Matthew Tanico (PhD ’17, Spanish & Renaissance Studies)

What is your current profession/job? What did you study at Yale? When did you graduate?

I am currently the Associate Director at the Yale Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration, a role I’ve had for just about two years. I received my Ph.D. in 2017 in Spanish & Renaissance Studies, and I worked on early modern literature in Spain and Italy, specifically Don Quixote. As I was finishing my Ph.D., I started working in the Graduate School Dean’s office and took a liking to academic administration. I ended up accepting a position as a Visiting Assistant Professor at NYU when I graduated, but I took a second, part-time position in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean’s Office here at Yale at the same time. It was clear to me that the professoriate wasn’t for me, and so I started applying exclusively to non-academic jobs. When my current role opened up here at Yale, it seemed like the perfect fit.

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

The Center I work for was founded in 2016, and I am the second person to hold the position as Associate Director. So when I came in there was a lot happening, but we needed to focus on our priorities and mission as we continued to define what the Center would become institutionally. This has been both a challenging and extremely rewarding task. The summer after I came on board, we had a number of strategic planning sessions in which we re-crafted our mission statement and established clear short term and long term goals. I helped reconfigure a lot of our activities into cohesive programs and established some new projects to take us into the directions we wanted to go. It’s been a nice balance of maintaining a firm foundation for the Center, exploring new and innovative ideas for growth, and executing both simultaneously.

How did your time at Yale shape your career trajectory?

I felt very much like an outsider when I first arrived at Yale. My parents hadn’t gone to college, and yet I ended up getting an advanced degree at an Ivy League university. Imposter syndrome is real, and it took me a while to come to terms with that. However, it also provoked a sense of curiosity about the university more broadly: how it’s run, what it does, and who gets a seat at the table. That was certainly part of the reason academic administration always intrigued me. Another thing I was blissfully ignorant of when I started the Ph.D. was the expectation that I was going to become a faculty member when I graduated. That turned out to be a blessing in disguise because it allowed me to explore many possible career paths during my years in graduate school. In addition to the professional development opportunity I took in the Graduate School Dean’s office, I also interned at Yale University Press. These student employment positions helped me determine what I liked and (more importantly) what I didn’t like in a job. The undergraduates are acutely aware of the opportunities Yale affords beyond the classroom, and I tried as much as possible to embrace that philosophy for myself while I was in graduate school.

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

I was in a literature Ph.D. program and any literary scholar needs to be able to read many authors, bring them into conversation with one another, and ultimately argue for some new point. This is essential to anyone who works with a team of people and needs to draw out consensus or persuade a group to move in a certain direction. Teaching also helped hone my understanding of how to explain complex ideas in simple ways (often, in my case, in different languages!). One of the things I think I’m pretty good at is project management, and the dissertation is a project that can easily go off the rails if not managed properly. These aren’t necessarily skills that one learns directly in graduate school, but they are certainly there and worth refining because they are useful whether you pursue a career within the academy or not.

Did you acquire any professional experience related to your line of work while in graduate school (either through part-time work, volunteering, networking, or other forms of training)?

As mentioned, I had student employment positions while in graduate school that helped me define my career trajectory. I also joined a few clubs and volunteered on committees and boards, some of which I’m still on. In all honesty, these didn’t offer professional experience so much as introduce me to other people who were doing interesting work in various fields I wasn’t familiar with. I suppose you could call this “networking” but all that meant for me was meeting new people, some of whom would become good friends, and talking to them about life and career.

What is the biggest challenge that you face in transitioning to different working places / cultures? What do you suggest current students do to prepare for those challenges? 

It’s rare that a job description accurately reflects the reality of what a given position will entail. We spend a lot of time with the people we work with and it takes a while to understand the dynamics of a given workplace. My suggestion is to listen. Everyone wants to have a voice; we want to be heard and understood. Get to know the people you work with. Try to understand why they do their jobs, but also get to know who they are as individuals. We are so much more than our careers. Of course, you don’t necessarily need to be friends with the people you work with, but empathy goes a long way.