E023 How to Navigate in the Job Market as a Phd in Rhetorics? What Are the Origins of #hirehighered?
October 11th 2020
Dr Eric James Stephens is the founder of #HireHigherEd, #ChangeHigherEd, and Thousand Plateaus Consulting, LLC. His organization’s goals are to highlight the value of higher ed workers as they migrate to industry, government, and non-profit jobs outside of academia. During this foundational shift in the landscapes of higher education exposed by the COVID pandemic, Eric sees an opportunity for change.
No one is happy with the state of higher education. Rather than theorize about change or offering just another white guy’s opinion on the “state of things,” Eric is committed to building a platform for others to share their stories. While earning a PhD in Rhetoric, Communication, and Information Design (Clemson University, 2018), he learned the importance of learning about others, hearing their stories, and helping to amplify those voices in a meaningful way that leads to action.
In this webinar, Eric told us about his personal story and motivation to launch his projects. We also talked about the values that the industry rewards versus what we are rewarded for in the academic community. What are the biggest problems of the job market for PhDs these days? What is the best piece of career advice one can give? And lastly, what does Eric’s tattoo mean?
Eric’s LinkedIn profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/ericjstephens/
The website of Eric’s projects, #ChangeHigherEd & #HireHigherEd: https://www.changehighered.org/
The Twitter account of Eric’s projects, #ChangeHigherEd & #HireHigherEd: https://twitter.com/HireHigherEd
Eric’s communities on LinkedIn: #ChangeHigherEd, #HireHigherEd
The episode was recorded on October 11th, 2020. This material represents the speaker’s personal views and not the views of their current or former employer(s).
Dr. Eric James Stephens is the founder of #HireHigherEd, #ChangeHigherEd, and Thousand Plateaus Consulting, LLC. His organizations’ goals are to highlight the value of higher ed workers as they migrate to industry, government, and non-profits jobs outside of academia.
Natalia 00:10 Hello, everyone. This is yet another webinar about career talks by Welcome Solutions. In these meetings, we chat with PhDs and other professionals who rock out their jobs and who can tell us about their careers. Today, I have the great pleasure to introduce Dr. Eric James Stephens, who, in 2018, earned his PhD in rhetorical communication and information design from Clemson University where he learned the importance of learning about others and helping to amplify their voices in a meaningful way that leads to action.
Today, he is actively working on helping PhDs in professional development as the founder of higher education at Thousand Plateaus Consulting, LLC. His organization’s goals are to highlight the value of higher workers as they migrate to industry, government, and nonprofit jobs outside of academia. Thank you so much for accepting our invitation, Eric. It’s great to have you here. Now, I would like to give the floor to you so that you can introduce your story from your perspective.
Eric 01:22 Thank you, Natalia, for letting me come in here and participate in your platform as someone who has that platform, I understand the value that it has, and just kind of like opening up yourself to people. And I appreciate that. Thank you. I’ll go with my story. My wife and I were both teaching at a university in Washington in the United States. In the early spring, my job was kind of like in the air. COVID made it apparent that it was going to drop and not be in the air anymore. I kind of had a moment to internalize this enormous black void that was happening that comes with unemployment. And that’s just a hard thing to do.
What has made my story resonate with people is that I’m kind of just like, 10, to 15%, ahead of what people are experiencing. I felt the weight of that unemployment that was happening because of COVID, especially in higher academia, like two months before, most people I felt. When I was going through that dark depression mode and not knowing what to do, I realized that I wasn’t the only person who was experiencing it or the only person that would be experiencing it.
I had been just applying to just a ton of jobs. I think I applied to over 150 jobs. And about a month or two, I had one unsuccessful interview that made me feel like I was pretty much worthless. My academic community just wasn’t there in a way that I had hoped and expected them to be their academics. I went on to LinkedIn to go connect with people and get a job that way. It’s the whole hidden job market thing. And my academics just don’t get on LinkedIn.
This is not something that they do. It’s something that I hope that they start doing. But I can’t control that. I was looking for that community. It wasn’t there. And it makes sense. I blamed those people at first because looking at this hardship that I was experiencing, why doesn’t anybody care, even are trying to help in a way that was meaningful to a community extent. Then I realized that I couldn’t be blaming them because there was a pandemic happening.
I mean, there were so many things that were going on in their lives. They had family members that were sick. They were on the edge of losing their jobs. And I’ve learned to not blame academia for that particular thing. I need to own that. It’s been hard for everybody. I think it was May 19 when I made a post on LinkedIn that said, I’m going to just stop applying to jobs. I’m just going to focus on treating LinkedIn as what it is a social media platform, not something just like a fancy job site.
It’s a social media platform that is doing some cool work that other social media platforms just aren’t doing or are not able to do. I encourage you to go look at a recent article in The New York Times that was published about the black LinkedIn movement or initiative that’s happening. It’s been this organic thing that hasn’t been able to happen on other platforms. Some cool things can happen on LinkedIn when you engage.
That’s what I wanted to do. I was focused on developing my own professional identity. And I thought it’s the better way to do that than to kind of bring people together and to build that community that I myself had been wanting. It was set for June 8. I thought it was very clever. It was on the United States National Best Friends Day, I thought, hey, this will be great, like come party with your best friends on a new social media platform.
