History in Transport Infrastructure (feat. Jonathan Hill)
Alumni Aloud Episode 35
In this episode, Jon tells us about the joys of using research skills to make an impact on civic infrastructure; the surprising benefits of asking quote-unquote stupid questions; and how to negotiate the changing terms of your professional identity when you carry your PhD to work outside the ivory tower.
Listen to the episode below, download it, or stream it in Apple Podcasts (or your preferred podcast player).
VOICE-OVER: You’re listening to Alumni Aloud, a new podcast by Graduate Center students for Graduate Center students. In each episode we talk with a GC graduate about their career and advice they would give current students. This series is sponsored by the Graduate Center’s Office of Career Planning & Professional Development.
ANDERS WALLACE, HOST: I’m Anders Wallace, a PhD Candidate in the Anthropology program at The Graduate Center. In this episode I sit down with Jonathan Hill who is an Excelsior Fellow in the Policy Planning Department at the New York State Department of Transportation. Jonathan earned his PhD in History at The Graduate Center in 2018. In this episode John and I talk about the joys of using research to make an impact on civic infrastructure, the surprising benefits of asking “stupid questions” and how to negotiate the changing terms of your professional identity when you carry your PhD to work outside the ivory tower.
JOHNATHIN HILL, GUEST: Hello, my name is Jonathan Hill. I’m currently an Excelsior fellow at the Department of Transportation for the state of New York here in Albany. And I was a recent grad of the PhD program in History at the CUNY Graduate Center.
WALLACE: The Excelsior Fellowship…can you tell me a bit more about what the fellowship involves?
HILL: Sure. So it is a 2-year program, it’s only open to people who’ve finished an upper-level degree so it’s mostly people who went to law school, MBAs and MPAs are kind of the core of who is in it. But they do allow PhDs which… it’s kind of a unique experience for them. In the current cohort I’m the only PhD.
WALLACE: The fellowship, it’s open for people from different backgrounds like legal, law school and MBA’s. You are one of the few PhD’s.
HILL: So in the current cohort, I’m the only PhD which requires a special sort of accommodations because I’m sort of the canary in the coal mine on seeing how PhD’s fit but it’s been an excellent experience. I think probably among all the fellows, I have had one of the best experiences so far in the program. And what it is, you interview in my case at a couple different agencies based on your preferences, your background and what you might be able to contribute. You almost interview as a new hire and actually in most cases would want you to begin work right away. It’s sort of an apprenticeship program. And after you find your placement you begin.
It’s good in the sense that you begin as a new employee so you begin working right away. It’s not sort of a hands-off sort of watching situation. But it’s also good in the sense that you’re not actually a new hire so you don’t come on with any list of jobs that are required by your job description. You really get to sort of move in or play around with everything the office does, move in and out of different work groups and really get an experience for the agency and what they do. So the idea of the program is meant to be a leadership training program and that’s really how they’re doing it for now is moving you to an agency, jump right in for 2 years and find a way to fit. And in most cases you are able to stay after 2 years. So I’ve been in 6 months and we’re already talking about ways to stay in the DOT so it’s gone well so far.
WALLACE: That’s really interesting to set up a program as an apprenticeship model. Can you tell me more about the fellowship in terms of how you see it playing into your own career goals?
HILL: Sure, it’s actually… well it’s probably good for me to talk about because these things are kind of in flux at all times. You’re moving here, moving there. The way the academic market is right now it’s always hard to tell sort of what’s happening really. When I finished my PhD I never intended of waiting on an academic job and I did you know two years on the market, well two cycles on the market I would say. And had interviews and did well in a couple different places but it’s extremely tight right now so I don’t end up with a long-term position. And this sort of came up at the same time. I said I’d give it a chance and I began here on the Excelsior Fellowship, not tentatively, but I would say that I planned on committing to two years and wasn’t really sure what would happen after that point. It’s been a far better experience than I anticipated and there’s a variety of factors for that they all sort of revolve around the extent of the need that there is where I am. I stepped into a situation expecting to especially with a background in history, which there are no titles at the DOT that require history as a background or even allow it.
