Where can a graduate degree from the University of Illinois take you? In this series, we catch up with one recent Graduate College alum and ask the question: “Where are they now?”.
Ryan McConnell works at salesforce as a Senior Demo Engineer, writing code for applications that show off what the company’s software can do. After completing his PhD in Classical Philology, Ryan McConnell eagerly began work as a visiting assistant professor. But with the uncertainty of the faculty job market, Ryan began exploring new career paths and found that his hobby in computer programming could actually be a career.
You earned both a Master’s degree (in 2007) and a PhD (in 2013) in Classics from Illinois. What was your career path following graduation?
I was a visiting assistant professor for a year at The College of William and Mary and then for two years at Bowdoin College, teaching Greek and Latin along with ancient history and civilization courses. By my second year at Bowdoin, I had a couple of articles published and my book had been accepted for publication, but no tenure track positions would be opening up there and prospects in the rest of the academic job market in Classics seemed equally grim. At about the same time I began considering my next large research project, I took up programming as a hobby. My attention turned more and more to the hobby, and at a certain point it was clear that my next big project would be outside of Classics. I began studying programming full time and moved to San Francisco to look for work as a software developer. Shortly after that I was hired on at Salesforce.
What are some of the factors and experiences that you considered when thinking about changing career paths? Did you find this transition difficult?
I loved many parts of being in the academic world, but the uncertain and itinerant lifestyle of an early career professor was not one of them. It was really a confluence of facing another move, finishing my book, and finding a new subject I really enjoyed that led to the change. I found the transition less difficult than I'd expected. In my new role, I mentor and am mentored, and have great freedom in pursuing avenues of research. So in that way it all feels very familiar.
So, you essentially went from researching ancient technologies (including papyrus documents and early forms of currency) to working with new technologies! Are there any skills that you have found particularly transferrable between graduate school/academia and your current position?
The most valuable skills I learned in grad school and academia were how to quickly evaluate the quality of sources, extract the important parts, and apply what I'd learned to new problems and questions—i.e., research. For me, at least, the process is the same for papyri as it is for coding.
What do you think are the most interesting, rewarding, and/or surprising aspects of your job?
The amicitia papyrologorum, “friendship of papyrologists,” is the animating spirit in the field of papyrology. Solutions to the problems papyrus texts pose are necessarily incremental, iterative, and international. That motto is a reminder that credit and progress is due to the collaborative efforts of everyone involved in the field. When I look at the open-source software I use every day, I am amazed at the creativity, effort, and time that developers from all over the world devote to making their work available to others and to improving the work of others, all for free. This other amicitia is a connection to my academic past life that I did not expect to find.
Is there a particular course, professor, or experience at the University of Illinois that has impacted your way of thinking?
Professor Danuta Shanzer's courses always helped me imagine a career outside of Classics.
Do you have any advice to graduate students interested in exploring careers that are seemingly unrelated to their degree field?
Before leaving academia, I felt that my area of expertise (non-literary papyrus documents from Middle Egypt from the 4th–7th centuries CE) was so specialized that it would be hard to do anything else. But the skills that make graduate students into experts in one specific area can also make them competent, even highly competent, in other areas pretty quickly. Being competent and being able to become competent can really go a long way.
This interview was conducted by Emily Wuchner, who is the Associate Director for Student Experience at the Graduate College. She holds a PhD in musicology from the University of Illinois, and her work focuses on music and social welfare in eighteenth-century Austria. In her free time, she enjoys boxing, reading, and knitting and crochet.