And essentially, like I wrote this article that said, if you are employed right now, the most ethical thing that you can do is to go support your friends on LinkedIn to give them endorsements and recommendations. Connect with them, talk with them. Because you don’t know when you’re going to need that yourself. And if the hidden job network is hidden, and you’re so hidden from that job market, you’re not participating in a way that can help people find jobs, then you’re doing a disservice.
I argued that it was an ethical thing that you should do at this moment, during a pandemic to get on LinkedIn to connect with people. And the reason for that is because it’s the only social media network that employers actively use to use to find people. And so the idea is to get people together to flood the LinkedIn algorithms with data when it came across. It was just like a desperate place for someone who’s going through this dark moment trying to get to connect to people like I was reaching out to people individually, this wasn’t happening. I thought, Hey, maybe I can just bring people together.
And then Black Lives Matter erupted across the country. And I thought that I didn’t want to try to compete with any sort of publicity or anything like that. And also, I recognized that I was building this platform. It kind of goes into my research of what I did for my dissertation. It became my ethical obligation to internalize what was happening and to see what I could do to build my platform for the betterment of other people.
I conducted it over the next two months. When all that was happening, we were in Washington, my wife was eight and a half months pregnant, and our landlord wouldn’t let us renew our lease for a short term to see what was going to happen. We moved into a little tiny house and packed up about 50% of our belongings into a storage unit. And then my wife had the baby at home. We had our third baby, Max.
And then we packed up the rest of our things. About 90% of our things are in storage in Washington and we moved across the country to Maryland where my parents live. And we’re living in their basement right now. Because during that move, my wife who also worked for the University also found out that she was unemployed. That was a pretty abrupt finding because honestly, her department was asking her about preparatory questions. And she was responding to students who were enrolled in her classes until she was laid off.
I mean, there was no warning. It was very poorly done. I moved to my parent’s house. This is my childhood bedroom that my parents turned into a storage unit that I’ve turned into my makeshift office as a way to try to like figure out what to do. During all of this, I got to work and I recognized that something was happening. I felt like for those of you who are familiar with the musical, Alexander or Hamilton, right, so I connected with the character when he’s running out of time.
I felt like I was racing against something. I didn’t know what it was. And I’m still trying to figure out what that is and I’m racing against it but I just started producing content and making a presence on LinkedIn. We also got a dog. You might be able to hear in the background. I conducted over 100 informational interviews just approaching people saying, Hey, this is a thing I’m doing, do you want to be involved.
It turned from this one-hour plea in June into a two-day conference in August. I had 50 speakers. We had 19 workshops. And we had nine live-streamed panels that are still available on YouTube. And we had over 280 people that were registered for the event about an average of 15 to 20 people per event including the workshops for most of them.
It was this beautiful thing where people came together and recognize that higher education is crumbling. It’s crumbling before our eyes. A couple of weeks ago, there has been a 58% reduction in jobs postings. This time, it came out that over 337,000 estimated jobs have been lost in higher education. That’s just in the United States.
It’s crumbling. And people came together to say, We want to help and I think that’s beautiful about people who work in education as a sense of altruism and just wanting to help people. I think that should be valued and not taken advantage of. It’s often taken advantage of in education. It was this hugely successful thing in my eyes. After that, this all started with me trying to get a job. And then it turned into me wanting to build something. And I’m still on the lookout for a job. I’m still unemployed. I’ve had some fun interviews which I think are going well. But I’ve also really cautious of hope because I’ve just been like, you know, shadow on for the past few years, as far as opportunities go. But I got to where I am now. I’m doing these weekly episodes where I invite experts to come in and talk about things until you’re going to be coming on in December or January.
The idea of leaving academia and what you’ve done to find your people and community is like leaving a religion. It’s the one that you devote your life to. It’s one that I’ve devoted my life to. And now I was kind of like being forced to leave out. I wanted to create a space where people could come together. That’s hopefully what I’ve been able to do and what I want to continue to do.
Natalia 12:51 Okay. Eric, thank you so much for this introduction. And thank you also for answering my first question. My first thought is that once you discover your mission, then it’s hard to let go of like a nine to five type of job. I want to say that I wish to get a job. But in a way, I also don’t. Because I think once you have that mission to help teach this, I think it’s good to find a way to monetize on it in a way that you can pursue this mission.
I hope you don’t end up in a bank or something, you know, just doing a nine to five type of job, you don’t waste your talent there. I hope that the situation gets resolved so that you can do what you do full time. One comment that I have for the audience is if you have questions, please ask in the chat. And we will be taking questions as they arrive. This is a very touching story. What you’ve just said, I was quite unprepared for it.
When I do these webinars, I have very generic stories about education and choices in the education history and jobs. I wasn’t even aware that you have that quite dramatic story with actually losing a job and moving to your parents’ place and living in the basement. This is one of these rare moments when I don’t even know what to say because it’s so so remote from my experience that I mean, I also had hard times after my PhD contract expired, I have to say, and sometimes also financially hard, but I think I live in a place like the Netherlands which is much more productive as a country and it’s also protective for small entrepreneurs.
