On March 13th, we held the first ever Theory Meets Praxis – Virtual Humanities Conference designed for BA, MA, PhD students, and postdocs with degrees in the humanities. We were surprised by some of the advice of our incredible panelists who explained how they found their way to a range of unexpected fields: global program management, design research, credit risk analysis, programming, development, full-time freelancing, and UX research. Read the highlights below and be sure to check out the resources linked throughout each section.
Lauren Silvers – PhD Comparative Literature | Global Program Manager, LinkedIn
Devin Ackles – MA Russian | Design Researcher, Field Form
Mark Keller – MSc Latin American Studies | Assistant VP, EMEA Country Credit Risk
The key term for this panel was definitely “grit”. Lauren Silvers kicked off the discussion by explaining that she did not have any personal or family connections to introduce her to the world of consulting and, later, global program management. Instead, she launched her new career outside academia by setting up informational interviews and eventually finding a mentor. Key takeaways from her talk were to remember when applying for jobs that “companies are looking for the following: evidence of passion, initiative, and resourcefulness.” Her advice is to avoid putting people on the defensive by “coming on too strong” about yourself and instead to talk about the impact of what you can create. Nervous about networking? Lauren recommends “seeing networking as exchange” – an exchange of stories and a new relationship built on reciprocity. She also recommends upskilling through Grow with Google certifications as well as LinkedIn Learning
Devin Ackles followed up with an account of his own amazing personal journey. After completing his degree at a community college, he went on to study anthropology and Russian. He volunteered as an EFL instructor and made his way to the Peace Corps in Kazakhstan. He later became an AmeriCorps volunteer working in urban schools in the Bronx. As his studies advanced, he applied for a Fulbright which took him to Ukraine where he eventually found work at a startup media company doing think-tank style analytical work. From there, he began his tenure at EY overseeing a team of researchers. More recently, he stepped into his new role as a Design Researcher for Field Form in New York. He, too, advocated for adding to your skillset through online courses like Coursera. Rather than followed a clearly defined life plan, Devin confirmed that he started out without a specific career goal in mind and no solid connections. He recommends thinking strategically about how to make the connections that you would like to have to reach specific goals. Above all, Devin emphasized the importance of resilience and following your passion.
Mark Keller started out with a BA in European History and no specific career plans. His degree helped him to secure a position as a Research Analyst for the Americas Society/Council of the Americas. This led to a more senior position as a Researcher for Freedom House and then later as a Lead Analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). At this point in his career, he decided to supplement his education with an MSc in Latin American studies and to shore up his quantitative skills with coursework in economics and applied statistics. These latest additions helped him to advance to Assistant Vice President at EMEA Country Risk. Similar to Lauren and Devin, Mark’s path is a journey built not only on persistence, but on incremental, strategic career moves.
Marcus Lampert – PhD Germanic Studies | Software Engineer, PwC
Mechie Nkengla – PhD Mathematics | Chief Data Strategist, Data Products – employer perspective
Dale Walker – PhD Early Christian Literature | Development
This panel was designed to present quantitative jobs that humanities graduates may consider out of reach. Marcus Lampert kicked things off by describing how he made his way from a Germanic Studies PhD to a job as a software engineer. Early experience working on small projects in the IT department as an undergraduate was helpful background. Marcus explained that he completed courses through Udemy, Coursera, Freecodecamp.org, and Harvard CS50. His advice to fellow humanities graduates was to build a solid portfolio of projects to present to an employer as evidence of your skills. His experience has been that employers are less interested in degrees and more willing to review documented proof of abilities. He recommended setting up a Github account to share projects more easily and establish credibility. His advice: “It may seem overwhelming at first, but don’t slip into the ‘grad student den of despairs’” – it’s all within reach and can even be fun.
We were glad to hear the employer perspective from Mechie Nkengla, the founder and chief data strategist for Data Products (a data science consultancy). “Tech itself is non-existent without the humanities”, she explained. Technology has no value if it does not have a clear impact on the human world. When hiring for different roles, she explained that she looks not only for technical skills, but for strategic reasoning, communications skills, and innovative thinking. While some employers may focus on degrees or seek out pedigree in an applicant’s background, she said that plenty of others will focus more on evidence of ability. Her advice is to post projects to a Github account or a blog like Medium.
Dale Walker rounded out the discussion with a thorough overview of the many types of work available in development (fundraising). He acknowledges that there is certainly a quantitative aspect to it for anyone focused on tracking donor data and managing/sorting database for different fundraising campaigns. In his experience, though, the key to development is relationship building. The more strategic aspect to this work is in identifying people and their patterns as well as conducting research on the donors. He recommended becoming familiar with databases that are commonly used like Salesforce or one of the many other donor management databases (your university or career center may be able to make these available to you). He, too, advocates for graduates to advance their skills in database management, communications, content writing, and networking. In brief, Dale’s advice is to “tool up”.
Laura Briggs – ABD Public Policy | Full-time freelancer, two time TEDx speaker, and program manager
Risha Lee – PhD Art history | Senior UX Researcher, American Express
Laura Briggs started out as a seventh grade teacher who taught herself a variety of new skills to become a full-time freelancer and, eventually, a solopreneur. She recommends asking yourself: “what can I pull from my academic life and make it a win?” In her own life, she chose to draw on her research skills and ability to break down complex ideas for others. The most accessible venues for this as a freelancer are writing website copy, ad copy, and copywriting in the legal industry. When asked how she first established a client base, she says that she started out as a freelancer on Upwork where she made connections that eventually became clients. She recommends Udemy for learning more about running a business as well as content writing. Beyond this, she also recommends cold pitching companies on LinkedIn. Although this came with many rejections at first, Laura was able to find work with companies that were in need of a content writer for marketing materials, internal/external emails, and content on their website. Her advice is to write samples for different types of writing that can be repurposed as much as possible. These will be pieces that showcase skills in blog writing, emails, and web copy. When deciding which companies to cold contact, she recommends limiting your search to companies that have at least $1 million to $5 million in revenue.
Finally, we heard from Risha Lee whose fascinating journey took her from a PhD in art history to a research fellowship in Singapore and then to the role of Assistant Curator of South and Southeastern Asian art at the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts. A few years later, this led to her advancement as Curator of Exhibitions at the Rubin Museum of Art. In the end, however, she decided to explore careers beyond academia and museums to see how else her background in aesthetics and design could be applied. She set up informational interviews and drew on her network before finding a position as a research manager at American Express where she has since advanced to Senior UX Researcher. She explains that this role depends on an approach to design that serves the needs of the users. She works alongside designers to create an experience that is easy, simple, and enjoyable. “The first job is always the hardest,” she explains, particularly for academics who may very well be told by their advisors that they are “not equipped” to extend outside academia. Her advice is to start out by looking for contract positions which often are not announced on the company website. Much like Laura, she also advises “cold calling” people on LinkedIn who have jobs or work for companies that are of interest to you. Finally, she observed that you never know when inspiration will strike and put your training and life experience into a new context.
We thank all of our excellent panelists who gave their time to share their stories and advice as well as everyone who attended our first conference! As you continue to explore new career options, we recommend creating a free Theory Meets Praxis account so that you can access our job board to see positions in public humanities, museum jobs, publishing jobs, education, translation, and other fields. Follow us on social media for more articles, tips, and featured jobs.