Why Being An Academic is like Being a Novelist, And Why That’s OK

Preface: I’m writing this post as someone who has an ongoing affiliation with academia – I teach social media marketing in the MBA program at the Schulich School of Business at York University – but does not currently make her living primarily as an academic. Instead, I run a small marketing agency and develop and implement training programs for corporate clients, and I teach and research as well. That said, my PhD is in a humanities field, and I’ve spent many years now watching my peers beat their heads against the brick wall of the current state of academia in the humanities… and, more and more, this mismatch between the needs and structure of the university and the training and goals of the graduate students who aspire to professorships has spread to other fields as well.

As I’ve discussed in previous posts, there are lots of routes out of academia for those who are so inclined. Marketing and communications can be a great field for grad-degreed folks in the humanities, for instance, and there are things you can do in grad school or shortly afterward to lay the groundwork for a non-academic career. But the thing is: even if you “leave” academia, even if you decide not tomake your living at the life of the mind, you can still be an academic.

I am.

Whither a “Writer”?

There’s a novelist called Jay Lake whose books I love and whose blog I read. (I met him once, at Worldcon 2007 in Japan, but I doubt he remembers me; if he does, though, hi Jay!) Jay is an incredibly prolific writer. He’s very well known and highly regarded in the science fiction community. His books have been nominated for major awards and they sell well. Jay is, by all accounts, a writer. He’s a novelist.

Jay also has a day job to pay the bills (or as he calls it, a Daye Jobbe).

Take also my dear friend Trilby Kent, this year’s winner of the Canadian Children’s Book Award. Trilby’s books are extraordinarily well-reviewed and well-respected, and have been added to school curricula all over the world. Trilby is, by all accounts, a novelist.

She is also in the midst of doing a PhD in Creative Writing. When her PhD novel is finished, she will likely teach.

The majority of novelists I know are not only novelists. Most of them do other things as well. Lou Anders is a novelist, but is also the editor-in-chief of Pyr BooksPaul Cornell is a novelist, but he also writes comics and television shows. (OK, maybe Paul is pretty much a “pure” writer.) Nalo Hopkinson is a novelist, but she is also a professor at the University of California, RiversideJoseph Kertes is a novelist, but he is also the Dean of the School of Creative and Performing Arts at Humber College.

What You Do To Make Money Is Not What You Are

I’m going to say that again: what you do to make money is not what you are.

There’s this corrosive idea, this scratchy little voice, that lives in the corners of the academy and whispers from the darkness: “If you were really dedicated to your work, you’d give up everything else in your life for your academic work.” Academia loves itself a martyr. But that voice is a lie. Ignore it.

Sometimes, what you do for a living coincides with what you love, or what you want to be, or how you define yourself at the heart of the matter. I happen to be one of those people; I am an academic and I love it, but I am also a marketing professional and I love that, too.

But sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes, what you do for a living doesn’t have a whole lot to do with what you really do.

A musician who waits tables is a waiter, but also a musician. A writer who teaches is a teacher, but also a writer. A painter who works as a lawyer is a lawyer, but also a painter. And an administrative assistant or a shoe store clerk or an advertising copywriter who does original academic research and/or teaches at the college or university level is an academic.

Academia Is As Academia Does

Ultimately, what I’m calling for here is a radical revisioning of what it means to be an academic. Just a small task! This process has already started, though, with the concept of “alt-ac” – that is, alternative careers within the academic context for those with grad degrees. It’s started with the advocacy of the Versatile PhD, which provides information and support on alternate careers for academics.

But what I’m talking about isn’t an “alternative” to academia. It is academia. It’s an academia of independent scholars, of salespeople who write articles in their hotel rooms on the road, of copywriters who spend their weekdays writing taglines and their weekends at the library. An academia that is, frankly, structured a lot more like many business schools are now: in which part-time faculty members are valued not only for the academic skills and expertise they bring to the classroom, but for the non-academic ones as well. In which the academy and the world outside are not adversaries but partners, and in which the doors between are open, not closed.

I’ll start. Who’s with me?

Chick-Fil-A and Facebook: How Do You Prove a Negative?

There’s been a lot of buzz in the past few days around an exchange on the official Chick-Fil-A Facebook page. TechCrunch has a screenshot of the conversation. Basically, in light of Chick-Fil-A’s official anti-gay-marriage political stance, Jim Henson’s company pulled its branded Muppet toys from Chick-Fil-A’s children’s meals.