If you have hard times like this Corona crisis these days, then you can count on some additional financial benefits. They don’t want you to get depressed and dysfunctional. You get some bonuses and benefits if you’re unemployed or if you’re a small entrepreneur.
I think my experience right now, even though it’s hard times, I cannot compare to your experiences as you’re a resident of the US and a citizen of the US. But I feel you know, I also I don’t have a comparable situation to yours. So I can only say that I’m very sorry to hear what I just heard. Let’s just talk about the bright side. I guess you just discovered your passion.
That’s also the good side of the situation. And could you please tell us a little bit more about who is involved in your project? Since you have like three different projects at the same time, I would like to understand better what you do, and how these projects do relate to each other? And who you work with or who you would be willing to work with? And how do you see your projects? Do you have a plan for the development?
Eric 16:20 I think that I can speak some of those things. I will say that we’ve been fortunate, like, we both are receiving unemployment which is just something like in the United States is a hard thing to admit. It’s kind of coming from a place of shame. In the United States, it’s like you go in, and you can you get it like, you know, that’s what the American Revolution was, and there’s this sense of indoctrination, not in a bad way, like that entrepreneurial spirit, is embedded in the United States differently. When it’s not working, there’s something wrong. This goes back to we can throw this back to the colonies, right? I mean, there’s this guy who was saying that the best way to worship God was to make money. That’s a very problematic thing to say. But how does this connects to academia, right?
It’s the same thing but replace money with publications. That’s just a rant that I can go on. I’ll answer your question about like, who’s involved? Like, what am I doing? So here’s, here’s, here’s the approach that I took, that I came from my dissertation and my PhD project doing a lot of ethics research and getting involved in social justice initiatives and things like that.
The glaring issue when I stepped into those spaces is that I embody nearly every privilege that exists. I’m a white guy. I, a white guy married and I have kids. What that means is that I believe that it becomes my responsibility to use that privilege. It’s my right to acknowledge my privilege so that I can then dismantle it. And the way I have been approaching that is by not coming out and saying, Hey, everybody, this is why you should listen to me like this is what you should be doing right now. Instead, what I do is say, Hey, everybody, here’s my situation that I’m in, here’s my story that you will likely be able to relate to.
Because you are either going through it, you’re got to go through it, or you know someone who’s going through it. And I’m not offering advice. The only advice I’m offering is to make sure that you’re connecting with people. That’s the question you’re asking, which people to connect with? The other thought is that it becomes my obligation then to build this platform because I’m able to build a platform in a way that other people without privilege would not be able to. I acknowledge that and then invite people to come and talk about it, to invite experts, and to invite thought leaders. When when I say, hey, look, here’s Natalia, she’s going to be a thought leader about this thing that we’re doing in a couple of weeks, for whatever reason because of that privilege that I have people listen to that.
That’s what I’ve been trying to build. There are a lot of programs that try to find these really big names and all these things. They end up paying speaking fees when acknowledging and realizing that some amazing people have incredible knowledge that we’re just ignoring because they haven’t had as much time to promote themselves as much.
Natalia 20:53 I think that you diminish your own achievements here. Because I also think that it’s not that all these people who you invite would just join anyone online. I think you have some particular talent or a particular type of charisma that people also get attracted to you and share their ideas and insights. I think it’s not that everyone could do what you do. I would like to acknowledge that also. I also don’t accept every invitation that I get. I think that most of the people that you host, also are the same. I think that there is something about you as well, that you can get all these people to meet on your platform.
Eric 21:53 I appreciate what you said. This is kind of something that I’ve been sharing with people, I’m one of my very favorites and probably the most influential philosophers who impacted my day-to-day thinking. Her name is Adriana. She’s an Italian feminist philosopher who’s just amazing. One of the core concepts that she has in one of her books is the idea that there is true value in hearing your own story told back to you. Because I come to this story that I’m telling. It’s because of how I’ve been trained to think in my graduate school.
I can’t separate who I am and from what I’m doing. I go this like back and forth just because I’m charismatic? Or is it because of this other thing? There’s this messy combination of the two. What I’m trying to say is, thank you for seeing that and for saying that. Because it’s hard for me to see that in my own story. And this goes back to again, why you should connect with people. Because you need to be able to establish value outside of academia.
The only thing that academia values is your publication and where that publication came from. It’s a bullshit thing to value you on. What you should be valuing yourself on is what you do. And the best way to understand and interpret that is to talk to somebody else to find that person. And for me, I think it’s a combination of my charisma.
I can’t deny it as I have a PhD in rhetoric and persuasion. I mean, what I do is I can persuade people to do things. When I was in fourth grade, I would sell cinnamon toothpicks or I was the kid that had the Beaded Lizard selling them on the bus. I never played with Pokemon cards but I understood that there was a need for Pokemon cards in school. And I sold them. I was like that guy.
Natalia 24:19 There was a question that came to my mind that I wasn’t sure I can ask this question. But once you mentioned rhetorics, I will dare to ask it. Is this helpful for job interviews?
Eric 24:38 I think that’s a hard question for me to answer. Because here’s what I feel about my experience. Getting a PhD in rhetoric might be like downplaying my ability to think and kind of leaning more on the charisma that you were kind of talking about. I kind of feel like I got my PhD in rhetoric because I’m good at rhetoric. I studied it hard. If you come into and you start engaging me about people’s names and rhetorical principles and things like that, as you gave me like 10, 15 minutes to catch up, and don’t care that if I forget names, then we can have on hell of a conversation.
