August 26, 2020
Amanda Suhey received her Ph.D. in Romance Studies in 2016, with a focus on Latin American culture and visual studies. Her doctoral research sparked interests that took her on an unexpected career trajectory, eventually leading to her current role as Senior Analyst of Marketing Analytics at AbbVie, a research-driven pharmaceutical company. Fluent in Spanish and data-driven research skills, Dr. Suhey has charted a career path that allows her to tell stories with data, translating complex information into actionable insights.
Ever since undergrad, all I imagined being was a professor. I’d grown up in a college town so most of my friends’ parents were professors, the university was the epicenter of our community, and I hadn’t really thought much about other possible career paths. Along with that, my mom was a high school Spanish teacher, so I’d had an early exposure to the language. I’d studied abroad in Santiago, Chile and loved it, so my ideal future was to be able to combine my love of writing and research with the opportunity to travel and present research at conferences.
In the process of writing my dissertation, though, it became clear to me that I thrive in environments where I can work more collaboratively and see a faster time-horizon of the impact of my work. I loved teaching and loved the research that I was doing, but I really wanted to do something more fast-paced and dynamic, so I was already starting to think more broadly about what kinds of career paths interested me, and what I would need to do to get into them.
After finishing my dissertation I was working as an adjunct lecturer at Lehigh University and living in New Jersey, and took the train into New York to attend a humanities consortium at NYU. Listening to the stories of the panelists, I realized that while there are lots of opportunities for humanities Ph.Ds. outside of the traditional academic track, there’s no formula for making the transition. It dawned on me that unlike the structured, clearly defined process of pursuing a career in academia, no one was going to be able to tell me what I should do if I wanted to pursue other options. I was going to have to figure it out for myself, and at first it was overwhelming to go from knowing exactly what I was going to do feeling complete ambiguity. At the same time, I was realizing that this career change would be going against the flow of a lot of expectations that other people had for how I would use my education, too. So early on it became a priority for me to articulate a clear narrative of my skills and interests, and how I was going to use them strategically to chart out a new course. To help with that, I worked with a career counselor who specialized in life transitions to help navigate both the practical and emotional aspects of changing course. Through that process I realized that I wanted to lean into a particular aspect of my dissertation research that really intrigued me: the role that early database systems and computers played in the military dictatorship of Chile. It put me in touch with an early interest I had in coding as a teenager but never fully developed. This eventually led me to a full-time M.B.A. from Rutgers University with a subset in marketing analytics and insights, which I absolutely loved. I was using different parts of my brain and developing new skills, all of which helped me get unstuck from the idea of one career trajectory while building momentum in a new direction.
My official function is that I work in marketing analytics, but what that means is that I act as an internal consultant at AbbVie and primarily break down more complex concepts into a story that makes sense to a particular audience: I take data and bring it to life. During business school I started out as an AbbVie M.B.A. intern in marketing research and insights, which can have a lot of resonance for people coming from humanities or sociology backgrounds. It revolves around asking the “why” behind customer behavior and trends from a comprehensive perspective: What are the unmet needs of your target demographic? How can you provide solutions to those needs? From there it was a natural transition to gain experience in a complementary analytics function, which identifies the “what” behind data: What is the health of the business? How is our team doing in meeting those unmet needs, and how can we do it better?
It’s really beautiful to be able to make a presentation or deliver a solution that really resonates with my stakeholders. I was recently in a meeting with field teams’ regional leaders, for example, and they presented a question based on things they had observed but didn’t have the data necessary to back up their intuitions. It just happened to be part of an analysis that I’d been working on for a while without knowing exactly what the application was going to be, and I was able to proactively bridge the gap between the data I had been analyzing, the field’s insights on the ground, and identify actual changes arising in the healthcare landscape. Making those kinds of connections is incredibly rewarding, especially when you can either confirm someone’s instincts or use data to challenge their perceptions.
One thing that surprised me was how well a background in humanities transitioned into the values and patient-centered focus of the work that I do at AbbVie. As a company, we measure success by patient impact: whether or not our work helps patients and improves their quality of life, which is not altogether different from the values that shape research in the humanities.
I also found that getting a Ph.D. taught me to be comfortable with discomfort, especially since my degree was in a foreign language. There’s a stereotype of Ph.Ds. as having only experienced the sheltered confines of the university, but the reality is that doctoral work is an immersive experience of constantly learning new things and learning to be comfortable when we feel like we’re out of our element. That’s an incredible skill to have in any career. Teaching, too, was great preparation for working in industry: learning to communicate complex information in an accessible way, or how to keep undergraduates interested and engaged in an 8 a.m. Spanish class, are valuable transferable skills that can really set you apart. And once you’ve gone through the application process for graduate school, or experienced oral exams or a dissertation defense, you are incredibly well prepared for non-academic job interviews!
If you have any doubt about the traditional academic path, go ahead and start exploring other options on campus now, even if it might mean some strategic reprioritizing of your research and writing or getting a part-time job over the summer. Look for volunteer positions in student organizations on campus, or opportunities at local startups that might be willing to take you on; go to panels or lunch-and-learn events, anything that can expand your frame of reference and help you bridge the gap between what you’re doing now and what you want to be doing in the future. And since you might not know exactly what that is, use this time to explore the things you’re interested in—what aspects of your teaching or research can you really delve into in a way that might be transferable to another role or position in the future? You never know what experiences will be relevant to the path that your career takes, and in the process of trying things out you will make connections with people and learn to tell your story in ways that open up new ideas and possibilities for using your education. You might have to chart your own path, but I can tell you from the other side that it is possible!
One thing that I’m really excited about is developing ways to support women who are interested in analytics and coding later in life. Things are different now than they were when I was in school, with more opportunities for women in STEM and more support from educational communities, but we still have a long way to go. I’m looking for ways to actively collaborate with people from humanities backgrounds to build awareness of what’s possible and to engage more women in careers that involve STEM skills. And I’m constantly keeping up with broader industry trends in analytics even though it’s a little outside the realm of what my current role requires, because I love it.
I am also in the process of organizing a free information-sharing collective of humanities Ph.D.s who have formed careers outside of the traditional academic path and are willing to share their stories and concrete skills, like how they found opportunities, how to turn a CV into a resume, etc. Readers who want to hear more about this are welcome to reach out to me at email@example.com.
Note: Amanda Suhey is an AbbVie employee; however, the opinions represented here are her own and not those of her employer.
Recent Th.D. graduate, Duke Divinity School
Allison Hamm is a recent graduate of Duke Divinity School, where her research focused on the depiction of speech in the Hebrew Bible as a powerful force capable of positively or negatively shaping human communities. She is interested in how ancient questions about life and the human experience can enrich and expand contemporary ways of thinking about work, community, politics, and living a good life.