There was some controversy as to whether the Muppets were kiboshed as a response to Chick-Fil-A’s political views. Jumping into the fray was gramatically-challenged “teenage girl” Abby Farle, who claimed that “no my friend went to chickfila 3 weeks ago and there was no toys. derr” [sic]. Her profile photo, as an astute commenter pointed out, was actually a stock photo. She clearly wasn’t who she said she was.

Photo via TechCrunch.

Photo via TechCrunch.

So who was she, then? Was she Chick-Fil-A, posing as a fan? Or was she someone else?

The Problem with Anonymity

This particular problem is multi-layered. It’s a problem with anonymity online in general (the issues with which are many and much-chronicled) and also a problem with the specific way that anonymity works on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. It’s up to them to decide whether you’ve been impersonated online and what will be done about it. It’s also up to them to collect and control identifying information about members, and how to release it – or not – publicly.

It’s an even broader issue than that, though. It’s a problem with anonymity, full stop. It comes from the basic human desire to communicate socially unacceptable sentiments from behind the veil of anonymity, so as not to jeopardize one’s social standing. We can see this in everything from the crude graffiti found on walls in the lost Roman city of Pompeii to the iconic threatening note made from letters cut out of a magazine to the hell that breaks loose in comment sections on, basically, everything on the entire Internet.

The difference with Facebook, of course, is that anonymity theoretically doesn’t function there. According to Facebook’s terms of service, this should never have happened in the first place:

Facebook users provide their real names and information, and we need your help to keep it that way. Here are some commitments you make to us relating to registering and maintaining the security of your account:

  1. You will not provide any false personal information on Facebook, or create an account for anyone other than yourself without permission.
  2. You will not create more than one personal account…

The creation of “Abby Farle” pretty clearly violates the Facebook ToS. But anyone who’s been on Facebook for more than 5 minutes will see that this part of the ToS isn’t particularly strictly enforced (and by “particularly” I mean “at all, for the most part”).

Proving the Negative: Why Any Company With A Facebook Page Should Be Paying Attention

Facebook isn’t about to start analyzing IP addresses to figure out exactly who posted the “Abby Farle” posts; they don’t have to, and frankly, it’s not their job. This is a PR crisis, not a criminal one. We may never find out for sure who created the Abby Farle Facebook account and posted on Chick-Fil-A’s wall – even if someone claims it, they may or may not be telling the truth.

And therefore, more importantly in this case, you can’t prove who didn’t do it.

You certainly can’t prove that Chick-Fil-A didn’t. Even if they had nothing to do with the debacle, they can’t prove non-involvement; and in the absence of proof, suspicion remains.

The dangerous thing for organizations on Facebook, in particular, is that this could happen to any of them. A disgruntled employee, a competitor, or just someone who disagrees with their political stance could engineer something similar, in a way that places suspicion on the company itself. Part of me wonders why this doesn’t happen more often, to be honest: all the tools are there. I do wonder whether it will happen more often now.

What Can We Do Now?

The greatest lesson for organizations following the Chick-Fil-A controversy is twofold.

First, be vigilantUnderstand that anonymity online just doesn’t function in reality like it does in the platform ToS. Make sure that your social media channels are consistently monitored by an experienced social media manager and that you have a plan in place to mitigate any potentially damaging communications.

Second, understand the weaknesses of your social media platform(s). More specifically, understand how they might be used against you, and have a contingency plan – and ideally, a crisis communications plan – in place. This is one of many reasons that you need an experienced social media manager handling your presence on social media channels: these are powerful platforms with a lot of public influence, and they need to be understood as such. An experienced and astute person will be able to shape your response to a crisis like Chick-Fil-A’s.

What do you think? How would you have responded to a controversy like this?

I'm quoted in the Times Higher Education supplement today!

This morning, I woke to some exciting news: Times Higher Education writer and editor Phil Baty has quoted my blog post “4 Things To Do to Prepare for a Non-Academic Career” in his leader article for the magazine, “Too Many Snakes, Too Few Ladders”. Karen Kelsky of The Professor Is In is also quoted.

If you’re an aspiring academic, or if you have or are working on a graduate degree and are considering leaving the academy for the private sector or other work, please do read Phil’s article in the THE, along with the anonymously written but very moving and important story accompanying it. (And you might like to read mine, too; I like to think it’s helpful!)

As well, I’ve had an increasing number of emails lately from people who are looking potentially to leave academia and are hoping for advice or even just a human connection with someone who’s been there. As it was when I was a professor – and as it will be again in the fall, of course, when I start teaching at Schulich – my door is always open. Feel free to drop me a line.