But if you’re relying on the depth of my knowledge about regurgitating theories from other people rather than doing my own thinking, you’ll be disappointed in the conversation that you have with me. To answer your question, I think that the study of rhetoric was one of a type of ethics that places the other person first. For me, the purpose of rhetoric, as Aristotle said, rhetoric is using all available means around you to be persuasive or something like that. That’s what I was trained to do, like things that are happening around me, like my story, like this background, for example, in one of my first interviews with somebody, someone said, Hey, maybe you should blur that, it’s kind of distracting. I said, nope. This is an actual decision that I am making to show the position that I am in.
The reason I’m doing that is to add to my credibility. There are times when I feel like I have to watch myself. And I feel like I need to be constantly reassessing the things that I am saying to make sure that I’m not being persuasive and the negative term which is manipulation. Persuasion and manipulation are the same. Manipulation is a negative word.
I don’t want to manipulate people. I could be accused of everything that I’m doing and doing the same thing for the same motives to be accused of manipulation. People like that exist. And they do. I mean, there are bullshit reasons. They’re coming from people who have tenure in academia, honestly. But I’m learning to let go of caring about those appointments.
Natalia 27:27 Okay. I was just curious if this story of studying rhetorics helps you in getting jobs. That’s the thing I was curious about. But I’m not sure if the answer is yes or no. How do you feel about this?
Eric 27:50 I think that’s another complicated question. Rhetoric itself is what is a meta discipline. It’s a discipline above all other disciplines. Because no other discipline can exist without the use of rhetoric. Whether you’re a chemist, a biologist, an anthropologist, or a sociologist, whoever you are, you communicate through rhetoric. To answer your question, like, do you need rhetoric to find a job? The answer is, yes. The better you understand rhetoric and the art of persuasion, the better you know how to tailor your documents to your audience, what document do you want to tailor? Who’s your audience and employer? I mean, the act of getting a job is a rhetorical act. The people who go out and get jobs and make a presence for themselves to make a name for themselves like you’re doing, Natalia. You’re employing rhetoric.
I would argue that you could do whatever it is that you’re doing. You could take it from here to understand what it is that you’re doing when you’re actively communicating. Because rhetorical decisions are being made. Your background is a rhetorical decision when you go into a meeting or when you go into a job. What I’m wearing right now, I’ve just owned that I love wearing white t-shirts. I went into a job interview the other day and I was like, this is who I am.
That’s my background. I have a white t-shirt. You have this job. You approached me about this job, and you want me for it. I’m going to be authentic when I do that. I acknowledge that I can do that as a white male. It’s easier than women can and people of another color can. That’s part of the rhetoric that you’re understanding and not manipulating it and taking advantage of it. But for me, it’s okay to just be wearing this white t-shirt because that would be encouraging for other people to just be them as well.
Natalia 30:19 Right. I love it. I think you should consider casting your panel about rhetoric and using it in applying for jobs. I will be the first person to sit on the panel as a participant. I love it. I mean, I agree with everything you just said. I think every time you have to introduce yourself, you have to make a pitch and you have to decide from which angle you want to pitch yourself.
It’s indeed an act of rhetoric and it’s a pity that life is so short and you can’t study everything. I did three different masters in my undergrad. I never had space for rhetorics. I think life is too short to catch everything. But I think I’m happy for you that you had the chance to study the subject. It must be fascinating. I have another question about how you pitch yourself and how you present yourself. I have a question that is a bit out of the box which is about your tattoos. I noticed that you have an interesting tattoo on your forearm. Could you please tell us a little bit about the philosophy behind it?
Eric 31:57 I’m so happy that you asked about my tattoo. It’s pretty relevant to what we’re talking about. I wanted a tattoo and I knew that I wanted it to be big, bold, and visible. I knew that I wanted it to be on my forearm. I came from a very religious upbringing and was not a fan of tattoos. I’m in a relationship. My wife is still part of that faith in that religion. I think we’re navigating a mixed-faith marriage very successfully.
And so I was really worried about getting this tattoo. I was like, I’m gonna get a band right here. She’s like, okay, maybe she’ll get a second one because one will just look a little bit weird. Rather than being mad about it, she’s like, okay, let’s do this. For me, the problem with the tattoo is that it has meaning. And the problem with meaning is that meaning is fluid. It changes and I cannot control the meaning of a thing.
If I get someone’s name tattooed on my arm and then that person ends up being a murderer. Now I have that murderer’s name tattooed on my arm, right? Or if there’s a symbol that represents something, but then something happens. And that becomes a symbol of hurt. I knew that I needed something that had no meaning. I got that just two stripes. It was purely decorative. And I loved it. And as soon as I finished it, I was driving home. I knew immediately that I needed another one.
Natalia 33:43 It’s very addictive.
Eric 33:48 I mean, it was like a painful thing to happen. But then I was just like, in this weird extra space, where I was like, okay, that thing that pain is happening to me, but not really because I’m over here thinking about the pain. It was just like this weird thing. Anyway, I knew that I wanted a sleeve, like one that went from wrist to shoulder actually, like it kind of comes back to my right back here, too. It extends down my back.
