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Silicon Valley Offers Humanities PhDs Some Solid Advice

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On a sunny May 10, 2012 high-tech industry heavyweights and Stanford academics reconvened to discuss potential futures of humanities PhDs. This year's second annual Bibliotech conference at Stanford University offered solid advice. Here are some soundbites from Silicon Valley industry experts:

The Bibliotech Program is the brainchild of Stanford Ph.D. Anais St. Jude, who with Stanford Professor David Palumbo-Liu organized the inaugural conference in the spring of 2011 to help build a bridge between doctorates in humanities fields and potential employers in Silicon Valley. This year's conference opened with an introduction from Senior Associate Dean for the Humanities and Arts, Debra Satz. Martin Giles, U.S. technology correspondent for The Economist newspaper, very ably moderated, asking hard questions and eliciting thoughtful discussion. Geoffrey Moore, author and venture partner at Mohr Davidow Ventures presented the keynote and was active on discussion panels. Stanford Lecturer Petra Dierkes-Thrun tweeted up-to-the-minute thoughts on the discussion. Tim McCormick of Stanford's HighWire Press covered the conference and posted a Storify wrap-up and highlights.

Well-attended and showcasing several success stories of former Stanford Ph.D.s who now work in industry, the Bibliotech12 conference demonstrates the increasing openness of academics to industry, and hopefully the converse about industry as well. Having faced a shrinking and ever-more dismal academic job market over the last 30 years, while also experiencing the digital revolution in their own work and teaching, more Humanities Ph.D.s are looking to the high tech world for jobs, even as they anticipate the tsunami of online higher education.

Being humble: As was clear from the first Bibliotech conference, in order for humanities Ph.D.s to find employment beyond the university, they must first re-evaluate their self-understanding in the universe as bearers of enlightenment and prestige. While many humanities Ph.D.s continue to educate the public and work for greater human understanding, from the perspective of industry, humanities Ph.D.s suffer from of a reputation of arrogance, evidenced in a sense of superiority over the technological culture that defines industry. In addition, their prospect of participating productively in a new work environment is limited to the extent that they have been trained in present-day version of a medieval guild system of professorial patrimony and solitary research. What can humanities PhD's do to change this perception? First, they need to get over themselves. Surely, spending 8-12 years in higher education suggests one is fairly well-educated and has many ideas, but these should not promote any feelings of entitlement. As a panelist put it about a former employee, who misguidedly imagined academic credentials could compensate for lack of hard-work: "Someone said to me 'you can't fire an Oxford Ph.D.' and I said 'I think I will."

Some of this newly gained humility may require Ph.D.s to "give up your nouns," by which industry experts suggested transitioning away from academic jargon, and being willing to take more entry level jobs, while learning new skills. Many of the academic participants in the audience responded by asking industry members, what it would take to find more "points of entry" and to get companies to take a chance with candidates who have taught many years, but not held industry position. The answer was always "willingness to learn" and "openness to new publics."

Learn Something (ANYTHING) About Technology
: In the process of re-evaluating the public value of their skills, many humanities Ph.D.s have come to understand the importance of the technology they use in the classrooms and for research. Everyone at the conference agreed that better preparation for public contributions and employment means learning new technical skills e.g. commuter languages, protocols, vocabulary, ideas. This in turn requires taking relevant courses while still at the university and also continuing education afterwards. There are many enrichment offerings that fit the schedules of working professionals that will also enable humanities Ph.D.s to improve their understanding of the high tech industry they hope to join.

Ask Yourself Where and with Whom You Can Play: Along with broadening one's knowledge and vocabulary for a larger public sphere, humanities PhDs need to think about the compatibility of their skills. Some suggestions for graduate students included looking for collaborative work with design schools at universities, law schools and schools of journalism to help develop new modes of writing in order to enhance their humanities skill set. All of these translatable skills also play an important role in marketing and communications. In fact, the most re-tweeted statement came from Vivek Wadhwa who captured keynote speaker Geoffrey Moore's words:

Engineers know how to create a product but they don't know how to make a market -- @geoffreyamoore #bibliotech12

Here's the moment for Humanities Ph.D.s to step in and provide their expertise with languages, metaphors, narratives, logic, analogies, naming things, teaching and disseminating knowledge. All industry guests at the conference agreed industry could benefit from advanced expertise in these essential skills and knowhow. Teaching experience proved one of the most important expertise academics could offer. After years of leading courses, helping students, marking papers, humanities Ph.D.s are well-prepared for transmitting ideas to others. Here, Russell A. Berman, offered a passionate argument for the greatly undervalued importance of teaching and for revising the Ph.D. to prepare humanities students to share their skills more effectively and in many different publics.

Fake it Until You Make It: For those still in the process of transforming themselves from academics to industry people, scurrying to after-hours and online tech courses, industry experts had this advice: Just blend. Go with the flow. Expertise can only happen by doing, so join up, be a team player and learn on the job.

For those academics who remain unconvinced and queasy about the intents of the private sector, they might take some comfort in how industry sees humanities Ph.D.s -- as the providers of moral fiber in a Wild West of high technology deals. Indeed, Geoffrey Moore, Allen Blue, and many others agreed that humanities Ph.D.s, having spent their youth pursuing the "examined life" are highly suited to help companies consider the moral wisdom of their exchanges. Such an invitation to enter the world of industry in order to help improve it intellectually, linguistically, pedagogically and ethically will surely draw many qualified scholars to the high tech workforce. Such opportunities will be all the more welcome as the traditional academic job market continues to contract.

Organizer St. Jude looks forward to many more such exchanges, reflecting on this year's conference:

"One of the most positive outcomes of the conference was the exposure of innovative humanities research to tech industry leaders, who identified the unique contributions of potential team-members who've been teachers, researchers and wordsmiths."