From University of Massachusetts Amherst:

Catherine Elliott Tisdale graduated with her Ph.D. in English in May 2021. She is currently a Senior Editor at R Street Institute, a think tank in Washington D.C.

How did you get to where you are today?

While I was at UMass, I dabbled in a lot of different kinds of work over the summer. At first this was out of necessity. I was an international student, which meant that I couldn’t work off-campus, so I picked up what I could and gradually uncovered some really fun projects and built up my skill sets. I especially enjoyed working on the English department and MFA program websites and wading through the archives at the Renaissance Center.

Around two years before defending my dissertation, I started doing informational interviews with people in my network about their roles and spoke to a few recruiters about industry-specific expectations. I also focused on pinpointing what I enjoy and would like to spend my time working toward in my career. That is a question that I’m still working on today, but it gave me a jumping-off point to tailor my job search materials and fill in skills gaps.

I took my first full-time position specifically because of the pandemic: I wanted to help spread accurate information and get experience in healthcare, so I joined a hospital system and wrote much of their public-facing vaccination information. Once the vaccination pipeline solidified, I decided to move on because I wanted to be challenged by my work and grow my skills and responsibilities.

What do you do now? What is a typical day for you?

I am currently a Senior Editor at the R Street Institute, a think tank in Washington D.C. A typical day includes editing policy papers, testimonies, or amicus briefs. Any long-form policy piece goes through me for first-round revisions, goes back to the author, then returns to me for final polish. I usually edit one to three pieces a week and occasionally assist with short-form pieces like op-eds if the editorial team gets inundated. I may also sit in on or lead training for new policy writers and contractors, meet with the editorial team or my manager, oversee ongoing projects, or go over edits with an author if needed.

Is this where you thought you would be when you began your doctoral program?

No, but that is partly because I hadn’t thought about what I would do after graduate school, so I wasn’t going down a different path—I just went into the graduate program without a specific end goal. As a first-generation college student, I was excited to be in graduate school to begin with, and seven years felt like a good amount of time to figure out the rest.

How have you applied your graduate education in non-academic career contexts? 

What we do as graduate students applies to a vast array of professional fields if you know how to distill your existing skill sets. The problem is, most Ph.D. candidates often don’t have the faintest idea of how to translate their experience when talking to business leaders. Put simply: I write, I edit, I liaise with experts in different fields, I research, I think constantly about how to convey complex ideas, and I train other experts and writers to do the same. If you are teaching, writing, and working towards your Ph.D., then you are developing these skills.

Why did you decide to go to grad school and what made you decide to pursue an alt-ac career?

I came to graduate school to continue learning. I had a very underwhelming high school education in the U.K., began to build my knowledge in earnest at Union College (NY), and when it came to my undergrad commencement, I knew that I was not finished with my education. There was more to learn, and I needed to keep growing for my own sake, so I applied to graduate school. Learning has always been a fundamental driver for me, and it’s the reason I was able to finish my Ph.D. while knowing I wouldn’t go on to a traditional academic career.

I decided to pursue alt-ac because, while I love Renaissance drama, teaching, and research, I also love many other things. At UMass, my drive to explore led me to work on website development, content writing, editing, event planning/marketing, archival work, etc. Now that I am at R Street, I work on subjects spanning energy and sustainability, cybersecurity, criminal justice, alcohol regulations, governance, and more. It is refreshing to be able to stretch myself intellectually in new fields, and I am staying connected to my academic passions by privately writing a chapter for a book on teaching Shakespeare and by working on publishing parts of my dissertation.

What advice might you have for English students who are interested in the job you have now?

A couple of general pieces of advice that will help you transition into any field are below:

  1. Think about how your academic work translates into another field and how to describe it. What language does the field use in their job listings? What key words or expectations stand out in roles that you feel drawn to? Take those elements and work with your current experience to generate a strong resume and cover letter that speak directly to the work you’d be doing and the processes you’d be engaging in.
  2. Synthesize your skill sets (editing, research, management, etc.) and quantify your accomplishments. For instance, in an interview you could say you did 7 years of research. Or, you could say that you spent 7 years working X+ hours a week, synthesizing complex ideas from over Y authors, and writing and editing Z pages of original writing. Learn to quantify your experience. Numbers are easy to interpret and measure, and hiring managers like seeing them.
  3. Talk to people who have a job you’re interested in. Learn what an ‘informational’ interview is and start reaching out to people in your network (this is where LinkedIn can be useful). Sometimes people will offer to look over your résumé and give you advice, sometimes they will know someone else you can talk to (always ask if they do), and sometimes they won’t be much help. But this is how you learn about different fields, roles, and expectations.
    In short, prepare yourself to enter industry by learning the expectations over time so that you can make the shift gracefully—not all at once as you rush to finish your dissertation. All of the above is achievable given some time and some work.