5 Questions with David Tokarz

David Tokarz
May 5, 2021

David Tokarz is a Writer-Editor in the Office of Advocacy at the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA). Dr. Tokarz completed a dissertation on civil rights filibusters in the United States Senate and earned a Ph.D. in Communication from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in August 2019. While at the University of Illinois, Tokarz worked as a teaching assistant for various Communication courses, including public speaking and oral and written communication. Prior to that, Tokarz produced minor league baseball content for SB Nation's Detroit Tigers blog, Bless You Boys, including daily minor league recaps, scouting reports, top prospect lists, and draft day coverage from 2010 to 2013. 

1. What does the Office of Advocacy at the SBA do?

The Office of Advocacy is an independent federal agency that serves as a voice for small business within the federal government. We’re responsible for enforcing the Regulatory Flexibility Act, which requires that federal regulators take small entities into account when creating regulations. Our attorneys spend most of their time monitoring regulation and training regulators to write more targeted rules that don’t disproportionately punish small businesses.

As part of our mission, we also produce economic research on small business. Advocacy does a profile for each state and each congressional district annually, and our economists are constantly working with outside contractors and datasets to produce research on the state of small business in the United States. 

2. What is your daily work like at the SBA? 

As the Office of Advocacy’s only editor, I spend most of my time reviewing publications to make sure that they are ready for public dissemination. That means checking for spelling, grammar, and clear prose. One of the big challenges we face is that all of our office’s work is complex. We’re dealing with regulatory issues that can be technical and hard to parse and complex datasets that need translating into plain English. To that end, I’m responsible for making sure our staff complies with federal plain language guidelines and parsing technical language.

I’m also responsible for packaging all our materials for rollout. That means writing social media posts, crafting website posts, determining who receives our materials, and selecting stock photos. All of that involves working with authors, department heads, and other office stakeholders.

3. How did your doctoral work in Communication prepare you for your current position? 

My dissertation was on civil rights filibusters, so I’m adept at navigating the Congressional Record and government documents. I’m also not scared of translating technical language for public consumption. Regulation and economics are about as complicated as Senate procedure, so I’ve got experience in learning new materials and putting them in a coherent narrative. Additionally, I constantly use the writing skills I gained while working on my Ph.D. The same sort of tactics I used to simplify sentences when writing academic work serve me well when reviewing products from our economics team. I frequently write for multiple audiences and stakeholders. 

Finally, you’d be surprised how much specialized knowledge actually comes into play. I’ve taken to talking about audience a lot more than I thought I would as we design new products and prepare different rollout strategies. I don’t use rhetoric quite as much as I would have in the academy, but being able to point at an introduction and identify why strategies such as identification are effective has been an asset around the office. Plus, I still use the Chicago Manual of Style weekly. 

4. What value does teaching experience have in non-teaching careers? 

Being an editor for a bunch of attorneys and economists who are older than I am can be a challenge, especially when, from their perspective, I’m fresh out of college. However, despite the potential challenges, I’ve only run into a few problems because I know how to give constructive feedback that doesn’t make it sound like I’m attacking their writing. Sometimes, people get sensitive about having their writing criticized, but I’ve found that being able to explain the specific issues with a piece of work and suggesting constructive alternatives helps assuage some of those sensitivities. 

When you grade, you become a quick hand at spotting errors in prose. Editing documents is a bit different because you also need to become attuned to errors in formatting. But, being able to glance at something and determine what needs fixing allows you to work quickly and thoroughly. You’d be surprised how much the grading experience translates to the non-academic workforce. 

5. What advice do you have for late-stage doctoral students considering careers outside of the academy, particularly humanists like yourself? 

Write about something that isn’t your academic research. I never would have gotten my current job without having worked on the University of Illinois Communication Department newsletter or without my baseball writing. Academic writing is great, but being able to demonstrate that you’re capable of switching genres and writing for a lay audience is handy. Plus, you want a portfolio of writing to be able to bring to an interview. If you can do some freelance work or do communication work for a campus group, take the opportunity.

I also wish I had taken university classes in the Adobe Creative Suite. A lot of the jobs I started applying for wanted experience in Adobe InDesign, and Advocacy actually paid for my training when I started. Being able to bring InDesign, Illustrator, or Photoshop skills to a new non-academic position will give you a huge advantage. You’re going to be working a lot with the more advanced features in Microsoft Word, but sometimes InDesign is a better tool for you or you need to be able to manipulate an image. Your university might offer classes you can take without having to pay.

Watch a video highlight of the interview!