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From PhD to Life

Transition Q & A: Patrick Vitalone


Patrick Vitalone earned his MA in modern European history from the University of York. He is a start-up technology professional from Boston currently living in San Francisco. Patrick focuses on company growth on the U.S. East Coast, and in Europe and the Middle East. He mainly writes on nationalism, business and economics, and his research has been featured on the BBC in the United Kingdom, as well as the History Channel in the U.S. and Europe. Patrick has studied politics and nationalism since he was a young teenager, finding an early fascination in the rise of such French figures as Maximilien Robespierre and Napoleon Bonaparte. He is also very keen on the early American political disputes between the Federalists of his homeland and the Anti-Federalists of the Mid-Atlantic and South. He has a particular fondness for Alexander Hamilton.

You can contact Patrick by email at [email protected].

When you finished your MA, what did you plan to do next?

My original plan was to go on to a history PhD in either the UK or Italy, which would have taken me three additional years. I did my MA in the UK, which took one year. I like the U.S. university system, but, given my MA studies, it didn’t make sense to do an American PhD as the program is, on average, about five to seven years with an MA built in.

The reports of an abysmal academic job market and conditions for newly minted PhDs scared me off.

What was your first post-MA job, and how did you get it?

Aside from bartending at upscale establishments, which I had been doing off and on for five years prior, my first research job was for the BBC’s “Who Do You Think You Are?” I was living in Salem, Massachusetts, and a fellow grad from York had moved to London to work in television. One of the show’s guests had an ancestor with alleged ties to the Salem witch trials, so it just made sense to recruit me. I had the archival research skills, and was living on location. I used that to my advantage when negotiating pay. It was a lot of fun. I travelled not only to the archives, but also historic sights around Essex County, Massachusetts. It really gave me a new appreciation for the area where I grew up.

What do you do now?

I work for a technology start-up in San Francisco focusing on growth into the East Coast of the U.S., Europe, and the Middle East. A far cry from history at first glance, but strangely enough my historical and political interests around nationalism segue quite nicely into developing company messaging and marketing.

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

I research prospective companies who would benefit from our product, and expose them to the technology. It’s full-cycle sales, which requires sourcing companies, potential buyers, and the negotiating contracts and price. On the marketing side, we set up events and conferences, attend, and “evangelize” our product, and use social media to acquire customers in a less targeted manner. I head up East Coast and EMEA growth for the company. Europeans in particular really appreciate working with someone who is passionate about their history and culture. I think it’s rare that they run into an American who can place Lichtenstein on a map.

What most surprises you about your job?

I would say the technology industry as a whole. Living in San Francisco/Silicon Valley, I’m on the front lines of the latest technologies and which of those receive venture capital funding. What’s most surprising is that there’s no one formula or silver bullet for success, aside from the obvious hard work. Even then, apps can fail. Sometimes the most obscure ideas become the most successful, and the ones that seem like a no-brainer fail completely. It’s wild. There is no place like San Francisco on earth.

What are your favourite parts of your job?

I love messaging, both verbal and written. There’s something about a young technology that is so pristine and uncorrupted by extensive corporatization. When a product or company goes public, the focus shifts from the technology’s original value to immediate quarterly results. In a start-up, nothing is developed or figured out. The founders know why it works, but crafting that message isn’t there yet. I’m a thinker and communicator at heart, half right brained, half left, and my career helps me to utilize those skills in the most robust way possible.

What would you change about it if you could?

In business and life as a whole, probably politics. I am fortunate in that it doesn’t really exist at my company, although that could change once the company becomes much larger.

I think organizations need to focus on results, and that’s it. Forget formalizing process, forget schmoozing, or making people feel important because you might need them later. Call me crass, but I don’t care much for people’s feelings in the workplace. I’m respectful, but my main concern is about making a product or company succeed. I am not the most savvy when it comes to internal politics. In fact, I usually don’t like the people who are experts at politics. They seem a bit slimey to me.

What’s next for you, career-wise?

I’m always busying myself with both work and side-projects, so lots actually!

I think I’ll stay in technology for a while. There could be a potential MBA on the horizon. I really enjoy marketing and the EMEA territory, so I may move back to Europe to purse that at some point. I like SDA Bocconi’s Global Executive MBA program (in Italy), and the London School of Business as well.

None of this is guaranteed, though. I really, truly enjoy living in San Francisco. I also really enjoy working in very young, early stage start-ups. In these environments, an MBA doesn’t make sense. The MBA degree in the start-up community is a bit stodgy, and has a reputation of being counterproductive as far as innovation is concerned.

What advice or thoughts do you have for MAs (or PhDs) in transition now?

Think about the industry or company you seek to join, and how the degree you have benefits that industry or company. Everything is a sell. In order to sell successfully, you have to understand who you are speaking with. I succeeded in technology sales and marketing because I understood the connection with my MA. I studied people, and their behaviour. Surely, tech founders want their growth teams to understand the behaviour of people!

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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  1. Steff Leigh / June 6, 2014 at 10:56

    This is the kind of story I’d like to hear more. I’m also an MA grad who has decided not to pursue a PhD. I think it’s important for students to make an informed decision sooner than later, but it seems like most stories of leaving academia or during or post-PhD.

  2. Margaret Kelly / June 10, 2014 at 13:14

    Thank you so much for posting these interviews, Jennifer. I’m considering a philosophy PhD and reading about these transitions has abated some of my fears.

    • Jennifer Polk / June 10, 2014 at 13:37

      You’re welcome! The generosity of my participants is wonderful. Undertaking a PhD is no small thing but if it’s the right move for you, that’s awesome! And I wish you all the best and hope you can avoid the traps so many of us fall into. Let me know if I can help, ever.

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