Career Paths

A New Course: Converting a Passion for History into a Private Sector Career

Joshua Wolff, January 2014

Joshua WolffI first discovered my passion for history when studying the Civil War in the sixth grade. The causes and contingencies of events of the 1860s seemed more complex than my teacher let on, so I began doing some extra reading on my own, and I never stopped. My passion for history led me to pursue AP history classes in high school, a history major in college, and a history PhD at Columbia. Where it has not led me, however, is into an academic career.

I started thinking about a career as a historian while writing my senior thesis at Amherst College. I wrote on the Clergy Consultation Service, a national network that publicly challenged pre-­Roe abortion laws by operating an illegal referral service to help thousands of women get safe medical abortions. I read everything I could find on the movement, I spent a summer in a dusty, untapped church archive, I conducted oral history interviews, and I spent my senior year writing. The thesis whetted a new appetite to write history, rather than just consume it.

Why the Dissertation?

Not only did my PhD in history prepare me for my new role, but my dissertation-­that most academic (in both senses of the word) pursuit-­provided the cornerstones of my nonacademic skill set. Here are a few ways writing a dissertation prepared me for a job beyond the academy:

Entrepreneurship. Sure, it's a buzzword, but employers want to know that their hires can be creative, take initiative, and bring others along. The dissertation is an entrepreneurial venture. The scholar must break new ground, convince advisers, reviewers, and peers that his ideas have merit; secure funding and other resources for the project; and usually compete against entrenched incumbents in the form of the existing scholarship on the subject.

Project management. Managing the dissertation effectively is no small feat. The scholar must plan a research program months and even years ahead, coordinate with other projects (e.g., teaching), identify milestones, set deadlines for delivery, and assemble and respond to a steering committee. As the completion deadline looms, she will have to make critical decisions about resource trade-­offs-­the chapter that demands revision, the archive that requires one more visit, which questions must be saved for the book. A student who deliberately plans and manages the dissertation as the major project that it is has developed a valuable skill.

Innovation. Though virtually synonymous in popular culture with technology, innovation is less about creating gadgets than it is about looking at the world in a new and different way. The innovator's challenge is to solve conceptual problems by asking fresh questions, evaluating available information in a new way, or redefining the problem entirely. This, of course, is also the essence of a good dissertation. The long and sometimes agonizing process of mastering the existing knowledge, crafting a fresh argument, and proving its unique contribution to the field is an act of innovation. Historians, as counterintuitive as it may seem, are trained innovators.

Problem solving. Writing a dissertation requires a scholar to define a complicated problem and break it into discrete parts that he can test through research. Framing a potential solution and developing a plan to uncover the evidence are valuable skills, as is the capability to clearly communicate the answer. Striking a balance between reductionism and overcomplexity-­a constant tug-­of-­war for the dissertation writer-­is also an essential element of problem solving in nonacademic settings.

Interpreting the data. The world is awash in information, much of it just a Google search away. The skill lies in finding the "right" data, evaluating its accuracy and meaning, and leveraging it in new ways. Reading through a closet full of uncatalogued papers to develop a new interpretation of an esoteric historical problem also prepares one to find a "white space" in the medical devices market or to help a food distributor determine whether it is time to expand. Assembling a puzzle from myriad pieces, interrogating the sources, reading the silences, and making sense of the seemingly nonsensical are as invaluable in a boardroom as they are in an archive.

Collaboration. The myth that scholarship is a lonely pursuit is not doing graduate students any favors. The outside world is highly collaborative, and scholarship can be too. Dissertation committees, writing groups, symposia, coauthorship-­collaborative forms abound in the academy. Leveraging opportunities to collaborate enriches the quality of students' scholarship and prepares them for the team-­driven culture of the nonacademic world.

After college I spent a year teaching English abroad and two years working for an AmeriCorps affiliate, and I felt a persistent pull to return to history and the intellectual challenges of my undergraduate years. Graduate school seemed a logical but risky choice. Believing that a PhD would most likely lead to a tenure-­track job and the idyllic teaching career of my mentors at Amherst required a willful act of self-­deception that I could not muster. But I allowed myself a clever loophole: if I could get a fellowship, I would go to graduate school, nurture my passion, broaden my intellectual horizons, and then, if the stars did not align, find some non-­academic job in that far, far distant future. I would be an older, wiser, more complete person for the experience, and I would shed no tears if finally forced to leave Clio behind.

