Upcoming Speaking and Teaching, Spring 2014 Edition

It’s a busy spring around here!

This is the last week of my Marketing Management class at the Schulich School of Business; I’ve loved teaching undergrads for the first time in ages, and I’m going to be sorry to see those students go. They are, almost to a one, fantastic.

Coming up next week, I’ll be heading out to San Francisco and giving a short talk and hosting a discussion on social media and digital marketing for the Pediatric Device Consortium at UCSF. These folks are basically superheroes – their mandate is to develop surgical devices to make surgery on kids easier, less painful and more successful – and it’s really a privilege to be working with them.

In May, I’ll be giving a session on Creativity and Innovation through the Schulich Executive Education Centre for a major financial institution, and will be representing the McMaster-Syracuse MCM program, where I’m on faculty, at the Canadian Institute Women’s Leadership Forum.

In June, I’ll be teaching Communications and New Technologies, a course I’ve developed for the MCM, at this summer’s MCM residency (and online throughout the summer). I’ll also be heading off to Helsinki, Finland for the 2014 Consumer Culture Theory Conference, where I’ll be presenting my current research on authenticity, community and the luxury brand experience.

July’s reasonably quiet at the moment, and then in August, thanks to the generosity of some good friends and their lovely cat, I’ll be heading (at least for a day) to Loncon 3.

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3 Things You Can’t Do In Business (That You Used To Do In Academia)

Not a lot of preamble here: I’ve been thinking quite a lot about why former academics seem sometimes to struggle in the business world. Here are three of the biggest, most important things that post-academics or alt-academics looking to enter the business world need to understand before they make the leap.

(Since I’m not a scientist, I can’t tell you how much #3 applies to ex-scientists; my guess is that it applies quite differently to quantitative research than qualitative or theoretical research. So please take that into account when you’re reading this!)

Anyway: don’t do these 3 things.

1. Ignore things (deadlines, emails, etc.) and hope they’ll go away.

I can’t tell you how many academics I know who submit pieces late, whether they’re books or chapters or papers or conference proposals or whatnot. And when I say late, I don’t mean on Monday when they promised it on Friday. I mean months late. Years late, in some cases.

And I have a confession to make: in my academic career, I’ve done this too. It’s the norm. It causes no end of hair-tearing frustration for the people who are on the receiving end of these pieces and proposals, but it’s part of academic culture, I suppose.

I also hear this quite a bit: “I was supposed to email my advisor back, but I can’t face it, so I marathoned Breaking Bad on Netflix.” “I haven’t done anything on my dissertation/book in months; I just can’t get into the right head space.” “I’m just not making progress. I don’t know why. I’m avoiding going to campus.”

This stuff flummoxes me.

In business, if you don’t go to work, you get fired. If you don’t make progress on a project for months, even weeks, you get fired. If you turn in an assignment six months late, you get fired. If you don’t create or add value, you get fired.

If you avoid your boss because you can’t face speaking to her, you get a reputation as unreliable. If you avoid a necessary task because you don’t want to do it, you get reprimanded and told to do it. If you cause your colleagues hair-tearing frustration because you just can’t be relied upon to do the things you’re supposed to do… guess what? You’re out.

I’m starting to think that this is the biggest cultural shift that ex-academics need to make in order to get into the business side of things. Deadlines aren’t suggestions; they’re deadlines. Assigned tasks aren’t optional, and they’re on specific timelines. You can’t avoid a client’s calls. You can’t avoid your boss’s emails.

In business, you don’t make excuses. You do your damn work, you do it on time, and you do it well.

2. Revise until something is perfect.

We all know the maxim that the perfect is the enemy of the good. And we all know that the best dissertation is a done dissertation. But the reason we need to keep those things in mind – heck, the reason so many academics have posters of sayings like these up on their office walls – is because often, in academia, there’s so much time spent honing and refining and critiquing an idea that it becomes a shadow of what it was.

