Why Marketing Could Use Humanities PhDs – And Vice Versa

The academic job market is bad, and it’s getting worse.

This isn’t a new phenomenon; it’s been happening for the last 10, 15, 20 years. The famous Bowen and Sosa Report in 1989 predicted a wave of faculty retirements, triggered by the aging of the current professoriate, which would lead to increased tenure-track hiring by universities and colleges. That hasn’t happened, though; instead, there’s been a progressive adjunctification of higher education, particularly in the humanities, with somewhere between 40-70% of classes being taught by part-time contingent faculty. (A crowdsourced Google Doc, updated anonymously by these contingent faculty, demonstrates exactly how little they are often paid to teach.) This makes good business sense for the university, at least in the short term, but it’s led to significantly reduced opportunity for new PhDs to achieve traditional academic careers.

Okay. This is sad, but this is not news. The academic job market has been bad for a long time, and the fact is that many – in some disciplines, most – PhD graduates will not get a tenure-track job.

So what then? What can these PhD-holding folks actually do with the skills they have worked so hard to develop: reading, writing, research, analysis, public speaking, presenting, teaching?

The answer is: oh my goodness, so much. There is so much opportunity out here in the marketing world for people with precisely that skill set.

My Own Path Into Marketing

I started out in social media marketing in 2001 by being the receptionist atstudentawards.com, which was at the time a smallish web startup and was exclusively a scholarship search engine. I was at the time an undergrad and was really into online communities, so I suggested that, since students were coming to the site anyway, we give them a way to talk to each other. Soon I’d been promoted to marketing assistant (though I still answered the phones – startup life!) and worked with their programmers on getting a web forum up and running. It’s still there.

I continued to work in marketing throughout the rest of undergrad and through my Master’s degree – at StudentAwards, at a real estate agency, at a construction company in London, England. I did take a couple of years to focus entirely on academia during my PhD, but in 2008, once I’d defended and hadn’t found a full-time academic position that I wanted, I took a position as director of communications at a private school. In 2010, I left to start my own business that focused on social media and content marketing, and here I am.

I love what I do and I am so happy I’m doing it.

Why Marketing and Humanities PhDs are a Good Match

A career in marketing and communications, particularly social media and content marketing – which are major growth areas within marketing in general – is a near-perfect fit for the key skills that PhD students in the humanities develop over the course of their studies. If you’re a marketing professional, as I am, you’d do very well to hire someone with a PhD in the humanities – and if you have a PhD in the humanities, a marketing career could be a great alternative to a traditional academic career.

Here’s exactly why:

Research and Analysis: PhDs learn to sift through enormous amounts of information to find the relevant bits. They also learn to analyze that same information, make connections, and draw effective conclusions. This is one of the key aspects of marketing: keeping your eyes always open and taking a ton of information from different sources – from sales numbers, web analytics and trends in all sorts of media channels to the tone of communications from key stakeholders – and drawing coherent, actionable conclusions.

Teaching and Presenting: If you have a PhD, you’ll likely have developed some expertise in presenting your ideas to groups of people – students, conference attendees or otherwise – and defending those ideas against criticism. You’ll also have experience in explaining complex ideas in terms that students can understand, and in figuring out different ways to explain the same information to different groups of people depending on context. These skills are incredibly important in marketing. As a marketer, you are essentially a teacher: you’re teaching the public about your client’s product or service, and you’re also teaching your clients and/or your employer why you’re the best person for the job.

Plus, as a former (or even current) post-secondary educator, you’ll be in good stead to offer courses to businesses on effective writing, communications, social media or other areas in which you have particular expertise. I teach social media courses on behalf of businesses fairly frequently.

Writing: This is a no-brainer. If you have a PhD in the humanities, you can probably write. (At least, I hope you can.) You’d be surprised at how crucially important it is in the business world to be able to craft effective messaging to the public, to clients, to stakeholders, to colleagues, to absolutely everyone.

This is especially true in content marketing and social media marketing, which are essentially writing jobs. The key to these marketing subfields is effective writing. If you can write a fantastic blog post and then turn around and write the most compelling 140 characters ever put into TweetDeck, you’ll find yourself hugely in demand.

“You Are Such A Sellout.”

Look, I like academia. It’s fun. But there just isn’t a lot of opportunity to do it full-time for a living, especially if you’re happily established in a particular geographic location as I am. I do keep a toe in, occasionally teaching a couple of literature and film studies courses, and I’ll soon be teaching social media marketing at theSchulich School of Business at York University. I also continue publish academic work because I enjoy it: my book, Postcolonialism and Science Fiction, just came out in December.

More important than any of that, though, is that I love marketing. It’s enormously fulfilling to help individuals and companies tell their stories publicly, and to help them offer their products and services to enhance people’s lives in some way. It’s a great way to make a living, and it uses a lot of the skills I developed in academia. I teach and write and research and do interesting things every day.

So come on in. The water’s fine. And if you’re a PhD or are ABD in the humanities and are looking at making the leap, please do comment or get in touch, eh? I may even be hiring soon…

(Next time: what to do now to keep your options open when you finish.)