On Marketing and Branding in Japan

Earlier in May, I spent about a week and a half in Japan. Part of my trip was dedicated to doing a little bit more research on a film I uncovered in the archive of the National Film Centre in Tokyo (with the kind help of Xavier Bensky) in 2007. The film is called Kaidenpa senritsu, and it’s the only surviving pre-war Japanese science fiction film. You can read a little bit more about it in my book.

The other part was dedicated to doing some research on branding strategies in Japan and how they relate to the wider culture(s). There’s already some interesting work on this: for instance, Martin and Herbig’s 2002 article “Marketing implications of Japan’s social-cultural underpinnings” is a good place to start. But as I start preparing for doing some research this fall in consumer culture theory, I thought it would be interesting to see firsthand some of the branding strategies that companies use there.

Here are some of the things I noticed: these are just informal notes, a starting place for further research.

1. 727 Cosmetics and the Shinkansen

Image via blog.goo.ne.jp. I didn't manage to snap my own photos of these, but this one is fairly representative.

Image via blog.goo.ne.jp. I didn't manage to snap my own photos of these, but this one is fairly representative.


I did a fair bit of traveling while I was in Japan, as I had a JR Pass. This pass is one of the greatest travel inventions ever, as it allows you to travel anywhere the JR goes, including on the shinkansen, for the entire duration of the pass. I spent a lot of time on the “shink”, and instead of reading, I mostly looked out the window.

What did I see out the window? Mountains, homes, rivers, beaches, bamboo, shrines, rice and green tea fields, all the beautiful things you see on every train trip… and hundreds of signs for727 Cosmetics.

It seems that 727 Cosmetics had taken the billboard concept to its logical conclusion and, with permission (and payment) of farmers and small landowners, set up large signs in fields and on hillsides all along the shinkansen route. Most of these were nowhere near stations, but were instead dotted across the long stretches of rural land between stops, in small towns that looked hardy but not particularly flush.

Not many other companies seemed to have done this; there was one, but I cannot for the life of me remember its name – which suggests that perhaps that company didn’t put enough signs along the route! I wonder if 727 Cosmetics paid for exclusive signage rights, and how much. I’m also somewhat surprised that more companies here in Canada don’t do this: there are tons of billboards along the roadsides in rural areas, as we see on our frequent drives up to the cottage in the summer, but not many that I’ve seen along the train routes.

2. Animation Sells

This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who has even a passing familiarity with Japanese culture, but it’s important to note nonetheless. Animated characters are everywhere, and they brand things. In fact, they brand nearly everything. Including smoking in public, as the photo to the left shows.

What Japan has done fairly successfully with its brand characters, though, is something that hasn’t been quite so successful with North American characters: taking a brand character and extending its signification into the non-brand cultural space, turning it into an artifact that simultaneously signifies and does not signify its brand.There have been some experiments in this direction with North American characters – does anyone else remember the execrable Chester Cheetah: Too Cool to Fool Sega Genesis game from 1992? (If you don’t, be very glad.) None of these, however, has had the social traction of what I might call “transitional” Japanese brand characters.

One example of these is “Suica’s Penguin”, who now has his own store at Tokyo Station, “Penguin Stadium” (or “PenSta”)Suica – which means “watermelon” in Japanese, but watermelons are not nearly as cute as penguins – is a rechargeable transit card that’s usable throughout most of eastern Japan. The penguin is its mascot, and has become so popular that merchandise featuring the penguin sells very well.

This is all probably associated with the huge popularity of “cuteness” in Japan, but that’s for another post.

…Okay, confession time: I bought a Suica’s Penguin notebook myself. It’s very cute.

3. Loco for Local

Image via goukaseishi.com.

Image via goukaseishi.com.

One major social convention in Japan is that when you travel anywhere, you must bring gifts back home for your friends and coworkers. These take two forms, which often overlap: meibutsu, which are goods for which a particular part of Japan is “famous”, and omiyage, yummy treats for everyone.

Big brands have gotten into the swing of meibutsu, the largest being Sanrio, the makers of the famous character of Hello Kitty. Initially, one would think that intense localization would limit the extent of a meibustu brand’s reach, as it would become associated with one particular region (and therefore not the others). However, Sanrio has figured out a way to reverse this concept, integrating Hello Kitty with local tradition and iconography.