There’s something else that’s more destructive, though, that goes along with this endless refinement and quest for perfection (a perfection that, I might add, is impossible): the fact that so much academic discourse is in the business not of building on others’ ideas but of tearing them down. The peer review that excoriates an argument for being flawed, even if there’s something substantive to it; the debate sessions in grad seminars that seem more a game of point-scoring than intellectual inquiry; the smirking associate professor at the back of the conference panel waiting to pounce on any chink in an argument’s armour (and there is always one).

Of course, criticism is necessary to chip art out of roughly hewn stone. But in business, at least in the business environments in which I’ve spent most of my time, there’s much more of a spirit of exploration – which is ironic, because academia is supposed to be about exploration. Failure isn’t personal, and it’s not even bad, really: it’s just the discovery of something that didn’t work, which frees up resources to find something that does work. I’ve never felt more intellectually constrained than in certain academic environments, and I’ve never felt more intellectually exhilarated than in entrepreneurship.

3. Suggest instead of asserting.

Oh, weasel words. You know: “It seems to me that”, “I believe there’s a possibility that”, “It might be the case that”, and all those meek little phrases that peep out ideas without committing to them.

I’ve used those phrases far more times than I care to mention, in my academic work. Heck, I still use them in business… when they’re warranted. But while the surface function of weasel words is to bring an idea to the conversation, they’re often used as an excuse for plausible deniability. The line of thinking is: if all I do is suggest something, then I don’t have to commit to the idea! I can deny I ever meant it; I was just suggesting it, testing it, thinking that it’s a possibility. I didn’t mean it.

Many academics, particularly graduate students and others who are in less secure academic positions, use these words because academic criticism can be vicious, mean and very personal. And by “personal”, I don’t mean that a scathing review of an article is likely to end with a “your mom” joke; I mean that academics tend to identify themselves – and their colleagues – largely by their work, so that a criticism of the work is a criticism of the self.

So why, in business, should you assert rather than suggest? It’s not because you’re more likely to be right. In fact, you’re fairly likely to be wrong. Business ideas change just as much as academic ideas.

It’s because in business, the stakes are different. You’re not trying to be right, necessarily; you’re trying to innovate and bring new ideas to the table that will help the business be more successful. And in business, the stakes aren’t personal; sure, it feels bad to be wrong, but instead of being a personal failing, it’s purely a professional one. And there’s psychological space to try again, in a way that there isn’t in academia.

A wrong idea in academia, is denigrated, mocked, pushed aside or into the dreaded dustbin of Outdated Theories. A wrong idea in business is shrugged over, set aside, and quickly forgotten in pursuit of a more successful one. No harm, no foul.

Can you guess which side I prefer?

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Here’s How We Can Fix Adjunct Teaching.

It seems the mainstream media is finally waking up to the fact that over 70% of American university and college faculty are now teaching part-time. This is generally presented in the form of a narrative about the “plight of the adjunct”, from the shameful story of Duquesne long-time adjunct Margaret Mary Vojtko (updated here, by Slate) to the New York Times’ recent article on adjuncts to Rebecca Schuman’s consistently hilarious excoriation of the way things are in universities right now.

The thing is, I think there’s a place for adjunct teaching in colleges and universities. I actually think there’s a big role, more than many of my colleagues. Just as the workforce overall is changing – becoming more part-time, more hybrid, with far fewer jobs-for-life and far more flexibility and agility (for both good and ill on both sides) – so is teaching. My argument here is that this shift doesn’t have to be purely negative. It can actually be a major positive for both universities and adjunct faculty, if it’s dealt with in a way that adds value on both sides.

1. Adjuncts must be paid enough to make it worth their while.

Obviously, “worth their while” is a different number depending on many things: field, market forces like scarcity of qualified adjunct faculty, union rules, etc. But as an institution, if you want to attract the best teachers and ensure that they are able to reach their potential as teachers, you must pay them enough to make it worth their while to teach instead of doing other things with their time, whether those other things are income-earning or not.

