I Have a PhD in History. How Can I Survive in the Private Sector?

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Depending on your background and experience, the transition from academia to the private business world can be frustrating. However, with the proper navigation tools, the academic-turned-aspiring business professional can net a fulfilling career in the private sector. In May 2014, I traded a career of lectures, grading, and archival research for one replete with finance acronyms, investor meetings, and business models. Yes, I made the drastic transition from history professor to partner in a start-up real estate company that utilizes technology to interconnect people, business, and natural resources. Although admittedly still a neophyte in business, I sincerely hope to provide insightful advice and suggestions – and maybe some inspiration – for anyone in academia targeting a career in the private sector.

Find that One Person in Your Personal Network

Networking is critical to finding and securing a business job. One cannot assume that the possession of a doctorate, or a novel-length CV, negates the need to expand your network of contacts. When attempting the transition to the private sector/business world, you must find that one person, sometimes the boss of a friend of a friend of a friend, who will either offer you a job on the spot (yes, this does happen), or connect you with the “right people” in company A or B. I know what you are thinking: “I only know academics in liberal arts. I do not know anyone well-connected in the business world.” Although you may not know it yet, there are several people in your personal network who can help you find a job. You just have to work hard – network, introduce yourself, set-up coffee/lunch meetings, and ask for advice and suggestions. Most importantly, always ask your contact if he or she will recommend three other people who would be willing to discuss these same matters.

After countless coffee meetings and lunches, my network ultimately introduced me to that “one person” – the founder of a nationally recognized accounting firm based here in Fort Worth. This individual, who happens to love history as well, agreed to meet me for lunch, which resulted in an introduction to the CEO of the company (4D Circle) that now calls me “partner.”

The process from leaving academia to landing my position lasted approximately 3 weeks. My decision to leave academia was one of the hardest decisions of my life. Moreover, it was difficult to imagine a business career that would openly embrace my past work in history – the graduate school seminars, the dissection of a million books, preparing for and taking comps, writing a dissertation, working tirelessly to publish, applying for jobs, teaching, grading, etc. Yet if you can find the right company, you never have to put your years of hard work in the rear-view mirror. I had the great fortune of landing with a start-up company (4D Circle) that harbors a culture of leadership – not management – and values the input, experience, and skills of multiple disciplines, including history. Our leadership has molded a culture of people from different backgrounds and experiences. Our leadership’s cultivation of diversity underscores the team’s ability to conceptualize and execute ideas unlike any other real estate investment company. I use my history-based knowledge and skills when creating new strategic initiatives for our company.

Find a Start-Up Company

As PhDs, we create from scratch; we strive to gain new or build upon existing skill-sets; and of course we analyze – or overanalyze – every fine detail.  Overall, we are constantly devising and implementing new deliverables (a popular term in business) for our audiences. Start-up companies provide academics with a pristine opportunity to utilize their specific skills to help create the business model. If you network effectively, people rather than job search websites will lead you to brilliant start-up companies that will value your background and potentially give you some control of the reigns of business creation.

Many people confine their search for business jobs to large, established corporations. This makes complete sense on the surface. These gigantic, powerful entities provide a sense of job security (most of the time), benefits, and a formal structure and process within a successful, proven business model. As a new employee in many of these companies, you integrate rather neatly into a traditional linear business process. For many job seekers, minding the status quo of traditional business culture is simply too comforting to ignore. I do not want to give the impression that you should turn down a job offer from a large corporation. Rather, I hope you realize that start-up companies open so many doors of intellectual growth that the corporate world too often has already closed before your arrival.

To be frank – and obvious – start-up companies are very risky. The vast majority of start-up companies do not survive. However, you must take great risk to receive a great reward. 4D Circle has changed my life for the better. I have been introduced to new groundbreaking concepts and ideas, and in the process have found an intellectual home grounded in a start-up culture of disciplinary diversity. The thought of sitting behind a desk performing the same daily functions was far from appealing to me. At 4D Circle, we don’t “go to work” because we don’t have an office. Moreover, I do something different not every day, but every hour. A friend recently asked me what a typical day is like in my new career. My response: “typical days do not exist.” For example, last week, one of my days looked like this: AM meeting on further optimizing the performance of the business model, lunch with a local CEO, pitched our company to a potential investor, refined our Linked Value delivery system for tenants, and helped to create a new metrics system that monetizes social value.

Final Thoughts

I have befriended several business professionals in DFW who fairly recently claimed the title of history professor. One of them started a wealth management company in Dallas. Another holds a prominent sales position for a business analytics company in Fort Worth. I write this not with the intention of convincing anyone to abandon academia. Rather, I want readers to know that other options are available. If you are one of the many who could not find a job in academia, you are not a failure. If you are dissatisfied working in one of the far too many ridiculously low-paying temporary faculty jobs, start networking yesterday.   All of that work you did before and after receiving your degree can be utilized in the business world – you just have to work hard to find the right fit.

I would be more than happy to answer any specific questions you might have about finding a business job. I can only supply you with my own experiences – as outlined above – but hopefully it will help. If you would like to discuss this, please connect with me on LinkedIn and then send me a direct message.

Other Important Notes 

– Create and/or build a LinkedIn profile and build your network of connections online. Business recruiters use this extensively.

– Attend local networking groups.

– The vast majority of businesspeople do not wear hoodies like Mark Zuckerberg.

– Businesses do not care that your CV spans 10 pages.

– Turn your CV into a one-page resume.

– Start-up companies exist outside of Silicon Valley.

– The HBO show Silicon Valley is often very accurate in its portrayal of start-up culture.

– If you are ever confronted with a finance inquiry, just say “10%” and you are probably correct.

– The business application and interview process does not last 6 months. It often lasts less than 3 weeks.

– If you are currently working at a college or university, the institution’s business school more than likely has a job search program. If not, reach out to your alma maters. There are many alumni networking groups that assist job seekers.

– If you find work in a start-up company, very few people will understand your work schedule.

John Southard is a partner and the Director of Strategic Initiatives at 4D Circle, a commercial real estate investment company based in Fort Worth, TX.  Before entering the private sector, he taught at Texas Tech University, where he earned his PhD in 2011, and Georgia State University. He is the author of the book Defend and Befriend: The U.S. Marine Corps and Combined Action Platoons in Vietnam (University Press of Kentucky, 2014).