Four steps to succeeding outside the ivory tower

Escaping the crumbling tower: A former academic offers lessons in joining the real world


Jennifer Stone Gonzalez
March 29, 1999 6:26PM (UTC)

The ivory tower is crumbling. The shortage of tenure-track jobs (once thought temporary) now stretches into the future. Morale, according to recent studies, is plummeting among those who do have jobs. And an army of underpaid, overworked adjunct professors is giving a forlorn new definition to the term "the life of the mind." Yet peer pressure not to leave the academy remains intense. For the young scholar, leaving is almost always taken as a sign of some sort of personal failure. The best and brightest stay, goes the prevailing wisdom, others wash out.
Having left five years ago, I no longer believe that generalization to be at all useful -- or true. There are very good reasons to leave, and mine were compelling. The toughest questions I faced, outside the academy, were what my Ph.D. and all my academic experience counted for. Would all those years of reading tomes with tiny print, teaching students to construct a thesis and all that academic ass-kissing count for anything in the "real world" of business?

At first, having a doctorate proved to be an albatross. Out on the streets, my new one-page risumi in hand, I appeared to be overqualified for every job possibly open to me. I looked where I thought my skills in analysis and critical thinking might be put to good use -- in marketing, public relations, government, public policy, print journalism, cable television and corporate communications. Potential employers couldn't see how my academic expertise transferred to the "real world." It didn't help that I carried around a vague sense of guilt about somehow disappointing my graduate school mentors, people who, in fact, had neither the connections nor the desire to help me find employment in the non-academic world.

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In the business world, you succeed through networking, since the most important information flows through people, not texts. Having hung around almost exclusively with other academics for a decade, I had to create a non-academic network from scratch. After many phone calls and informational interviews, I eventually met an executive in a telecommunications company who offered me an internship, which seemed to be the best place for a person with a humanities Ph.D., but very limited "real world" experience.

Happily, the corporate internship turned into a full-time position in a fast-growing technology-related area, which turned into an opportunity to write a technology and business book. My path through corporate America has allowed me to create a fluid, unique career of my own design. Paradoxically, the more I succeeded "out there," the more value my Ph.D. seemed to take on in the eyes of other people.

To do well, I had to put my Ph.D. and all its attendant ideology aside. Gradually, I figured out how to communicate with new co-workers, and let them see my skills on their terms. My corporate colleagues liked having me on projects because I could help "drive to the goal line." I was "problem-solution oriented," "audience-centered" and "customer-focused." For them, my extensive reading of critical theory and cultural studies was irrelevant. Everything I had done to pay my dues in graduate school appeared unnecessary and insignificant -- except for one crucial fact: I had spent several years thinking hard, exercising my mind into a taut little muscle.

But don't be deceived. For all intents and purposes you have to start again, learning an entirely new language and set of rules. Rule one is to avoid being perceived as "too academic." The quiet reserve, polite phrasings and contemplative stance cultivated in the academic world are, in the business world, signs of indecision and lack of interest. The norms in the business world are gregariousness, assertiveness, talkativeness, engagement. My first project leader saw my hesitation and told me, "Go ahead. Get into the fray!" It was ironic. In graduate school, a junior faculty member who had wanted to put me in my place publicly criticized me for doing exactly that. Two weeks into my internship, I had to reverse once more.

Rule two: Remember that in the business world, people who are successful have learned how to sell, persuade, sell and persuade endlessly. You have to quickly anticipate resistance and to actively campaign for your ideas. Though at times I longed to do so, I could not retreat to the sanctity of an office, write papers and submit a stack to the next conference. Nor could I speak to a group -- as I once did to my students and my professors did to me -- as if I possessed superior intellectual acumen and authority. People in business practice a mode of communication that is actually much more diplomatic, democratic and dialectical than what is generally practiced in the academic world. And I must confess, doing it well is very hard work.

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My former dissertation advisor had warned me that by taking a corporate job, I was not only leaving the world of ideas, I was going into "an intellectual desert filled with morally inferior, greedy buffoons." OK, so he is naturally prone to grandiloquence. Yet virtually everything in my doctoral program had prepared me to believe that this would be true. We had spent yards of time embroidering the contours of capitalist modernity. Once outside of academe, I discovered that the business "cultural lifeworld" is vastly more self-conscious and self-critical than critical theorists imagine. People such as Peter Drucker, Peter Senge, George Gilder, Geoffrey Moore and Tom Peters would not be able to become bestselling authors if this were not the case. Business executives are taken to task by insiders like Paul Hawken and Jack Stack, and by business school professors/working consultants like Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Gary Hamel and Dorothy Leonard-Barton. I added tomes written by and for people in the business world to the academic books on my bookshelves. Although I once taught organizational communication, I had no prior awareness that this extensive body of internal critique even existed. Which brings me to rule three: Search out and educate yourself on the interesting thinkers in your new field. They probably exist, but none of your academic friends may have heard of them.

