Alumni Profiles Series: Jennifer Gilbert (Part 2)
Jennifer Gilbert is a senior vice president and the head of marketing and communications at Jennison Associates, an investment management company. She received her Ph.D. in History from Duke in 1998. While finishing her doctorate, she worked part-time for a bank and volunteered to create an exhibit about the history of one of its branches. By bringing her skills as an historian into the non-academic world, she started a career that has since grown to include strategic project management and information technology. This interview is the second in a two-part series; you can read Part 1 here.
You currently work in marketing. Can you explain how humanistic skillsets fit that type of career?
Financial services corporations are filled with humanities majors. You’d never know it, but this is where they all end up. This is an industry where the ability to understand the world in which you live, synthesize a lot of data, and communicate and form a perspective, is valued. In the asset management industry—at Jennison, to use us as an example—we manage approximately 175 billion dollars in assets for clients like large corporate pension plans, unions, and mutual fund companies. We have portfolio managers who manage that money. The marketing team sits between the operational components of the firm—legal, compliance, risk, operations, etc.—and the investment personnel who are out there making decisions on which stocks to buy, how to construct a portfolio, etc. In the marketing team, you act as the universal translator: you need to understand the business of the firm, but you also need to understand how to talk to portfolio managers and investment people. It is really essential to know how to synthesize those ideas and make them compelling enough to the marketplace that people are interested in buying what you are selling. This has been a great career that I never in a million years imagined myself doing.
What do you like best about your current work?
I would say my favorite thing is that it changes all the time. It is like other parts of the world—asset management and the industry are going through changes in terms of the use of technology. The financial services sector has been a little staid and a little unchanging, and that change has finally come. So it’s an exciting time, particularly to take a firm that is deeply rooted in its traditions, and think about new ways to bring those values and services to the marketplace. I have a pretty good relationship with our CEO, and he and I talk a lot about the importance of teaching people that new and different don’t mean you have to lose what makes you special—and trying to figure that out is a fun part of the job. But you also have to figure out how to do more every year with the same number of employees—you don’t get infinite resources. If you’re teaching and you have a seminar of 25 students, and the next year someone says now you’re going to teach 50 students with the same material, you have to change your teaching style. As financial corporations grow, they confront the same types of challenges.
What was the most difficult part about leaving academia?
The hardest thing for me, honestly, was that I felt that as a historian, who I was and what I did were inextricably linked. What I read and what I taught and what I thought about and what I wrote on my own, they were all a part of who I was as a person. And that conception of self was actually the hardest thing to readjust. So all of a sudden, when you find yourself working in a bank or in any kind of corporate setting, your job and your identity are no longer synonymous. I didn’t grow up and say, “I want to be a project manager at a bank.” I really wanted to be a history teacher. The biggest hurdle was in my own head: would it be OK for me to stop saying, “Oh, I’m a Ph.D. in history and I’m working on getting a job in academia,” and admit to myself and others that, “I work at a bank,” or “I work in fill-in-corporate-name.” That was tough—I’m not going to lie.
As you navigated your career, what key piece of advice did you receive?
I’ve had a couple of supervisors who helped me translate the skills that I gained as a Ph.D. student or just as an academic, into the workplace. If you’ve written a dissertation, you have done original research, you have synthesized data, you have looked at trends, you have done the historiography of your topic. And those skills—that ability to see the specific, but locate it within context, and provide people with a sense of how to move forward, or even to understand what happened by looking backwards—that skill is in demand in almost any workplace. Stop thinking about your skills in terms of the subject matter. Nobody has ever paid me a salary for talking about my dissertation topic, the National Organization for Women.
If you want to find a non-academic career, pivot instead to the skills you acquired while writing and teaching—there is almost nothing you can’t do. I’ve had people say to me, “Where did you get your confidence?” I realized that a lot of my confidence comes from standing in front of the classroom. I don’t know about you, but the first time I ever stood in front of a group of 18 and 19 year olds was terrifying. If you can do that, there is almost nothing you can’t do. There’s nothing scarier than a group of twenty year olds. You have to remind yourself that you actually know the subject matter better than your audience. You’re actually the expert. A lot of that self-confidence in my job comes from having had the experience of being the expert in the room.
What would you tell someone nearing the end of graduate work?
I would say cast the net very wide. Think about the environment in which you want to come to work every day. Do you want to work at a place where you’re deeply invested in the mission of the organization, or does that not matter as much to you? Do you want to be in a place that is very large, where you are contributing, but you are one of the cogs in the machine? Do you want to be in a place where you’ll have an outsized contribution because it is very small? I would think about casting that net very broadly. You graduate in your late twenties or early thirties and it’s still pretty young—you don’t actually know very much about the world and what you want to do. You think you do, and everyone in academia tells you that you are going to go teach somewhere as a professor. While that’s one route, it’s only one of 800. When you graduate, you may think academia is one of three or four routes, but you can cast your net more broadly. There are startup companies building things, new industries, and those companies need smart people. You just have to have the confidence that you can learn the subject matter because it’s really not that difficult. I joke all the time: “If an MBA can learn it, I can learn it.” Not to be a snob about it, but come on. So that would be my one piece of advice: cast a really broad net, and go for the subject matter that is interesting to you, the type of work that’s interesting, and the mission that speaks to you. Don’t be hung up on thinking you know where you’ll end up. Because you probably don’t.
Patrick Morgan, Ph.D.
Ph.D. recipient, English
Patrick Morgan is an Alstott Morgan Fellow at the American Antiquarian Society, where he is researching the impact of geological time on nineteenth-century thinkers. He graduated in May 2019 after defending his dissertation, "Manifesting Vertical Destiny: Geology, Reform, and the Stratified Earth in American Literature, Long Nineteenth Century." Dr. Morgan is a 2018 winner of the Dean's Award for Excellence in Teaching from Duke Graduate School. In August 2019 he begins a position as Assistant Professor of English at the University of Louisiana Monroe.