Paul Hartley, Senior Anthropologist and Head of Human Futures at Idea Couture, a design consultancy firm, on what makes a great alt-ac PhD applicant.
I work for a global strategic innovation and experience design company called Idea Couture as an anthropologist and as co-head of research with two other PhD anthropologists. Over the past few years, we have worked with our chief resident anthropologist to build a practice that currently employs 14 social science researchers, all with advanced degrees. Our company is constantly growing and we are always looking to find PhD anthropologists, sociologists, and other social scientists to add to the team. Consequently, we have found ourselves being post-ac/alt-acs who are hiring other post-ac/alt-acs. This is a fascinating position to be in because it essentially requires us to be arbiters of what makes for a good alt-ac application. It also means we have had to become very deliberate about what skills we are looking for when we meet with applicants and hire alt-ac PhDs.
Because our work is very close to that of an academic researcher, we do not have to worry about trying to interpret post-ac C.V.s to find applicable skills. We are able to assume that the successful completion of a PhD in an interesting topic means that this person is a capable researcher. In this way, the first phase of our review process is much the same as any academic or non-academic search. The degree itself and its accompanying years of long-term fieldwork experience are “table stakes,” an understood prerequisite for an interview. Direct industry experience is not really necessary because we are not a market research firm as such, and do not conduct human-centered research in the way other companies may do. (It does not hurt, however.)
However, once we have identified interesting people it becomes much more difficult. First of all, it is not a certainty that someone with a social science PhD is going to be able to do the kind of ethnographic research we do. We use the interview process to assess a person’s ability to be flexible, thoughtful, and manage themselves in a research environment where speed and clarity are fundamental. We look for people who are able to see through the quirks of academic scholarship, discourse, and writing and to be able to conduct applied research with an ever-changing audience in mind. Here we look for a healthy scepticism, a clear analytical mind, and an ability to deconstruct their own work. The ability to write well in several genres and voices is also an essential quality. We always assign a writing task to see how well someone can manage a typical interview and construct an insightful analysis.
What has struck me as surprising is the fact that a successful application depends on intangible qualities more than I ever imagined. Moreover, the fact that we have to look for a cultural fit completely undoes any veneer of this being an entirely meritocratic process. Everyone who advances to the face-to-face interview is clearly a capable researcher. But we have to select the right person for our practice and our company. We want to have someone who is like-minded, will be happy with the way we do things, and is someone that our team will enjoy spending time with. I cannot imagine that this is any different anywhere else. You cannot force a culture fit, and we have to often make tough choices when looking for the right applicant for us.
From our perspective what matters most is enthusiasm and a willingness to have a conversation about what working for us might look like. Every candidate is different and it often feels a bit like speed dating, but what usually turns our heads is someone who is interviewing us too. A job search is really more about finding the right fit, and this should always go both ways.
Finally, it is interesting how many post-ac/alt-ac job seekers I talk to have struggled just getting the courage up to inquire about the job. The willingness to try may be the single most important characteristic of a successful post-ac/alt-ac job search.