It’s true that adjunct teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions. Happy, well-paid teachers will be better able to teach. This does not mean that underpaid teachers are inherently worse teachers. But it does mean that underpaid and overworked teachers will, inherently, be less able to perform to their own individual potential than will teachers who do not have these barriers in their way.

I teach part time at York University’s Schulich School of Business, at both the BBA and MBA level, and in the McMaster-Syracuse joint MCM (Master of Communications Management) program; I’ve also been asked to do some executive teaching for a major telecom and a F50 financial institution. I teach marketing, which is also my non-academic field of work. I feel respected, valued and very happy at both of these institutions.

Both York and McMaster pay their part-time business school faculty very fairly, which is one of the reasons why I am happy to teach at these institutions. At least one other school where I formerly taught, which I will not name, does not. And that is why I don’t work there anymore. They don’t pay me enough for my time, so they are no longer entitled to it. If you are not paid enough by your employer, and you have other options (which you may or may not), I encourage you to vote with your feet.

2. Adjuncts who currently teach as their primary means of making a living should find an additional career – and should bring that expertise and experience into the classroom.

I recognize that many adjuncts already do this. But my argument is that most or all adjuncts should do this.

I want to be clear here about where this falls in the context of #altac (i.e. alternative academic positions) and #postac (i.e. the trajectory of one’s career outside of academia). Really, this can be anything, from an alternative administrative position within a university to a consulting job for a major corporation to being a baristo at Starbucks. The “post” in post-academia is the “post” in postcolonialism, to hark back to my home discipline: it denotes not a demarcation between before and after, but rather a process of emergence from one state and growing into another state that is indelibly marked by and bound to the first.

Thing is, this is actually the way adjunct teaching is supposed to work. This is why adjuncting started in the first place. Professionals, sometimes retired but not always, brought their outside experience to bear inside the classroom, which was seen as a boon both to the professional (spending money! A way to give back to the students! Teaching is fun!) and to the students (Taught by a working professional! A window into life outside the university! Up-to-date expertise!)

One of the major charges levied against humanities programs is that they do not sufficiently prepare graduates for life outside the university. College and university career centres are great to have, but they’re only one piece of the puzzle, and they’re often understaffed, underfunded and, frankly, behind the times (according to Alison Green of Ask A Manager, anyway, and I believe everything she ever says, pretty much.) There is inherent heuristic value in being taught by someone who is working on the outside and can bring that understanding to bear in the classroom, even if their specific work is not directly relevant to the class material. At the very least, this helps students to understand the role of critical inquiry in the world outside university – and it may help them also to understand that the importance of their class material does not stop at the edge of campus.

So how do you do this? You can start here, with my post on 4 things to do in grad school to prepare for a non-academic career. Or here, with 3 things PhDs leaving academia need to understand about business.

3. The model of adjuncting should change, both from the hiring side and the faculty side.

I am currently working with a colleague on a prospective model for non-tenure-track faculty hiring that maximizes value for both the hiring department and the non-TT faculty member. (If your department is interested in trialing this model or discussing it further, please contact me.)

What does that value have to look like? What has to happen on both sides?

On the department side: Department chairs, deans and other administrators must understand that even if they receive short-term gain in hiring adjuncts at pittance rates, that short-term gain will translate into long-term pain for the institution. Students don’t like being taught by teachers who don’t have the time or energy for them. If your students are your customers – as so many adjuncts lament – then treat them like customers and give them better customer service. Perform a gap analysis and understand that a department with happy, effective and well-paid adjuncts is more likely to provide the kind of service to your students that will keep your reputation high. This is a business problem for which you need to make an effective business decision.

