Alice van Harten -- Management Consulting and Coaching
At what stage of your academic career did you start thinking about seeking work unrelated to philosophy?
I first seriously considered making a change at the end of my three-year post-doc at Stanford. Until then, I had been committed to an academic career—or, should I say, to a life of studying the classics. Even when research was tough, I had no more than fleeting thoughts about leaving.
But at the start of my final year at Stanford, the reality of the academic job market hit me: if I wanted a tenure track job, I would have to consider relocating to any location in the US. I had declined the only open ancient philosophy position in many years in my home country, the Netherlands, in favor of coming to Stanford. I loved the Stanford job, and I especially enjoyed teaching basic philosophy and critical thinking skills to freshmen, but I couldn’t see myself going just anywhere in the US. Also, while I loved teaching and interacting with students, I felt I wasn’t cut out for the solitary nature of academic research. So that got me thinking seriously about an alternative, non-academic career. My friend Matthew, who had just gotten his PhD in philosophy, had joined McKinsey a year earlier, and he seemed to do well, so that lowered the threshold of considering myself outside of academia. I started to do some more research and it became clear to me that I would have to go all out on a job search in business if I didn’t want to start with a low-level admin job (which at the time appeared to be the default exit option). And I certainly didn’t want to get caught in the trap of temp teaching. So that pushed me into the decision to throw myself into the business job search.
When did you actually leave? What was your thinking, or what were your reasons? What kind of work did you find, and how did you find it?
I left after my three-year post doc at Stanford ended. I had spoken with the career center at my alma mater, Cambridge, about my exit options and had found out that management consulting would give me solid experience in a range of business skills and offer me a lot of options later on. I also realized that if I wanted to give management consulting a shot, I would have to do it now. Companies like Bain and McKinsey have strong brands and, in turn, like to recruit employees with strong brands, and I knew that it would give me an advantage to apply from Stanford. I tapped into their recruiting efforts at Stanford: even as a post-doc, I was able to join the PhD recruiting cycle at Stanford. I even attended some undergraduate recruiting events to do some networking (while hoping that I wouldn’t run into any of my students).
The management consulting recruiting process was extremely rigorous, but I loved knowing that if I met the bar, I would get the job offer, as opposed to the situation in academia, where there are just way too many qualified candidates for a limited number of jobs. But I still had to meet that bar. Consultancies claim to recruit raw talent, but I knew just being smart wouldn’t get me there. I would have to show it in business case interviews. I went all out on the preparation: I acquainted myself with the most important business concepts, ploughed through a stack of books with titles such as Crack the Case, and, most importantly, practiced business cases with people I met through online forums. When the case interviews rolled around, I loved watching my interviewers’ reactions when they realized this ancient philosophy scholar knew how to calculate the Net Present Value of an investment. I think it took them by surprise! And, of course, it showed them that I was serious. I ended up with offers from Bain, BCG, and McKinsey.
I decided to go with Bain. I thought it would make for the most interesting challenge, since Bain is the least academic of the three. And, surely, it was a challenge! The work involved having to get up to speed on different industries and business problems, some of them very niche: I remember researching the global market for a manufacturer of small LCD screens, to be used in cars. It involved a lot of primary research on the automotive industry and the commodities used to manufacture the screens, and analysis in Excel. But what I enjoyed most, and I think this is true for many consultants, is the teamwork. It was a lot of fun to get started on a case with your team. Throughout the cases, you work very closely with your team members. There was something special about sinking your teeth into a new case as a team and drawing on each other’s insights throughout the process to get to the final recommendations to the client. The work was also a great learning experience in teaching me how to approach a range of problems from a fresh angle. And it taught me to be flexible in my approach. Both turned out to be tremendously helpful later on in setting up and running my own business.
What do you do now, and what's interesting about it?
I now have my own MBA admissions consultancy, Menlo Coaching (menlocoaching.com). I coach young professionals with their applications to top business schools, such as Harvard, Wharton and Kellogg. I had always enjoyed applying to competitive programs – Cambridge, Stanford, and the consulting companies. Then my Bain colleagues who knew about my background began to ask me for help with their MBA essays. They didn’t know exactly what my academic career had entailed, but they knew that it involved a lot of reading and writing. One thing led to another, and I was able to build a small client list before officially launching my business. I have now been doing this work full-time for about five years and I love it. I like the problem-solving component: I have to find out what kind of person and candidate my client is, and how best present him or her in the application. I enjoy using my critical thinking skills when helping my clients write their essays (ideally, I try to hone their writing and thinking skills). But what I love most about my work, hands down, are the relationships I develop with my clients. I find it immensely interesting to hear their stories, to try to ‘get them’ and then coach them through the process. I have clients from all over the world—not just the US, UK, and Western Europe, but also Pakistan, Nigeria, Indonesia, Vietnam, and others—and it has been enriching to understand and connect with people from different parts of the world. For me, the job is personal, like my academic job was. I didn’t have this at my two corporate jobs: they were fun (to my own surprise, I loved building Excel models), and I liked my colleagues, but I was not personally invested in the work. I am now, and it’s because I am working directly with people who I want to see succeed. And I love the vicarious thrill I get from their success. I no longer need to be in the center of success myself. I find it is double the fun if you help someone else to be successful. I am staying in touch with a fair number of my clients, who come to visit me when they are in the San Francisco Bay Area, and it is nice to see them grow in their careers. And I know that my clients appreciate my services: many keep me posted on their personal milestones. Of course, there are also huge benefits to being self-employed. You have even more freedom than as an academic. I have the independence to run the business the way I want to and to inject my personality and values into it. On the other hand, it also means that I have to handle every task, appealing or not: invoicing, bookkeeping, or taking late-night and weekend phone calls on the days right before deadlines.
