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From PhD to Life

Transition Q & A: Maria Irchenhauser


Maria Irchenhauser received her PhD in German literature from Queen’s University. She now manages the German division of an international media company in London, UK. Find her online over at LinkedIn and follow her @M_Irchenhauser.

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

When I completed my PhD in German literature in 2009, I was open to academic and non-academic employment, but I wanted to explore an academic career first to see if it was for me. By remaining flexible to different types of labour markets, I was also hoping to increase my job prospects internationally, as I was considering moving closer to my family in Germany.

What was your first post-PhD job?

I secured a position as a visiting fellow in German and international studies at the Bader International Study Centre (BISC), the international campus of Queen’s University in the UK. I taught first-year German classes as well as upper-year seminars, including one on historical, social, and cultural British-German relations, for two years.

While I enjoyed my time at the “castle” — the BISC is hosted in the beautiful Herstmonceux Castle located just a few kilometres from the south coast of Britain — I was concerned about secure, long-term career options in academia. With news about department closures in German studies and other humanities disciplines pouring in from Canadian and UK universities, I felt myself faced with two options: I could apply for permanent positions with the likely prospect of remaining in temporary limbo for a while, or I could start thinking more seriously about transitioning out of academia and explore a world which even during times of global financial crisis seemed to offer more job options than the university sector. For the next six months, I spent much time revising my CV and re-defining my career in non-academic terms. My career profile, which used to focus on degrees, courses taught, and publication titles, now highlighted my knowledge, skills, and experience, and I looked at how I could transfer them into an interesting position in the private sector. I identified industries and work environments that might match my skills profile, and applied for jobs in fields such as media and publishing, teaching, non-profit organizations, and university administration. I landed a position in the media sector where I could use my research and teaching skills as well as my knowledge of German media and culture.

What do you do now?

Initially hired as a German media researcher and internship coordinator, I now manage the German team of an international media company based in London, UK. The company offers online information, research, and networking services for journalists and public relations professionals. I am also doing freelance translation work for a UK-based consultancy that regularly conducts consumer studies in Germany.

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

With five team members, the German division of my company is small, and l deal with a varied range of tasks. On a weekly basis, my responsibilities include researching developments in the German-speaking media sector, writing news and conducting interviews with journalists and public relations professionals for the company’s media newsletter, selling our services and managing client accounts, training prospective and existing clients, translating and localizing company websites, collaborating with team members in and outside the office, and monitoring project progress. I am also in charge of the company’s German internship program and deal with recruitment and training of interns and liaising with universities in the UK and Germany. Since my company recently launched a new online research tool for journalists in the German market, my team and I devote much of our time to developing information and marketing material as well as organizing events with our public relations partner in Germany.

What most surprises you about your job?

What most surprises me is how much I have learned about business administration “on the job” in the past 18 months — from day-to-day tasks related to sales, marketing, and account management to all the planning and processes involved in the launch of a new project. While I have no formal business-related qualifications, my academic training provided me with project management skills that are very much applicable in the private sector.

What are your favourite parts of your job?

My favourite parts of my job include all communication-related activities, whether it is researching the media world, conducting interviews with journalists and PR consultants, developing ideas for marketing content, or assisting and collaborating with clients. Since I am representing the “German voice” in my company, I also often find myself communicating and mediating between British and German cultures. This can be challenging at times, but it also often fun, and it gives me the opportunity to apply the intercultural concepts I used to teach in my German classes. Another aspect of my job I particularly enjoy is working with our student interns and coordinating the internship program. It keeps me connected to the academic world.

What would you change about it if you could?

While I enjoy the diversity of responsibilities I have in my job, I sometimes wish I could devote more time and focus to fewer tasks.

What’s next for you, career-wise?

My midterm goal is the successful completion of the project we recently launched in Germany. It’s been an exciting process so far, and I’ve learned a great deal over the last few months. My long-term goal is to combine my academic and non-academic work experience and to move back into a higher education setting. Ideally, I would love to work in a student-advising capacity, with a special interest in career-related and international topics. I think my own experience of transitioning from academia to the private sector as well as across different countries has provided me with great insight into global labour and education markets.

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

One piece of advice I would like to share from my own experience is to try and do your career transition in small steps. Many graduate degrees, particularly in the field of humanities, do not necessarily come with specific job profiles, and that can be challenging, but it is also a real opportunity to learn how to translate and use your skills and knowledge to create your own professional profile outside academia. This may take some time, and many may have to take a step or two back at first to get the job experience, skills, and knowledge they need to progress towards their ideal job. You will, however, discover that much of what you have been doing in academia can be almost directly applied in many business sectors, whether it’s research and analysis, writing and publishing, training, teaching and recruiting, marketing and project management, or many other tasks. A big part of the transition process is a matter of molding your academic skills to match concepts and terminology used in the private sector. Transitioning outside academia is like learning to re-tell a story — your career story — from a different perspective.

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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