Because as university gets more expensive, and the student loan bubble grows larger, students are more sensitive than ever to the quality of the education they receive – and they’re getting even more so, in part because of the press coverage I discussed earlier. Parents are starting to ask questions. Bad teaching quality means fewer students which means lower revenues. And that’s something that should very much concern you.

On the faculty side: Adjuncts must reject the notion of teaching as calling or vocation, and rather understand it as an economic exchange between themselves and the university. They must be prepared to reject that exchange if it does not offer terms that are acceptable to them. This does not mean that you can’t love teaching. It doesn’t mean that you can’t, privately, see it as a vocation. But what it does mean is that universities are becoming corporatized and you need to be able to understand their decision-making from that perspective, no matter how much you might object.

In that same vein, if and when you do find work outside the classroom instead of or in addition to your teaching duties, sell it as an advantage to the university, along the lines above.

I’m not saying “if you don’t like it, then quit”. I’m saying “stand up for yourselves on a large scale. Understand that you are valuable, your work is valuable, you create value for the departments in which you teach, and you must understand that value and hew to it if you are to strike a fair deal.” This is starting to happen. Keep it up.

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3 Steps to Telling a Brand Story, Socially

My friend and colleague Chad Horenfeldt of Influitive posted something great the other day. The focus of his blog post was the challenges of email marketing nowadays, but I was quite taken by what he wrote about the importance of storytelling – that is, narrative, to us lit geeks – in marketing, after Gary Vaynerchuk:

“Marketers need to communicate what the story of their organization is (its value proposition). To get the attention of potential buyers, marketers need to engage with their audience. Social media is a great channel to use for this purpose but it can’t be used as a “blasting platform”. You need to really engage your audiences.”

Okay, we know this. Anyone who’s been in social media for any length of time understands that social media platforms are for engagement, not advertisement; that it’s a conversation, not a broadcast (or even a narrowcast). This is old hat.

Where Chad takes it to the next level is here:

“While I agree with Gary that storytelling will win the day as it is the best way to convey a message, it goes well beyond the mainstream areas of social media… Marketers should be leveraging their best customers – their advocates – to help spread this story. It should not just fall on the company to be the storytellers. Your customers and other influencers can assist here. Would you be more included to open or respond to an email that came from a company or from a friend or colleague of yours?”

This is one of the most crucial aspects of social marketing (which, as Chad mentions, goes beyond just email and the mainstream social media channels).  Exceptional social marketing is wholly cross-channel, inclusive and interdisciplinary; it is also radically engaging, and it recruits consumers to help tell the public story.

Here are three of the most important steps your brand can take to help you get there.

1. Establish Exceptional Brandmarks

Successful fashion companies are masters of this. Chanel, for instance, co-opts its target consumer as a brand ambassador through the combination of very brand-specific accessories styling, including prominent brand logo on most pieces, and high price point. Each person who carries a Chanel handbag, generally a wealthy and well-dressed woman, becomes part of the brand’s story: ostensibly one of elegance, but also one of exclusivity, which creates aspiration.

(This is also why counterfeiting is such a problem for a luxury brand: misuse of a company’s brandmark disrupts the brand’s narrative about the kind of person who uses its products. See, for instance, Burberry’s mid-2000s brand crisis in the UK.)

It’s not just the great fashion houses that do this, though. Innocent Drinks, the UK smoothie company, is one of my favourite examples of brandmark best practices on social media. For example:

innocent

Can you spy Innocent’s brandmark? It’s the little angel sketch in the corner. Innocent’s social media channels are full of fun content like this: entertaining, highly shareable and engagable, and always subtly brandmarked… so you know who’s amusing you, but it comes across as a service to you rather than an overt request from you to purchase.

(In fact, all good marketing is about providing value to the consumer – and successful brand storytelling provides value at every stage of the engagement process. We’ll talk more about that a different day.)

