Alumni Spotlight: Kiran Mascarenhas (Class of ’14)

1. What was your path like from your PhD to where you are today? What decisions did you make along the way that helped you? Who helped you and how? 
KM: It was a winding road! Before I got my degree I had been offered a tenure-track job in postcolonial studies at a university in Pennsylvania, which was pretty cool. But my husband had a great job with Amazon in Seattle, and we wound up deciding against moving the family to Pennsylvania. Instead, I taught at Seattle Pacific University and at two prisons. One summer, my husband encouraged me to apply for a job at Amazon. I was hired as an entertainment editor for IMDb, the Internet Movie Database (which belongs to Amazon). From there, I went on to create content for Alexa, Amazon’s Artificial Intelligence Assistant. I then worked at a startup for a bit, and finally wound up where I am today, at Facebook. 
2. What do you do in your current position? What’s your job like day to day? What bigger problems are you trying to solve? 
KM: I work as a content strategist in Facebook’s Augmented and Virtual Reality organization. I’m part of the biggest team of content strategists in the world – there are hundreds of us – and we work together to build systems that help us maintain consistency and quality across Facebook’s apps and products. In addition to working with other content strategists, we work cross-functionally with engineers, designers, marketing folks, and product managers to build products and experiences. I’d say a third of my time is spent writing and ideating alone, while two-thirds are spent meeting with teams to collaborate on projects. Content strategists are usually the ones who name things and who write the words in our interfaces; additionally, we often have the opportunity to drive thinking in information architecture and design, product development, and workplace culture. 
3. How does your PhD training or your humanistic expertise (however you define it) serve you in your current role? 
KM: As a student, I honed my ability to read, understand, and think critically about vast amounts of information. I learned how to ask productive questions. (I had to learn how to occasionally provide decisive answers once I left academia). I would have been less equipped to make the right product and career decisions if I hadn’t taken courses in Women’s Studies and Critical Race Analysis. At Facebook, we do work with dazzling technology, but at its heart Facebook is about connecting people, and those of us with backgrounds in the humanities have the opportunity to use our ethical and conceptual training to solve problems and influence product design in ways that serve millions of people. 
 4. What do you wish you would have known as a PhD student? 
KM: There are a lot of ironies in a PhD student’s life. We are surrounded by Marxists, but we have to scramble to pay our way through conferences, and work all day every day, teaching, being there for our students, grading, researching, and struggling to publish, often for little or no pay. Some of us think academia will serve as a refuge from the rat race, but the scarcity of good academic jobs and the surfeit of English PhDs mean you have to have a lot of hustle, a lot of strategy, to survive as an academic. It’s actually much easier to work a corporate job where so long as you do good work, you don’t have to fight to be paid. 
5. What can current PhD students do to prepare themselves for your field? 
KM: Embrace new technology. Not everybody has to be an engineer, but don’t pick the wrong side of history. Research self-presentation for non-academic jobs; navigating the job market outside academia is much easier than pulling together an academic CV, but you do have to adapt. Don’t be afraid. 
6. What challenges do you see for PhDs transitioning from academia to working outside the academy? 
KM: You will need courage, research, and maybe some guidance and encouragement as you change fields. The first years in a big tech corporation can also be challenging; you will have to learn fast, execute fast, fail fast, and recover fast. 
 7. What do you miss about academia? What were you glad to leave behind? 
KM: I miss teaching in the prison system most of all. I loved being a student, but I don’t have to miss it because I treat life as one long independent study. I do not miss maintaining the illusion of expertise. I’m more comfortable acknowledging up front that I don’t have all the answers. This enables me to learn and collaborate, which leads to better, more impactful work.