Making Your Way as a History PhD in the Think Tank World

think tank word cloud

“It’s great to see you’re doing so well and working on such important issues,” my friend Alex—co-editor of this blog—recently emailed me about the nonacademic work I’ve pursued since finishing my Ph.D. Would I write for this website about pursuing an Alt-Ac career? “Where did you look for jobs?” he asked. “How did you approach resumes/ applying/ interviewing differently than the usual academic meat market? Where did you look for advice, and what was it? And pretty much anything else you think would be useful.”

I feel somewhat oddly placed to answer these questions. I never applied for an academic job. I landed the first nonacademic position I applied for. I never put together a practice job talk or even attended the meat markets at the major conferences. I did seek advice in different quarters. This was interesting because it nudged me to find my own way.

Sharing reflections on “my own way” might be the most useful contribution I can make to the Alt-Ac conversation that is steadily gaining momentum. I do so with the strong disclaimer that the reflections offered here are in no way intended to be extrapolated to others. Unlike many, I went to graduate school without the definite ambition to become an academic; I had professional work experience prior to the Ph.D. I was able to draw on as I transitioned out; and I was fortunate to attend an elite program in a major urban center, with the access and opportunity that afforded both during my degree and to other professions and major institutions as I began the search outside. So I offer here only some reflections on my own experiences. Interpret and use as you like.

Before My Ph.D.

I’d like to offer a mini personal/professional/research biography because it mirrors work I had to do both for myself and in my job letters in order to explain my choices and conduct a successful search. I had to look back, construct a coherent narrative, and relay the relevance of all of the seemingly disparate steps I had taken to contacts and potential employers in my interviews and job letters in order to convince them to notice me.

I am an American citizen, with one American and one Irish parent, who emigrated as a child to Australia. I completed all of secondary school (years 7-12) there as well as a BA, with an additional Honours year, at the University of Melbourne. I majored in history and wrote an Honours thesis in the American Studies mode, using Bourdieu to critique how tensions around the control and transfer of cultural capital fueled American artists’ and intellectuals’ fascination with Paris in the 1920s. I used most of the rest of my class time to take language classes in French and German.

My jobs between university and the Ph.D., both in Australia and in the States, were in the field of grantmaking. I stumbled into my first foundation job. I planned to move from Melbourne to New York and needed to save money, so I answered an ad for a temporary data entry gig. I went in to interview and clicked with the Executive Director. She was a former academic in the field of Social Work. Instead of the data entry work she created a little research project for me: I was to survey nonprofits around the country and present to the Board recommendations on how they could stimulate youth volunteerism.

This seemed like remarkable work at the time. This organization had an endowment; no one had to scramble for their jobs. I could read for hours about organizations doing interesting things to better the world, and then help decide how to help them. When I moved to New York, I sought out similar work there. I eventually landed a job with one of the Rockefeller entities. That organization too was headed up by a woman with a Ph.D., this time in Literature. I enjoyed that work as well, mostly for the candid insights it offered into how power is managed, maintained, and redistributed, and how innovation is brokered through the levers of professionalized grantmaking.

I pursued this work knowing I would eventually do a Ph.D. Australian universities don’t require the well-rounded course distributions that most American colleges in the liberal arts mold at least gesture to. I felt woefully under-read. A humanities Ph.D. seemed like a privilege: to be paid to sit out of the work force to read and write for years and fill in my gaps in knowledge seemed wonderful regardless of the outcome.  Within two years of arriving in New York, I moved on to Columbia to start a Ph.D. in History. Maybe I would want to be an academic, I reasoned. If not, I had seen all of these smart and capable Ph.D.s (mostly women—who I now understand probably sought alternate routes because they lacked opportunity within the academy due to their desire to have families and geographical autonomy) either running or in the executive ranks of nonprofits. I figured I could chart a course there afterwards if needed.

During My Ph.D.