So I expected to step into a situation where I was defending or making the case for my contribution and working really hard and working my way in. And I found the opposite to be true. The minute I stepped in there and started sort of demonstrating research ability, writing ability, ability to navigate complex institutions which sounds simple but it’s not as simple as it seems. I thought I started getting pulled in different directions by different groups and now it’s seven months in and it’s at the point where I’m having to pick and choose the way that I contribute because the demand is so great. S I found that really fun to be able to step into a situation where you’re working every single day doing work that really matters and that you can see. You know I’m working on policy for things we’re seeing every day, from the Kosciuszko Bridge down in New York City and everywhere there is transportation in the state we’re working on.
So the way I see it, it’s early in this program now but I wasn’t planning on committing to staying when I came in and the calculus has changed since I’ve been here I would say. Not to a full commitment on either side but it’s going to make it very hard to want to leave once I’m finished here especially considering they’re already trying to accommodate me here. My one concern was, would I still be able to you know be a researcher and be able to have that side of life that you develop and all the skills you work on as a PhD. And I’ve found it absolutely. Not only am I researching already every day but the groom to sort of continue the research is out there externally but internally as well. I mean we produce reams of information internally for the DOT that never gets seen again which could certainly benefit from a careful eye taking a look. So I’m from a town of 400 people in central New York. I don’t know anybody here that’s from that town. After being here about a month I learned that a recent retiree, one of the top executives in the Environmental Department here at DOT was also from that town. So I just reached out to him, just to make a connection and met him informally and I found out in the short time talking to him that he had a PhD from Yale and also came out of a research environment and had this whole career here. He said if you wanted to do research, you could absolutely do it here.
That was one of those moments which made me realize you know I can see a way here for applying all the skills I’ve developed. So it’s not a step down, it’s a step in a different direction. The needs are different, the environment is different, the work day is different, but the ability to contribute and apply the skills you develop is as great certainly. So a long way around to answer your question… I’m not sure right but it’s a work in progress and I’ve had a great experience so far. If there are any students that are thinking about this, whether in the Excelsior program or just thinking about the types of jobs especially in public service outside of just research, I’m happy to talk to anybody that has questions about it to the extent that I can.
WALLACE: That’s great John!
HILL: So my experience is, when you get to the end of the PhD everybody sort of is trained to be thinking about the academic environment and it never goes away, I mean I’m still there you know. But I think when students begin to think about non-academic careers there’s a certain level of trepidation. There are two things happening, one, t’s a deviation from sort of your training or the way you’ve been trained to think about yourself you know. You’re sort of cultivating an academic identity the entire time you’re in the academy in the walls.
And at the same time you’re kind of daunted by the fact you don’t know what it even means to consider a non–academic career. It’s sort of a whole other thing and you know there’s public sector work, there’s private sector work, there’s all these different directions. So to the extent that you know you can navigate those two things at the same time you can find some really rewarding things on the other side, especially as I said before in this sort of current academic environment in which people are retiring and they’re not replacing jobs. Where adjuncts outnumber tenured professors at schools. So you need space and I think oftentimes new faculty don’t even know, they’re not familiar enough with the environment the students face now to even speak about it in some cases.
WALLACE: Those are great points. I was also curious to ask you about your academic background? What did you research in your dissertation? Was that also a big departure in terms of subject matter of your research when you moved over to the DOT?
HILL: Well I’ll sort of walk you through the process of kind of how I got to here. I was a journalist in a former career. I did my undergraduate in journalism at Boston University, was in journalism for a few years and switched over to history in 2009. I did a Master’s at City College and enjoyed the masters enough to really commit to doing the PhD. So I continued my studies at The Graduate Center. As a high school student I’d gone to Nicaragua and done some humanitarian work there and was also an exchange student in Argentina in high school. So I always had the Latin American background and always interested in relations between the US and Latin America. So that was sort of my entry into studies at The Graduate Center.
