Alt-ac Advisor

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Explaining Your PhD

Interview Questions Only PhDs Get Asked, #3

Your reply should go beyond the basic because-that’s-what-interested-me-most answer.

This question is less of a potential minefield than some other interview questions only PhDs get asked, since employers generally only ask out of personal interest or if the subject of the dissertation is relevant to the nonacademic job at hand. Still, don't brush off this question. Instead, explain how you felt that previous research on your topic was insufficient and that you embarked on your project to help scholars better understand it. Doing so will paint you as a problem solver—someone who can identify and fill a need that others might be unaware of—which is one of the most valuable traits that employers seek.

If applicable, also describe how your research methodologies will potentially help other scholars in your subfield or academic discipline. In so doing, you’ll show potential employers that you have the ability to add value by pushing the collective needle beyond the status quo—an even more desirable trait in any job market.

Example Answer #1: I conducted research on Native Americans in the 18th-century Southwest not only out of personal interest—I grew up in Santa Fe—but also because it’s still one of the most under-studied regions and periods in American history. There’s still so much we don’t know. I chose to study Navajo and European understandings of disease in particular because I believed that by doing so, we could better understand how ideas related to health shaped experiences of colonialism in the region. While my research explored perceptions of health in one place and period, the way I was able to reconstruct Navajo ideas on disease and medicine has the potential to help historians do the same for colonized peoples in other places and periods who left few written records.

If your dissertation is in any way related to the alt-ac job you’re considering, make that connection explicit in your answer as well. If, for example, the applicant in the example above were applying for a position in a health-related field, she could conclude her explanation by saying, My research also got me interested in the ways in which people today time think about health and medicine, which is what led me to apply for this position.

Your reply should go beyond the basic because-that’s-what-interested-me-most answer. This question is less of a potential minefield than some other interview questions only PhDs get asked, since employers generally only ask out of personal interest or if the subject of the… Continue Reading →

Interview Questions Only PhDs Get Asked, #2

If your interviewer is persistent in diving deeper into your reasons for not pursuing an academic career, confront the question head-on in a positive manner. Don’t try to duck the question, since any evasiveness on your part will raise red flags and suggest to the interviewer that you really would rather be interviewing for an academic job instead of the position at hand. It’s especially important that your answer also convey your own agency in your decision not to become an academic, because no employer wants to hear that they’re your second choice.

If you knew prior to the interview that academia wasn’t really right for you, then say so, and explain why the nonacademic job you’re applying to feels like a much better fit. If, however, you’re interviewing for a nonacademic job because you didn’t fare so well on the academic market, then keep your answer focused on your interests rather than any particular career aspirations.

Example Answer #1: I knew pretty early on in grad school that academia wasn’t the right fit for me. While I enjoyed the research I was doing, I came to realize that I also wanted to be a practitioner in the field—to actually work with the immigrant communities I was studying instead of just writing about them. Of course, I would have been able to do both as an academic, but, personally, my interest lies significantly more in the practicing rather than the researching. That’s why I’ve applied for this position.

Example Answer #2: While I considered academia as a possible career path, my primary interest has always been in pursuing opportunities that would allow me to develop and apply my expertise in immigration, wherever those may be. That’s why I was so drawn to this organization, a place where I can apply my prior knowledge and experience and, at the same time, continue to grow.

If your interviewer is persistent in diving deeper into your reasons for not pursuing an academic career, confront the question head-on in a positive manner. Don’t try to duck the question, since any evasiveness on your part will raise red… Continue Reading →

Interview Questions Only PhDs Get Asked, #1

A PhD will bring you a lot of credibility in the nonacademic world. It can also raise a lot of questions, which is why you'll need to be ready to explain your PhD come interview time. This is the first in a series of posts designed to help you prepare for these challenging questions.

Why did you do a PhD? This will likely be the first PhD-related question your potential nonacademic employers will have when they sit down with you for the first time. Many interviewers will ask you this question out of genuine interest, wondering why a person would devote 5+ years of her or his life to studying. Wasn’t college enough? And why a PhD instead of a master’s? Some interviewers will also be interested to learn why you chose one discipline over another, say sociology instead of political science or anthropology instead of history. The underlying question will also often be Why aren’t you pursuing an academic career?

It’s important to keep your answer focused, positive, and truthful. Instead of explaining how you enrolled in your program with the intention of becoming a professor, talk briefly about your love for your field of study and your desire to become a content expert. Then shift gears and talk about how you knew early on that pursuing a PhD would allow you to acquire high-level analytical skills that could be applied in a variety of ways, in or out of academia. If it’s true that you were never fully wedded to the idea of becoming a professor, then say that too.

Example Answer

I chose to pursue a PhD in English out of sheer love for the subject, especially for medieval literature. Not many people have the opportunity to pursue a passion in this way, and doing so was something that I believed would be both personally fulfilling and valuable for my professional life. I initially applied to programs unsure whether or not I would become a professor, but I did know that any of the top programs would provide some of the best possible training in research, writing, and critical thinking—valuable skills that would benefit me regardless of the career path I ultimately chose.  

This answer is effective for two reasons: it’s honest in its expression of love for the field of study and it emphasizes the way in which the PhD program trained the applicant in the necessary skill sets to excel in the real world. You will score even more points if you can link the skills you acquired in your PhD program to more specific skills you know the employer seeks, instead of the more generic (but still important) “research, writing, and critical thinking skills.” Also, if it so happens that your academic discipline is directly related to the industry or field that you’re exploring, feel free to elaborate a bit more on those connections.

A PhD will bring you a lot of credibility in the nonacademic world. It can also raise a lot of questions, which is why you’ll need to be ready to explain your PhD come interview time. This is the first in a… Continue Reading →

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