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FROM PHD TO LIFE

Transition Q & A: Pablo Dominguez Andersen

By JENNIFER POLK | September 15, 2015

Pablo Dominguez Andersen earned his PhD in modern history from the Humboldt University of Berlin. He currently works as a content manager at interactive tools, a digital agency in Berlin. Find Pablo online here, and follow him on Twitter @palmo_imhoff. He’s also on LinkedIn and Academia.edu.

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What did you hope for in terms of employment as you completed your PhD?

During my first year I was pretty sure that I would eventually become a professor. I enjoyed research, writing and teaching. I was good at it. I knew that the job market was difficult, but I was confident that I would eventually land a position at a university.

As I was finishing my thesis (this was in 2013) I wasn’t so sure anymore. I knew that I could only apply for a postdoc position or a scholarship with a proposal for a new research project in hand. But I was still burned out from months of binge-writing the last chapters of my thesis. More importantly, I was incredibly tired of working without getting paid. I came to realize that my priorities had shifted. I liked living in Berlin and I didn’t want to move. I wanted a job that gave me some financial security and a long-term perspective. I wanted to work with other people rather than being alone in the library or the archive all day. So I started looking for non-academic jobs.

What was your first post-PhD job?

Before finishing my thesis I took on a part-time position as a copywriter in a technology start-up. Tech companies are hiring a lot in Berlin. This one ran an online shop for customizable cards and invitations for birthdays, weddings and other occasions. They were looking for someone who could write and I got the job. I became part of the SEO
(Search Engine Optimization) department – its aim was to improve the company website’s ranking in the Google search results. I started out writing blog posts about wedding trends and Christmas invitation etiquette. It wasn’t a great job, but it was a job.

After a couple of months the company offered me a permanent, full-time position. So when I finally did finish my thesis I signed a contract with them. I wasn’t very happy with the job for a number of reasons. But I was getting paid. I continued working part-time because I wanted to finish two academic book projects and some articles I had been working on. During this transition phase I didn’t want to let go of academia and I was struggling with feelings of failure. Starting from scratch as a beginner after having worked for 10 years to become a specialist on something that now suddenly seemed useless was tough and often made me angry and frustrated. On the upside I was learning a lot about online marketing, search engines, digital publishing – and also about people and working conditions in the tech industry. I ended up working there for two years.

How did you land the job?

I basically applied and got lucky. The company I worked for was relatively unknown so they didn’t receive as many applications as some of the more renowned startups. This was far from a dream job, but it got me started. I had applied for a lot of positions before where I felt overqualified and got rejected every time. There were many days when I thought that I would never, ever find a decent job. But as soon as I had my foot in the door things slowly started to improve. I got more experienced in digital marketing with each day and realized that people with the type of expertise I was acquiring are actually in demand.

What do you do now?

I work as a content specialist for a digital agency. We consult and build websites for large companies, many of which are struggling to adapt their business models to digital markets. I work closely with designers, project managers, developers and information architects. We are about 60 people and I am part of a small editorial team of five. I help clients create content that online audiences like to read and share. I am part copywriter, consultant and digital strategist.

What kind of tasks do you do on a daily and weekly basis?

They are pretty diverse, which is part of why the job is fun. I draft and edit copy for websites, press releases, online campaigns and social media accounts. I create presentations for clients or for internal use. I plan and implement social media and content strategies. I come up with information architectures for websites. I consult with clients over the phone. I travel to clients and teach workshops dealing with topics like digital copywriting, how to handle a certain content management system or how to best organize and present a lot of complex information on a website. I also do some research and try to keep up with trends in digital publishing, content strategy, social media and search engine marketing.

What most surprises you about your job?

I guess the fact that I ended up where I am now is the biggest surprise; even though I was interested in media as a historian (especially film) I had never been particularly enthusiastic about technology or the Internet per se. But there are a lot of jobs in the tech industry right now and I guess the fact that I landed one is evidence of the fact that humanities graduates have a great set of transferable skills that allow us to succeed in a great variety of fields.

