Ph.D.s surviving (and thriving) in non-academic professions

Aimed at educating Annenberg graduate students and post doctoral fellows about what to expect should their careers take them beyond university walls, Amy Jordan, Ph.D., director of the Media and the Developing Child sector of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, and Katherine Sender, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Communication, organized a panel consisting of five different graduates from the Annenberg School for Communication who currently work in non-university settings. The workshop, an inaugural joint Annenberg School/Annenberg Public Policy Center professional development event, took place at Annenberg on January 26. Future workshops will include undergraduate teaching, presenting at professional conferences, and turning a dissertation into a book.

While it may seem maddening to think that someone with a doctoral degree must prove themselves to be pragmatic thinkers in the workplace, according to Kimberly Maxwell (Ph.D. ‘00), Sr. Director of Brand & Consumer Research at MTVN / SPIKE, non-academic employers are more interested in seeing immediate results rather than one’s ability to conceptualize long-term, qualitative projects.

Dr. Maxwell was part of a newly-developed panel consisting of five different graduates from the Annenberg School for Communication who currently work in non-university settings. “People at work know that I hold a Ph.D.,” said Dr. Maxwell, “and, occasionally, I’ll get made fun of for it. But once you have proven yourself and have shown results, they really don’t care what your degree is.”

Increasingly less true is the banal mentality that “egg-heads” are purely pontificators and theorists, devoid of practical thought; it is a myth that, according to Jo Holz (Ph.D. ’81), is close to extinction. “Sure, I had to prove to people that I could think faster and more pragmatically,” admitted Dr. Holz, “but the myth is less true now because there are more masters and doctoral degrees in the workplace than there were before.”

Having left academia to go into consulting, Barry Dornfeld (Ph.D. ’92), Senior Manager of the Center for Applied Research, describes non-university professions as “an entire different pace and rhythm than academia.” “It’s exciting,” said Dr. Dornfeld, explaining that jobs like his offer exposure to more people and topics than one would have in the confines of solitary study.

Though, contrary to the notion that a doctoral degree becomes a moot identity marker in non-academic fields, Dr. Dornfeld noted that he still uses Annenberg-introduced methodologies and system science in the work he does today. “Hardly a week goes when Ray Birdwhistell’s name doesn’t come up,” said Dr. Dornfeld. (Ray Birdwhistell was a professor with Annenberg in the 1970s and 1980s.)

Any onerous thoughts that one’s time reading, researching, and writing laboriously day and night for several years was all for nothing can be soundly laid to rest. “Content for a job can be taught,” said Chris Koepke (Ph.D. ’95), “but you cannot teach the ability to think. I sell myself for a job with all of the different skills I’ve inherited during my days at Annenberg.”

The five panelists unanimously advised students to access Annenberg’s alumni network, stressing the importance of networking with professionals who are working in fields that interest them. Bridget Kelly (Ph.D. ’07), researcher at RTI International in Washington, D.C. advises students to learn as much as they can about a position by talking to someone already working in the field. “There’s this connection at Annenberg,” said Dr. Kelly, “that anyone who has graduated from the School has a familiarity, and it creates some very interesting networking opportunities.”