I thought for a long time about what I wanted to do. I thought about like the tree thing that you see a lot. And I’m like, I just see that a lot. I don’t know if I want that. I decided to trust the artist because I realized that a tattoo artist is an artist and my arm is a canvas. I went around a couple of different shops. I wanted a shop that had collectively great talent, not just one person because I was I didn’t want to wait for one particular person.
I wanted to go to a good shop. I found Tim in Washington. It was one of the best experiences. I walked in and I was like, you’re an artist, my arm is a canvas. I have some ideas. Let’s do this. And he’s like, Wait, Like, you don’t care. I was like, why care but let’s think about it, let’s make this collaborative project. He’d get some paintbrush and he’d paint on my arm just like you get markers, and trace out everything. If we liked it, we ink over it.
And if we didn’t, we’d wipe it away. We were trying to think of like, oh, like, what should we do? And another dude came in. He’s like, what if we came in with just straight angles. And so Tim and I were like, okay, so we had like two or three other people’s input. For this tattoo, it took a four-hour session. But I wasn’t under the needle for four hours each time. It was like, let’s try this and play with it. And then let’s change this around.
There are different pieces. We will abstract and like this little paintbrush, this little explosion. And it doesn’t mean anything. This part means this and people say, wait, is that a waterfall? Or is that a mountain? I’m like, I don’t know. What do you see, it tells more about you than what it is about me. But what you see in my tattoo. And so it began. And I love having ink. Because I love talking to people. It’s a way to approach me. It’s like an invitation. I think Roxane Gay in her book hunger talked about what it meant to have this open invitation to other people to identify you because you went through that pain together.
It became what I love about. It is that no one else has this. It’s a piece of art. In the same way that like a few years ago, NCAA video games were like this guy who did this ink. It turns out that you as the person who has the ink on your arm, do not own your ink but the artist does. Because they were portraying the artist’s ink in a video game, and the artist was like, that’s mine, you should be paying me royalties, because you’re using what I created on that player, and he won. That hit me. And I just embrace this idea. This is an artistic piece. I want it to be unique. And that’s one of the first things that anybody talks to me about, like when they see my tattoos they say I’ve never seen anything like that before. Can I see it?
Natalia 37:47 Thank you so much for your story. If I can tell my own story, I also have a tattoo, but actually, I’m trying to erase it for like 10 years. And that was one of these teenage years’ mistakes. And I think this is addictive and you land in one of the two attractors you either decided this is for you and you want more and more, or you decide that this was mistaken to try to erase this piece of art on your body. And I am in this other category. It’s just about the aesthetics. My aesthetic sense changed. And painting on my body doesn’t feel beautiful anymore. That’s the reason why I also didn’t put much meaning to it. That was not the case that I changed my philosophy or something. It was more that, my sense of aesthetics changed. And then it turned out that the artist that I was working with when I was making this photo was diligent and he put so much ink in my skin that now it’s almost impossible to erase it. It’s kind of fun. It’s much more difficult to wipe it out. And then it was to actually make it but I understand everyone who likes the tattoos.
There were times when I also was a big fan. And just judging from my own experience, I understand everyone who makes the tattoos. If my own kids will make the tattoos, then I will just spank them until they’re sure about their taste. You should not make tattoos and that’s my point.
Eric 39:48 This is something that we were trying to like, how do we deal with this? I mean, my wife’s religious-like you know and I just had to, and here’s all about the tattoos. And so we’re like, you know, what do we do? It’s like, you know, like, hey, like, here’s some temporary tattoos I can get. That’s kind of fun stuff. But here’s the thing and I tell this to my kids too. There is wisdom in waiting. It’s hard to do as a kid, I mean, that the prefrontal cortex is not developed to like, 27. I think that’s a great age to make that decision because now you have a better sense of your life. But I also recognize the reason I was making those decisions. If my kids were going to tattoo, I better love it. Because I pay for it. And I’m not going to pay to get it removed.
Natalia 40:47 The good thing is to remove this. Okay, can we just switch back to the topic of today’s meeting? I would like to ask you a little bit more about how you see the job market for PhDs. And my first question would be, you know, from all these informational interviews you did in the last few months, and all these events, what is your general picture of the top market for PhDs? What do you find is the biggest problem for PhDs in the job market right now?
Eric 41:23 The biggest problem for PhD markets on the job right now is twofold. Here’s the thing you’ve got a PhD and you cannot control what is impacting you. People have a preconceived notion about hiring a PhD. They don’t want to do it. In fact, the interview that I’ve had this past week, started with me reaching out to the CEO and being like, hey, like, would you want to be on a panel about this thing that I’m doing? And his? His first response was, I’m sorry, I don’t connect with recruiters. And so my answer is no, I’m not. I’m just an unemployed academic trying to do this thing. He’s like, okay, and we ended up chatting.
We had gotten a phone call. And one of the first things he said to me was, I would never hire a PhD. I’m the CEO of an ed-tech company and here’s the thing. He’s not wrong. There are a lot of issues that come with the type of personality that gets a PhD. That’s the one thing that you’re not going to be able to control. You won’t be able to control anybody else’s perception of having a PhD at large.