In Hakone, which is famous for its sulfuric hot springs and “onsen eggs” (eggs cooked in the boiling hot springs, whose shells turn black from the sulfur – it’s a lot less disgusting than it sounds), Kitty-chan is holding a blackened egg. On Miyajima off the coast of Hiroshima, which is famous for its incredible “floating” red torii gate,Kitty is sitting under a torii. Even different areas of Tokyo have their own Hello Kitty products: the old shopping district of Asakusa near the Senso-ji, where I stayed this trip, had its own Hello Kitty gimmick currency a few years ago.

Culturally, people in Japan generally take a lot of pride in the things for which their region is famous. The ubiquity of Hello Kitty, and its association with nearly every single place – and every single thing that place is famous for – brands the character of Kitty-chan as an inextricable part of Japanese culture, and piggybacks on that pride.

Further Questions

This is all just some very preliminary thoughts, a few starting points for some further research. I wonder, though: where is branding going to go in the next few years, especially since Mixi (the huge Japanese social network) seems to be losing ground to Facebook? How will Japan’s reliance on the mobile web affect companies’ marketing strategies? And, in an increasingly internationalized, increasingly digitized world, how will Japanese brands marry local and global?

Why Content is Key to Marketing Success

I read with interest Patrick Hanlon’s Forbes article on the “3 Ps” of marketing: Push, Pull and Portal. It’s a good and important read for anyone who makes, or who hopes to make, their living in marketing. And ultimately, Hanlon writes, the key to all three is content:

Push media is still needed to create brand awareness and purchase intent—but media agencies are finding it harder to achieve reach from one program (or even one platform) alone. Pull media like advertising is still critical to tell your brand story the way you want it told. Becoming a portal through owned media is also not a standalone solution. So all the tubes must be open to provide push and pull andportal. Media drives social, and social drives media…

…It doesn’t take Aristotle to understand that dialogue offers the opportunity to persuade. And the way in, is content. Done smartly, brand communications are no longer an interruption. Instead, your brand becomes the content. [Bolding mine.]

In this post, I take Hanlon’s excellent idea and zero in on the concept of content. Of course, as a social media marketer, my goal is to make my clients’ media drive sociality around its brand, both online and in offline word-of-mouth environments, in order to drive sales. However, none of that can happen without good, strong, proprietary content. If you want people to engage with something, it has to be worth engaging. If you want people to share something, it has to be worth sharing. This is the lesson of “your brand becomes the content”. Instead of an interruption, your brand becomes seamlessly integrated into the daily lives of your customers. Instead of an imposition, it becomes a desire.

Strong proprietary content is the best search engine optimization for your website… and the best way to get people to stay once they’ve found it.

SEO is a lot more complicated than it used to be, especially after the introduction by Google of targeted search, which means that its search engine rankings change based on things like your location, search history and other variables. Eli Pariser’s book The Filter Bubble – and his associated TED talk, if you have 10 minutes – is an interesting study of the increasing personalization of the Internet, a trend that poses interesting challenges for online marketers who are looking to capture particular segments.

Although it’s tempting for those of us who spend much of their days on social media to think of search as somehow obsolete – after all, we get most of our information via Twitter, right? And our artistic inspiration via Pinterest? – for the vast majority of potential customers and clients out there, Google is still the primary gateway to information. And search position matters. You can have the best content in the world, but if no one sees it, it’s useless.

On the other hand, you can optimize your website all you want, calculating keyword densities and pushing it to the top of the Google rankings for your desired keywords, but if a visitor gets to your site and doesn’t find something to keep them there, they’re going to head right back out the virtual door.

I’m going to repeat my message above: if you want people to read, engage with and share something, it has to be worthwhile. Creating strong content that is both SEO-friendly and reader-friendly is the single best thing you can do for your online presence.

Make yourself useful and people will use you. (In a good way. And pay for for it.)

It seems at first couterintuitive that the more good content you provide for free, the more people will pay you for it. The thing is, though, it’s often true. Hanlon uses the example of foods giant Kraft, who create great recipes using their products andpublish them for free online (and on packaging). They also have an online space for customers to share their own Kraft-based recipes. This is the perfect use of content: the time, effort and investment that goes into recipe development is more than paid back in increased sales of Kraft products, and the community message boards allow for sharing of content – and amplification of message, and of desire for product.

Another example is former hiring manager Alison Green‘s popular Ask A Manager blog (to which I will admit a small addiction!). Green updates the blog fairly religiously, providing free expert advice to readers in solving their work-related issues. Green also blogs professionally for various high-profile corporate sites, like the Intuit QuickBase Blog, and consults with various organizations around management issues. Using the content of her website to establish her expertise – and she is truly expert – around workplace issues has helped her to build a successful business around providing similar services for a fee.

