Life after graduate fellowships

Ilana Walder-Biesanz ‘13

Everyone says it, but it’s true: the “real world” is difficult to adjust to.


I spent 2013–2014 earning a Master’s degree in literature at the University of Cambridge. While I wrote plenty of papers (and a thesis), much of my time went towards rehearsing plays and operas, eating at various colleges’ formal halls, and travelling around Western Europe.

The following year, I accepted a Fulbright research grant in Germany. My project was entirely independent (as opposed to connected with a lab or research group), so my time was even less structured. I sang in two choirs. I visited cities all over Germany and fourteen other countries. For much of the social season (New Year’s through Mardi Gras), I was in Vienna dancing all night. Both in Munich and abroad, I spent most of my evenings at the theater and opera—reviewing over thirty plays and thirty operas, sometimes professionally and sometimes on my blog. I also had time to research and revise papers, publishing three peer-reviewed articles on Spanish drama, Italian drama, and feminist philosophy of language.

Marissa Mayer and me in my first week at Yahoo!

In August 2015, I began work as an Associate Product Manager at Yahoo!. Moving to San Francisco and a regular work schedule has been difficult. I must carefully plan my travels, because my vacation time is limited. (I’ve still been jetting all around the U.S. for conferences and recruiting trips, as well as visiting Vienna for the social season and Finland to see a friend, but I can’t country-hop quite as much as before.) While I still review theater and opera professionally, I now average one or two productions per week rather than three or four. Studying singing and dancing is possible, but rehearsing full theatrical productions is no longer compatible with my schedule.

The upside, of course, is that I get to manage a product at Yahoo!. I own Yahoo Mail for Android, the company’s largest mobile application. “Owning” a product seems to mean something different at every company, but in my case it means I decide what gets built and what gets released. I prioritize features and bugs, define specifications for the features we’re building, work with other teams to resolve dependencies, and plan and run experiments. I collaborate with our community manager to understand customer feedback, user researchers to test out new concepts, marketers to promote our product, and customer service personnel to ensure that users’ questions and complaints are resolved.

Molly, Mariah, and me at Grace Hopper Conference 2015

My workload varies a lot week over week. Sometimes, the developers are chugging along, the release is on track, and no major issues have arisen. I have the luxury of doing long-term planning or deep dives into interesting data. At other times, there’s a major crash and the next release to spec out and a presentation about the product to deliver to thousands of people. Then, it takes some late nights to pull everything together.

What’s great—and a little bit incredible—is that as diverse as my experiences have been, Olin paved the way for all of them. I started singing opera as a passionate pursuit at Olin. My singing experience along with my tenure as an actor, director, and president with the Franklin W. Olin Players, helped me land roles and reviewing gigs at Cambridge and in Munich. Through Olin’s connections with Wellesley, I took German and Italian literature courses that improved my language skills and proved my credentials for a Master’s degree and Fulbright grant unrelated to my undergraduate degree (in Engineering: Systems). Ambiguous long-term school projects prepared me to write a graduate thesis, conduct independent research, and manage a mobile application. Courses like User-Oriented Collaborative Design, Software Design, and Systems taught me to understand both the software I manage and the people who use it. And balancing everything I was involved with at Olin was good practice for pursuing a tech career while also reviewing, singing, dancing, and fencing—not to mention taking online courses, keeping up my language skills, working on a translation project, reading novels, and socializing with friends.


Dancing at a ball in Vienna this year

I like that my schedule is both full and varied. I sometimes think wistfully about my years in Europe, and there’s a nonzero chance I will return for a PhD. But for now, I am enjoying the novelty of being back in tech, owning a huge software project, and living in San Francisco. Life after graduate fellowships takes some getting used to, but it’s also a fun challenge.

Posted in: Alumni Speak