At Columbia, I concentrated in and did my history orals fields as an Americanist. As I progressed, however, I kept wanting to put the U.S. in dialogue with other nations, as I had been used to doing when I last studied history in Australia. This coincided with the transnational turn within the discipline. I ended up working with dual advisors, an Americanist and a British historian, to write a history of PEN International. PEN is the writers’ organization founded in the wake of the Great War to make the romantic case that writers are transcendent artists who could and should function as veritable diplomats to save the world from the ravages of another monumental tragedy.   We all know the fate of that progressive idealism—and in the post-‘45 period PEN instead adapted itself to emerging discourses of human rights, and now functions as a sort of Amnesty International for writers.

I approached this research both with my grantmakers hat on (how was PEN funded, who tried to control it, and thereby access the levers of cultural power?) and with the cross-cultural curiosity that had long shaped my life (what counted as “literary” writing, and therefore “art,” in the American vs. French vs. British traditions? In which language did exiled writers choose to write, and how did this shape their identities, national loyalties, and political activism?) DAAD, Mellon, and a variety of other funders helped me spend two years in the UK and Europe doing research. While there, I used my Irish passport and EU working rights to pick up bar work and other temporary gigs when the grant money couldn’t cover my bases. I had been used to doing this through grad school. I worked as a tour guide for Big Onion Walking Tours from my second year onwards to supplement my income, and so was long used to doing both academic and nonacademic work at the same time.

I enjoyed the time living overseas again.   I spent my spare time doing things like volunteering for the U.S. Embassy in Berlin to give free American history talks to school students around Brandenburg. I increasingly formed a sense that I would prefer to be back out in the field, working to make connections in the world, rather than stay in the archives.

As I finished my Ph.D., I reflected on my both my work and life experiences to make a decision about where to go next. I looked for parallels between the kinds of settings I had sought out professionally and personally, as well as the type of intellectual questions I had posed in my research and had pursued through all of the different work experiences I’d had. I decided to seek out work in international affairs, using the tools of either grantmaking or cultural diplomacy (or both).

What I Do Now

I am now a Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund (GMF) in Washington, DC. GMF is a hybrid think tank/leadership development/grantmaking organization with a mission to promote and strengthen transatlantic relations.  It is headquartered in DC, with seven offices in Europe. I work on the international fellowship programs, notably the Marshall Memorial Fellowship. GMF programs are designed to take leaders from either the U.S. or Europe across the Atlantic to introduce them to the history, culture, political systems, and major policy questions facing other countries, and to prepare them to assume major leadership positions, linking their professions and countries to international agendas.

At GMF I have played a variety of roles. I have run selection for the fellowship programs, which involves flying to different cities around the transatlantic community to interview candidates. Within the programs themselves I use my academic training. I give the fellows talks on American and European history, helping them to contextualize the customs and debates they will encounter. I also provide them reading and research recommendations to prepare them for immersion, and conduct moderated briefings on different policy topics. As a Fellow I have been growing the department’s body of analytical work, helping position our decades-old fellowship programs and expertise within the field of leadership development, which has burgeoned out from business schools to impact most organizational settings. We have written short-form analytical pieces and longer comparative policy papers, while consulting for other NGOs developing similar programs.

My capacity to do this work stems both from my academic training and from the time I spent before grad school in nonprofit/foundation settings—both of which have built on the comfort I’ve long had moving between countries and cultures. Personal, professional, and research questions have been intertwined at each stage of my career, and being aware of these connections helped me make sense of where to go next.

How I Moved from Ph.D. to Think Tank

I began at GMF as an ACLS Public Fellow, in the second cohort of that program, and was placed at GMF as a Program Officer. After my two-year placement, I came on as a permanent staff member at GMF and was promoted to the position of Transatlantic Fellow.

I began planning my post-academic shift a few months after finishing my Ph.D.   I had been fortunate enough to land a two year postdoc, which I had applied for in the final year of my Ph.D. to ensure I had time and safe haven of an income to scout options. I began my job search by visiting the careers office on campus. An adviser there met with me and critiqued the two-page resume I had boiled down from my seven-page CV. He told me that the vast majority of jobs today are gained not through replying to job ads, but through informal networking. He suggested I conduct informational interviews with anyone I knew in fields I was interested in, and afterwards to ask them for further introductions. He advised me to maintain all of those relationships, and said that within a few months people would probably remember me and forward calls for jobs when they crossed their desks. It took most people at least four-to-eight months to land a job this way, he told me. As a first time Ph.D., he suggested I plan for longer, about six months to a year.