Write as you’d like others to write for you.

This is a common piece of advice given to writers of fiction – “write the book you’d want to read” – but it’s just as useful for content and social media marketers. When you’re writing content for a client, think about what you’d want to see on a website or blog or in a tweet or a Facebook post if you were looking for a product they’re selling or a service they’re providing. What questions would you want answered? Do the research and answer them. What (true) story about the product or service would captivate you? Tell that story.

The upshot? Your online presence is often your first impression, so make it count. Strong proprietary content is one of the best ways to attract new business online, and to establish and present your company to potential clients or customers as an expert, competent source of the product or service you’re selling.

3 Reasons Why You Need Both Social Media and Content Marketing

Yesterday morning, I came across an interesting post by marketing expert Heidi Cohen about the differences between social media and content marketing. Cohen has included in her post a handy chart explaining the difference in utility between the two.

Social media marketing and content marketing are two terms that are sometimes used interchangeably, but they are actually complementary halves of a whole strategy, not the same thing at all. In this post, I’m going to provide basic definitions of social media marketing and content marketing, and then I’ll give you three important reasons why you need both in your online marketing strategy.

What is social media marketing?

When people think of social media, they often think of Facebook and Twitter, and maybe Pinterest by now. These are the biggest social media platforms. However, social media is best defined by its essence, which is: an online medium or collection of media whose primary purpose is to foment and encourage the building of relationships, and which provides the tools necessary to build those relationships. Social media is personal, not institutional. It is, at its heart, small-scale. As I explain in a previous post: social media isn’t really about marketing, but rather about relationship-building.

What is content marketing?

Content marketing is basically what it says on the tin: it’s content-based media belonging to your business, from your website to your print materials to your blog. The important thing about content marketing, though, is that it relies on proprietarycontent. Content marketing isn’t about tweeting a great article from the Wall Street Journal or about linking someone else’s blog post on Facebook: it’s about buildingyour own content base and establishing your expertise – and your brand identity – through fresh, useful, excellent content. I’ve written before about the importance ofbuilding a blog as an encyclopedia of collected knowledge; the same principle applies to everything else you release publicly, across print, traditional and online media.

So basically: content marketing is what you’re saying; social media marketing is where and how you say it. 

Why do you need both?

Here are three big reasons:

1. Each is much less effective without the other.

You can blog your heart out every single day, but unless you’re actively promoting that blog on social media channels, few people are ever going to read it. Even if you have the best SEO strategy in the world, and you’re #1 in Google search results for all of your most relevant keywords, you’re missing out on a huge amount of potential traffic from focused, interested readers if you don’t engage on social media.

Similarly, social media without proprietary content is, to adapt Macbeth, merely“sound and fury, signifying nothing.” You can tweet interesting articles as much as you want, and you can build relationships with other experts in your field by retweeting their content and engaging in their spaces, but ultimately you need your own content in order to ground your social media strategy in something substantial. At the very least, you need a good website full of useful information; ideally, you’ll have dynamic and fresh content. You want other people to tweet and retweet yourwork, too.

2. They boost each other’s signals.

Not only are content and social media marketing complementary strategies, but they also significantly reinforce each other. As I mentioned, social media channels are very effective in disseminating proprietary content to appropriate audiences, and the nature of social media is that good content will also be reproduced and shared by others. Think of an echo: a good loud shout will reverberate off the face of a cliff for far longer than the duration of the initial sound. Or, if you’re a theory-head like me, think of it as “The Work of Art in the Age of Social Media Reproduction”.

Similarly, your content should reinforce your social media strategy. Include the Facebook and Twitter logos on all of your print materials, on your billboards, in your commercials. In all of your web content, include the option to share via channels like Digg and Reddit along with Facebook and Twitter, and add an RSS button to your content. Make your content easily shareable and people will be more likely to share it.

3. They are important parts of a more robust marketing program.

Marketing is multifaceted, as any marketer will tell you, and there’s a reason why most large companies have several marketing specialists who all have different foci. Social media and content marketing have grown in importance relative to the whole picture, though, and it’s important to pay attention to these aspects of your program if you want to maximize your market share and reach as many potential customers/clients as possible.

Not every business will be able to engage on every level, of course. There are always decisions to be made. But proprietary content, supported by a good, consistent social media campaign, is essential for any business that wants to maximize its online presence. As more businesses develop a robust and dynamic online presence, those that don’t will be left behind.

