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GSAS Alumni Spotlight: James Shulman, Senior Fellow at the Mellon Foundation

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What did you study at Yale, and what is your current profession/job? 

I received my PhD in Renaissance Studies in 1993 (with a dissertation on how heroes make decisions in Renaissance Epic poetry).  While my current job title is relatively intelligible (I’m a Senior Fellow in Residence at The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation), my “profession” is a little harder to describe with precision.  After deciding not to pursue an academic career, I spent the next stage of life adding to my learning and experience – spending some time first as a management consultant and then spending the 1990s doing social science policy research at Mellon.  In 2001, I began working with colleagues at the Foundation on Artstor – an effort to make digital images, software, and services available to support research and pedagogy in colleges, universities, and schools.  I led Artstor (as an independent entity) until May of this year, when I returned to the Foundation to write about what we had learned and develop new projects and directions.

What do you like most about your current role? What do you find most challenging and/or rewarding?

My work at Mellon (or while associated with Mellon-created projects) has allowed me to work on worthwhile, complicated, and truly interdisciplinary puzzles about the future of higher education.  When I was in grad school, “interdisciplinary” meant working across Philosophy and Religious Studies.  Or History and History of Art.  Since grad school, interdisciplinary to me means working with Oracle Database Administrators and Venture Capitalists, with librarians and branding consultants. Many of the interesting issues in the world require being able to “drink with any tinker in his own language” (as Shakespeare’s Prince Hal says). There are plenty of good puzzles out there that need attention (in higher education or in other areas of the public good) and I’ve been lucky to be able to work on researching these issues and being able to do some work that aims to support the sector as it moves forward.

How did your time at Yale shape your career trajectory? 

During my time at Yale, I learned about being honest with myself about how I liked to work and where I thought that I could make a difference.  I loved the ideas that I was able to work on, but I learned that I wasn’t inclined towards specialization.  And while great teachers (and great readers of poetry) taught me how to read and study in a focused way – to try to listen to texts rather than narcissistically use them for whatever ideas I brought to them, I concluded that specialized academic research wasn’t the right path for me.  Fortunately I had many advisors – some (like Giuseppe Mazzotta) encouraged me to think about “big ideas” and not berate myself for having those inclinations.  Another advisor (Larry Manley) gave me the best and most liberating advice of my early career when I confessed one day as I was preparing my prospectus that I didn’t have a particular theory of literature that I was intending to develop in my dissertation.  “I certainly hope not,” he said, “you’re what? 26 years old?  Make sure that you write about something that you care about, make sure that you respect the text, and you have the rest of your life to figure out what it all adds up to.”  From then on, I tried to do what I really cared about and do a good job at doing it.

What are the main skills that you acquired as a PhD student which help make you successful in your current career?

My interdisciplinary graduate program led me to understand the importance of respecting other people and respecting their work.  It was a great intellectual luxury to take courses in History, English, Philosophy, Religious Studies, Art History, Comparative Literature, and Italian.  There were certainly potential dangers with this approach: one could end up with no disciplinary tools of any rigor if one landed briefly in a class in one department and then hopped to another while never staying long enough to develop and polish any particular lens. Or, worse, one could hubristically think that one thoroughly “got” how to do serious work in each of those fields.  From coursework in fields other than literature, I came away respecting the work of people in those fields and knowing that while I might benefit from learning about the ways that they approached problems, it would be ridiculous to fail to respect the serious understanding of what they knew within their field.  This is probably the most important lesson I’ve carried forward into my work (whether in policy research or in building a digital organization): in my work, I have needed to learn something about very different parts of how the world works and the way I do that is by listening and respecting people who know what they’re doing.  There are specialists in every domain; after being willing to learn about what makes what they do significant and complex, one can be inclusive of those perspectives on an issue or a challenge and then, hopefully, work with those people to get something done.

Did you acquire any professional experience related to your line of work while in graduate school?

The summer before my fifth year, I worked to help a family friend (a great person named Jerry Stevens who had been the VP of Finance in the Bart Giamatti years) on a bid to bring the 1994 World Special Olympics to New Haven.  I had always admired Jerry’s brilliance in decision-making and working on this project with him seemed like it would be exciting and, if successful, would have some positive economic impact for New Haven.  So, we worked non-stop for 6 weeks with Yale, the business community, the Governor, and the local Special Olympics organizations and we ended up successfully bringing the event to New Haven.  I turned back to epic poetry afterwards, but it had become pretty clear to me that I liked a different pace and a different mode of working than I found in my scholarship. So, I finished up and struck out to figure out what the next chapter of life was going to be.

What advice would you offer PhDs who are interested in your line of work?

I don’t really know that I have a “line of work.”  In general, I’d give the familiar Jon Stewart advice of “find something that you love and then work really hard to get good at it.”  Remember that the skills that are part of your being a Yale graduate student are multivariate: you are likely to be smart in many ways and more interested in some issues or ways of working than in others.  Figure out what you really care about and if that is a specific subject interest in your academic field, then stick with that and don’t tell yourself you should be a lawyer or a banker.  But if you want to apply your brain to other kinds of problems, add skills to your personal portfolio or do things that make those capacities which might be latent manifest to others.  Continue to find great teachers – they aren’t all in your field.  For me, working with a finance person (Jerry Stevens) and later with an economist (Bill Bowen at Mellon) added so much to how I look at problems.  Find any opportunity to own some project of some kind – be able to say (the next time you are switching careers) that you developed a strategy for something, that you figured out how to resource your approach, and then how you carried it out. Whatever it is.  People like knowing that you can manage people and manage budgets and get things done.  Be ready to translate your academic work into terms that matter and into terms that demonstrate your ability to work on meaningful problems.  The nuance and specialization and the “within the field” debates that distinguish your work within the world of scholarship will befuddle (and perhaps even annoy) those outside of academic research.  So learn to love the high level – even cliché – version of what you do and why it matters.  Then wherever you want to go, people will see you as what you are: relevant and smart.

GSAS Alumni Spotlight

This GSAS Alumni Spotlight is part of an ongoing series featuring alumni who have chosen non-faculty careers.