What A Humanities PhD Has to Offer

John Lorenc

Over the past few months, I’ve looked at hundreds of job ads for a variety of positions in sales, marketing, human resources, and corporate communications. Almost all of them mention that the organization is looking for someone with the following skills:

  • Excellent written and verbal communication skills.
  • Attention to detail.
  • Superior time-management and organization skills.
  • Able to manage multiple projects simultaneously. A team player.
  • A self-starter who is willing to learn.
  • Advanced problem-solving and strategic thinking.

These positions are some of the most important in an organization. Sales and marketing drive revenue directly, and HR and communications make sure all the parts of the organization are moving smoothly. So, it seems obvious that a key strategy for driving sustained competitive advantage will be to hire the most talented people into these positions.

There is a war on talent going on all over the world. In this war, an important resource has been overlooked: the “soft” PhD. “Soft” PhD.s are those bright people who were more fascinated by literature, history, philosophy, religion, etc. than by the “hard” disciplines of mathematics, chemistry, computer science, and so forth, and chose to devote a significant stretch of their life to contributing new and exciting research to these areas. They resent being labelled “soft,” and rightly so, since they’ve acquired many very sophisticated skills over the course of their research, which the label “soft” unjustly belittles. These “soft” skills are precisely the ones that hiring managers are looking for in their ideal candidate for the positions mentioned above.

For this reason, employers and hiring managers are not maximizing their competitive human advantage if their recruiting strategies bypass candidates with doctorates in the humanities.

Peter’s Story

To make this clear, let’s look at one example of a gifted soft PhD. and how he matches up with the criteria listed above.

Peter (who is too bashful to give out his full name) recently finished his doctorate in medieval history at a prestigious Canadian university. Like many PhD.s, he is looking for work outside the academy because he wants the opportunity to make a tangible and recognizable impact on the world. However, he confided in me that he was anxious about his prospects, since he felt his academic training had branded him as an ivory tower inhabiting navel gazer (yes, those were his words); a longstanding prejudice against academics hindering their transition to the business world.

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College chairs in a row - freedigitalRigorous Road Of “Soft” Skills

So, over lunch one day we sat down and looked at how his experience matched the qualifications employers were looking for. These were the results:

  • Written and verbal communication skills: Peter wrote a 400 page dissertation in just over two years. This dissertation was vetted by a panel of three supervisors and defended in an intensive oral examination. Peter could not have accomplished this feat unless he had learned to communicate his ideas effectively, concisely, and accurately, whether by word or by pen. Peter has also published work in a peer-reviewed journal and given presentations to scholars at international academic conferences in North America and Europe. Scholars, for those who haven’t been to an academic conference, can be some of the most ruthless and intolerant critics, since many seem to think that maintaining their reputation depends on annihilating yours. As Peter and I know well, young scholars have to take their licks, but still manage to defend their ideas without losing composure. Now, since he has dealt with some of the harshest critics around, do you really think that Peter can’t offer a pitch to a customer on the fence or present work to the C-suite?
  • Attention to detail: Part of Peter’s research involved comparing many copies of medieval manuscripts to hunt for minor changes in content, spelling, and word order in order to determine the original form of a document. He has spent hours assessing the frequency with which the word “also” is spelled as either “etiam” or “eciam” in scripts that are 700 years old. Given his experience, it should be no problem for Peter work with data in an Excel spread sheet all day or spend hours working with customer relationship management software. And don’t worry about Peter mistaking the forest for the trees – this intensive detail work was only a preparatory step in his broad, synthetic dissertation.
  • Time management and organization: While Peter was researching and writing his dissertation, he was also teaching, tutoring students in French and Latin, serving as copyeditor of the graduate student journal, and working as the treasurer of the graduate student society. Needless to say, he became intimately familiar with Google Calendar. Even with all of these commitments, together with travel for research and presentations at conferences, Peter managed to finish his dissertation project on time. If you pile assignments on Peter, he would have no problem prioritizing them and getting things done.
  • Project management and team work: A doctoral dissertation is a massive, long-term project that requires tremendous individual effort and the involvement of administrative staff, a supervisory committee, and one’s colleagues. In his research, Peter had to identify a problem, formulate an innovative strategy to solve it, and implement this strategy successfully. This involved locating sources of information, consulting subject matter experts, and logistical planning and budgeting for trips to research archives overseas. In all these tasks, he enlisted the help of his supervisors, collaborated with colleagues working in a similar field, and reached out internationally to experts around the world for help. Peter’s project management skills are certainly transferable to the business world.
  • Problem-solving and capacity to learn: This is where Peter really shines as a prospect for a potential employer. When Peter began his research project, no one was even certain of the identity of the subject of his study. By the end of his research, Peter not only knew his subject’s name and the village he was born in, but was also able to track the course of his education and his work as an educator and jurist. Imagine the ingenuity required to make an increase of knowledge that significant. As for his capacity to learn, in just over two years Peter digested over 200 books and articles on his research topic and conducted primary source research in multiple foreign languages. No hiring manager would have to worry whether or not he would hit the ground running. His time to productivity would be a fraction of that of many other candidates.

An Untapped Pool

Peter seems more than qualified to fill many of the positions I’ve looked at, and Peter’s story is not as exceptional as you might think. All successful soft PhD.s have to develop these skills in order to finish their degrees. Since there are far more people with humanities PhD.s than there are jobs in academia, a vast, untapped pool of talented overachievers is waiting out there for whoever is innovative and unconventional enough to spot it.

Management consulting firms like BCG and McKinsey & Co. have already caught on to the value of a humanities PhD. Each has a program in place to attract and train former academics, but such companies are in the minority.

Peter was heartened by our conversation, but as we got up to leave he said, “I know I have a lot to offer, but what good will it do me if no one notices me?” Make sure you notice him before your competition does.

John Lorenc, Ph. D., is a freelance writer from Toronto, Ontario. He recently completed his doctorate in legal and economic history at the University of Toronto and has since been researching and writing about the intersection of HR and strategic analysis. He is currently studying the career outcomes of academics who choose to move their talent outside the ivory tower. Contact him at john.lorenc@gmail.com.

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3 Comments on “What A Humanities PhD Has to Offer

  1. I agree have humanities PhD have many of the skills that are required for a job (writing, attention to detail, etc.) – although missing a key one which is team work in an organizational context. Anyway, my point is not even about the skills themselves. Why would an employer hire someone who has, for the most part of their life, avoided, despised, or perhaps even criticized, corporate work environments? (which would be more typical for students in sociology, anthropology, political sciences)

    Without any hope of getting a job in a closely related field of his studies or passion, he or she finally decides to give up his or hers “true calling” settle for a job in say, marketing as one of the last resources, mainly for alimentary reasons to start his “new” life as a corporate employee around his 30s (which is a very different environment from the academic one especially relating to identity but I will not belabor on the point). Isn’t that different from someone who “always wanted” and had a passion for marketing? (Besides, related experience is almost always requested and I do not see it as a protocol). In short, I see it way beyond just matching a set of skills.

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