4 Things To Do in Grad School To Prepare for a Non-Academic Career

Via Melonie Fullick (@qui_oui on Twitter) comes this article on The Professor Is In, all about what to do right now in graduate school – even in your first year – to set yourself up to get an academic job at the end of it. It’s good advice: publish, go for grants, read job ads so you know what’s out there and what hiring departments are asking for, go to conferences and meet people. These are all keys to preparing yourself for an academic career and if you are in graduate school you should read it.

I have one major thing to add, though, that I think is crucial in today’s dismal academic job market: figure out a viable alternative career, and position yourself potentially to enter that career at the end of graduate school.

There are lots of reasons why academia may not work out. You may find yourself more geographically limited than you had anticipated, for whatever reason, as I have. You might find that, unfortunately, your research specialty isn’t very much in demand on the market and you’re unable to find a tenure-track position at all. You may find that there simply aren’t any academic jobs out there that you’re really keen on. Or heck, you could find that your alternative plan is more rewarding than an academic career, either financially, intellectually or otherwise.

This post is essentially a follow-up to my last post, on why the field of marketing is a good match for many humanities PhDs, and vice versa. Today, I’m going to provide some concrete advice as to what you can do in graduate school to prepare yourself for the possibility of leaving academia for a different career path once you’re finished your graduate degree. I’m speaking here from the perspective of someone with a PhD in English who also has 10 years’ experience in the business world, mostly concurrent to academia, and has built a successful professional practice outside of the academy.

1. Realize that you are not a failure if you leave academia.

I swear, one day I’m going to write a book about leaving academia called You Are Not a Failure. There’s so much emotional baggage in academia around success and failure. Megan Pincus Kajitani and Rebecca A. Bryant discussed this issue several years ago in their Chronicle of Higher Education article “A PhD and a Failure”:

“Failure, says academic culture, is anything other than achieving the ultimate goal of a tenure-track professorship. More specifically, the epitome of success is a tenure-track job at a major research university. You’re still successful, albeit to a lesser degree, if that job is at a liberal-arts college, and even less so if it’s at a community college. But a nonacademic career, well, that’s just unacceptable.”

The concept that you are a failure if you leave academia for any reason is simply wrong. It’s wrong, and it’s destructive. It is difficult adequately to describe without the use of profanity how awful I find it that some of the most intelligent people out there are encouraged to feel like failures by academic culture because they take their PhDs out of the academy.

Why is this #1 on my list? Because if you are going to start putting together scaffolding now on which potentially to build a successful non-academic career, you have to believe, truly, that you will not be a failure if you pursue that career. I am here to tell you that you won’t be. But you have to believe me.

2. Figure out what you like to do, using the 3 AM Test.

My friend Madeline Ashby, a science fiction writer and futurist, recently gave me the best piece of advice I have ever heard. “When you wake up at 3 AM and can’t get back to sleep,” she said, “what do you do? That’s what you should do for a living. And when I get up at 3 AM, I write stories. Always have.”

Me? I head straight to the computer and open up Twitter and Facebook, read the blogs I have in my RSS feed, and my brain starts working on analyzing discursive trends in the information I’m looking at and figuring out how this product could be used in that space to increase market share and making up taglines for the products I see advertised in banner ads. Yup, I’m a marketer, all right.

The 3 AM Test is really about what you do when you have nothing else at all youhave to do; when your time is essentially your own. Of course, the problem that many academics have is that at 3 AM, they read journal articles or put together syllabi. They really, really want to be academics.

The thing is, the 3 AM Test isn’t just about the specifics of what you want to do; it can work a bit more generally, too. At 3 AM, do you prefer to read or write? Do you write papers, or work on lectures, or grade papers? (OK, probably no one grades papers…) What you like to do in a general sense can help you figure out a potential direction in which you might want to go. If you prefer to read and analyze than write, a position as an acquisitions editor, market researcher or business or policy analyst might be something to aspire to, depending on your field. If you prefer to write, then copywriting or technical writing or organizational communications is a better bet. If teaching is your true passion and you write syllabi for fun, then corporate training or prep-school teaching could be a logical path. The prep school recruitment agency Carney Sandoe specializes in matching folks with advanced degrees with open positions.

Once you’ve figured out what sort of things you like to do when no one is telling you you’re a failure for not doing other things, then you can figure out who to contact to help you get into that field. Which brings me to…

3. Network with non-academic folks.

Networking is the name of the game in every field, I’m afraid. Just as you go to conferences in academia to press the flesh with the big-name profs and exchange ideas, you’ll need to do the same in business. This is fairly standard advice to job-seekers in any field, and I’m going to reiterate it here. Go to networking events, meet people, ask questions, exchange business cards. The big advantage you have at these things as a graduate student, though, is that you’re not actively looking for a job at these events; you’re just there to learn about the field and to meet people. This gives you the psychological and emotional energy to sit back, enjoy and learn without feeling or acting desperate for an opportunity.

