in the federal government.


What can humanists and social scientists PhDs do to become competitive candidates for careers in the federal government?

Figure out what public service is. Citing your teaching record is not enough. I learned about it through informational interviews. I talked to people and learned about the mission of these agencies. I learned what was interesting to other public servants, and then I could better prepare for the interviews. You also need to know what’s going on in the political sphere. If you’re interested in a certain agency, a certain space – make sure to learn the current political topics of interest. Put all of your hard-earned skills to work. I think that once a new wave of PhDs is out there, we are going to exceed all expectations.