By Heloise Finch-Boyer, Senior Grants Specialist at Leyton UK. Dr. Finch-Boyer finished her PhD in Anthropology and History at University of Michigan in 2009.
Internships aren’t just for undergrads. But when I entered the doctoral program in anthropology & history I was obsessed with other things: my field site, papers, prelims, my PhD “question”, the exciting intellectual atmosphere at the University of Michigan. One day in my 1st year, my friend had a good idea: “Why don’t we enroll on the Museum Studies Certificate Program?” This ended up being my escape route from an academic research career which, 9 years later, I finally realized was unsuited to my full skill set.
Two pivotal moments in my professional life that shaped my career path
- Doing an internship funded by the UM Museum Studies Program made me rethink what was possible outside academia. The Certificate Program in Museum Studies was the only one I knew which had a legitimate work experience element alongside the academic course requirements. We had the opportunity of a paid 3-month internship anywhere in the world. I applied for a research project at the National Maritime Museum in London which I completed in my final semester before graduating. I loved the diversity of museum roles and colleagues’ expertise — from scientific conservation to marketing, education to philanthropy. I loved that all work was done in multi-disciplinary teams. My PhD skills were in demand and the work was interesting. The Museum found extra funding for me and I stayed 5 months.
But without any fundamental reflection on my part I was still convinced I “should” be on the academic track. I went to do a postdoc on the Indian Ocean at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa. It was a great gig with a three-year contract, an extremely intellectually vibrant atmosphere, fantastic colleagues, and optional teaching assignments. But sitting alone in my office, what should have been a luxury (time to think) made me miserable. I loved the intellectual stimulus of writing my PhD into journal articles, but finally realized it didn’t suit me. I was lonely. I wanted to work alongside people on projects. A year later a curator job became available at the National Maritime Museum. I got shortlisted and was hired.
- Realising that being a Museum Curator would never be the high-pressure job I would need to thrive. Three years into my museum job I managed a science communication exhibition from concept to opening. It would attract over 260,000 visitors. The day after the opening, when all the excitement and adrenaline was fading from my system, I realised that I needed that pressure and challenge all the time, not just once a year. My best friend told me, “Go read the book What colour is your parachute? and do the flower exercise.” I had a revelation. I was a square peg in a round hole – I was only using 50% of the skills I most enjoyed in my job. Without work experience – which opens up opportunities and lets you learn about yourself — I wouldn’t have figured that out.
Skills and values that I bring as a humanist to my work
- I now work in a financial services consulting firm with engineers, scientists and accountants. Science and Technology Studies (STS) and Anthro-History taught me about the building blocks of knowledge which I apply to my job every day. I write funding pitches to help entrepreneurs across science and industry get money from the UK government. The job requires great writing skills and an ability to communicate quickly with clients and be intellectually unfazed about anything-–biomedical devices to optical engineering, FinTech software algorithms to nanoparticles. I don’t have to be able to calculate the math in big data risk analysis, or evaluate the liquid flows of offshore pipeline systems to follow the logic of those who do, and translate what they are doing for business readers.
- In STS classes at U of M with Professor Gabrielle Hecht we looked at scientific empiricism as a particular type of knowledge system, with its own ideologies. But working in science and technology fields, it is still key to understand that many people see scientific rationality and empirical proof as an unquestionable method that reveals fundamental truths about the world around us. My PhD training was all about identifying the key paradigms in a thought system, and breaking down these into building blocks of knowledge. These skills were important for understanding political action in the Indian Ocean island of La Reunion where I did my fieldwork, and continue to be useful in apprehending where an engineer or a scientist is coming from.
Top 5 tips to explore diverse career options
- Fake it till you make it
It was a leap to go from self-defining as an anthro-historian of colonial France to a museum curator. When I had a Skype interview with the museum while I was on research leave in La Reunion, I decorated my office corner with as much nautical paraphernalia as I could find – world maps, brass lamps, even a parrot – and made sure you could see it on screen. The panel actually laughed about it during the interview, and they remembered when I interviewed in person. To prepare for my interviews, I reached out to curator friends to ask them what they would ask in an interview.
- Dip your toe in and freelance.
I saw a technical writer role advertised on workinstartups.com, a UK job board. They took me on. Three months and two projects later I had something to talk about in an interview that didn’t involve history or museums. That freelance gig caught the eye of the firm that eventually hired me – they were one of their competitors.
- Shamelessly use your network. You do have one, and they are not all academics.
When I wanted to leave the museum sector I had about 200 contacts on LinkedIn. By the time I found a new job I had over 500. I connected with high school buddies, old work colleagues, people I’d met at conferences. The key to LinkedIn networking is having a 2nd degree connection – your undergrad roommate may not be able to get you a job, but they might know someone who is willing to talk to you. I tapped into the UM career centre, which had a wealth of advice. I talked to strangers – UM alums in different fields – who were nice enough to give me 20 minutes of advice about fields I was interested in.
- Don’t underestimate your skills.
A UM anthro friend put me in touch with her dad. He runs a successful startup and agreed to meet for coffee. I told him about all the private sector jobs I was thinking of applying for that I seemed qualified for. His comment? “The people who apply for those jobs still have waitressing on their CVs. Don’t underestimate your skills. Aim higher.” Doing a PhD proves that you can see something through to the (sometimes bloody and bitter) end. Afterwards, no other project, ever, is quite as hard. BUT outside of academic or commercial research, this world of finely tuned experts is rare. You have skills that are in demand: translating ideas between two different fields, synthesizing massive amounts of information into bite-size chunks, public speaking, attention to detail, tenacity …
- Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for some work experience.
The Museum ran a research internship for MA and PhD students which attracted people who loved research but wanted to branch out. Some people applied directly to positions, but other people got in contact directly; both were effective ways of reaching out as long as the message was tailored. Stalk people on LinkedIn or on a website before you send an email, find something smart to say about why you’re interested in interning and keep it short. 100 words max. And follow up with one or two other emails, politely. Never. Give. Up.
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