Interviews: Career Success from UC Davis (Part I)

SimonsBlogLeilani Serafin and Jenae Cohn, both PhD candidates in the UC Davis English Department, conducted successful alt-ac job searches this year. Leilani is already working, and Jenae will begin this summer. Their stories are compelling and insightful, and I wanted to interview Leilani and Jenae while they were still transitioning from academic life and their experiences were still fresh. In this interview, which we will present in two parts, they talk about how their new work connects to and diverges from PhD work, what career preparation they found useful, how they approached the job search, and what humanities PhD expertise employers found compelling..

What is your research area and when do you plan to earn the PhD and graduate?

Leilani: I’m a Victorianist finishing my dissertation on theatrical adaptations of sensation novels. I plan to graduate by December.

Jenae: My dissertation, titled “The Books that Bind Us: Remediation of the Printed Book as Social Practice in the 21st Century,” is positioned at the nexus of composition, media, and cultural studies and is about how different communities of self-identified readers use the object of the printed book as a sign of literate/literary engagement. I’m planning on earning my PhD in English with an emphasis in Writing, Rhetoric, and Composition Studies in June 2016 and graduating then as well.

What/where is your new job? What are you/will you be doing there?

Leilani: I’m a Production Editorial Associate at Annual Reviews in Palo Alto, CA. Annual Reviews is a nonprofit scientific publisher that publishes a variety of journals in the STEM and social science fields. In my role as an Associate, I support the Production department by helping the editors proofread, copy-edit, and clean up the manuscripts before publication. I also help assemble journal history information to enable the editorial committees to decide which topics to cover in a specific volume.

Jenae: I am going to be an Academic Technology Specialist in the Program for Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University starting in July 2016. My main responsibilities will include consulting with writing program lecturers on effective uses of technology in their classrooms, organizing and leading workshops on strategies and tools that instructors might want to use to improve digital learning in their classes, collaborating with leadership in the program to make department-wide decisions about using technology in classes, researching educational technology advances, communicating with private edtech vendors as needed, and teaching a bit of writing myself!

How did you approach the job-search? Where did you look? What helped? What worked?

Leilani: I had no idea what I wanted to do and felt pretty lost without the career trajectory that I’d already mapped out for myself. However, I knew that I wanted to live relatively near the beach and decided to prioritize lifestyle over career, so I just went on Craigslist and and searched for any job I thought I might be qualified for in Santa Cruz, Monterey Bay, and the Bay Area. Like the PhD Unlimited [program at at UC Davis] recommended, I wrote new resumes and cover letters for each job, and I used as many of the keywords from the job ad as I could. I emphasized different aspects of my experience depending on the job. I was told that Human Resources screens applications before the hiring department does, so using the keywords in the job ad is part of what gets your application flagged for review. For the job that I was eventually hired for, I was able to check off all the skill boxes they wanted, I used all of their keywords in my application, and I explained my experience only as it related to their desired job skills. Again, this part is pretty obvious, but it took months to go through the hiring process for this particular job, which was very difficult for me.

Jenae: I wound up doing three job searches: one for tenure-track academic jobs, one for academic administration jobs, and one for industry jobs. I don’t know that I would recommend this approach, but it was worthwhile to me since I felt very open to a number of different options. I had separate cover letters for each of these career paths—which I will say I adapted based on Jared Redick’s SUPER AWESOME template that he developed for Humanists@Work—and I would tweak details in the cover letters using keywords from the job ads I applied for. I sent away tons of applications! I used a lot of different search engines for finding jobs in these fields, but the best ones were probably the Inside Higher Ed jobs board (there are a lot of academic admin jobs on there),, LinkedIn Jobs (believe it or not!), and the Writing Program Administration listserv (this last source is where I found the Stanford job I’ll be taking). When I could, I narrowed my search to careers where a PhD was a “desired” qualification (I wanted to work somewhere that would value my degree), but I wound up applying for a job where my degree didn’t explicitly matter. That said, I would always mention my PhD in my cover letter and give an explanation of how it would be an asset to my work in that industry. I don’t recommend hiding the PhD because it IS part of who you are!

What attracted you to the work you are/will be doing? Does it continue thematically or practically from your work on the PhD?

Leilani: I was attracted to academia for a lot of reasons—I was passionate about my field, I wanted to engage my students intellectually, and I wanted to make social contributions that I felt were important. I still get to do those general things in my job at Annual Reviews, because it’s a nonprofit that disseminates important scientific research to the scholarly community. However, I was originally just looking for a job. What attracted me to this work was the paid time off, the retirement plan, the health insurance, and the expectation on the part of my managers that I would be unavailable to them when I wasn’t in the office. This absolutely continues thematically and practically from my work on the PhD: like my professors taught me, I used various labor theories to help my students process the literature I assigned. Eventually, as I was encouraging my students to do, I decided to act on my own advice and seek a healthier labor environment for myself.

Jenae: Instructional design and professional development work is, at its heart, teaching work. Yet these fields also involve a lot of critical thinking, research, and organization to help others succeed and communicate ideas effectively. In graduate school, what I’ve loved doing most is designing learning experiences for my (and others’) students and this career lets me do that while also being on the ground floor of structural and curricular changes. While I think I will miss some aspects of humanistic research, I’ll still be reading a lot from literature in educational technology, writing about current practices, and I hope to keep writing and contributing to edtech blogs.

What knowledge or expertise has your work on the PhD provided that is especially unique and important? What did your employers find compelling?

Leilani: Since I work in academic publishing, most of the work I did during my PhD provided the exact type of expertise I needed. I took a couple of article-writing workshops that helped me understand what different journals are looking for and how they operate. However, my employers were most impressed by the interdisciplinary work I did as a TA Consultant and as a Professors for the Future Fellow. Both of these programs gave me the opportunity to closely interact with my STEM colleagues and to learn from their teaching methods and their approaches to knowledge. Since my company publishes STEM and social science research, they were really compelled by my experience working alongside my STEM and social science colleagues. My field (English) is very interdisciplinary in general, and the UC Davis English department has a strong interest in various STEM fields, so I feel right at home in my new job just from having been part of the UC Davis English department.

Jenae: There’s really no way I could have known how much I liked instructional design without the experiences of being a GSR for the online education project and working in departments like Strategic Communications, the Center for Educational Effectiveness, and Academic Technology Services. I would also add that having disciplinary knowledge in the humanities has given me a lot of credibility in my new job already: I believe I was hired in part because of my job experiences, but also because I can relate to the faculty I’ll be working with. Because I’ll be located within the writing program, my experiences of reading the literature, going to conferences, and engaging in pedagogical conversations will really be an asset as I work towards supporting these same instructors in their pedagogical work.

Click here to read the second part of this post. 

Share this:

About the Author

Simon Abramowitsch

Simon AbramowitschI am a humanist at work. I am a PhD candidate in English at UC Davis, always interested in the work that humanists and the humanities do in and for society. My dissertation Under the Sign of the Rainbow: The Production of Multi-Ethnic Literature in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1960s-1990s, is literary history and an investigation of the the multi-ethnic as idea. And at its core it is also a story about a public humanities movement for racial justice, American cultural diversity, and the crucial role of arts and culture in understanding ourselves, others, our nations, and our planet.

View all posts by Simon Abramowitsch