After Your History Ph.D., Then What...

You have just been admitted to the most exclusive club in academia.

Your dissertation was finally accepted after three years of work, you hold your doctoral certificate in hand and you are now a full-fledged member of the academic elite. But as the field of academics continues to tighten up, you and growing numbers of other Ph.D. 's are realizing that the ivory tower is not the only place to look for a successful career.

In the world of academia, many consider a Ph.D. the most important and necessary ticket to a career in teaching and research. Aspiring professors spend thousands of hours and dollars to prepare themselves for the rigors of instruction and scholarly investigation. But some would-be academicians are choosing a less traditional path to apply their intellectual training: in the mega bucks world of big business.

Five academics with Ph.D. 's in history, four with Harvard degrees, have formed the Winthrop Group, a Cambridge-based consulting firm located above Herrell's ice cream store, that specializes in historical analysis of clients' firms. Members of the group are applying their Ph.D. experience in history directly to the modern business world, says David G. Allen, the group's vice president.

"What you have learned in the doctoral experience is to become a generalist in understanding how things have changed. This generalist mentality and an understanding of what history can do allows us to interpret the events and history of a company," says Allen, who got his Ph.D. at Wisconsin. "In a nutshell, history is a way of thinking."


His associate Alan M. Kantrow, a senior editor of the Harvard Business Review, agrees that an historical perspective on consulting allows "an organizational understanding that was not possible before."

"What companies are beginning to understand is that in order to get the kind of grip on choices facing them at present, they need to know what has come before," he says.

Incorporated in 1982, the consulting group took its name from the Harvard house where a majority of the founding members spent their undergraduate days. Although the firm originally planned to write only corporate histories for clients, the Winthrop Group has branched out into corporate culture surveys, executive education, and archive management, Allen says. Past clients include Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA), AT&T and Motorola, he says.

The Winthrop Group has six full-time consultants, two dozen part-time consultants, and a nationwide network of scholars who can be contacted for specific consulting.

Describing the type of consulting the group does, Allen relates the story of the historical study the group conducted for AT&T. Researchers tried to find the historical strengths and weaknesses of the company as well as the roots of its `corporate culture.' He says one of AT&T's unwritten rules was that phones should be rented, not sold. Allen and his group traced this `law' back to the minutes of the second meeting of the company's board of directors. Since anyone could build a telephone in those days due to the simplicity of early communications technology, AT&T originally decided that more consumers would rent phones than buy them, and the marketing strategy was set.

The group discovered that the reasons behind this early twentieth century decision were no longer valid in a modern context and advised AT&T to offer consumers the option of purchasing a phone.

But despite the group's business appeal, its members have not severed their ties completely with the intellectual community in which they were educated, Kantrow says.

"We take very seriously our connection to the historical field," Kantrow says. Most group members either teach at area universities or are members of academic institutions such as the Business Review.

Both Winthrop members emphasize the intellectual approach they take to business consulting as well as their teaching efforts in executive education and training. Responding to criticisms from "a few" historians that their work is not as intellectually important as pure academia, Kantrow says the career choice is not that black and white.

"So often it's regarded as an either-or choice. It's not clear to us that career choices have to be one or the other. We like to think of ourselves as translators and participants between academics and business," he says.