I applied as both a US historian and Latin American historian and was accepted as a Latin Americanist in the Department of History. And my experience has always been only a couple Latin Americanists at The Graduate Center which… it has its minuses in that your cohort is a little smaller but the major positive is that you study with everybody. You study with the Europeanists, study with Latin Americanists. My entire career has been an interloper it sort of feels like, so I was very comfortable in that environment. You get to pick up a little bit of everything. So sort of a 3–year process, I studied a little bit in the Geography Department and I cast a net broadly for a dissertation project and I got really taken with environmental history and history of water. And did a couple research papers focusing on that field, the way it intersects with geography and actually anthropology is sort of the common thread through a lot of these things. A lot of the work of David Harvey which you get to study at The Graduate Center on you know sort of built environments.
So I sort of put a lot of that over to Latin America and cast my net broadly in Latin America to sort of see what was there and found out that there wasn’t a whole lot. There’s some Latin Americanists doing this kind of work. From there, pitched a Fulbright project, was lucky enough to be accepted. So I spent a year in Mexico City working at the historic water archive. I was one of the few that had ever heard there was actually an archive dedicated only to federal water projects. So I was lucky enough to spend a year doing research there, published a dissertation called Power House Chihuahua, which is about the very early hydroelectric industry in northern Mexico in Chihuahua which was kind of at the cutting edge of hydroelectric development in the 1910’s, beginning in 1912, some of the earliest projects. Which corresponds to some of the early hydroelectric projects in North America and Europe but very little was known about it. So that was sort of my intervention there was sort of exploring this you know multinational project of Canadians, Americans and Mexicans building very large hydroelectric dams in northern Mexico.
So that obviously is not what I’m doing today but it introduced me to a sort of deep theoretical and conceptual introduction into the built environment: large technical systems, how policy intersects with politics and sort of socially. And that has really been the thread that I pitched to the Excelsior fellowship and that’s followed me through. Now I’m working in transportation but a lot of what I’m doing here at DOT is not… I’m doing a lot of writing. What I’m doing is talking to a lot of groups about what they work on right. Talking to finance, talking contracts, talking to policy and planning, talking to the rail guys, talking to the people that work in public transit, and in writing asking a lot of clarifying questions. Getting to know what they do, looking at their documents and really trying to communicate across groups and agencies. Even within one agency as big as the DOT, you have a lot of different priorities, different groups. And there’s a way in which…
I’m not going to say with all historical training and anthropological training in PhD programs prepares you for that, but there’s a way in which you can depending on the way that you’re approaching it. So that’s sort of been my trajectory into getting here and I found that the PhD training especially in certain fields. When you come in for example with training working in archives, step into a desk that’s covered in old publications from a program is not daunting for you in a way that it is to another employee right. So sifting through World Reports and seeing what’s important here in an efficient way. That skill set you don’t develop as a state worker but you can bring that in. And lastly to get your hands on a lot of levers very quickly especially when people understand you have a mastery over this content in a short amount of time.
I feel there’s a way in which…especially if you’ve navigated successfully the CUNY system all the way to a PhD and learn how difficult large institutions can be and how the natural state is to fall through the cracks and you have to be very active to sort of find your way through them. When you have the right skills you can be very effective in navigating state government in a way that nobody else is. So there are discrete skillsets that no one’s going to train you in a PhD but which are very portable outside. And I’m learning that every day.
WALLACE: That’s a really great job overview and I see a lot of connections between the research you did and the work you’re doing. So your work now is primarily around research and synthesizing findings on how the DOT works in its operations?