2. Watch Your Tone

Again, Innocent Drinks is a master of tone. As someone with a lot of education in English and a copywriting background, I am a huge admirer of Innocent’s brand tone. They’ve successfully balanced tongue-in-cheek silliness and whimsy with endearing likeability – a balance that’s very, very difficult to strike. For instance:

innocent2

The use of lowercase lettering suggests a level of unassuming friendliness, the graphics are bold, simple and endearing in the style of a modern picture book, and the pun is deliberately cute.

innocent3

Just as style is an essential aspect of a piece of literature, a brand’s tone is an essential aspect of its story – and therefore, its positioning in the marketplace. Innocent positions itself as a bit of an underdog, a fun little company started by two friends who cooked up some smoothies on a whim. It’s pure and natural, but only because it’s so carefree; it certainly wouldn’t do anything untoward, like put trombones in your smoothies. It’s there to take care of you.

Meanwhile, it’s one of the market leaders in the UK in all of its categories. And part of the reason is that it positions itself as a friend, not a product. In doing so, it makes itself highly shareable.

3. Advocate Messaging

One of the more important tools in the modern PR and social media toolboxes nowadays is the “brand ambassador”. A kind of functional descendant of the traditional brand spokesperson, the brand ambassador is more subtle about his or her ambassadorship. Often, s/he is a blogger in a particular lifestyle market, like food, fashion or travel, who is given free products or services and/or paid to discuss the brand in question. An example is the recent Contiki Thai #NoRegrets tour, which sent a dozen bloggers – including Toronto’s Casie Stewart (who has spoken in my class at York University) – to Thailand for a whirlwind luxury trip that was thoroughly documented on Instagram and YouTube.

When we talk about “advocate messaging”, though, we’re not just talking about official brand ambassadors. We’re talking about getting all of your consumers involved in your brand story. You can do that by:

  • Creating highly engaging brand-relevant content that provides value to your fans, and that they will want to share
  • Using broad calls to brand-relevant action, such as a day of action, a collaborative project or process, or a shared priority – this can and often should be done in all of your media, not just social media
  • Fostering brand communities, either within your proprietary channels (like Harley-Davidson does with its Harley Owners Group) or outside of them (like Rebecca Minkoff’s advertising support of the independent Purse Forum)
  • Actively responding to reviewers and other discussants on independent review sites
  • Creating an exceptionally positive customer service experience, every time

If you’re the only one out there telling your brand story, you’re just one voice in the mob. But if you can utilize the tools of branding and social outreach to help your consumers carry your story out into the world… then you’re really getting somewhere.

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Upcoming Speaking and Teaching (Plus, Madeline Was On The BBC!)

It seems the BBC World Service is a big fan of ours at ideas in flight. First they asked me to speak with Mark Whittaker on Business Matters about branding in Japan a few weeks ago (you can hear the interview at about 41:20). Then they called up Madeline Ashby, our copywriter and social media coordinator, to talk about the Rob Ford scandal on Have Your Say. And then they asked her to appear on television as well, via Skype. No link yet, but I’ll post it when it’s up.

Aside from that, I’ll be speaking to Mike Leon‘s BBA students at Wilfrid Laurier University on social media marketing on November 18th. Following that, I’m giving a keynote address on “Social Media 101″ to the Toronto Sikh Professionals group on December 3rd.

Next time: how the social media landscape is like the world’s biggest dinner party. Stay tuned.

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We’re Hiring an Intern!

As you may know if you follow me on Twitter, I’m active in #altac/#postac circles. I’m a former/sometime current academic in the humanities who now teaches business and works primarily in consulting, and as someone who’s a champion of alternatives to traditional academic paths. Therefore, I’m a big proponent of opportunities for folks, particularly humanities folks, who are looking at fields outside of academia to get some experience in those fields.

