Alumni Profiles Series: Monica Gerlach
Monica Gerlach, Ph.D., received her doctorate in philosophy from Duke University in 2009. She is currently assistant dean for planning and academic resources in The Graduate School at Northwestern University.
Why did you choose to go to graduate school and pursue your Ph.D.?
My primary motivation was intellectual curiosity—I had a deep interest in philosophy and had some questions that I wanted to explore.
Having worked for a year in science policy (at the American Association for the Advancement of Science), I was also keenly aware of the career opportunities that a doctorate would afford me. So it seemed like a win-win: I could study something of interest to me, hone my analytical and writing skills, and also earn a credential that would make me more attractive in certain job markets.
What career plans did you have when you began your graduate studies? Did they shift while you were a graduate student, and if so, how and when did they begin to change?
I started graduate school with an open mind but planning to do work in applied philosophy outside of academia. Unsurprisingly after the first year I got caught up in pursuing a job in academia since that is the primary career path in my program. But during my third year it became pretty clear to me that philosophy research alone would not sustain me. The work was rather solitary, and I found myself enjoying more and more my extracurricular activities as a GPSC rep, a rep on the Academic Integrity Council, and as a co-director of the Human Rights Graduate Student Working Group.
How did you find your first job after graduation and how has your career unfolded since then?
In my fourth year I decided to explore management consulting as a career path, with the intention of doing it for a few years to gain some practical, transferable skills (management, presentation, etc.) to complement the skills I had developed in graduate school. I practiced case interviewing with the Fuqua consulting club and interviewed with three management consulting firms (McKinsey, Bain, and BCG) and one best practices research firm, The Advisory Board Company (ABC). I contacted a fellow Duke Ph.D. at ABC who had a fascinating role in what was then their new Higher Education Practice, and when I learned more about it I knew immediately that it would be the perfect fit for me.
I worked at ABC for two years analyzing and recommending academic-enhancing and efficiency solutions for chief business officers and provosts at over 100 research universities and colleges. I then used this experience operating at a high, strategic level to secure a role as the Director of Budget and Planning in The Graduate School (TGS) at Northwestern University. In that role I reconceived, managed, and forecasted our operating and financial aid budgets and developed and implemented operational enhancements in various TGS units. I was promoted to my current position as Assistant Dean in 2012.
What do you enjoy most about your current position? How did your graduate education at Duke prepare you for it?
Working in TGS, I feel privileged to support the future of graduate education. I work directly for the dean and in partnership with the senior leadership to support our strategic priorities. Having been a graduate student at a Northwestern peer institution, my graduate experience is essential to conducting my work and charting the path of graduate education at Northwestern. I understand quite personally the intellectual rigors and the general challenges graduate students face. Having been involved in various extracurricular activities as a graduate student, I relate to the position of the staff and faculty who support our students. I also put to use the skills I learned as a teacher and research at Duke, especially the problem-solving, writing, and research skills, on a daily basis.
What was the best career advice you ever received? Or, what advice would you give to current graduate students – maybe something you wish you had been told, but weren’t?
Start your career planning early! Finding your true passion takes time, and adequately preparing to be competitive in your selected career path takes further time still. And be prepared for a psychological adjustment if you are in a program that predominantly trains Ph.D.s for academia and places Ph.D.s in faculty and post-doc positions.
Also, everyone says it but it is true: networking is critical! I am fairly confident that I was extended interviews in the four jobs I applied for because in each case I had spoken to several Duke alumni personally to express my interest in the firm.
Do you have any favorite memories of Duke that you’d like to share?
Campout: a crazy, fun, long weekend; beautiful walks in the Duke Gardens; departmental recruitment weekends; teaching during the summer months when the campus is (relatively) peaceful and quiet.
Rory Bradley is a Ph.D. candidate in the Carolina-Duke Program in German Studies. He is currently an Administrative Intern in the Graduate School at Duke University.