Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Latin PhD to High-Tech Career

We hear stories of people who found success by following their passions. But what if your passion is in a non-commercial field such as... Latin? In the following interview, Jed explains how he pursued his passion for Latin and landed his current job in high-tech.

Susan: I understand that you got your degree in Latin. Did you chose that major with a career in mind that was related to Latin?

Jed: BA in classics (Greek/Latin), and then MA and PhD in Latin. So yes, it's a bit of a swerve. When I started college, I took some computer science courses that I greatly enjoyed, and I also took Homer. When it came to choosing between debugging code for 12 hours a day under fluorescent lights vs. reading Homer with my feet up on the fender, so to speak, I decided on the latter. What followed was 12 years of focus on Greek and Latin, with a passion for linguistics (particularly metrics and pragmatics), and a love of being in the classroom. When I went to graduate school, I didn't have the sense that I was going for a career in research/teaching ancient languages; but I did have that sense after I got my Master's.

Susan: After you graduated, did you try to get a job in a field that was related to your degree?

Jed: Since I went straight to grad school after college, I didn't really interact with the job market outside of my university until I was working on my dissertation. I taught quite a bit as a grad student, and there's a certain amount of competition there, but it's not the same.

Susan: When you applied for the technical job you now hold, how did you list your degree on your resume? Did you try to make your degree relevant to your job objective, or did you lean solely on non-academic experience to support your application?

Jed: I applied and was accepted to be a Technical Assistant at a company that provides visual effects for the entertainment industry (we'll call it ABC), while finishing my dissertation. During the first three months on the job here, I spent my nights editing and tweaking. So I managed to file for my dissertation while ramping up at a job in a completely different career. When I applied at ABC, I was frank about my experience (near zero) and my educational background (almost completely inappropriate). My only hope was, as you said, pointing to my non-academic experience, to which I had devoted a fair bit of my time -- writing collaborative textbook software, educational software for the blind, my own research tools for searching the corpus of Greek and Latin texts on digital media, etc.

Susan: What advice do you have for job seekers with degrees that are unrelated to their job search?

Jed: I think in retrospect one thing I did right was to be frank and open about why I changed my mind about the career I wanted to follow. Now, when I interview job applicants for openings at ABC, I look for the story that comes out of the resume (and better, the cover letter, if they've written one), explaining the course of the applicant's interests and how he or she approaches new problems.

If people have been sincere about their passions, and done things that they like, I'm interested and I want to know more. What I don't want is for us to bring people in who just do things because they think they will look good on their resumes. That makes me feel like our company might just be a resume builder as well!

I want someone who is smart, intellectually flexible, able to learn new things on his or her feet quickly, good at working with people, articulate, and passionate. People with non-computer science backgrounds are shy about applying here, and strong computer science is certainly important; but by the same token, there are people with a formidable checklist of computer science credentials that I think are completely unhirable because they lack the broader qualities that we need in the talent we want to work with.

Also, if you're interested in working somewhere, and you don't think the published job description lines up perfectly with your skills or experience because they're asking for N years of something and you have N-2 or whatever, apply anyway. Do this for three reasons:

  1. You want to work there, so apply!

  2. I know from first-hand experience how hard it is for an employer to craft a job listing that will draw the perfect applicant. The listings are a clear but general picture, and they rarely describe the best applicant perfectly. That's because the best applicant brings to the table his or her own best qualities and these may ultimately outweigh any deficiencies. In particular, if an employer asks for "Quality X or Equivalent," this opens the door wide for you to define "equivalent."

  3. Even if you're not quite right for the listed job, a recruiter might see a good fit somewhere else in the organization, perhaps for a job that hasn't even been listed yet.

I'm not saying apply for things you are clearly unqualified for - that's annoying, and nobody likes to have their time wasted - but do apply for things you want to do and think you could be good at, and look forward to the chance to make your case in an interview.

Thank you very much for your insight, Jed. I wish you much success in your career! -- Susan

1 comment:

poppy said...

It's a great interview. Thanks.