Texts, however, are just not as central to the business world as they are in the academic world. Rule four: Most of what you learn in business comes from informal dialogue, whether in person, on the phone or via e-mail. This is one reason why people in the business world work so hard to establish interpersonal alliances, networks and "communities of practice" across organizations. People in the business world read so they can cull information for use in conversations that fuel this exchange of learning and solve practical problems. You read the Wall Street Journal so that you can converse and critique the Wall Street Journal. This gives you a common vocabulary when you return to your work.

I'm grateful to those who taught me the ropes (and the unspoken rules), because corporate work can be a tough gig. There is less room in the margins for waste and duplication of effort. The contingent nature of reality is all too evident in the marketplace, with ever-changing consumer tastes, regulatory revisions, stock analysts' mood swings and rapid technology obsolesce all conspiring to keep things interesting. So, you try to monitor the environment, keeping a close watch on the forces of change. In discussions, you try to support your arguments with solid evidence. Your data rarely stand alone. Nor do they stand uncontested for much longer than a nanosecond.

While academics may scoff, the business world is the thinker's Mount Everest. The business world offers one of the most intense and most dynamic continuous learning environments available. It is also the hub, the epicenter, of change, where new developments in physics, computer programming, mathematics, law, animation, music and manufacturing all converge. The business world is also a place where the dialectic of idealism and materialism is on prominent, constant display. It can be a ruthless, inhumane environment.J Because of the fast pace and intense pressure to satisfy customers, people often rush through decisions before they can look at other options or reflect on the potential consequences of their actions. The business world obviously needs more good thinkers.

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For these reasons, I'm now convinced that people who teach -- especially professors in the humanities -- have both a moral and ethical obligation to talk about how their course content and assignments relate to the "real world." It's astonishing that some professors still defend their assignments with claims like "This will help you become a critical thinker, understand a variety of perspectives and thus allow you to flourish as a human being." Let's get real. Our technology-driven, globally wired economy is in hyperdrive, and all the old rules for survival and success are being rewritten.

The academy must do a better job of getting students prepared for such a world by conversing with them about what is actually taking place in that world. But professors who regularly leave their academic comfort zones and extend the scholar's footprint outside the academy are still exceptions in the ivory tower.

Most professors have a contrived relationship with their students based on the fallacy that students and professors actually need each other. This fiction, which is beginning to tear at the seams and unravel, is sustained only by the current economy. But stand in the middle of a corporate merger, acquisition or downsizing initiative (all which tend to happen very quickly) and you'll see that everything once stable and predictable in our economy is beginning to free fall. Undergraduates are sensing this change, via the experiences of their parents -- many of whom are exhibiting anxiety about the economy indirectly through concerns about their kids' future career success. Meanwhile, my former colleagues complain ever more voraciously about their undergraduates' ennui, unable to comprehend its source.

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Unfortunately, the academic world fosters such bizarre rites of monastic insularity that most professors can only speculate and guess -- usually in some exaggerated fashion -- how to construct meaningful connections, create relevant examples and inspire enthusiasm for their courses. Until academic careerists face their isolation, they'll never know what they don't know. Nor can they imagine different, better kinds of conversations with their students.

There is a huge, gaping divide between most of the academic world and the business world. It is largely self-defined, dangerous and unnecessary. Aristotle believed that to understand ourselves we must understand the world. The desire to know develops in context. The world in which students will try to find meaningful work is a much more exciting, challenging and epistemologically uncertain environment than most academic careerists can even begin to imagine.

The academic world is in need of more phronesis, or practical wisdom, possessed by the heretics who have crossed the chasm while attempting to carry the scholar's torch in the heat of marketplace battle. What we are learning as stealth intellectuals at work in non-academic jobs could potentially be used to make the academy much stronger. Spies in the house of work, potential comrades in arms, we can show academics how to reconnect and, thus, can show them how to survive. First, however, they should give us much more credit for the intelligence demonstrated by our leaving in the first place.

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Jennifer Stone Gonzalez

Jennifer Stone Gonzalez received her Ph.D. in 1993. She is the author of "The 21st Century Intranet." She now lives in Vermont.

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