Alumni Profiles Series: Deborah Chay

 March 24, 2021

Deborah Chay, Ph.D.

Deborah Chay received her Ph.D. in Literature in 1992. Following an academic career in literary and cultural theory, which included faculty appointments at Dartmouth College and John Hopkins, she spent nearly two decades in institutional advancement, primarily in the higher education sector. Today, Deborah is a senior director at Schaffer&Combs, a management consulting and executive search firm that helps purpose-driven organizations build and drive for growth and change. 


After Duke, you held several faculty appointments. What moved you to leave such a successful academic career and pursue organization consulting instead?  

My experience at Duke was absolutely fantastic, and it set a bar for me for the rest of my life. For me, doctoral training was about doing interesting work, a way to think about things that I think are important, to have conversations with smart people, and to learn about other strategies that can have an impact on social justice, in particular. But by the time I became a college professor, some of what I had gotten so excited about and really enjoyed doing in graduate school was lost. The more I succeeded as an academic, the less in touch I felt with a broader community of people. It started to feel like the only thing worse than not getting tenure would be getting tenure and doing this for the rest of my life. 

I started to think about what alternatives might be, but at that time, it was very hard to conceive of actually just choosing to leave academia. After attending culinary school, I went into food and beverage public relations to get more business experience and thought about going back into higher education, but from a different angle. Eventually, I did make it back into higher education as a development professional, which I also enjoyed for a very long time. Ultimately, I wanted to help promote the movement of capital toward the kinds of things that I feel like we need to move capital toward, and that is what prompted me to move to the next stage of my career. 

How did your cultural studies training shape your vision and approach to the business world?  

Part of our mission, as a consulting firm that is a B Corporation [business that balances purpose and profit], is to help our clients instantiate and promote equity, social justice, and environmental progress in their spheres. We do this by applying certain frameworks, methods, ethics and heuristics to help them solve business problems that may impede them from achieving—or even defining—their aims in these and other domains.  It is my training in the humanities and, more specifically, in critical cultural studies that prepared me to read an organization or a business problem as a text within a tradition and field, for example, and approach it as a site of productive contestation. Similarly, knowing that the subject itself is such a site can be important for rethinking roles and systems. That may seem obvious to you and me, but like everything else, it's a cultivated view. Cultivated, for me, at Duke. It is certainly my hope that more employers from more sectors perceive, understand, and appreciate people with that kind of academic background and skill set, if you will, that people in the Literature Program will have honed during their Ph.D. training.  

Looking back at your journey from duke to Schaffer&Combs, what was your greatest reward and greatest challenge?  

A constant thread in my career has always been the pursuit of what excites me and what angers as well as what motivates me; sometimes more in the forefront of my work, sometimes more receded. As hard as it was for me even to recognize the possibility of leaving the academy from my own well-resourced, high-status position within it, and as hard as it was to find my footing after, I have never regretted the decision to do so. But it was challenging to see myself and also make myself be seen as something other than an academic. Figuring out how to represent and apply “transferable skills” outside of academia is hard, not least because in most instances it requires the ability to think and perform where criticism—our default mode of production—is neither understood nor valued, and where the critic invites the career-ending judgment: not a team player. 

Do you have any advice for graduate students who are looking for their place outside of academia?  

Academy is not the pinnacle of all existence. There is a way to have integrity and to develop and make meaningful the truth of what it is that you're doing and thinking and pursuing that is not contingent on an academic career. Not long ago, I spoke with a former classmate who was thinking about changing careers, having worked exclusively in academic settings for the past 25-odd years. This person was facing some of the same challenges I first encountered in the mid-late 1990s, when we were both much younger, and had more time to make mistakes and figure things out. While I certainly hope there’s not a terminal date for any of us to change our minds and explore new directions, I am very glad to have been able to make that particular change when I did, rather than find myself in contemplation today. So, to add to my point that there’s a whole world outside the academy — if that interests you, I'd recommend moving in that direction sooner rather than later. 


Anastasia Kārkliņa
Anastasia Kārkliņa

Ph.D. candidate, Literature

Anastasia Kārkliņa is a cultural analyst, strategist, and researcher based at Duke University, where she is completing her Ph.D. training in cultural studies. Anastasia specializes in the study of culture and identity, with a particular emphasis on race and gender, and translates her academic expertise in cultural analysis and semiotics to cultural brand strategy.