Name and email address:

Kim Kutz Elliott – kim@khanacademy.org

Year you earned your Ph.D.:

2013

Field of study/brief dissertation description:

US Cultural History – My dissertation focused on representations of Abraham Lincoln’s ghost in popular culture as a form of Civil War memory.

What were your career goals when you entered graduate school?

I wanted to be a tenure-track professor of US history, or work at a museum or cultural institution.

What were your career goals as you completed your Ph.D.?

Not too far off from where I started, but during graduate school I discovered that I really loved teaching, so that became more important to me in a potential job. The life of a solitary researcher was less appealing than it was when I started the program.

What was your first job post-Ph.D. and how did you get it?

I had a visiting position teaching American Studies at the University of Mary Washington. I taught two sections of the US survey and two courses focused on memory and museum studies. It was a perfect fit for me. I believe the head of their department had emailed the UNC department looking for a candidate for a visiting position. I sent in a cover letter and CV and did a Skype interview.  

What is your current job (if different from your first post-Ph.D. job)?

I am the Senior Content Creator in Humanities at Khan Academy, a nonprofit website that provides free, interactive K-14 educational materials.

What does your current job entail, and which Ph.D.-related skills do you use on a daily and weekly basis?

I create lessons on US history and US government and politics aimed at a high school audience. I research curriculum guidelines, write and film video lectures, write articles and test questions, and edit the materials produced by others on my team to ensure accuracy and style. Ph.D.-related skills I use on a regular basis include: domain knowledge (understanding of US history and how to quickly find out what I don’t know), qualitative research (into pedagogical best practices, through reading and interviews with teachers and students), fast and concise writing, and public speaking.

What are the favorite parts of your job? Is there anything you would change about it?

I work with amazing people who care deeply about learners, especially under-resourced students, and want them to succeed. I love writing and speaking about history for a living and trying to make it accessible and fun for a non-specialist audience. What I don’t get to do in my current job is work directly with students, except on a volunteer basis. Aside from comments on my videos and anonymous data about student outcomes, I rarely get to see the impact that my work has on real learners.

What did you do during graduate school (if anything) to prepare for a job outside of traditional academia?

I interned at the Ackland Art Museum for one year in order to prepare for a possible museum career. It was a bit of a “learn your way around the museum” year, where I took on projects in different areas of research, curation, acquisition, and teaching. I curated a show on women and minority artists whose work had been dismissed as “craft” rather than art, researched and wrote a gallery guide for their collection of ancient Chinese ceramics, and taught visiting classes from many different disciplines. I wasn’t an expert in any of those subjects, but I learned that I could pick up what I needed to know in order to be successful with some reading and some advice.

Did you have any relevant skills outside of your Ph.D. training that helped you secure your current job?

I had some training in video editing that helped me stand out from the crowd in my application for my current job, which asked for either a writing sample or a sample video. I submitted a video, which I later discovered was quite rare for applicants. Since then, I’ve used professional development funds to take courses in video editing, which has continued to be a valuable skill in my career.

What advice or thoughts do you have for graduate students still in coursework?

First, play to your strengths. Concentrate on what’s important to you and what makes you stand out, not what you think you “should” be doing or studying. Your uniqueness, not your similarity to others, is what will make you an interesting candidate.

Second, see the forest for the trees. In grad school, we’re obsessed with minutiae: shades of difference between one theoretical approach and another, or how to squeeze an article out of an argument that’s ever-so-slightly different from that of the last major monograph in the field. Although thrashing around in the weeds is the essence of graduate school, outside the academy, I’ve found that deconstruction is far less important than construction–being able to see the big picture, make connections, and distill a broad range of ideas into a workable solution. Grad school teaches you how to tear things apart, but don’t lose sight of the fact that most careers require problem solving, not just problem finding.

What advice or thoughts do you have for graduate students or recent Ph.D.’s considering transitioning to a career outside of academia now?

You are more qualified than you think. Most people leave school at 22 and learn what they need to know on the job, and you will too. You don’t need another degree; you don’t need to go to law school or library school or business school. Your Ph.D. will command respect, and I don’t believe anyone has ever accused me of being “overqualified,” which I’ve heard cited as an obstacle many times.

Don’t take a job that isn’t right for you because you think you have to. I’m aware that being able to turn down a job is a privilege that not everyone enjoys, but I can say that I have never regretted turning down a job that didn’t pay enough for me to survive, wasn’t in the right location, or didn’t comport with my values. Although I experienced some uncertainty in the meantime, a much better opportunity always arose. Graduate school can devalue you and make you feel desperate because resources are so scarce, but one of the best parts about leaving academia is regaining the power to set the parameters for your own career. You get to judge, not simply be judged. Work on finding the confidence that you are an equal player in the relationship between employer and employee, and enter into the job hunt and negotiations with a firm sense of what you need to be happy in a job.