Hence, we’re looking for an intern to join us here at ideas in flight for the month of January. This is a part-time opportunity (approximately 10-15 hours/week) with some flexibility in hours/days, and is a paid internship. This opportunity might be right for you if you’re:

  • Educated at least to BA/BBA level, though candidates with graduate degrees or on their way to graduate degrees are encouraged to apply, particularly in the humanities
  • An excellent communicator and writer who understands how to speak to different audiences and in different contexts
  • Good at taking direction and eager to learn
  • A social media obsessive like us; you own and manage your own channels and you know how to use them
  • Interested in figuring out what makes people behave the way they do – and how to reach them

Ideally you’ll have some experience in marketing and/or communications, though student experience is sufficient. (As in, it counts if you were the communications coordinator for a campus club.) If you don’t, but really want to get some experience, then that’s fine too: throw your hat in the ring.

During your time with us, you’ll learn about digital and social marketing for clients of various sizes and in various industries. You’ll be supervised directly by myself and Madeline Ashby, our copywriter and social media coordinator. You’ll have the opportunity to be creative, to have fun, and to work on some pretty cool projects.

All of your work can be done remotely, so you don’t need to live in or near Toronto. Although we do prefer Canadian candidates, we’re open to the possibility of hiring someone from the States or further abroad if the fit is right. You will need to be able to work in our time zone, though.

Interested? Get in touch: email me or tweet at me @DrJessicaLanger.

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Media Appearances, Teaching, and a New Team Member (Or, I Was On The BBC!)

It’s been a busy, busy summer.

Business is good; my clients are wonderful.

My McMaster/Syracuse MCM Digital Branding students have been great as well, diligently “attending” biweekly GoToMeeting seminars on digital branding, with foci as varied as how to integrate digital into your organizational structure and how to apply the theories in Russell Belk’s new conceptual JCR article on the extended self in the digital world to your brand strategy. Now that the course is over, I’ll miss this group terribly.

I’ve been interviewed by various media outlets as well. I was both surprised and pleased several weeks ago to hear from the BBC World Service; Mark Whittaker of Business Matters asked me to weigh in on the “cute” rebranding of a notorious Japanese prison. You can listen to the interview here, around 41:20. (More notes on branding in Japan here.)

In the podcast space, I did a video interview on branding with Marc Binkley of Sleeping Barber, which you can find here. And I did a long interview on entrepreneurship with Mindy and Non of the Nerds For Hire podcast; it’s not up yet, but do keep an eye out. (And no, I’m not offended at being called a nerd; you can’t write a book on postcolonialism and science fiction without being one.)

Finally, I’d like to introduce the newest member of the ideas in flight team:

babyflatcap

His name is Nathaniel and he’s pretty cute. (That photo was taken by Alex Wesson, the best photographer; if you’re in or near Toronto, check her out.) Luckily, he likes hanging out in the Baby Bjorn and making googly eyes at birds outside my office window while I work. It is very possible that I sit and read tweets out loud to him.

As an aside, part of the reason I’m making this announcement is because I’ve heard from a lot of women, particularly young women, who are worried about making the jump into marketing and/or entrepreneurship because they’re concerned about family-friendliness. Like Sarah Kendzior, who has two young children as I do, I’m open about being a parent, in part to normalize the fact of being a successful working woman and mother. If anything, it’s made me an exceptional time manager, and really, it’s made me a better marketer as it’s given me an even deeper understanding of the way people think. (And you know, no one works at 2 AM quite as effectively as a parent of a young child…)

Back to your regularly scheduled blogging about marketing pretty soon. In the meantime, I’ve got a ton of client work, and two marketing classes I’m teaching at York University in the spring for which I need to prep. You know what they say about the shoemaker’s children…

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Book Launch, Teaching and New Clients

alfajoresThere’s been a lot happening in ideas in flight land over the past month or so!

In June, I spent a lot of time away from the city, with a speaking engagement at Carleton University in Ottawa and a teaching residency in the McMaster MCM (Master of Communications Management) program. I have rarely met a group of brighter, cleverer, more engaged students than my Digital Branding class in the MCM program, and it is a privilege to teach them this summer.

ideas in flight's Madeline Ashby talks about her novel, iD.

ideas in flight’s Madeline Ashby talks about her novel, iD.

