Douglas McKnight, PhD

Georgetown University German Department graduation year/degree conferred: December 2020, PhD
Current position and institution: Working in Austria as a copywriter for a PR and marketing company
Douglas McKnight

What career path did you take to get to where you are today?

Currently, I am working as a copywriter for an international marketing agency in Austria. But this was never a “path” I consciously chose to be on – more of a happy accident.

I took a typical humanities route through academia. I have a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Oklahoma (where I also studied German) and a master’s degree in German and European Studies from Georgetown (I did the MAGES program).

After finishing my masters, I moved to Austria to teach English through the Austrian-American Educational Commission and, after a year, took a job at a software development company in Germany where I worked as a technical editor.

But doing a PhD and writing a dissertation had been in the back of my mind since undergrad. So about a year later, I moved back to Georgetown to start a PhD in the German Department with Prof. Katrin Sieg as my advisor.

Did you consider other career paths, and if so, what were the crucial factors that influenced your decision?

Throughout graduate school, I was always open to having a career in academia, the private sector, or in government. For me, the sector the career was in wasn’t important. I always focused on what the daily work would be like.

Before even starting my PhD, I was open to non-academic careers – a mindset I think most people getting advanced degrees in the humanities should have because there just aren’t enough (good) jobs on the academic job market today.

Factors that influenced my career decision were location, daily work, and compensation. Since studying abroad during undergrad, I had always wanted to live and work in Europe – so that was the main factor for me when looking for various jobs.  I knew I also wanted to be able to write on a daily basis, so I explored jobs that would allow me to do that in some capacity. Finally, compensation (including benefits) was also a priority of mine – and I feel happy on all fronts so far.

What are the pros and cons of a career in your current field?

There are a lot of pros to working in the marketing/communications/software sector. It’s a quick moving environment that never gets boring. I get to work with people from all over the world, and I have the chance to learn about the technologies and tools we all use on a daily basis and never think much about.

It’s also a golden age for copywriters at the moment – after all, every webpage, in-app text, Facebook ad, and social media post has to be written by someone – so it’s a relatively stable job market for people who can write clearly and effectively, particularly if you can do this in multiple languages.

On the flip side, this sector can be relatively stressful. Often, you’re writing for outside clients, so you have to be able to incorporate their demands into your texts – which can be more challenging than it sounds. There are also tight deadlines and lots of projects happening at once. Working in the tech sector is very different than the university – workplace culture, expectations, turnaround time – so you have to able to adjust to this on the fly.

How did obtaining a graduate degree from the German Department at Georgetown University prepare you for your current position and/or positions that you held in the past?

First and foremost, my German improved tremendously during my time at Georgetown. This let me apply to jobs in Austria in the first place. Along these lines, I think the skill that I was able to develop and work on the most during my PhD was my writing – the program gives you plenty of opportunities to work on this – and this made me competitive in the job market I am currently in.

What skills should current graduate students of the German Department acquire before completing their degree, if they want to pursue a career path in your field?

If you successfully finish a PhD, you probably have these skills, but think some of the most important ones are time management and organizational skills. These go together and will help you be successful in your PhD and on your future career path.

Although the word is not often used, finishing a dissertation also requires effective project management skills. Creating a project proposal, incorporating feedback into new drafts, designing a project, keeping stakeholders informed, writing the dissertation (on time), and presenting it – these are all things that will be useful in most types of jobs.

Effective communication skills are also needed in every professional context. My advice: write, write, write, write. You should commit to improving your writing (through course work and trying to publish) as much as you can. Being able to successfully get your thoughts across on paper will help you write a dissertation and help you land a job.

You should also work on your public speaking—generally, talking in front of people confidently—during your PhD. Take the window of time you have in your coursework and at conferences to really practice this. Taking complex topics and being able to break them down and explain them succinctly and effectively to people is something you will always need to do.  

How did you experience the transition from graduate school to a professional career? What surprised you the most about your work when you first started?

For me, the transition into the private sector wasn’t as jarring since I had already worked in the private sector before starting my PhD. I started my job search several months before finishing (which I recommend doing), which helped me get my current position within a couple weeks of graduating. Generally speaking, the transition has been refreshing and overall positive.

What were the resources that you found helpful in your search for (non-) academic jobs?

I didn’t rely on anything outside of LinkedIn and general job boards for finding jobs after graduation. For my application materials, I had a friend who works in the private sector help me re-write my resume and template cover letter to adjust it for a private sector audience (i.e., short and sweet; no one wants to read a resume that’s longer than a page or about your coursework). 

In my experience, graduate students who are looking for non-academic jobs tend to overthink this process. If you have a PhD in a humanities field, you have a uniquely interesting background on the job market – but you need to reflect a bit on how best to leverage it and talk about it.

What other advice would you give to students wanting to break into or establish themselves in your field?

During undergrad, one of my favorite professors told me that to become employable with a humanities background in today’s job market, you should develop a second set of “hard skills” that you can leverage along with your humanities background.  For me, that was editing, copywriting, and making indexes for books. I’ve been doing this for almost a decade now as a freelancer.

During my masters, I made sure I gained experience working as an editor for professional publishers. And during my PhD, I was working with about 5 authors a year on book manuscripts and articles. I think this helped me on the job market tremendously – it gave me references and a portfolio of work I could point to.

You also need to think about how to “sell” your academic background to a private sector audience. I think both the private sector and the humanities (in general) do a relatively poor job of seeing the correlation between humanities students and the ability to perform in a private sector environment. You will have to do the work of figuring out how to connect the dots for them.

Can you explain what you did for five years during an interview? You weren’t “just” a PhD student – you conducted research, you collaborated with faculty, you taught in a fast-changing environment, you managed projects. Can you demonstrate to someone who has never heard of your dissertation topic that you’re an effective and good writer? Can you show that you’ve learned to think analytically? Why did you do a PhD if you are now entering the private sector? These are questions you need to be able to answer when beginning your career search.