Having completed her doctorate in political history, Alexandra is now the CEO of Social Signal, a social media strategy company. Her doctoral study taught her how her clients think and developed her analytical skills.
"In 2004, I received my doctorate in political science from Harvard University. My dissertation examined the phenomenon of ‘hacktivism’ – politically motivated computer hacking – as a window on how and why people engage in online community action. I interviewed more than 50 programmers and activists worldwide, tracking their motivations for participating in projects ranging from circumventing China's online censorship scheme to creating a parody of the WTO web site.
"For a long time I have been trying to share my enthusiasm for the Internet's potential as a tool for community-building. In 2001 I co-founded DO-Consult, the world's leading forum for researchers and practitioners in online consultation and public engagement. As the Research Director for Digital 4Sight’s Governance in the Digital Economy, I created and guided an investigation into the future of government and democracy for a consortium of 20 governments and businesses from around the world. My writing on technology issues has appeared in media outlets like the Toronto Star, CBC Radio, Business 2.0, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.
"So, why did I move from academia into starting a business? Basically,
I had only the briefest flirtation with the idea of taking an academic job. I applied to three and was the preferred candidate for one but the dean at that university refused to hire a junior person for a mid-level position. This was ironic because at the time there simply weren't any non-junior people with digital expertise, which was the focus of the position. However as well as not being prepared to move to another city for a job, my focus on digital media meant I'd have to create each course more or less from scratch, which would make the teaching load much heavier. I wouldn’t be able to rely on relatively fixed teaching materials years on year! The small number of positions on offer directly related to my area of interest was a problem, while the academic/tenure clock also conflicted with my biological clock somewhat. I was 33 with one child, and – unlike consulting work – academic pay wouldn't allow enough household help to make that intense pace of work feasible.
"From 2005 to the present I have been the founder and CEO of Social Signal, one of the web’s leading progressive social media strategy companies. We are known for our expertise in online engagement and participation, and major projects have included work for NetSquared.org, Tyze.org, The Elders, Facebook Green Gifts, ChangeEverything.ca and AmericaSpeaks. The company devises social networking solutions partly based on my research carried out during my doctoral study. Through years of my doctorate and running Social Signal with my business partner, we have developed unique expertise in this area – building up an evidence base for exactly how online conversation can help business, and ways to encourage participation. My research into the motives for online social participation has supported this start up, and we have numerous national and international clients. One project involved facilitating a meeting of international heads of e-government for the OECD – note that this project was before starting Social Signal, while working on my PhD.
"Skills which have served me well from my doctorate include the fact that my interview subjects are the kind of people I now work with. I really learned how they think and how to talk with them. Also my analytical skills are much stronger – I know how to break a problem down and think about it differently, and how to organise my thoughts more.
"I'd strongly recommend that doctoral students work in a for-profit business with close contact with management so that you get a sense of what it means to work in/on a business before starting one. Get some basic business skills training before you start, for example how to read financial reports, HR issues, etc – and learn about running a business to see if it's for you. Also realise that you're not going to be working in your business but rather on your business – so if business isn't intrinsically interesting to you, you probably don't want to start one. Also consider freelancing/consulting rather than starting a company that employs other people – it's a totally different ball game. Recently I have returned to a quasi-academic role that combines my industry and academic experience. As the head of an applied research centre I act as a bridge between academic researchers and industry partners, leading projects that have both an academic research and business outcome."