Information Technology: The Accidental Career for Ph.D.s

The question is not whether IT work is suitable, but what kind of IT work is suitable

pellethepoet / Creative Commons

July 29, 2015

The United States has two major employment dilemmas. On the supply side, American universities produce a well-documented surfeit of Ph.D.s, far in excess of the number of tenure-track job openings. On the demand side, the American information-technology industry is greatly in need of skilled workers. But there has yet to be a move to direct Ph.D.s into IT careers in large numbers.

We need to change that, and to encourage Ph.D.s — especially those in the humanities and social sciences — to pursue technology-related careers.

Today I’m an assistant professor of computer science at a small, private liberal-arts college in Southern Illinois. But my first career was in IT, where I spent eight years developing software for a series of companies (sadly, most of them long-extinct start-ups). I stumbled into that work with some interest, little experience (I picked up a few IT skills from part-time jobs in my undergraduate years), and almost no preparation. My bachelor’s in English literature was, on the surface, not optimal training for a IT career. But because IT companies move quickly and adapt rapidly, my ability to learn — a skill common to Ph.D.s of all ilk — outweighed the technical expertise I was missing.

Few of my co-workers had majored in computer science, either. We all had the same challenge of learning a new discipline through practice and mentoring, and in the process, we found professions we loved. My love of literature meant I adapted well to the language-driven task of computer programming.

Many believe that to be successful in IT, you must have a high quantitative intelligence. But the need for quantitative skills in that sector is overemphasized. IT encompasses many professions, each of which demand different strengths, and few of which require specialized math. Software developers construct new technology using languages and principles from philosophy. Business analysts do research and document changes in technology. Technical communicators explain the use of technology to others, and trainers teach those skills in classroom settings. System administrators run computer systems and troubleshoot problems.

For most intelligent people, the question is not whether IT work is suitable, but what kind of IT work is suitable.

To pursue an IT career without any IT training or knowledge is a mistake, but one that is easy to avoid. With the advent of free, online education resources, knowledge transfer is much easier than it was in the mid-90s. A few weeks of concentrated work in a MOOC will give you a great deal of understanding of technology and how it is used. Every major e-learning platform has multiple courses to teach new technology skills. Many have inexpensive credentialing programs that, while not a substitute for a degree, can enhance a candidate greatly. The mere fact of having a respected degree, regardless of field, will satisfy the IT industry, which does demand that most of its employees have at least a bachelor’s.

Perhaps the three most relevant IT jobs for Ph.D.s in the humanities and social sciences are: business analyst, technical communicator, and user-experience designer.

A business analyst is charged with collecting, organizing, and presenting knowledge about the technology needs of clients. The business analyst captures information through interviews, surveys, observations, and analysis of artifacts like documents and forms. That should sounds familiar, since much of social science is built around research done in the same manner. The major difference between IT and academic research comes in the form in which the results are presented. For a business analyst, the report might be as brief as an index card and certainly no longer than a one- or two-page description.

Technical communicators are responsible for helping people understand how to make use of a piece of technology, hardware, or software in order to meet their goals. In the early days of IT, those people were accurately called technical writers, and their work typically took the form of long, detailed tomes comprehensively describing use of the technology. The weaknesses of that approach were revealed by writers like John M. Carroll, in his brilliant 1990 book The Nurnberg Funnel. Now technical communicators use all sorts of media to instruct and explain technology in a just-in-time fashion.

User-experience, or UX, designers are responsible for making the actual interaction between the user and the technology as useful, painless, and rewarding as possible. Some UX designers have strong graphic-design skills, but those skills are not necessary. The key qualification is to be able to comprehend users’ goals, understand the steps it takes to get there, and formulate a process by which users can accomplish their goals with as little frustration as possible. As with the other two career paths, UX design demands an organized mind capable of empathy and creativity — two qualities that many Ph.D.s have in spades.

There are many other types of IT jobs, and I did not choose to highlight these three by accident. First, all three require thoughtful work sustained over significant periods of time, something at which Ph.D.s excel. Second, none of the three jobs require a specialized degree, and are generally performed by people who have extensive on-the-job training. Third, while all three demand the individual effort of an intelligent and committed person, they also incorporate the creative, collaborative work that provides immense pleasure in the meeting of the minds, a type of work that drew many of us to Ph.D. programs in the first place. Finally, all three provide good incomes.

For those of you still in graduate school, you have time to take advantage of opportunities to beef up your IT credentials. A course in quantitative research methods is useful, as statistics are used heavily in technology careers. Introductory computer-science courses can help you decide if software development is interesting to you. Computer-science and business programs also host student groups, which often have access to specialized resources. Knowledgeable IT managers target those groups for recruitment.

Getting your first IT job is the toughest step. The industry, like many, prefers employees with work experience. Producing an online portfolio, even if it is of sample work, can play a significant role in helping you find that first job. A portfolio will show that you understand the qualifications necessary for the job, have mastered research and writing, and know the technology you need, like the components of web development used in technical communication.

Applying for IT jobs online can help you hone your résumé and cover letter, but does not often lead to actual employment. In the IT world, unlike academe, applicant pools are usually ignored. The primary way to get an IT job is through networking. Fortunately, the field has many professional organizations and interest groups that meet regularly and are great places to network; there are even professional organizations for women and minorities in IT, and they are welcoming, supportive, and eager to recruit.

For those who hope to return to academe at some point, a successful IT career can create a path. In fact, IT experience can lead to future work in a new academic discipline. For example, literature Ph.D.s have found work in campus technical-communication departments, social-science Ph.D.s have found work in IT-oriented business schools, and i-schools have very diverse faculties from many different disciplines, all of whom have some knowledge or expertise in computing.

For most Ph.D.s, the strongest attraction of IT work is that it is engaging and challenging. There are interesting problems that demand interesting and novel solutions. Few fields can provide consistent challenge the way that a career in IT can.

Joshua B. Gross is an assistant professor of computer science at Blackburn College, in Carlinville, Ill. Readers can find more detailed information on IT careers for Ph.D.s from nontechnical fields here.