Adventures in (Post) Gradland

Thoughts on life after the PhD

Alternative Academic Careers: The Film Industry

This is the third in a series of posts on “Alternative Careers for Literature and Humanities PhD’s,” a roundtable discussion organized by a professor in my university’s English department.

Our third speaker–we’ll call her Alice, this probably isn’t sensitive enough material to hide everyone’s names, but you never know–responded to a dismal academic job market in the early 1990s by deciding to work in the film industry.  How she got to where she is now made for a very entertaining story.

In the early 1990s, having earned a PhD in English literature, Alice watched as most of her colleagues settled for adjunct jobs with bad pay and no benefits.  From the beginning she decided that she wasn’t up for that and did a few temp jobs, traveled around the world for the better part of a year, and finally decided that her particular skill set might serve her well in the film industry.  I think this was a surprise to a lot of people in the audience.  Living in Los Angeles you’re surrounded by the film industry–it seems like every other person I meet is involved with it in *some* way–but as a literature grad student I never thought of trying to get a job in the film world.  The best I thought I could hope for would be a PA (production assistant)  job, that most dreaded of “gopher” positions where you run around doing every kind of favor imaginable for impossibly demanding people for very little money, in the hopes that one day you’ll be behind the camera.  Needless to say, that sounded a lot worse than adjuncting (though the pay might be the same in some cases).  Judging by Alice’s story, though, it doesn’t have to be that way. 

She started by scouring the industry publications for anything she could find and called or wrote to every single one.  She had three miserable short-term jobs, one of which involved her going around to various Disney creative people’s offices and checking to make sure repairs had been done on their offices.  Then she got a job as an assistant for a woman who told her up front that she really didn’t need much help, giving Alice the time to sit on the computer for most of the day working on her own writing and research.  After a while, the woman noticed that she loved to write and research, and mentioned that she needed someone to create an extensive film archive.  This led to a $500,000 grant to create the archive and a much longer-term job.  Hearing of her research skills, a director who was working on a movie called Anaconda said that he needed someone to do a lot of digging for him–he wanted his giant, CGI, man-eating snake to look as accurate as possible.  And so Alice found herself interviewing scientists and closely examining a variety of snakes, inside and out.  Then the folks working on Minority Report said they wanted to make the future “really look like the future,” so she signed on and interviewed architects and engineers to determine exactly what the world might look like a few hundred years from now.  And now she does this sort of thing full-time, makes enough money to live very comfortably, has time to raise her child and be involved in her community, and doesn’t feel overwhelmed by her workload. 

Here are the main points I got out of Alice’s story:

1. As a PhD, you need to learn how to translate your grad student skills into skills that the rest of the world can understand.  Telling a prospective employer that you’ve just earned a PhD in literature may get you a blank stare, but if you tell them you’re proficient with PowerPoint, have a lot of experience with public speaking, have great editing skills, know your way around various research-related tools, and are an excellent writer, you’re a lot more likely to get their attention.  Humanities PhD’s are prone to write off their degrees as having little “real world” value, and employers are too, but it doesn’t have to be that way–it’s all about re-packaging your skills.  Most universities have a career center that will be more than happy to help you with this.  

2. A huge portion of the film industry is devoted to research, and if you’ve spent more than a year or two in grad school, you’re good at that.  There’s a whole subsection of the film world called “rights research,” with endless resources devoted just to figuring out whether a company has the right to re-make a certain film, or use a particular song.  Archivist jobs are also plentiful.  The best part is that you get paid to do something that you (hopefully) love–spend time in libraries and with search engines, learning tons of new things and teaching what you’ve learned to others.  Sure, your efforts might go toward goofy efforts like Anaconda, but if you’re being paid well, using your skills, and doing something different and new every day, it hardly seems like a bad gig.  Alice commented that her job also leaves her enough time to occasionally write on her own or teach writing at local colleges. 

3. The film industry isn’t 100% who you know, it’s also about what you have to offer.  If you’ve got a particular skill set that’s in demand, you’ll be able to find work.  The point about retaining valuable employees came up yet again–if you can make yourself indispensable, the people who are paying you will find a way to keep you around.  (Sadly, the one place that this doesn’t seem to be true is in academia–Alice mentioned that several of her colleagues who got one-, two-, or three-year contract teaching jobs were gently shown the door when their contract was up, even though there might have been hints that they could stay on longer. ) Who you know is, of course, still important–network, network, network.  Call anyone you know with even the most remote connections to see if they can help you get your foot in the door.  I hate networking–does anyone actually like it?–but sometimes it’s just about putting a name to a face and giving people a positive first impression.  It’s less stressful to hire someone you know, even if you only know their name and face. 

The bottom line for me is that we’ve all got to start re-defining “success” in the context of post-PhD jobs.  As I move closer to completing my degree I had never imagined that doing research for movies might be a job option, but why not, if it’s a job you’re happy with and pays a decent wage?  Alice seemed to be one of the happiest people on the panel, and I have a feeling it was at least partially because she was willing to look for jobs in the unlikeliest of places.


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This entry was posted on May 15, 2010 by in (post) Grad life, Uncategorized and tagged , , .
Anne McKnight

writing•translation•scholarship on Japan (and a few other things)

A Modern Girl / モダンガール

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