Ph.D. in Comparative LiteratureWill Jordan (Comparative Literature ’14) was always interested in the broader cultural impact of technology and information. As a child he loved video games. And although he intuited that the technology inherent in games was a driver in his life, it was not until he was an undergraduate at Yale University that he realized that the academic overlap of culture and technology would direct the course of his personal and professional lives.
“When I discovered game studies, the idea of the academic pursuit of studying games seemed really interesting.” Following his graduation from Yale with a dual emphasis B.S. in literature and computer science, Will joined UC Irvine’s Comparative Literature graduate program almost immediately. “I knew that I wanted to dive deeper into the humanities […] to explore the literature side a little bit more,” he says. But in time, he found that his interests in the practical nature of technology and the theoretical side of literary study began to compete with each other, making them difficult to harmonize. “When I started (the graduate program) I was much younger, right out of an undergraduate degree. I didn’t know what a Ph.D. would entail. My reasons for continuing changed and my research interests shifted over time.”
In the interview below, Will describes the challenge of negotiating the gulf between technology and the study of literature while a graduate student. Ultimately, he found a way to thread together the practical application of computer science with the social mission of the humanities. As a software engineer at an educational non-profit, Will is helping to extend educational opportunities to elementary and high schools around the world.
What has been your professional trajectory post PhD?
I have been a full-time software engineer at Code.org for my entire post-PhD trajectory, from September 2014 to the present.
How would you describe your present job?
I am a software engineer at Code.org, a nonprofit dedicated to expanding access to computer science dedicated to expanding access to computer science and increasing participation by women and underrepresented minorities. In my current role as infrastructure lead, I am responsible for the web servers hosting our online computer science curriculum used by hundreds of millions of students and educators around the world.
What are the skills that you feel are the most important for your job?
Knowledge and expertise in software engineering, web development, programming languages and frameworks is definitely helpful. Self-discipline while working remotely, as well as technical communication skills, and interpersonal, collaborative teamwork skills are also very important.
What do you find most gratifying about your job?
I like that I’m able to contribute my technical knowledge and expertise to a unique mission making a meaningful impact in education and policy. I also love working remotely - I’m able to work from home to spend more time with family, and I can choose where to live separately from where my current job is located, or wherever other industry jobs are clustered.
Thinking back on graduate school as preparation for your career at Code.org, what skill do you think your graduate education best developed that you rely upon in your current professional position?
Definitely critical thinking- reading and reasoning through complex arguments and documents, tracing patterns of logic through layers of interrelated concepts and references, considering various contexts and audiences for a given text. I found that these skills relevant to academic work in the humanities have translated to aspects of software development in a way that has given me a unique perspective on my professional work.
While writing my dissertation, I also developed good work-from-home habits that have come in very useful while working remotely in my current position.
I want to return to you point about the value of critical thinking as a skill. Can you tell me more about this?
I was generally thinking that just the technical process of critical thinking, in the sense of looking at a language in concrete terms and tracing references and connections between texts, you spend a lot of time doing this in grad school. This helped in really picking through computer code. Though the sets of demands that they require are a little different, the skills are essentially the same.
How does this relate to what you understand as your disciplinary training?
In general, critical thinking skills are central to my disciplinary training, and I find critical thinking and ‘computational thinking’ to be actually very closely related. However, the particular discourses and bodies of knowledge I understand as my academic disciplinary training (e.g., comparative literature, critical theory) are not related to those I understand as my industry disciplinary training (e.g., software engineering, web development).
What skills do you feel were least developed that would have helped you transition to this field more easily?
My graduate education was heavily focused on producing solitary work (written papers with a single author), and as a result, I think my ability to collaborate effectively in small teams was least developed. Software engineering is highly collaborative, and often requires dozens (sometimes hundreds) of people coordinating and combining their work efforts to produce the final output.
Were there outside (non-graduate school) experiences that you feel prepared you for this job? What were they?
Yes- starting the summer after the second year of my PhD program (July 2007), I found a job as an entry-level software engineer at a local game development company. I chose to continue this job in the fall instead of returning to work as an undergraduate composition instructor (the standard teaching assignment available for my PhD program).
Working at non-academic jobs definitely slowed down my academic progress, because part-time work was the exception and I couldn’t do it for very long. I switched back and forth from working part-time for brief periods while trying to make some academic progress, to working full-time while taking as many academic leaves of absence as the program would allow. When I was eventually denied any additional leaves of absence, I ended up formally withdrawing from my PhD program and re-enrolling later, in order to avoid exceeding my program’s time-to-degree requirements and paying extra tuition and fees for the additional quarters.
By the time I began my current job (March 2014, six months before completing my PhD), I had around five years of professional software engineering experience from my previous two jobs.
Have you maintained a connection to your previous scholarly work or work practices in some way? If so, how? If not, how do you feel about this distance?
No, since filing my dissertation I haven’t substantially developed any of my scholarly work, as my software engineering job keeps me fully occupied without the opportunity to explore the humanities topics or themes I pursued in my dissertation. I tentatively explored the academic job market the first year after completing my Ph.D, but decided to continue focusing on developing my software engineering career for now, since I valued the freedom working remotely has offered. I may reconnect with my scholarly work more directly sometime further down the road, but for now it continues to inform my general political outlook and approach to software engineering practices more broadly, so I don’t mind the distance.
If you were tracking yourself—and others like you—what is one question that you’d want to ask of your colleagues that would result in knowledge of use to you and to the university (current and future graduate students, faculty, staff, department and university administration, etc.)?
‘Can you suggest any changes to the structure of your Ph.D program that could have made your graduate education any more valuable/successful for you?'
For myself, the 3-quarter limitation on part-time study (and the 3-quarter limitation on leaves of absence) made it extremely difficult for me to complete my program successfully. I felt like my attempt to develop my non-academic career in parallel with my graduate studies was discouraged by these limitations, and pushed me very close to dropping out several times.
How did you get the position at Code.org?
I heard about the job opportunity while I was still in the middle of writing my dissertation, I decided that I couldn’t pass it up, so I moved my dissertation writing to nights and weekends in order to make it happen.
Can you take us through your journey finding non-academic jobs? Where did you look?
Generally online (Craigslist/Google), through industry recruiters, and through current/former coworkers/managers. I found my first full-time software engineering job via a Craigslist posting (Javaground). I found my second job through a Google search that led to the company website’s jobs page (ZipZapPlay). My former manager at ZipZapPlay is how I heard about my current job at Code.org. Software engineers with industry experience in San Francisco are in high demand, so it’s common to hear about open positions through industry recruiters reaching out directly via LinkedIn or email.
What kinds of alignments do you feel there are between humanities Ph.D.’s and non-profit work? Between your area of study and what Code.org does?
I think in general, a non-profit is structured around a public mission. I think that the academic life tends to be structured in similar ways. In a broad way those two goals are similar.
I think specifically, some of the academic work tries to affect change in a social way. Code.org tends to have very pragmatic goals in mind, which is different from academic work, so they are pretty different, in that specific regard.
What advice would you give to other grad job seekers?
Finding your first job in a new field will be the hardest, so be persistent. Think long-term about your career - never stop learning new things and growing your experience in new directions; in deciding which path/field/job to pursue, consider both disciplinary/industry trends and also your personal life goals; develop a professional attitude and work-ethic; and make extra efforts to keep in touch with the colleagues/mentors you respect most.