How did you figure out what work projects you wanted to take on outside of academia? By extension, what advice would you offer to philosophers who want to leave philosophy, but who haven’t figured out what work they would pursue in its place?
I think you have to be smart about leaving academia. It helps to see it as a positive change rather than as a defeat. I was very strategic. I asked myself: what is the best next move? I wasn’t looking in the first instance for a job that would be fulfilling, but rather for a job that would give me options and for employers who would value my skills. I think philosophers have the skills to do many jobs well (after some warm-up period), but it doesn’t mean that they’ll be hired into all of those jobs. Many employers just won’t hire supersmart, over-educated academics without experience in their field.
I would recommend that philosophers who want to leave academia look at what makes sense for them. Consider what your skills are and who would pay for them. Be strategic: what exit options give you good opportunities in the long run? This may mean having to start in a position that doesn’t give you exactly what you want in the short term. For me that was consulting, and I think it can be a very attractive option for philosophers: you get to use your analytical skills and intellectual curiosity, the pay is good, and you will have excellent exit options and opportunities for growth. At the same time, working hours are rough—I remember updates with my manager at 5am, ‘the end of the day’—and you should be willing to travel a lot. I have also seen people make successful transitions into programming jobs (a friend of mine from Cambridge who studied Stoic logic successfully retrained as a programmer) and the public sector. And over the years I have seen many former colleagues move into interesting administrative jobs in academia with increasing responsibility.
More generally, what advice do you have for philosophers who, by chance or by necessity, are considering leaving philosophy?
Don’t underestimate and don’t overestimate the non-academic job market. Within the walls of academia, an academic career is often seen as the ‘holy grail,’ making non-academic jobs seem almost unthinkable. So some philosophers mistakenly believe that if they just put their brain to work, it will be easy for them to find a non-academic job. At the same time, others may find it very daunting to apply for jobs outside the safe walls of academia. So my first piece of advice is to thoroughly research the requirements of the field you’re looking to enter and think about how you can satisfy the recruiter. I spent months preparing for the consulting interviews: I attended recruiting events, did a lot of networking, and studied hard for the case interviews. Secondly, I found that academia hadn’t prepared me for the workplace very well. Many philosophers work hard and at all hours, but they are very independent and do not take well to someone else telling them what to do. I was no exception. At Bain, I had to learn to follow my manager’s lead, even if I sometimes questioned his decisions. Consulting taught me to be more open to other people’s perspectives, and not immediately think about what’s wrong with them, the knee-jerk philosophical attitude.
What's your perspective on academia today? Is there anything you miss about academia that can’t be replicated at your current job? What does your career offer that wasn't available to you as a philosopher?
I am very happy that I ended up leaving academia. I love my job, and friends who know me well comment on how much it seems to agree with me. I enjoy working with my clients, being challenged intellectually and practically, and owning my own business.
But I do miss the life of the mind. I overestimated how much time I’d have for research once I left. Especially now that I have a family, I have very little time left outside of my work to pursue my philosophical interests. My field was ancient philosophy, in particular Greek ethics and Plato. There was always an existential component to my research. My last research project was about the interpretation of the end of Plato’s Apology: I argue that Socrates there maintains his earlier position that the only life worth living is that of self-reflection, i.e., the life of a philosopher. In my current work, I surely do spend a lot of time reflecting on my clients’ lives, and I even aim to help them to reflect on their life, but there just isn’t that much reflection on the big questions: what makes our lives—my life—worth living? What contributes to making our lives good, and what distracts from it? I miss thinking about these questions, reading philosophers, ancient and modern, who write about these issues, and discussing them with my peers.
But I am glad to be where I’m now, and that I have been able to develop a thriving business that gives me pleasure every day. And while I miss reading Plato and other ancient thinkers on a daily basis, I have certainly not said goodbye to them. They are within reach, on my bookshelves, and I am grateful for my academic training, which equipped me to engage fully with these texts. I don’t feel that I have to go back to academia to study Plato again, though I would welcome more time to do so in my day.