This is the second post in a three-part series by PhD students Justin Beauchamp, Queenie Sukhadia, and Maya Godbole about their experiences interning at Ithaka S+R, a higher education research and consulting organization, in summer 2020.
Post 1: “Why I Decided to Do a Summer Internship” by Justin Beauchamp
Post 3: “Reframing my PhD Training: Lessons from a Summer Internship” by Maya Godbole
As graduate students—within the humanities, at the very least—we tend to imagine a position in the professoriate as the logical and coveted endpoint of our graduate training. Most often, no one explicitly compels us to adopt this opinion; rather, the structure of the system (doctoral degree requirements, the benchmarks held up as signaling excellence, and the models that are placed before us, for example) constricts our imaginations in this way.
The Mellon Humanities Public Fellowship, administered by the PublicsLab, was the first opportunity I was given to both question and unmoor myself from this unspoken yet institutionalized teleology. Where else can my skills be valuable? In what other kinds of work can I find joy and purpose? I dived headlong into reflecting on these questions through this fellowship. And finally, this past summer, I decided to pursue an internship at Ithaka S+R to work through them in a more hands-on manner.
Ithaka S+R (where S+R stands for Strategy+Research) is an organization that collaborates with higher education institutions to “serve the public good and navigate economic, technological, and demographic change,” as described on their website. My internship was affiliated with the Libraries, Scholarly Communication, and Museums team. More specifically, I was brought on board to research and compile business reports on companies occupying various niches within the higher education ecosystem (publishers, learning management systems, and so on).
Here, I pause to flag that my PhD research is based on human rights law and literature. Quite distinct from both Ithaka’s work and what my intern responsibilities were, you might say. Yes and no, I’d respond. Yes, because my scholarship itself is not focused specifically on higher education. No, for two reasons: first, because I do have a side interest in higher education and how its various components work together to produce the universities we inhabit (yes – most of us do have more diverse interests than the narrow fields our research projects bracket us within!); second, because I realized that my skillset, albeit developed within a circumscribed context, is more broadly relevant.
It is this second point that I intend to tease out in this blog post. Through the lens of this particular internship experience, I want to share how the university and external workplaces aren’t as discontinuous as they are made out to be. I want to use my experience to offer some thoughts about how my graduate training has cultivated skills that are valuable in careers outside the academy, and simultaneously, how this internship helped me develop skills that will enrich my academic work as well.
Skills developed in the academy that helped me excel at my internship
When stripped down to its bare bones, what is research (and the PhD as a research degree), if not burrowing deeper and deeper into the various facets of a research question, teaching yourself what already exists, so that you can then intervene within this conversation? Over the course of my internship, when I was asked to create a well-researched business profile of a company—something I had never quite done before—this was the same skill that I found myself drawing upon. This is not to say that I was floundering on my own, without anyone to turn to for advice, but rather that I was drawing on a skill I already possessed in my repertoire—the ability to self-educate.
Asking good questions
This is a vital skill we inevitably develop in graduate school—the ability to design questions that stimulate new ways of looking, which in turn generate novel insights. Crafting a business profile, something that at first glance seemed so far outside my wheelhouse, became intuitive when I turned to this well-rehearsed skill. One of the first tasks I thus performed at Ithaka was that of creating a template with a list of questions that I would try to answer through my research. By articulating these questions, I was able to research companies systematically, ultimately ending up with a series of well-rounded business profiles.
Reading and processing vast amounts of information
As we all know, the Internet is a rabbit hole. Despite using specific questions to guide my research, I soon discovered that there was a vast amount of information at my fingertips. Years and years of doing literature reviews came in handy here. I was able to skim, quickly hone in on points that seemed vital and then read around them to harvest the information I needed. When crafting my reports, I was also able to easily whittle down the broad and deep reading I had done to a few key bullets that my colleagues could then build off of.
Presenting complex information in an easily assimilable manner
At Ithaka, not only did I have to compile reports; I was also asked to present my findings—semi-regularly to the team working on the project, and also to other colleagues, at the end of my internship. While most of my colleagues had a basic fluency with the companies I was researching, few knew their histories and portfolios as thoroughly as I did. When presenting this information, I found myself drawing on the skillset I had developed through teaching, an important component of my graduate education. I could synthesize and distill the extensive knowledge I had acquired; I was able to simplify this information without dumbing it down; and finally, I was skilled at presenting it verbally in the form of a seamless narrative.
Skills I developed at Ithaka that will enrich my academic work
Academia is haunted by the specter of perfection. While perfection is a noble goal, there are costs attached to it. As graduate students, we often tend to get so caught up in the weeds of our research that we start moving in circles, rather than moving forward. Interning at Ithaka, and having daily check-ins with my manager, where I had to present new material and receive feedback on it, instilled in me an appreciation for the proverbial “done is better than perfect”.
Asking where value is being generated
This lesson dovetails with my previous one. While asking this question seems like a capitalistic exercise, I’ve found it to be a productive way to check-in with myself and ensure that I am always moving forward with my research. Tangibly naming which aspects of my work generated the most value helped me determine where most of my resources (time, attention, energy) should be devoted. This, in turn, enabled me to have a quick turnaround time without compromising on the quality of my work.
Actively thinking about impact
When crafting these research reports, I was actively thinking about who would be using them—the team building analyses from them, most immediately, and then, the clients that would be drawing from these analyses. Thinking of my work from these multiple perspectives helped me frame it in terms of impact—what is the work that my reports were expected to be doing? Conceptualizing them in this way made me craft them differently. Similarly, I wonder how my graduate research will morph when I reframe it in terms of impact: To whom will it be useful? To whom is it responsible? What are the ends to which it can be deployed? Articulated in this way, research becomes more than just scratching an intellectual itch; it becomes an artifact that intervenes in the real world, and this productively shifts the very way in which it is undertaken.
Overall, this summer internship at Ithaka S+R was generative in more ways than one. It situated the university as a workplace among others, for me, one that in fact intersects with these others, despite exceptionalizing constructions that would have us believe otherwise.
Queenie Sukhadia is a student in the English PhD program. Her research is focused on questions of secondary witness—how we receive the narratives of those testifying to atrocities—in global human rights literature. She is interested in thinking through the ways in which we can read testimonial narratives outside of the frames made common-sense by liberal structures such as the courtroom. A firm believer in the idea that the university is only one of many valuable spaces of knowledge production, Queenie is committed to working at the intersection of academia and external publics to facilitate public good. Apart from being a scholar, she is also a creative writer and published a collection of short stories, A City of Sungazers, in 2017. Queenie holds a BA in English (with high honors) and Psychology from Dartmouth College and an MA in English (with distinction) from Georgetown University.
As part of the fellowship, Queenie is currently working with Constructive, a leading social-impact brand and design agency, as their Communications Associate. She will be helping Constructive amplify their brand presence through content and social media marketing. In addition, she will also be assisting with client-facing brand strategy projects to enable social impact organizations to deepen audience engagement with their missions and values.