After a couple of restorative days at the lake (with smartphone in tow, of course), we’ve headed straight into an exciting July. One of the coolest things to happen so far this month has been the launch on Sunday of Madeline Ashby‘s new novel, iD. Madeline is our fantastic and multitalented copywriter and social media coordinator, and ideas in flight sponsored the launch party – alfajores (that’s those South American cookies you see above) and sushi were had by all – at which Madeline read from the book and answered questions in the articulate way that only a writer can. You can buy the book here directly from the publisher. Trust me, it’s worth it.

We’ve also started working with some fantastic companies in the past little while. The most recent is Sol Cuisine, the popular purveyors of some of the finest vegan, gluten-free meatless meals I’ve ever tasted. Seriously, if you haven’t tried their new soy-free Indian Masala Burger yet, hie thee to Whole Foods and pick some up. Also joining the roster is TLAC, Toronto’s premier multimedia and 3D printing and publishing house. They’re one of the most innovative companies doing business right now, both socially and technologically, and we’re so excited to be working with them.

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Upcoming Speaking and Teaching Dates

I’ll be on the road a fair bit more than normal this June!

On June 11th, I’ve been asked to come and speak to the graduate students in the English Department at Carleton University about career paths for PhDs outside of academia. I hope they’re prepared for a good dose of reality… delivered kindly, of course.

From June 16th-20th, I’ll be teaching a course called “Digital Branding: Frontiers and Futures” in the prestigious McMaster-Syracuse Master of Communications Management program down at McMaster University. It’s an excellent low-residency program that brings together professionals from all over Canada and the US. From the program website:

This two-year independent study master’s degree program represents the output of a powerful partnership between McMaster University’s Department of Communication Studies and Multimedia, DeGroote School of Business and the internationally recognized S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, the world’s leading provider of public relations and communications education. The program of study has been tested and expanded over the past 20 years and boasts nearly 400 graduates worldwide….

We combine the best of advanced professional communication, communications management and business administration courses. Unlike other elective or specialized Master’s Programs, MCM incorporates the numbers side of management training to let you develop the broader business acumen you need to find your place in management in the public, not-for-profit and private sectors.

We’ve also got some great guest speakers for the course. Like Mike Leon, CEO of Brand Heroes, and Casie Stewart, Director of Social Media at Community (and “social media cool kid” with her own blog, of course), as well as a couple of amazing organization partners for the final project.

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3 Things PhDs Leaving Academia Should Know About Business

Over the last little while, I’ve encouraged humanities PhDs to go into marketing, and I’ve suggested several things that grad students can do to prepare themselves for the possibility – in some fields, the probability – of going into a non-academic career once grad school is finished. (And this doesn’t just go for PhDs; a lot of this is applicable to holders of other terminal degrees, too.)

The thing is, though, the business world is much, much different from academia. It functions differently and it values different things. Although we – for the values of “we” who are likely to be reading this post – don’t live in a purely free-market society, we live in one based economically on the principles of capitalism, mixed more (Canada, Sweden, France, et al) or less (USA) with socialist ideals to create a big, messy, imperfect, but generally mostly functional economy in which businesses exist.

Keep in mind here also that I’m talking specifically about for-profit businesses here, though many non-profits function similarly – and many should do so, frankly, if they are concerned about making the best possible use of their grant or development funds. There are some businesses and organizations in which other values are prioritized over the fiscal health of the organization, but I’m not talking about those at this time.

So if you’re thinking of going into business, whether it’s starting your own or becoming an employee of someone else’s, here are 3 things you should keep in mind. They aren’t universally applicable, but they’re applicable enough of the time that you should be aware of them, and they’re different enough from the academic system that they may surprise you – if not in concept then in execution.