HILL: So I probably have half a dozen portfolios, they would call them sort of larger projects, that I’m working on. But just by sort of poking through them you can get an idea of what it is that I’m actually doing. The major project, the reason I was brought on board by the commissioner, was the long-range master plan which is federally mandated. Basically the public transportation every 4-5 years has to publish a data-driven, performance-based assessment of the entire transportation system in the state. Predictions about its needs and locations are large because when you’re demonstrating use and predicting needs, this is very much about allocating resources. That’s really the critical part so you’re got to get it right. Even though a lot of it turns out to be pie in the sky because for example the master plan we’re doing now has a horizon of 2050, so I mean we’re talking 30 years out here and trying to predict… I mean on the one hand it can seem mundane, on the other hand we look at all the things that are happening right now, electric and hybrid vehicles, how are we going to integrate those into the system. The impacts of Uber and Lyft and this industry and its interface with public transportation for better or for worse. The autonomous vehicles- what are they and what happens with them. Drone policy. All this is sort of right on the horizon now but by 2050 it’s going to be really core stuff.
Anytime you’re putting together a plan that goes out to 2050 you sort of know you’re setting yourself up for failure because it’s certainly not going to look in 20, 50 years what you anticipate now. And now that I’m inside you also realize how critical it is to ensure that the people who are allocating funds and you know doing design and planning are paying close attention to everything happening. And this plan is critical to that process so where I fit in is not as necessarily…I’m obviously not an engineer and I don’t have a background as a planner although I’m earning to be one. It’s really helping them produce a really vivid document with a strong critical-eye, research program so that when it comes out, the message is the research is critically engaged but it’s also very publicly engaged in that it sort of fosters public engagement and public investment in the system which is a critical sort of core function of governance and I think it is not always there.
So where I’m sort of fitting in communications you could say, but not simply communications, helping experts driving a research program and helping to sort of translate across program areas within a department that has >1000 employees in multiple departments with different priorities, different prerogatives, different language. And the pay off for me is all this captivating stuff…I’m able to learn one: content that’s fascinating to me, infrastructure, built environment and sort of social metabolism fascinates me. When you understand funding systems, you understand a lot of work and you really understand how to most effectively drive change right.
WALLACE: That sounds really fulfilling and also like a really nice way to use your skills and also expand them in terms of impacting policy and making that kind of change. Can you tell me a bit more about a typical day if there is such a thing?
HILL: I’m sure everyone will tell you there’s not always but state government is a unique beast right, in the sense that typically what I find is that three deadlines come at the same time and then you [inaudible]. But it grinds very slowly, sometimes maddeningly so, and yet they do have a very powerful forward momentum which is why it’s really imperative for me it seems to sort of learn how to navigate them right. It can be a powerful force for change if you can learn to navigate it the right way. So a typical day might involve reviewing documents, having things that I’ve never done before right. So we’ll put together an RFP, request for proposals, for a big project that we’re putting out. We’ll contribute content on one part of it which actually describe sort of the conceptional ideas we’re looking. We want a robust sort of research program around this part but then it’ll come back to you for contracts and you’ll have to sort of weave this contractual side.
Well what are the implications, what can you ask for, what can you not ask for. So those will be sent to user reporting and they can take quite a bit time, so a good amount of your time is sort of picking through these details right, about how do you ask for an innovative project, what is innovation right? I actually got that question the other day. We’re asking for people to propose innovative ideas about the future of transportation in New York; what are you defining exactly right? And you don’t have the academic benefit of leaving it wide open because first of all there’s money involved, and second of all it’s a long project. We are only going to select one person and if you don’t actually get that clear at the start you can end up in bad places many years down the road. So it’s not exciting stuff but a lot of what the day-to-day involves is sort of picking through things that are on the edge of where my comfort level is and then stepping outside of them, working across groups. I wouldn’t say there’s an exact date, some days there are meetings, some days I’m working quietly at my desk, some days it’s doing webinars to sort of learn more myself.