However, as I delved deeper into my graduate career, I discovered an ability to self-­deceive that I’d lacked before. The thought of leaving the scholarly path seemed a betrayal of my mentors, an abandonment of all I had worked for, and a personal defeat. My adviser, Eric Foner, joked that my colleagues and I were “apprenticed to jobs that no longer existed,” and the nervous laughter in the room was a reminder that none of us had given up the secret hope that we might be the ones to survive the impending catastrophe of the job market. I embraced my dissertation on the 19th-­century American telegraph monopoly with even greater passion and commitment than I had my undergraduate thesis, I wowed my undergraduates with my zeal for teaching, I hoped against hope.

I graduated from Columbia in 2008, a very, very bad year for newly minted history PhDs. I steeled myself for a lean year of adjuncting, but at the last minute I landed a two-­year full-­time lectureship. In the first year, I tested the waters of the academic job market. The outcome was disappointing: listings were few and I did not get invited for a single interview. With a year left in my appointment, I faced a difficult choice: I could hang on and hope next year would be better, or I could consider other options. At a symposium at the Organization of American Historians conference in January, I sat behind two professors five or 10 years older than me and eavesdropped on their conversation. They were in nontenure-­track jobs in places they did not want to be. Their appointments were running out. They were scrambling to get interviews. They were publishing, but still perishing. I felt I had been visited by the Ghost of Christmas Future. I walked out of the hotel determined to chart a new course.

I approached finding a nonacademic career option as a research problem with a discoverable answer. If I failed, it would not be for a lack of imagination. I read the growing canon of books and articles on careers beyond the academy, I attended panel discussions, I contacted everyone I could think of who knew something about the nonacademic professional world to ask: What kind of work do you do, and do you find it engaging? What kind of work could you see someone like me doing? Of the score of options that emerged from these conversations, one came up repeatedly: strategy consulting firms worked on a vast array of challenging problems, and the leading firms recruited PhDs. I began informational networking in the industry, I attended a summer seminar at a firm, I practiced dozens of business cases, I learned how to read a P&L statement and a balance sheet. Most important, I thought about how to explain the ways in which my academic experience made me a good candidate for a nonacademic job.

Almost two years after that fateful day at the OAH, I found myself in a classroom full of newly hired PhDs, MDs, and JDs from elite universities around the world. My new job was not at a university, but at McKinsey & Company, a consulting firm, and my colleagues and I were entering a three-­week “mini-­MBA” to help us transition to a career outside the academy. It was an impressive group with academic achievements so dazzling that it became a running joke to tease the Americans who had gone to Oxford without a Rhodes or the MDs who had shirked a supplementary PhD. My lingering sense that only failures left the scholarly path died quickly.

I have loved my new career from day one. In essence, my job is to help businesses, governments and public organizations identify and unravel tough problems through research, interviews with clients, advice from experts, and analysis of data; to structure and test solutions; and to collaborate with clients on plans for implementation. Success requires both developing insightful answers and cultivating deep client relationships. My work is demanding, and my learning curve has a satisfyingly steep upward slope. In three years I have worked on problems in a dozen different industries and functions, and something new is always around the bend. I found scholarship a lonely pursuit and teaching a welcome respite from the solitude of writing and research. Now I work in teams of colleagues and clients, and I love the stimulation and challenges of constant collaboration. At first, I missed teaching, but I have collected a cadre of associates who have worked with me for whom I am now a mentor, and I am a “faculty member” for training programs at McKinsey. My job can be stressful—­the stakes are high, and clients expect top-­quality work—­but I find the rewards are well worth the trade-­offs.

Back when I was a senior at Amherst, a mentor in the history department advised me not to go to graduate school: the path was too long, the prospects too uncertain, he had succeeded only by luck, and conditions had since gotten worse. I asked him for an alternative, and he proposed the private sector. He described the business world as full of brilliant people working hard on tough problems. I scoffed at his suggestion then, but I never forgot it. Twelve years later, during my first year consulting, I sent him a note. I had been working on a project to help an animal health company adapt the deployment of its field sales force to changes in veterinary medicine. I interviewed dozens of vets and salespeople, spent days at the whiteboard synthesizing my findings and problem solving with my team, and personally presented our recommendations to our senior client. I was having so much fun that I could hardly believe it was a job. I thanked my former mentor for his candor all those years ago.

I believe that the experience of getting a PhD made me a better thinker and communicator, and, in turn, a better consultant. I occasionally envy a few friends who stayed in the academy and met with success, but I don’t regret the course I have taken. My passion for history persists as an avocation, if not a vocation, and my training as a historian gives me a unique perspective in the business world.

—Joshua Wolff is an engagement manager at McKinsey & Company. His book, Western Union and the Creation of the American Corporate Order, 1845–­1893, was published in 2013 by Cambridge University Press.