The second problem is the thing that you can control and you’re probably not going to want to control is your ego, is humbling yourself down to the point where you can say, where you can’t walk into a room with those three letters PhD, and expect respect, or expect that you know what you’re talking about or that they should be like, Oh, you have a PhD? We should give you all of this responsibility. No, you cannot do that.
It is your responsibility to humble yourself and to translate your skill to your audience, a rhetorical move, understanding who your audience is, understanding their language, and understanding that you’re not the decision-maker in that process. Do not expect them to speak your language. That’s why people don’t want to hire PhDs. You should humble yourself and say, I did this thing, and look at it all like, this is how I did it. Because this is what we need to understand.
This is also a rhetorical thing, right? I’m using stasis argumentation. We need to understand that there’s a difference in value and what happens in industry versus academia. In academia, you work your ass off to get your dissertation published because that is the thing that has value in academia. It’s your publication. Where was it published? Who helped you write it? Write all of these, especially for graduate students, right? And academia does not give a shit about anything you did to get to that point. They only care about that publication which is hard to find value and self-worth in higher education because of this standard of publishing or perish.
And the market is so saturated with just people with PhDs. You need to be able to come down and say, This is what I can offer you. We have this thing like we have what’s valued? Are the publication in the industry and no one cares about your dissertation? No one cares about your publication. They don’t if you ask someone in higher ed about like, what do you think about the state of higher education, they’re like, Oh, we’re starting to see it crumble. If you have somebody outside of higher education, they’re like, we’ve seen this coming for years, I’m surprised it’s taken this long.
Because academics don’t understand the value. They don’t understand their time. What is valuable in the industry is not the publication. It’s everything you did to get there. And it’s your responsibility to translate, teach a class, learn and develop. You designed a course for your class for curriculum development. You need to understand the language that they’re using and use it to describe yourself. One of the best ways to do that is to connect with people from that industry and say, Hey, this is what I can do. What does that translate to?
Eric 46:17 Like, what does that conversation look like? You need to understand that academia will not love you back, and never will. All the effort, all that expected labor that you’re supposed to do for free,
is not valued in academia. You know where you can go to make money with those same skills in the industry. There are jobs that you can negotiate and negotiate your way into not an entry-level position but like a junior-level position, which you might need to take like, hey, like, it’s okay to take a junior-level position with a PhD.
Because what you’re doing is learning rhetoric and everything about the industry. They can’t trust you enough. There needs to be a probationary period and you need to be okay with that. You might need to even be the one to offer it. I don’t want to be so presumptuous that my PhD means unqualified for this and I want to show it to you. And let me do that. What a great way to do that in COVID times where people are thinking about hiring people for the types of positions that a PhD would want because they’re not going to be like someone who just comes in and sits at a computer did another nine to five.
That’s the horrible thing that would happen. Whereas like an opportunity that I would recognize that I can do this thing. And give me space to do that thing because they recognize that they want me to stay. Because they see that value. What can we do to give you space for these other things, so that you can stay? That’s to hear from unlike sitting on the other end of the table. As you asked this question, and I’ll tell you, like, the hardest complication that PhDs are facing is twofold. You cannot control the other one and be humble.
Natalia 48:29 This’s the fantastic answer to the question. Thank you so much for talking about this taboo, that many employers don’t want to hire PhDs because it’s so true. And actually, my impression is that there are some career gurus out there who tell PhDs that if they stick to them, then they will get these 100k jobs they want. And this is so not true. The reality is so different. I’m glad that you mentioned it because I’m on the same page and this is so hard to translate your knowledge and even persuade the employer to give you a shot and not mentioning about building opposition. I agree with everything you said. I think that being humble is the best approach. And again, it’s sometimes hard when you sit in one panel with someone who’s creating this beautiful picture that an Eldorado is waiting for you in the industry. Whereas I know from my own experience and from the experience of virtually everyone that it’s not true.
You have to build your name all over again from scratch. You’re like the freshman. You’re the beginner and no one cares about your publications. It’s so true what you’ve said. I can say for myself that my papers are so specific and so specialistic that maybe 50 people in the world can even understand the whole pipeline. In industry, nobody ever cared when I was applying what my academic achievement was. I agree.
Eric 50:31 Here’s the thing about that. You say that nobody cared about your academic achievement. And here’s what we’re saying, right? People outside of academia don’t care about the same things that I care about when I’m inside academia. People understand the inherent value of a PhD. Oftentimes, they can be intimidated by it. What does that mean? I don’t know what that is? My brother is an international business guru person. He does huge deals for three or four different continents. He said to me that I don’t understand academia, and I never will. It’s because we value the wrong achievements.
In academia, you don’t need to start over. You don’t need to be a freshman. You just need to take a minute to humble yourself and say, No, this is why I am making a lateral move. Because here’s the thing. Those 100k jobs are out there. And if you’re willing to work towards that and not come out at the gate, then you’re gonna get those jobs. One of the conversations I had with a guy that was working for Apple. He had a PhD in like, some technical thing. And they said, Hey, we want to hire for this thing. And it was just about as much as like just a little bit more than you’d be making as a graduate student, which is not a lot, right.
