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GSAS Alumni Spotlight: Michael Zimm, Creative Strategist

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

After receiving my PhD in Classics in 2016, I became a Creative Strategist at Digital Surgeons, a marketing design and innovation company headquartered in New Haven, CT. I wrote my dissertation on the limits of free speech in the Athenian democracy. As a creative strategist, I create marketing content, design keynote decks, and produce SEO (search engine optimization) reports, among other things.

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

I love my colleagues, the intellectual rigor of my work, and the excitement of working for a phrenetic startup. The morale is unlike anything I've ever experienced. At Digital Surgeons, we are a band of brothers and sisters. One of the most challenging aspects of working at a startup is the speed. Things need to get done FAST. As an academic, it took me time to adjust to the phrenetic pace since academic research proceeds at a slower speed.

How did your time at Yale shape your career trajectory?

The career path that I have taken is quite different from the one that I set out on. When I started my PhD back in 2010, I was training to become a professor. My beloved colleagues like to call me "Professor Zimm." I am still an academic. I am just an academic in a new environment. All my colleagues at work are wonderfully curious. They love to ask me questions about Greek literature, oratory, and history. I knew that I wanted to work in a culture that embraced my intellectual curiosity. The same drive that took me to Yale has taken me to Digital Surgeons.

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

Especially in the humanities, there is the perception that our skills don't have value in the tech world. But I have learned from experience that the writing skills I honed over the course of graduate school have tremendous value and application at a tech company. Though I do not code, I enjoy writing, whether its copy for a website, an article, or a client report. Also, the ability to do in depth research is a terrific skill that can be parlayed in many industries. The detailed level of research that goes into a PhD is uncanny. I now use that same skill set at Digital Surgeons. Liberal arts PhDs should be aware of how valuable of skill that truly is.

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

I actually didn't have any experience working at a startup prior to being hired by Digital Surgeons. But when I read Digital Surgeons' values page and saw an interview with Pete Sena, the founder and chief creative officer, in which he talked about the importance of willpower and hiring employees that have grit, I decided to explore their website.

No surprise that the company didn't have an ad for a classicist, but on their career's page, is a quote "we're not big on titles, so hit us up even if yours isn't here." Sure enough, their content strategist Jason Rose responded almost immediately, and before I knew it Pete Sena met with me. Though he was unfamiliar with the discipline of Classics, Pete is a true open-minded "design thinker." Soon thereafter, he hired me.

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

If you are interested in working for a company, show some initiative. Send an email to a manager of the company asking to meet. I didn't ask Jason Rose for a job when we first communicated. I simply wanted to meet him and learn more about his company's work. Over the course of my job search, I emailed many organizations and often received no response. But would you really want to work for a business that doesn't have the courtesy to acknowledge you?

On one occasion I walked into a tech company and explained that I was a PhD and was interested in learning about the company's work. Five minutes later the CEO of the company came out to meet me and we ended up speaking for an hour and a half.

The truth is that there aren't many liberal arts PhDs working in the tech world. But doesn't that mean that we are unique in that environment? No doubt, many companies will ignore you, but there will be one that will want to talk with you and let you explain how you can add value to their business.

GSAS Alumni Spotlight

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