How to Network: My Interview with Jennifer Polk, Ph.D.

InterviewThis week I had the good fortune to interview Jennifer Polk, Ph.D., founder of the blog From Ph.D. to Life. Since December, Jen has written about her transition from academia to real life and her quest to find a fulfilling (and paying) career. Jen’s website serves as a valuable resource for anyone who is thinking about how to apply their historic skills to other history-related work or about transitioning to a non-history career. When you visit Jen’s site you will find that many of her posts are the Q & A sessions she has conducted with educators, researchers, writers, project managers, career coaches, and public speakers. These sessions are the result of Jen’s quest to learn more about different careers as well as how others with advanced degrees have found jobs that they love.

As I am also transitioning from Ph.D. to life, I reached out to Jen to find out more about her transition and how she has managed to network with so many different people.


How does Jen Network?

When I asked Jen about networking she stated, “The challenge of networking is that you are asking people for help and seeking help is difficult.”

After graduation, Jen wanted to learn about what other people do for a living. Her friends helped her ease into networking by introducing her to spouses and colleagues with interesting careers. These friendly interviews gave her the confidence to interact with strangers.

Jen uses the Internet to research different career possibilities. When she finds an interesting position or company, she searches their webpage to find a person who might talk to her. In one instance she found an advertisement for a museum consulting firm in her city. She went to the firm’s website and clicked through the employee bios. Jen found that she and a V.P. of the company shared a common link: They both held doctorates in history from the same university. Jen believed that this common connection might induce the V.P. to help her with information, so she sent him an e-mail. Jen admitted that “it is intimidating to reach out to someone you don’t know,” but she also stated that “the worst that can happen is that they say “no” or ignore you.” Jen’s instincts about the common bond proved correct. A week after she sent her e-mail, the V.P. replied that he would by happy to sit down for a conversation. (Click here to read Jen’s interview.)

networkingAfter months of networking, Jen is still pleasantly surprised by how positively people react when she reaches out to them for her blog Q & As. She has found that people are excited and eager to help, “people like to help and they like to talk about themselves and give advice.”


Why Historians Make Good Networkers

I enjoyed meeting Jen and hearing about her transition experience. She taught me a lot about how to network and convinced me that I shouldn’t be afraid to ask people for help. After all, the worst that can happen is that the person says “no.” However, that outcome seems unlikely. The people Jen has contacted have been eager and excited to help.

My conversation with Jen also helped me to realize that historians are well positioned to network; we possess all of the skills needed to reach out and connect with other people. Historians know how to research and we like to interact with people. Okay, so most of the people we interact with are long since dead, but we seek them out anyway in the papers and works they left behind. We seek them out because we want them to help us answer questions we have about the topics, periods, people, thoughts, and cultures we study. We receive their help when we read, interrogate, and contextualize the papers and possessions they left behind. This one-sided engagement allows us to better understand and connect with our historical people. Networking with the living is not so dissimilar.

The best interactions take place when you find another person who shares something in common with you. Jen conducts research before she initiates contact. When she reaches out to someone she leads with what they share in common: an alma mater, an advanced degree, interests, an experience. After establishing this common ground, Jen asks for help. Historians study people and know that most people will respond favorably to requests for assistance when they feel connected to them. Moreover, historians are capable of making the most out of each networking opportunity because we know how to ask questions of our sources.

Networking will play an important role in my quest to turn my passion for history, research, and writing into a career that pays. I am grateful for the wisdom Jen imparted and I look forward to following and learning from her career journey at From Life to PhD.


What Do You Think?

Do you possess helpful networking wisdom or have you had a networking experience that you would like to share?

Do you use or know of other skills that historians possess that we can use to find or further our careers?