But then his next job that he got out of that’s now at Apple. They said, hey, now that you’ve established your value with this other 50k job, we see what you can do, and your bonus is going to be the same as that salary that you have. And we’re going to start you on six figures. Academics PhDs are fantastic employees if you place them in the right way. And if the person who has a PhD is humble enough to be learning to understand what it is that a PhD is the constant pursuit of knowledge.
You’re not done when you have a PhD, especially if you’re trying to shift into a different industry. I love what you’re saying about this achievement. But what we need to do is understand that we have incredible achievements that we have been trained to do for free. That’s academia. It’s up to us now as a product of academia to change that.
Natalia 53:25 That’s true. But I also feel that on the other hand, you have to also adapt to this new expectation that now you’re a part of the team and it’s no longer about your career. On one hand, you will not do work for free. But on the other hand, it will not just be for the sake of your CV. You have to sometime compromise on personal achievement for the sake of the achievement of the team. That’s also a trade-off that is hard for some PhDs to make. And initially, they are excited to get a well-paid position in some good IT company, let’s say. But then sometimes, you know, the frustration comes because they no longer work on their own, on their own list of achievements. I think there is no such thing as a perfect job, in fact. In every environment, you have to compromise on something.
And that’s also what I’m working on how to find a good match between you and your job because there is nothing like a perfect job that has all the qualities that you might imagine. Most people will probably put a high salary on the top but also a lot of personal freedom but also a lot of working benefits and safety and this list of requirements for a perfect job will be similar for most people. But there are also no such jobs. You always have to compromise on something. You have to know your limitations and you have to find the right match between your shortcomings and the shortcomings of the job that you’re going for. I think, if you land a job with a good salary, there’s always something that you have to compromise on, even if it’s not a monetary dimension.
Eric 55:21 We, as academics have been trained to think like that. Why should you spend 90 hours a week in the lab? Why should you spend 60 hours a week researching on top of everything else you’re doing? Because you’re passionate about it. Because it’s like, how good you’re doing. And there’s this false promise of prestige. What you’re what you are chasing, is a dream. An academic job is a dream. It’s not there. What happens when you understand that you’ve been valuing the wrong thing, and what is the compensation that you should be receiving for that value? You’re putting in all this work that you’re doing because you’re passionate about it. And that’s fulfilling. That’s part of the poll. That’s part of the rhetorical move to get people to come to graduate school to actively acknowledge the idea honestly that someone is applying to a PhD program right now. Someone is starting a PhD program right now.
Have you had an honest conversation about return on investment for your PhD? No, you don’t know how to have that conversation. I’m still trying to figure out how to have that conversation, right? Because we have been trained to value different things. If you acknowledge that you know what your job’s responsibility is. Guess what, you’ll find out that you have hobbies and that hobby includes researching. And you can do all that stuff with a nine-to-five job. You’d be getting paid a lot more. And it is fulfilling to work in a collaborative team. Because when you work in a collaborative team, and when that team is successful, you are rewarded for your success. What reward do you get other than an intrinsic good job and pat on the back for writing your paper that only 50 people in the world are going to understand. I mean, it is an issue of pride and ego. We have been trained to be prideful. We are a product of that.
And as much as we critique the product, as much as we critique institutions, we must acknowledge that we are critiquing ourselves as well. What do we need to do as we acknowledged this change in the audience is this rhetorical move. What do we need to do to convince those people that what we do have is value. That becomes our responsibility. We can’t expect the industry to do it. Otherwise, we just feed industries reasons for not hiring.
Natalia 58:22 When I was writing these papers, I felt that it was not that much about me and my desire to be recognized or famous. It was more about my internal feeling that since I’m paid from taxes I’m supposed to deliver and society waits for my results. And I felt that I don’t deliver something worth the whole value of my PhD’s four-year period and the contract was my concern. I couldn’t change it also within the project. That was frustrating for me. But I think that it’s maybe a good place to ask you the follow-up question, which is, so what is the advice you would like to give to PhDs who are now close to finishing their contracts?
Eric 59:37 My advice would be to get active on LinkedIn, and to start actively engaging as a professional on LinkedIn. Reach out to people for informational interviews, like informal interviews, be like, Hey, I see that you do business analytics, that looks kind of interesting. I feel like I have that same experience. Can we talk about it for a minute? And can you help me understand the approach from a place of learning? I mean, what we’re good at right is learning things. I would recommend that people get onto LinkedIn and start having a presence. And I love your reasoning to tell you that you share it.
I’m coming from like the American education system, you’re coming from the European education system. We talked about those differences in values. Even larger systems are valued on that idea of publication, like your research doesn’t help anybody unless it’s published. That’s an interesting conversation we can have. But I think that the concrete thing that you should do is get on LinkedIn, reach out to people and encourage your friends and students same.
Natalia 1:01:02 Fantastic. Usually, I wrap up at this point but I’m tempted to ask you an additional question, which is a little bit about your background and story. If there’s anything, when you look back at your career, that you might have done differently, if you had the chance to do it, again, something you know, from your own story that you might share with us and some insights about your talents in your career that when you look at it again, you think that you might have done certain things better for yourself.