In business, there’s also the the “informational interview”, which is a great way to make contacts in your chosen field. Informational interviews are essentially brain-picking sessions in which you have the opportunity to learn more about a person and their field. These are also fairly easy to set up if you’re at all outgoing, because you’re not asking someone for anything other than a half hour of their time.

Don’t be shy; ask your inner circle if they know anybody in your target field(s), and get in touch with a polite email. Offer to take them out for coffee and tell them you’d really love to find out more about what it’s like to work in Field X. Make sure that it’s clear you’re not looking for a full-time job; you just want to take the opportunity to find out more. Plus, with the advent of social media, this can be even easier; you don’t have to go through friends at all. Pick a blogger in your chosen field whose work your enjoy, read along for a while, and drop them a line.

In any and all networking, it’s important to remember two things. First of all, people enjoy talking about themselves. And second, people like helping other people. I’ve been asked many times to sit down with folks who are interested in getting into marketing and to give my advice about how to get into the field. I always do it, for both of the aforementioned reasons. I get an altruistic thrill out of connecting someone with an opportunity, and most people I know are the same way. And, frankly, who doesn’t love talking about themselves and their experiences? (The entire concept of blogging is essentially based on the latter…)

4. Get some work experience.

I started out in marketing while I was an undergrad; I worked during the summer and a little bit during the school year. During my Master’s degree, I worked 20 hours a week as a marketing coordinator for a construction company, and I started a director-level position in organizational communications very quickly once I started looking for non-academic work. I was lucky to find these opportunities, and I will readily acknowledge that my experience was pre-recession.

However, working for a major company isn’t the only way to gain experience in your chosen field. There are often on-campus volunteer positions that are resume-friendly. For instance, during my PhD I volunteered as a coordinator for a research group at Royal Holloway, University of London. Most schools have student-run committees and organizations that need people in lots of different capacities, from marketing and PR to financial management to human resources and recruitment and even supply chain management. Volunteering for positions like these can also help you get a taste for what kind of non-academic work you might enjoy.

It can also be worth your time to volunteer your time and skills for a charitable organization or your place of worship, from both a business and a personal point of view. I do some pro-bono social media consulting for Save a Child’s Heart, for instance. If you’re a highly skilled individual, like most PhD candidates are, you’ll likely be asked to do more than stuff envelopes: you might end up doing copywriting or web development or help with volunteer coordination or event management.

Plus, volunteering for these kinds of organizations can put you in contact with folks who are well-connected in the professional world. Many nonprofit board members are successful in their fields, which is why they’re asked to sit on the board; if you do excellent work for their organization, they may be able to connect you with professional opportunities.

The Upshot

I want to be clear: none of this is to say that you will not be successful in academia, or even that you should make your exit your primary plan. Academics are important and valuable, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be one. They (we?) contribute a lot to society and there is significant value, social and otherwise, in being an academic.

But the reality of the academic job market is that many PhDs will not find academic jobs. It just makes good sense to investigate, at the very least, the big wide world outside the ivory tower. And there’s no shame at all in deciding, under the circumstances, to do something else. You just might find that you like it – or at least that it’s an acceptable alternative to academe.

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.)

Does Twitter Make Blogging Less Sequential?

Ah, Twitter. Those of us who work in social media marketing have generally learned to love its constant, ubiquitous, almost soothing stream of information. Granted, there’s a lot of it, but most of us have shaped and trimmed our follow lists into an information flow that is both informative and interesting. And, of course, every so often, we click on a link that promises to lead us to more sweet, sweet content.

The thing is, not all of that information is news. Much of it, in fact, isn’t. It’s strategies, ideas, musings, pep talks, top-3 or -5 or -15 lists of things to do or not to do. In short: it’s non-time-sensitive.

Now, with that in mind, let’s talk about blogs. The original “weblogs” were essentially online diaries, and they were generally personal rather than professional. Those of us who are of a certain age will remember Diaryland, Xanga, the early days of Livejournal and Blogspot, even early media-rich social networking sites like Myspace in its heyday. They were places to put and publish our thoughts, to connect with others, and to track our own development from one year to the next.

A professional blog, however, is generally different. Of course, there will be time-sensitive content, depending on the industry: news stories, PR coups, responses to new developments in the field. But there’s a lot of content on most professional blogs that has more staying power, like field-specific advice.