1. You’re only as good as the value you bring to the company. There’s a common complaint among people with graduate degrees who are seeking work outside of the academy: “no one cares that I have a PhD/MA/MFA/whatever!”

That’s right. No one cares.

OK, now that I’ve been harsh, let’s unpack that a bit. This is not to say that no one cares about you, or that your degree is worthless. Your degree is actually quite likely to be worth a fair bit… provided, of course, that the skills and abilities it has helped you to develop are of use and value to your employer and/or your clients. My PhD has proven invaluable to my work as a marketer, in part (but not wholly) because of the things the PhD process taught me to do: synthesize information, write well and cogently, teach and present effectively, and hold myself to high standards in the work I present to clients. And many employers, though not all, are impressed by the fact of an advanced degree if it’s accompanied by relevant skills.

But in and of themselves, those letters after your name mean nothing. Your value rests on what you can do to create value for your employer or your client, not your academic profile or the prestige of your degree.

It’s a simple concept, but it’s one that I actually find fairly freeing. It strips away the BS, frankly. It’s not personal in business: it’s just business. If you provide value, you’ll be sought-after, and if you don’t, you’re likely to be let go. And if you’re going to succeed in business, then this is probably the approach you’ll want to take, too.

2. No one owes you anything. Not a job, not an opportunity, nothing. This is the case inside the academy as well, and it’s getting to be more and more true by the year. But there’s a narrative thread through academia that goes like this: if you go to a good graduate school, if you teach enough classes, if you publish enough good papers, if you get a good book contract, then you’ll achieve success in academia. You’ll get a tenure-track job, or tenure, or whatever it is you’re chasing. You’ll have a Career, and you’ll be a Professor. And if you don’t get those things, well, then, you must have failed somewhere along the way. And because you are your academic work, in this mindset, it means you’re a failure.

The narrative thread in business is this: if you prove yourself valuable to a company or organization, they’ll keep you around. If you’re not valuable, they won’t. If you don’t succeed, it’s not because you’re a failure: it’s just because you didn’t provide value to the company to justify your compensation. You haven’t lost your opportunity to be what you want to be; you’ve gained an opportunity to try something else and see if you can succeed at that instead.

I mean, heck: there’s a whole sub-category of articles in magazines like the venerable Harvard Business Review that talk about the value of failure.

This, also, is freeing. If no one owes you anything, then what you achieve, you’ve earned. (Or you’ve gotten by unfair means, but that’s the way things go in business. Which brings me to…)

3. All’s fair in love and war… and business.

That is to say: business isn’t fair.

Academia isn’t fair, either, but it has a veneer of ostensible fairness. Like so many things in academia, this is an illusion – and it’s actually quite destructive because of the tautology that comes along with it. If something unfair happens, then it couldn’t be that unfair, because it’s the university, and the university is inherently elevated to fairness in a way that for-profit companies aren’t, right? Nope.

Business is just unfair in a more transparent way. Talent doesn’t always find its way to the top. Often, success comes as much or more from who you know and can impress than how purely good you are at whatever task people are hiring you to do. (This is why networking is so important.) People who have more social capital – whether it’s because they come from a wealthier/more connected background, they’re better at networking, or they’re friendlier and make a better impression – will have a much easier time in business, at least initially. It’s not fair, but it’s the way it is. (As an aside, this is why I love Ask A Manager so much. You’ll find that her constant refrain is “No, it’s not fair, and it sucks, but that’s the way it is. Now you have the information you need in order to make a decision.”)

But in some ways, business is actually more fair than academia is. If you aren’t good at what you’re setting out to do, fewer people will pay you to do it, and you aren’t likely to be successful in the long run. But conversely, if you’re talented in a way that provides value, then you’ll be indispensable and in demand, and you’ll find that success is likely – not guaranteed, but likely – to come.

What do you think? If you’ve left academia, do you find these things to be true for you? Why or why not?

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