But it all centers around, for me, to build my value within the organization. Learning how to translate across different groups. What is this group saying, what is their incentive structure, what is it that they have to show at the end of the day and how do we thread all these needles at the same time to get a productive product the end. So it’s not just an exercise, it’s sort of you know being careful. An addendum to that is constantly focus on where is my value in the structure right. And where am I contributing now, where can I contribute in the future. That’s a really helpful exercise so thinking about your value and your contribution in a broader place than academia is helpful in thinking about where you might fit. It’s sort of putting the horse in front of the car rather than the other way around. What can you do, and then think about where you can make a contribution.
WALLACE: Those research skills are I’m sure very helpful in terms of applying them to the work place that you’re in and finding out just what you say, those opportunities where you can add value to the process.
HILL: And I’m finding that nobody in my change of command is coming and saying we really value your research skills here right. It’s never framed in those terms.
WALLACE: Did you have any mentors that helped you along the way of changing careers?
HILL: You know in this program we have to find a mentor so having mentors is really important. But for me it’s important to idealize what a mentor is. And what I mean by that is I think there’s a way in which we’re encouraged to seek out that one person who can sort of answer all questions for us right. It is important, especially for people with non-traditional backgrounds to see themself in the process, see someone you can identify with to see the way that it’s done. On the same hand, it’s really important to be open to the idea that someone is going to be really helpful in navigating institutions and showing what that’s like. And someone would be really helpful in showing you know how to ask strong research questions, and someone else might be very helpful in showing you how to teach or how to engage with students.
So in that sense I would say I mean I’ve had many mentors in different ways and it’s been because when you seek out new skillsets, you know you seek out someone you see as a master, someone that helps in many ways in other fields. So long way around in saying that I’ve had many people help me and are crucial to my place that I got here, including in Herman Bennett, who was my adviser. Helped me in a huge amount of ways but he certainly didn’t push me towards public service right. There’s many different kinds of perspectives on itself. Many people helped me to get here and I always encourage people to seek out people in those places. Different people can help you, not only with phases of your life but as you grow, help you in different ways as you move through your career.
WALLACE: Yeah that’s great advice and I think that takes some of the pressure off when people think about finding a mentor. Just realizing that it could be many different people at many different times.
HILL: That’s right. You know, the stakes don’t have to be as high as you make them. I think there’s a certain way… it’s intimidating to ask somebody to be your mentor because to be honest at the beginning of a relationship most people would say well maybe or sure, but not be engaged. So especially start with questions. Just ask a lot of questions you know and when you really find somebody that’s can answer them to the point where it’s helpful, you’re on the way.
WALLACE: That’s great advice John. I wanted to touch on skills because you mentioned that you had a lot of background that did prepare you well for some of the work you would be doing at the DOT and then some of the other content specifically was new to you. Did you already have the skills you needed to do this job or were they skills that you had to acquire?
HILL: It’s a combination of both which I think is going to be anywhere you go in any place. And this was true in graduate studies too, that when you lose the fear about asking the stupid question, that’s when you really open the field up for yourself. And so many people stop themselves at that point so I actually, sort of dry run…[inaudible] the question when I’m asking it but I just found in my 6-month review at my job, my supervisor had to write about hard skills and soft skills and one of the things that she wrote about was ability to ask clarifying questions of content specialists in a way that was helpful to other people, other groups, so that we could all get on the same page. That wasn’t what I was intending to do, I was actually asking for myself but I found that you know, you tell your students this all time, if you have a question somebody else probably does too.
But it’s not just asking the question, it’s actually an excellent way to get people to reconsider the most basic assumptions. I’m not ruling out what we consider in 5 years or 10 years and by teaching you again something they know, they often find something to reconsider and you learn something new. So I had to cultivate new skills on this job and that’s something I set out to do. I just ask a lot of dumb questions or simple questions and moving on from there. And it’s amazing to sort of put yourself out there, how quickly you can pick things up and how people respond to it. Everyone loves what they know, it’s kind of a human condition right so.
