Like little stars.
Since September I have spent one afternoon a week in a classroom with
13 other graduate students. But we don’t talk about semiotics or Chaucer
or the Mexican Revolution or motivation theory or any of the
myriad other arcane topics that have filled our heads since our academic
careers began. Instead, we talk about leveraging opportunities, meeting new
challenges and assessing risk.
Welcome to the new world of graduate career development.
The course, designed by JoyLynn Reed, a perky Ph.D. who also works as a
consultant, offers a potent cocktail of remedial business education, guest
lectures, interview assignments and pitch practices. The class is part of
the innovative Graduate Professional Development Program at the
University of Texas, which has begun to garner attention from educational
and administrators across the country because it’s the first program
intended to help young scholars
sell their skills outside of the university. Other courses include grant
writing, professional communication and advanced teaching methods.
Though we come from diverse departments, we’re all bored with our
disciplinary monocultures. We’re also aware that Austin, our high-tech city,
booms around us while we scrimp, save and give away our specialized
generation ago, graduate students who shared discontents would have formed
solidarity committees and conspired in pseudo-revolutionary plots. In 1999,
the response is different: We’re striking out individually to grab our
American capitalist pie.
Nowadays many graduate students take for granted that
planning life beyond graduation means empowering your entrepreneurial
self. Some, like me, are writing dissertations; most of us will
be on the
job market within the year. But the question is, which job market? Sure, the
academic job market sucks, but other sectors value Ph.D. skills, too.
Unfortunately, “professional development” in
the traditional sense — lab time, library time, papers, conferences,
attempts to publish — presumes you
want nothing but a job in academia. It also perpetuates the notion that a job
in government or business is “alternative,” an accidental substitute for the
professorship you desired most of all.
Our first speaker is Chad, a strategic consultant with Boston Consulting Group who takes the stage and begins talking about cookies. To a roomful of
B-school undergrads, he’s just another trim, confident young guy in khakis and
polo shirt, but to a roomful of graduate students peering beyond the walls of
academia, Chad is Marco Polo, full of tales about exotic lands and
riches. His talk is particularly grabbing because he has a Ph.D. in math and left academics when he realized “I didn’t want
to spend the rest of my life working on my small set of abstruse math
problems.” Nevertheless, these analytical skills, honed by years of
problems sets and conference papers, were immediately applicable at BCG
where, among other tasks, he helped Nabisco executives set the price of
Chips Ahoy cookies. For a moment the ivory tower shadow of incredulity and
snobbery overwhelms me. This guy thinks about cookies all day! He rattles
on about how his job offers “challenge and variety.” But I remain
unconvinced; we believe
in teaching, research and Ideas.
Then he mentions that a Ph.D.’s first-year salary at BCG can top $100,000.
The class goes silent. Do we believe in public service?
Ideas? Anyone? I look around the room, where my classmates are slapping
foreheads and rubbing their lips with the backs of their hands. One woman
places her head on her desk. For the next week I entertain the idea of
to Dallas, buying a cell phone and never
writing another word on my dissertation.
This must be what it feels like to arrive in America.
For the next few weeks, my classmates and I are giddily commercial. All our
questions revolve around money: Will you charge for your service? How
Per hour or by the job? Should you accept stock options as compensation?
Later in the semester we learn about ethics, conflict resolution and
management strategy, some of which pose as poetry. Herb Rubenstein,
president of Growth Strategies Inc. in Washington, flies down to teach us
everything he knows about strategic consulting (and to plug his book,
“We don’t solve problems,” he says, looking someone straight in the eye,
“we create the future.” I scribble madly as he speaks, trying to remember
what he’s just said and realizing that his phrases and sentences are
evaporating from my mind like cotton candy in a rainstorm. Vapidly profound
profoundly vapid, such maxims operate as the motivational brain candy of the
When such high-powered consultants visit, the class becomes a sort of
contact zone where academics and business types meet and mingle. A good
humanist, I had a notion that business people seek profit instinctively,
like a paramecium goes to the light, but I learn that business is also an
practice in the way it minimizes liabilities. Not many good humanists will
admit this, but at that moment I feel a rapport with business
Eventually Reed punctures our fantasies with a simple expense list: Taxes,
liability insurance, computer resources, phone lines and letterhead.
cards, she points out, are going to cost so much money that we’ll have to
gross three times what we want to net. “Our image of consultants is that they go
fishing or golfing,” she says. “In fact,
run-of-the-mill consultant isn’t doing those things. They’re working.”
The room becomes visibly deflated.
Still, we’ve already begun to put price tags on our know-how,
to discover that our knowledge is valuable, and suddenly aware that its
be maximized in order to survive.
Clearly, this is a good thing, because academics are undervalued. Often
we’re expected to give away our knowledge rather than sell it. An English
professor told me he regularly receives calls from lawyers for free
grammar advice, but he’d never call a lawyer for free legal
Can this attitude compensate for how much academics hurt their own cause by
undervaluing themselves? As
notoriously short-sighted Texas Legislature showed in 1997, such
isolationism has serious consequences. On top of slim appropriations,
state-supported universities in Texas now operate under two additional
One 1997 law mandates reviews for tenured professors, while another caps the
number of doctoral hours a student can take. If academics don’t define the
ways in which they’re accountable, the agents of the public will do it for
Although Reed’s syllabus, even the whole program, may attempt to turn
graduate students into flexible tools of capital, many of my classmates
do nonprofit consulting. As it turns out, improving corporate profits isn’t
next logical destination for academic expertise. Howard wants to consult
water resource nonprofits and Larry wants to improve hiring and retention
practices at a Catholic nursing home. As I listen to students rehearse
pitches, I realize that the class puts us in touch with why we chose
school in the first place: because we love ideas, we love to learn, analyze
synthesize and because we’re not risk-takers by nature.
So the semester’s over. What did I learn?
Always ask for the top money; don’t deliberately undervalue yourself. (This
already come in handy. Recently asked to work as a writing coach, I was
initially shy to request the hourly rate I deserved. Screw that, I thought,
upped the rate. My client agreed without blinking.)
Act like modern corporations — outsource. Learn how to pimp. You can
multiply the number of hours you’re making money if you farm out jobs
and skim money from the top.
Stop giving information away. If there’s going to be a quid pro quo, ask up
front. When you make a pitch, never give away all your stuff. For
instance, tell them you have a dozen strategies but detail only one.
Students are still powerful. It is possible to call up nearly anyone and
information from him or her, if you say you’re a student.
Most of all, I learned that you can make consulting work an engine of social
change, not solely an opportunity for self-advancement. Yes, anyone can
him- or herself an expert; go get yourself a Power Point presentation and a
business card and you too can be a consultant. For graduate students,
consulting might be the ticket to an intellectual career beyond the
vaunted halls. I’ve always known that such a career would be desirable;
Reed’s class showed me how it was possible.
I’d love to tell you more about how to leverage the lifestyle of an
entrepreneur (TM), but as we say in the biz, let’s talk first about my fee.
Michael Erard is a graduate student in English at the University of Texas, Austin.More Michael Erard.
Like little stars.
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