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From PhD to Life

Transition Q & A: Daniel Mullin


Daniel Mullin earned his PhD in philosophy from the Free University in Amsterdam. He’s now a salesperson and consultant. Find him online at The Unemployed Philosopher’s Blog and follow him @dmullin81.

What did you hope for in terms of employment as you completed your PhD?

As I was working on my PhD, I still had hopes of becoming a tenured professor. I did quite a bit of adjunct teaching during my PhD and thought that if I was lucky, and got my foot in the door, I would get a tenure track job eventually. Of course, that didn’t happen. Instead, I learned that most adjuncts never make it to the tenure track and they work for very little money. Once I realized that the odds of landing a tenure track job were low, and that adjunct teaching couldn’t support me financially, I started to think seriously about non-academic employment. I actually started blogging on this subject before I officially finished my PhD. By the time I had the degree in hand, I was well on my way down another career path. Ironically, I haven’t taught since I earned my PhD.

What was your first post-PhD job?

My first full-time post-PhD job is the one I have now. I currently work for a company that sells advertising and promotional products to other businesses. My official title is Accounts Manager but it’s essentially a sales position. I enjoy it. The closest continuity between my sales job and academia is the importance of being an effective communicator. The communication skills I developed in grad school serve me well in my new role. Despite the negative connotations that being a salesperson has in some quarters of the academy, good teachers are good salespeople. They have to sell their students on the importance of some very abstract ideas, which is much more difficult than selling a physical product. Another area of continuity is that salespeople are educators in a sense. Although there’s a lot more information parity between buyers and sellers than there used to be, a salesperson still has to educate prospective customers about the product and the potential benefits of the product. The greatest discontinuity, I would say, is that salespeople make much stronger claims than academics do. As a salesperson, I don’t qualify my claims with phrases like ‘I think’ or ‘I believe’; I make much more declarative statements, so I’ve had to unlearn that peculiar academic way of speaking.

What kind of tasks do you do on a daily and weekly basis?

I’m responsible for managing active accounts, reselling and up-selling existing customers, and also bringing in new business. I spend most of my time on the phone calling customers and following up leads. I make my sales presentation and process the orders. I have to meet weekly quotas and I’m paid commission on sales. That’s another thing I like about the job. There is no ceiling on the amount of money I can make: it’s entirely based on performance. There are very clear criteria for success or failure in sales. But it isn’t a sink or swim environment. I’m fortunate to work for a company that provides ongoing training and support for its employees. Some days, I feel like I’m taking a business course, because some of our coaching sessions have a classroom feel to them. Since I spent so much time as a student, I’m very comfortable in such a setting.

What most surprises you about your job?

Probably the continuities between my job and my academic background. Also, I’m surprised at my success so far and how well my skill set has translated into this new environment. I’ve often said on my blog that PhDs are capable of anything because our background uniquely equips us for a variety of tasks; however, until I started working in the so-called real world, that knowledge was, well, academic. It’s nice to know that it works in practice.

What are your favourite parts of your job?

I enjoy making sales. I think closing deals has given me a lot of confidence that I didn’t have before. There’s a certain excitement in knowing that I can take a customer from “Hello, my name is Dan” to “will that be Visa, Mastercard, or American Express?” Knowing that I can do that makes me more confident in other areas of my life. Of course, I also like the money and the fact that the job is based on performance. I think most academics are turned off by what they perceive as the greedy, capitalist business world. However, business is exciting and, ironically, much more based on merit than the academy. It’s a place where really bright people — like PhDs — are actually rewarded in monetary terms. We shouldn’t apologize for wanting to make money and have our hard work rewarded.

What would you change about it if you could?

Like any job, there are aspects I would change. Making cold calls can be a frustrating process because I encounter more rejection than I do selling to active or dormant customers with whom I have a previous business relationship. Sometimes people can be rude, but I press on and play the numbers. Statistically, a certain number of people will say “yes.” I realize that cold calling is a necessary part of the job, and when successful, pays the highest commission, but it’s my least favorite task.

What’s next for you, career-wise?

I’m happy where I am now. My dream, however, is to go into business for myself at some point as a business coach and consultant. I need to build up some business experience first, however, and I’ve thought about working in management consulting as a means to that end. But I’m quite happy to work in sales for a while and see where it takes me.

What advice or thoughts do you have for post-PhDs in transition now?

Don’t be intimidated by the business world. If you’ve earned a PhD, you’re pretty smart and won’t have any trouble in a business context. You’re essentially a professional student, so anything you don’t know, you can learn. Read a few business books. Some of them are better than others, but the point is to learn the language your audiences is speaking. Learn how to communicate effectively to non-academic recruiters. Then deploy your post-academic narrative which should be positive and stress the continuity between your skill set and the job. Then start making money and don’t look back. Seriously, don’t worry about being labelled a sell-out by your former colleagues. There’s no shame is looking after yourself and making a comfortable living. Finally — you’ll like this, Jen — hire a career coach who understands the transition process and can help you figure it out. Be patient with yourself, because the process takes time. But so does earning a PhD and you’ve already done that. Everything else is relatively easy.

Jennifer Polk
Jennifer Polk is a career coach and entrepreneur. She earned her PhD in history from the University of Toronto in 2012. For more information and resources, check out her website:
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