From there, I reached out to trusted mentors or former colleagues for introductions. I arranged informational interviews with my old contacts in the foundation world, and asked advice of the powerful women Ph.D.s running organizations I had known from before, who were generous enough to sit down with me for lunch.

The most helpful information I gathered was never to ask for a job or appear to be a job seeker. Connect with professionals as a fellow professional, I was instructed: Email them about your work or research, point out some connections between your work and theirs, and ask if they would be willing to meet to talk about mutually beneficial ways to explore those connections. Then, if all goes well, in your thank you email, or some weeks down the line, mention that you are on the market and would appreciate being forwarded any leads they come across. I began to conduct as many informational interviews as I could.

At this point I also approached my academic mentors and asked them for help. They all told me they had no real advice to offer if I was planning a nonacademic route, as unfortunately they had no direct experience themselves. In most instances I was able to point out that they did in fact have important ties —two had cultivated relationships with funders for special projects they had started, one worked with a museum—and asked if they would be willing to make introductions. They gladly did so. I enjoyed more interesting informational interviews. I did this while keeping my eyes on jobs on and other sites—not to apply for jobs cold turkey, but to scan for any organizations where I had begun to cultivate relationships, so that I could then reach out through those channels and then apply.

At the same time, I became aware of the new ACLS Mellon Public Fellows program, and planned to apply for one of the positions in the next round. The Public Fellows position at GMF was the first position I formally applied for. I wrote a job letter, which I took back to the adviser at the careers office for a careful critique and edit. He corrected areas where I had inadvertently skirted or overlooked discussing the hard skills (like curriculum design and program management) they included in the job card, because I was so focused above all (due to my long immersion in academia) in making the intellectual connections between my prior work and research experiences to GMF’s mission and fellowship programs. After submitting the letter, I received several interviews. I conducted these with ease, probably because I had gotten into the mode from conducting so many informational interviews, and soon learned I had won the position.

What’s Next

Writing this, it sounds as if I had an easy time deciding what to do after the Ph.D. and getting someone to pay me for it. While in some senses this is true, I also found the transition out of academia jarring. I wrote a piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education about six months into my ACLS placement as a means of processing the transition. Since I wrote that piece, I’ve been asked to speak numerous times both within and outside the academy about Alt-Ac careers. Most people I’ve encountered during these panel discussions or conversations who have made similar moves seem to have experienced a similar culture shock to some degree.

I also don’t want to give the impression that I’ve found the perfect niche (“and so can you!”). I enjoy the work at GMF, most of it much more than I enjoyed the academy. In addition to enjoying the work, I love feeling like I’m part of a wider team or movement pushing to achieve tangible change in the world, which is not as anxious, striving, and self-serious as academic circles often seemed to be. And I welcome the increased work/life balance. I leave my work in the office and turn my Blackberry off on the weekend (though many others in similar jobs in DC certainly don’t do this, and live with their work the way most academics do). I again read the newspapers, magazines, and literature as voraciously as I did before the Ph.D., when my precious little free time went to non-wordy pursuits like watching TV.

Yet I’ve also found that instead of a very linear career path laid out ahead of me with very distinct metrics to meet at each stage, the onus is on now me to reflect regularly on where I want to go next, and to create new opportunities and challenges both within my job and outside. And so my career, like the vast majority of people outside the academy, continues to grow and evolve. I will soon be moving in directions that I never would have anticipated when I left the academy three years ago—and have surprised myself with how much I have come to enjoy this kind of flexibility and freedom to make it up as I move along.

Megan Doherty is a transatlantic fellow with the German Marshall Fund in Washington, DC, where she focuses on issues related to leadership development such as next generation access and equity, public diplomacy, and diversity and inclusion across the transatlantic space. She has written articles for several academic journals, mainstream outlets such as the Huffington Post and the Chronicle of Higher Education, and as a blogger for various outlets. Doherty holds a Ph.D. from Columbia University and a BA (Hons.) from the University of Melbourne, Australia.