Eric 1:01:50 When I look back at my master’s program, and my PhD program, I think I did great. I wrote my thesis and I finished it a semester before. While I was in my master’s program, every award that was available to a graduate student, every major award that was available to a graduate student I want, I applied for another one, and I got it. I did the same thing. As a PhD student, I finished my entire PhD to finish in less than three years. I received over $18,000 in funding for competitive funding.
I’ve turned that around and I created a workshop to help 24 other people get a cumulative of over $15,000 in funding. I won the Outstanding Dissertation Award. I won the Graduate Instructor of the Year award. I killed it. The thing that I wish I had done differently, is doing the thing that I just talked about which is being humble about it. I don’t know, PhD in language. But I went about it in a way that I was just confident in who I was. And I’m just like, this is what it is.
If you know, whatever, then you’re like, I don’t care. I wish I had done that differently. I think that there are lots of people I think would still want to talk to me right now from graduate school. I think I burned some bridges to some of them. I’m glad that I burned and I wish I could have done that differently. But I like that translating who you are for other people to establish a different kind of value is something that I wish I had done throughout my graduate school career. I tried to do it in a way that helped other people. I was doing something like 20 conferences. I had eight publications by the time I graduated. When I graduated in 2018, I had five job offers across continents from universities and industries. That’s what I would do differently.
Natalia 1:04:34 If I can say something here, I think that paradoxically, people who are high achievers in graduate school, sometimes have more issues with finding their first jobs. It’s hard to put a stop to loss on your achievement. Once you feel appreciated, then it’s harder to take the decision to leave. And sometimes I also find this among the people who come to me for the company or the foundation. And I can see this rule almost that people who were underdogs in their PhD, they often find themselves better jobs and then transition much faster just because they make this decision early on that they want to leave. For people like you who are high fliers, sometimes this process is much more painful. How do you feel about this?
Eric 1:05:25 I was prepared for the crappy job market. I knew it was shitty. And I did well despite graduating early. Now at this moment of being unemployed, looking at the reality of the job market and learning how to depersonalize that rejection is inevitable. It’s hard to realize that those things don’t carry the same weight. It’s hard for me that those things are no longer valued in the community that I’ve left. I have found other people outside of academia, and outside of my circles, that value the things that I have done. And that’s what LinkedIn has brought me like, I mean, the validation that I have honestly received from you as a person is that I would never have received if I had stayed in my circle and academia. I just wouldn’t. I think that the hardest thing is the loss that I feel from the community more than the achievements. This is that I had value before and now I don’t.
Natalia 1:06:57 Okay. After knowing your interpersonal skills and networking skills, I’m sure that you will find awesome jobs soon. It will be also useful to mention at this point, what types of positions would be particularly interesting for you? Because maybe someone watches this episode and has an idea or has a contract that might be useful. How do you feel about this? Would you be willing to also say something about what is your preference?
Eric 1:07:34 I mentioned the idea of being a business analyst that is like this abstract large thing and that’s specific in certain areas. I think that’d be fun to do. I enjoy leadership positions where I can have a team working together. I would rather think of big picture type things than little picture things, and have someone else who enjoys doing that.
Natalia 1:08:10 I see you as a leader as well. Let’s hope that someone has an idea watching this episode. And lastly, can I ask you, what shall we wish you for? What would you wish for the coming months and years?
Eric 1:08:33 To not be living in my parents’ basement? I have our own space which would be wonderful. I love my parents and it’s a great experience. And I’m grateful that they’re letting my family stay here. It’d be nice to have our own space here.
Natalia 1:08:47 I wish you that from the bottom of my heart. I hope that it will resolve soon. I can imagine that it’s a difficult situation. I didn’t have an easy time after my contract expires myself and I hope that you will land a cool job. I just hope that you’ll still have enough time to help PhDs. You know, do what you do now. That’s my hope. I don’t doubt in my mind that you will soon have an amazing job. Thank you so much for joining us today. Thank you for your insight. It’s very refreshing. I agree with all your points. And I think it’s very good that you mentioned some of these things because I think that some of them are like taboos that are rarely mentioned in the public space. Lastly, if you could just say some words of goodbye to our viewers, then say that.
Eric 1:09:55 Thank you, Natalia, for having me on here to the people who are watching this later. Thank you for listening and becoming part of that network and that community and I hope that you engage with it. I hope that you connect with me connect if you haven’t already. And make those connections known not only for the human network aspect of it but also to feed data algorithms like do it in a space where it can be mutually beneficial for you.
Natalia 1:10:04 Okay, fantastic. And good luck with your higher ed project. I’ll put the links to the project in the description of this episode. I hope that more people check it out. Guys, if you see this episode, please check out Eric’s project. It’s very interesting and you can join the panels and watch the panels. I think the registration is free. Please, check it out. If you have any questions, please ask and we will take all your questions. Please, connect with us. Thank you so much for watching and have a nice day.
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Bielczyk, N. (2020, October 11th). E023 How to Navigate in the Job Market as a PhD in Rhetorics? What Are the Origins of #hirehighered? Retrieved from https://ontologyofvalue.com/career-development-strategies-e023-how-to-navigate-in-the-job-market-as-a-phd-in-rhetorics-what-are-the-origins-of-hirehighered/
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