Allessandria Polizzi is a certified coach who currently leads education for 7-Eleven. She has been in corporate education, change management and organizational development for over 15 years, earning several honors in her field including a 2012 ”Best Place to Learn in Dallas” award from the American Society for Training and Development, a “Top Innovator Award” from Chief Learning Officer magazine, and Training magazine’s ”Top 40 Under 40? award. She serves on the board of directors for the DFW Learning and Development Director’s Roundtable. She has a PhD in English with a specialization in 20th century American literature from the University of North Texas (2001).
My name is Allessandria, and I am a recovering academic.
Not a lot of my coworkers at 7-Eleven know this about me. They don’t know that I once spent hours on end reading about the trials and tribulations of 18 year olds, filling the margins of papers with phrases like “tell me more” or “show don’t tell.” They don’t know that there is a difference between a degree in Poetry and Literature, and that the decision to pursue the Literature PhD was because it seemed like the more realistic thing to do. They don’t understand the fear of opening envelopes from literary magazines, hoping for their approval, the dread of another conference entry proposal, and the fact that someone would put all of their bets on the slim chance of landing a tenure-track position.
It is just this dream I was going after when I moved my husband and myself to Texas in 1995. We were the only ones to move away for our home town and were full of excitement. I had recently left a very supportive department, where I won the graduate dean’s medal and had started a literary criticism magazine for our campus. I had presented my first conference paper with a close friend of mine and was feeling like, despite the odds, I was going to get through this doctorate program in a tidy 3 years and move on to some romanticized college town where we would live happily ever after.
And then I began my doctorate program.
A few things happened that dampened my dreams. First off, I did not have the support from the department I was used to. Day one of classes, I had students complain to the department head that my syllabus was too long. The head told me to shorten it. I was disappointed that she didn’t back up my expectations for the class. Later I was student rep on a search in the department. This provided great insight into the whole process…. And I found it to be extremely intimidating and staggeringly unfair. We interviewed some amazing candidates, but the department made an offer to a man who, while greatly talented in his field, tried to pick up on the student driving him to the airport (& who ultimately only lasted only a few years in the actual position). This disappointed me greatly, but I failed to be discouraged.
One summer, I could not get classes to teach and had to find other employment. I landed a temp job as a legal assistant reading construction documents for an asbestos case, which was as boring as it sounds. Standing at the copier, the warm light flashing out in some dusky basement, I vowed I would never take another soul-sucking job again.
A lot of my friends taught technical writing. They always had classes. I decided this would be my next move. It was this decision that forever changed the course of my future.
Teaching technical writing allowed me to get a spot a few summers later as a temp for a local telecom company’s training department. I had completed all of my coursework and passed my oral exams, at this point, and was gearing up for a solid year of working on my dissertation. A friend of mine was getting married and asked if I could fill in for him as a technical writer for a communications and training team working on the implementation of a system called SAP. I didn’t know what any of these things were.
I did know, however, that I was going to make more in an hour than I did in a day teaching, so I snatched up the opportunity.
I had never been exposed to the world of business. This was a magical land full of team meetings and group emails. It was a world of deadlines and collaborative discussions. There were bosses and lunches and changes in direction. People said things like alignment, synergy, and at the end of the day. Acronyms were used with a blithe lack of irony. There were cubicles and ID badges.
I loved it.
I kept teaching a few of my classes that fall while continuing to work part-time at the telecom company. I was beginning to make friends in the office, to understand what they were talking about. I thought I had the perfect gig. I could teach a little, work a little, and still make progress on my dissertation. I encouraged my husband to quit his job so he could finish his degree (after supporting me for 6 years, I thought he deserved it). It was only a few months in that I experienced one of the biggest things people worry about. I got laid off.
When I went to discuss this with my dissertation director, she said that academia wasn’t for everyone and perhaps it was good that I leave. The main thing I took from the meeting was that it was clear to me she had no idea what I was talking about. In fact, no one in my inner circle had a clue what I was going through. No one I knew worked in a corporate position. I had a family of educators and government employees. I was on my own, searching for postings online for tech writers and course developers. I dealt with people who thought having a PhD meant you “didn’t know how to work” or that it made you “too stuffy and unapproachable.” And I made a lot of mistakes.
But I finally landed a job editing and then writing training materials. This evolved into a job teaching these classes, which turned into a position leading a project team of developers and trainers. I traveled the world, I learned about business systems, I made friends and grew my résumé, all while I continued to write my dissertation. This process was not easy. My dissertation director dropped me, I was disconnected from campus, and no one seemed interested in seeing me finish.
I did finish, though.
It was surreal going into work after having defended my dissertation and officially earning those three letters. I knew it was a great accomplishment but no one around me could understand it. They would ask me what I wrote my dissertation about, which I would avoid answering because it was on whiteness, work and cultural identity, which makes no sense to anyone and would garner strange looks on the rare occasion I would try to explain it. I didn’t know how to translate this work, the thing I had devoted so much time to, into something meaningful in my new world. To be honest, I still don’t.
One thing I can do, however, is share my experience and help others who would like to learn more about making the transition from an academic path to a corporate one. I can share some of the pitfalls, some of the hardships in the transition, and help others navigate through the process.
It is not easy. These are very different worlds, with different languages, ways of working, and expectations. I am here to say, however, that it can be done. That you can find a way to add value to the world, to feel fulfilled, outside of the college campus. And I am here to help.
One step at a time.