WALLACE: That’s a great point and a counterintuitive one perhaps but asking the things that you’re not sure about I think is already discouraged because in academia you have to show expertise.
HILL: So when you go to conferences, what you what you’ll find in my experience, is people trying in a conference setting to ask the smartest question. It’s a performance like any other… sort of ask the best question and sort of making an impression on everyone in the room. And I’ve always taken the opposite approach. It’s helpful for me and you know it’s a different kind of strategy. There’s drawbacks within academia too but it’s my process.
WALLACE: I am also curious, is there anything you miss about academia?
HILL: What I miss about it is years gone by now which is sort of the camaraderie of the first phase. You all get traumatized by your first exams and second exams together and sort of form a bond around going through a very difficult process and coming out on the other side. So I’m still attached to everyone in my cohort, still great friends, but the nature of this job is that everyone has to go somewhere else afterwards. That’s probably the part I miss the most. Second might be the ability to sit around and read all day. It might not be much but it’s kind of a pleasure in itself and it doesn’t last very long right. I’ll remember them forever because you talk about your academic experience as a period of transformation. One week in, I was not sure that this program was for me at all. And one semester and I was convinced that I was going to be dropping out because it was… I don’t want to say too tough, I was committed to toughing it out. I was convinced that I didn’t understand anything, that I was just really not cutting it. I was convinced that I was going to be let go or just not going to make it. And within a few years after that, I was on a Fulbright in Mexico so it’s just you never know what can happen. You just keep your head down and do the work. And that process happens to everybody. But Graduate Center was a huge part of my formation as a person as I am today now.
WALLACE: You said having a PhD is fairly unique in your workplace. So does your academic credential kind of come with you or have you started to separate your working identity from your PhD? Or has it benefited you to have that credential?
HILL: I think it actually has benefitted. On the one hand, nobody’s seen a doctor walking around the DOT before right. And so there’s just the rarity of it in the sense that I think a lot of people in my office don’t even know what my doctorate is in right. But they know that there’s not a lot of them around, so you know you take it where you can get it and you sort of enjoy that level of notoriety I guess. Also you know outside of the academia, it’s common to sort of wear your credentials wherever you go in a way that’s really different in the academia. So everything that goes out with my name on it goes out with PhD after it. Which is not the way I’m sort of used to signaling. So it’s weird, I’m still navigating that. It’s an interesting question you ask because on the one hand, it’s still important to me, but when you bring it in to a work environment, you know nobody’s asking me about my work or a sort of historical perspective on things. My identity, it’s there but it’s being reshaped on a daily basis because on the one hand, I don’t have to advocate to contribute because people are valuing it right from the beginning which is good.
On the other hand I do have to sort of explain my interventions many times right. Why am I asking a big framing question about the nature of TNC’s and long-term change. I do have to remind myself that the way in which opposition happens, inquiry happens, now is not the same way. And sort of re-shape that thing that I’m going to school. But it’s also helpful. I think every time you have to tackle things from another perspective, you stand to gain something. So it doesn’t go away, mostly because… you could sort of let it go and just hand it on to another person. But it’s important my work now is understanding that as soon as I get a handle on it, I’m still a researcher. But certainly the nature of everything changes. Environment changes and if you really want to contribute you have to sort of adapt to this new thing. Something that happens daily. And the work is valued and it’s making a difference every day.
WALLACE, VOICE-OVER: That does it for this episode of Alumni Aloud. I want to thank Johnathin for coming on the show to share what it’s like to apply your research skills in policy and state infrastructure planning. Remember to stay tuned for more episodes of Alumni Aloud, published every 2 weeks during the fall and spring semesters. Subscribe on iTunes and you’ll automatically be notified of new episodes. Also check out our Facebook, Twitter and career planning website at cuny.is/careerplan for more updates from our office or to make appointments with our career counselors. Thanks for listening and see you next time!
This entry is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.