Beyond the Ivory Tower: What you should know about nonacademic careers for Ph.D.'s

Chronicle of Higher Education
Thursday, April 17, 2008
Leaving Academe for the Food Business
By Susan Basalla May

One of the silliest assumptions that many graduate students and Ph.D.'s make about the world outside of academe is that the people who populate it are utterly unlike themselves. In fact, former academics can be found in all job sectors and at every level. They take their intellectual interests, their analytical skills, and their teaching ability with them when they go.

Blair Labatt, the CEO of a food-service distribution company based in San Antonio, Texas, is one such former academic. As a Ph.D. in English, he incorporates great works of literature into his management approach and published his first book of literary criticism as a labor of love decades after earning his doctorate. His story illustrates the many unexpected ways in which graduate school can prepare one to succeed outside of academe.

Question: Why did you decide to go to graduate school?

Answer: When I graduated from Princeton in 1969, my adviser, Robert Bernard Martin, insisted that I needed to go to Oxford to "read with" John Bayley. For me that is what it was, a natural extension of my love of reading. From there it seemed logical to go ahead and finish the Ph.D., and I was lucky enough to find the University of Virginia, where I had a special mentor in Jack Levenson, still spry today at near 90. The job market was kind to me, and I decided to go to the University of Texas at Austin to be close to my family.

Question: How was your first year as a faculty member?

Answer: I'd been in such a hurry to finish graduate school that I had never taught, so I had to learn the hard way that teaching large classes in a state university is neither an intimate conversation nor a traditional lecture. Finding the right middle style took a while.

I also had to learn how young assistant professors can get whipped by the currents of departmental politics. I wanted to revive a course on the Edwardian novel, and I was literally denounced in a departmental meeting by someone who intensely disliked the person who used to teach the course. Somehow I got assigned the one form of departmental service nobody wanted, which was running adds-and-drops. I found that I enjoyed dragooning the volunteers and organizing a few days of intense activity for 100 faculty members and 150 teaching assistants. The department actually gave me a reduced teaching load to get me to do something I liked. Perhaps that experience led me to wonder if I had the gift for managing.

Question: Why did you decide to leave academe? How did your colleagues react?

Answer: I was 28, and I felt I needed to be sure what my real calling was. I decided to take a year's leave of absence to investigate exactly what it was my father did in the wholesale-grocery business. I liked it so much I never went back. Some of my friends mourned my intellectual suicide. But as anyone who has taught novels should know, anything with people in it is going to be an intellectual challenge.

Question: What lessons did you have to learn in your first position outside of academe?

Answer: What do you do with an English major in the business world? You have him write an employee manual, of course.

But that led me into hiring and managing people, which is the heart of everything. I had a chance to find out whether people really did act the way Tolstoy and Henry James and George Eliot said they did.

Eventually the family asked me to take charge of a small wholesale company that distributed food to restaurants and other food-away-from-home establishments. It proved to be a great opportunity. As American's eating habits slowly changed, "food-service" companies grew and consolidated. We were determined to survive and build. We have grown from 20 employees to about 1,200.

I embrace the often-disparaged quote from Calvin Coolidge, "The business of America is business." I take that to mean that in America, business is the principal way people spend their time, support themselves, and raise their families, pay their taxes, and finance our police and roads and our social-safety net.

Question: Do you ever find your academic training useful in your work?

Answer: The common ground between my two lives is stories. I spent my academic life teaching stories; now I teach by telling stories -- the common lore that binds a company together and links it to its past: "Here's what it was like when we were small; this is the story of how we got our first big customer; let me tell you how we handled this obstacle in the past." We learn by stories.

Organizing and leading groups involves more than one kind of teaching. The great management teacher, W.E. Deming, demonstrates this in a useful way. Of his fundamental 14 points, one is "train and retrain," but an entirely different one is "educate everybody." For me, education is seeing a great business manager reading War and Peace, or Aristotle's Ethics, or McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom. It is taking 250 food-distribution managers and sales people and suppliers and their spouses on educational trips to Quebec and Oaxaca, to the Santa Fe Opera and the Metropolitan Museum and the National Gallery.

A manager who grows should always be reading. I try to be the one directing people to what Matthew Arnold called "the best that is known and thought," sometimes in unexpected places. For example, I think that the best way of understanding the overpopulation, the pollution, and the class warfare of Mexico City today is probably to read Bleak House.

Question: Have you been able to stay connected to intellectual and university life?

Answer: As a company, we have focused our non-profit work on education. Besides board service, I personally have always stayed involved with service to Princeton, both locally and through its national alumni council. I also serve on the advisory council for Princeton's English department -- a true joy.

It always grated, though, that I never finished the critical project I had worked on, a study of plot using the novels of William Faulkner. Eventually I went back to that project, rethought it, rewrote it, and finished it. Miraculously it was published by Alabama Press in 2005 as Faulkner the Storyteller. I suppose I set a record for being the oldest writer of a first book of literary criticism.

Question: What advice would you give current graduate students who are ambivalent about academe but nervous about working in the world beyond it?

Answer: The biggest lesson is that a career in business is not a contemplative life. It's highly, relentlessly competitive. You cannot rest with the status quo. You must find a way to differentiate yourself from the companies you compete with. It's important to make waves.

My job now is all about communicating an idea of how to build a company, something that lasts. That involves generating intensely competitive activity, the same kind of action that creates plots in fiction. Strangely enough, this fertile ground of American plotting has been ignored or even scorned by our creative elites, with a few wonderful exceptions like Faulkner's The Hamlet. If there is any writing I can still contribute, I would like it to be in the form of business stories.

In business or in academe, it's perfectly fine to be, by nature, contemplative or introverted. But to be a good teacher, no less than a good salesman, you must learn extroversion as a set of social skills. Also, good managers and good teachers both have to want to help other people get better at what they do. Anyone who has confronted the requirements of good teaching should not be nervous about the "world beyond." In the end, the great determinant of fulfillment in business is the energy people commit to it.

Susan Basalla May is one of two authors of So What Are You Going to Do With That?: Finding Careers Outside Academia, recently released in a revised and updated edition by the University of Chicago Press.