Let’s take as an example one of my favourite entrepreneurship coaches: Anne-Marie Cross. I follow her on Twitter, and almost every day I follow a link or two from her feed. She tweets about women in business, strategies for selling and branding and getting paid what you’re worth and all sorts of highly useful, well-written content from her website. But she doesn’t just tweet articles when she writes them: she tweets each article fairly frequently, on an ongoing basis, which makes it much more likely that her target audience will intercept the tweet and read the article.

So how does this affect Twitter strategies? How can you use this understanding of the non-sequentiality of most blog content to improve your use of Twitter? Here are a couple of suggestions:

Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself. On a blog, once you’ve made a post, it’s out there and done. You might link back to it in a subsequent post, or put it in a category or tag it, but the blogging platform has limited ability to promote that post a few days or weeks later. Because of Twitter’s fast pace, you’re likely to have a different audience at different times, which means that you can continue to link to an article for as long as it’s relevant. Anne-Marie Cross’s article on building your personal brand, for instance, or my article on avoiding the Internet detritus of failed social media campaigns, are just as relevant now as they were when they were first published, and there’s no reason to stop promoting them on Twitter.

That said, if you tweet the same stuff every day, your followers will start to tune you out. There’s a delicate balance to be found. But there’s nothing wrong, and potentially a lot to be gained, by re-tweeting a good article every week or two.

Look at your blog as an encyclopedia, not a diary. You’re a professional. You have a lot of interesting, important and relevant things to say. When you blog professionally, do it as if you’re writing a compendium of collected knowledge and wisdom about your field. Because that’s what you’re doing, and that’s the approach that will get you the most readers – and will help those readers the most. You never know when a particular reader will be interested in, say, a post about emerging media markets; if you posted about it in September and they’re looking in January, they may not find your post. But if you post about it in September and tweet about it every week or so from then on, your target audience is much more likely to find you.

(I know I’ve promised a couple posts on other things – and don’t worry, they’re coming.)

Marketing: Creating a desire or responding to one?

Those of us who make our living, partly or wholly, in marketing are often subject to a very specific criticism. We’re told that we’re creating – presumably out of whole cloth – a desire in consumers, specifically in order to fulfill it. This is often done by creating a sense of lack in the consumer, a sense that s/he is missing out in some way, and presenting the product or service as the antidote.

(The whole thing sounds very Lacanian, eh? Desire stems from a lack – and as we are desiring creatures, we are tormented by constant lack, which we attempt to fulfill, partly, by consumer behaviour. But I digress.)

There are wrong ways to do this, of course. For instance, Skinnywater used the tagline “Skinny Always Gets The Attention” in a campaign ripped apart by the feminist website Jezebel, and a salon in Edmonton went for the classy approach bysuggesting that domestic violence is OK, as long as you look good afterward. I call this approach “negging”, after the term made trendy in the past year or so by the “pick-up artists” who have popped up all over pop culture. It’s essentially a cheap trick: insult consumers so that they feel bad about themselves, and offer your product as a solution. This approach is also risky from a business perspective: it can be effective, but can also result in backlash and in the (justifiable) tarnishing of your brand’s image.

I think it’s important to make a further distinction, though, between creating desire and responding to desire. Yes, as marketers, it’s our job to match up consumers with products and services – and sometimes to convince skeptical consumers that our products and services actually have some benefit to them. But I see good marketing as responding to a desire, whether latent or active, that already exists. James Gilbert’s article on marketing in IT distinguishes the two: “While I am not suggesting that you simply make people “afraid” to the point of dependency, it can be useful to educate your customers in some of the ways in which things can go wrong with their I.T. After all, they can’t ask you for a brand new backup system if they don’t know they need one.”

Let’s take Crest teeth whitening products, for example. White teeth are a desired trait in modern industrialized societies, and Crest knows this; it’s got a product to make your teeth whiter, and therefore will make you more beautiful or handsome. And that’s how it markets the product: not as something that will make your teeth less yellow or will make you less ugly, but as something that will make you look better. They mean the same thing, but at the same time, they don’t, in the same way “Your hair colour looks gorgeous!” doesn’t mean the same thing as “Your roots were so awful, I’m really glad you got them fixed!”

This begs, however, the question of where desire comes from in the first place. Why do we want to have white teeth? Is it because we’re told by marketers – by people like me – that we should want them, or does the desire come from society at large? What is society at large anyhow, and how does marketing fit into it?