Another very pleasant surprise is the amount of positive feedback that I get for my work – it’s something that I wasn’t used to at all as an academic. Outside of the university, you are recognized and taken seriously as a specialist much quicker than inside academia. People in digital media have a diverse set of backgrounds; this means that employers are less interested in your credentials than in what you have actually done and what you are able to do.

Finally, I am still surprised how well and in how many ways my academic career has actually prepared me for the type of work that I do now, even though the two worlds seem to have so little in common at first glance.

What are your favorite parts of your job?

I quickly realized how much I love working with other people rather than spending the day alone at my desk or in the library. During the last year of my PhD I lost much of my enthusiasm for academic writing, in large part because I was working alone all of the time and I was getting almost no feedback whatsoever. Working and succeeding as part of a team feels really rewarding. It’s also great to do work that yields visible results relatively quickly as opposed to working on a dissertation for five years that less than a handful of people actually read in the end.

I’ve also come to enjoy copywriting a lot, which is very different from academic writing but very challenging in itself. Travelling to clients and teaching workshops is something I also like. I get to see working environments of people with a completely different background and each workshop is different and challenging. I generally like the fact that I am learning a lot of new things.

What’s next for you, career-wise?

I have only been working in this agency for half a year so for now I look forward to learning a lot of new things and I just want to keep moving forward. So far the most challenging and interesting tasks have been the more conceptual and strategic ones so that’s what I’d like to do more of in the future.

I’d also like to learn more about user experience, information architecture and the technical background of digital media. The problem with copywriting is that a lot of people think that everyone can do it because “everyone can write.” In the long run I’d like to become even more well-rounded and at the same time specialize on the strategic part of digital content creation.

Finally I look forward to working with a lot of interesting clients. I would really love to do more digital work for cultural, political or academic institutions like museums, political organizations or universities. This would allow me to combine my academic knowledge with the skills I have acquired during my post-academic work, so it’s something I am really hoping for. In the long run I hope to be able to combine my digital skills with my experience in writing and researching about political, cultural and social issues, which is what I’m really passionate about.

What advice or thoughts do you have for post-PhDs in transition now?

This might sound obvious, but take your time to find out what it is you really like doing. For me this was a really difficult process and it took forever. Talking to a lot of different people about it certainly helped me, especially hearing opinions of people from outside academia. I also sought help from a career coach (her name is Deborah and she is cool!) at one point because I could no longer tell what it was I actually wanted as opposed to what I imagined other people were expecting of me. Once I became more aware of my particular skillset and of the things I did and didn’t like doing, it became easier to determine which jobs might be suited for me.

Another piece of advice is to be patient. I really wasn’t. But the transition phase is a very difficult time by definition and you do need to remind yourself that whatever first job you land it is most likely not going to be your last one. So just hang in there and try to learn as much as you can, which you definitely will if you are smart enough to have earned a PhD.

As far as writing applications goes, start thinking in terms of skills and learn presenting them in a coherent and persuasive manner. Most employers won’t care about your degree, let alone the topic of your PhD thesis, no matter how important it is to you. But they will want to know that you are a great writer with excellent analytical skills, that you have project management experience, organizational skills, that you are an awesome communicator and so on.

Finally, don’t grow desperate when you are not succeeding and don’t forget that this is only temporary. And try not to blame yourself. The fact that so many of us who would make great researchers and teachers are forced to leave academia in order to make a living is a political and an economic problem, not merely an individual one. Nevertheless, it becomes a personal issue for each of us and we are forced to deal with it individually. Whenever you feel like you are failing, try to remind yourself that you have already achieved great things in life and you will continue to do so, no matter where your job search leads you in the end.

ABOUT JENNIFER POLK
Jennifer Polk
Jennifer Polk is a career coach and writer. She earned her PhD in history from the University of Toronto in 2012. For more information and resources, check out her website: FromPhDtoLife.com.
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