[The post below was contributed by guest blogger Nathan Fisk, and is part of a series on the relationship between academic precarity and the production of ethnography, introduced here.]
Over the past year, I’ve had to carefully consider the meaning of “selling out”.
Of my blogger colleagues, I’m probably the farthest removed from academia – or, at least I’m moving in that general direction. This certainly does not mean I’m abandoning research, quite the opposite in fact. It does, however, mean that I’ve all but given up on the idea of staying in academia and searching out a tenure-track position. For the time being, anyway. Instead, I’m looking to transition into the corporate world, but ideally in a way which would allow me to still do interesting ethnographic research. But, before I get ahead of myself, let me explain a little bit about my background and current position.
In 2011, I wrapped up my doctoral degree in STS – the first to graduate from my program under the soft four-year deadline slowly hardening under increasing institutional pressures. For years, I had labored, perhaps delusionally, under the hopes that if I was working on a “hot” and highly visible topic a job would simply materialize by the time I reached the end of the doctoral plank. For me, that topic was youth Internet safety. I developed my dissertation research with jobs beyond academia in mind, and deliberately built into the project opportunities to meet with school administrators across New York, in the hopes of expanding my contact network for eventual consulting work. I envisioned possibilites in state government, doing technology policy work. I thought I could even keep writing, given the two freelance books already under my belt.
The imagined job never really materialized. Between the economic downturn and my failure to anticipate what I’ve come to describe and recognize in others as post-dissertation slump, things simply stalled out. My dissertation research panned out in a way that made consulting difficult – schools want someone to come in and talk to kids about cyberbullying, not so much someone to tell them that the idea of cyberbullying is fundamentally problematic. State positions dried up during budget cutbacks, and I never really figured out how to get into a position that would allow me to write policy briefings. In terms of more writing, merely considering the idea of returning to Internet safety issues after almost a decade of research on the topic made me nauseous.
Thankfully, the unofficial departmental safety net sprung into action, and I was hired on as an adjunct to teach two courses per semester. Deepa mentioned that adjuncting “ain’t no fun at all,” but my experience was a little different, despite the fact that I dreaded the idea of teaching from the start. Once I got over the neurotic terror – “What the hell am I going to talk about for 4 hours a week?!?” – things went really well. Sure, the pay was terrible and I was excluded from faculty governance, but I also had reduced responsibility and a level of insulation. I could focus on teaching, and engage with departmental politics more or less on my terms. After the first semester, I managed to garner something of a student fan base, and I was offered the opportunity to develop and teach a class based on my dissertation (Youth and Teens Online). I had a great time, was tremendously lucky, and the students loved the course. For me, it offered not only an easy return to my work, but also numerous opportunities to see it from new perspectives and to reflect on my own ethnographic practices – a topic I’ll return to in later posts.
But, my time as an adjunct came at a cost. I find myself in a position where only one thing really matters – a stable and livable paycheck. Despite the fact that the department wants to keep me around as an adjunct, I simply can’t afford to stay, particularly when faced with newly activated student loan costs, rising costs of living, and the realities of adjunct salaries. While pay is the issue that keeps me up at night, I also find myself frequently considering my social status as an adjunct. I can critique gender roles and class status all day, and my wife, family and friends are all tremendously supportive, but none of that allows me to simply ignore the tropes/positions of “deadbeat husband” and “professional student.”
Obviously, I’m on the job market, if a very small one. My wife and I purchased a home here in Upstate NY when I started my doctoral work, she is doing her own doctoral work (and working full time) locally, and our families live nearby. In other words, the price of moving for an academic position is simply too high, particularly when considered against often temporary, contract or low-paying jobs. As teaching locally full-time (or sustainably part-time) ceases to be a possibility, I have increasingly positioned myself as what my former committee member Kim Fortun described as a “methods man.” Qualitative and quantitative research methods skills are in demand, particularly in a corporate world increasingly focused on data mining, niche marketing, and forecasting. Market research firms, strategic consulting firms, and various media industries all need researchers, and typically offer salaries which are far beyond what can be found in entry-level tenure track positions.
In some ways, I find the range of opportunities available to me to be liberating. There are genuinely interesting ethnographic research projects to be had out there, and while I don’t want to over idealize, I’m willing to bet that corporate research has a slightly higher chance of actually being used for business and policy decisions. I’m even finding calls for positions – both in the corporate and non-profit realms – which are looking specifically for Internet safety experts. That said, there’s still something a little unsettling about considering a corporate position.
So, this is where I’m going to focus the posts that follow – what ethnographic research is coming to mean to me as an individual in a state of employment limbo, between the academic and corporate worlds. Because I’m not really actively doing research at the moment, my discussion will focus a little more on my experiences with the job search and the anxieties that come with considering research outside of traditional academic channels and support networks. Next up, a return to selling out, from Goldman Sachs to Human Terrain…
Nathan Fisk is an Adjunct Lecturer in the Science and Technology Studies department at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where he teaches Sociology, and Youth and Teens Online. His research has focused primarily on issues of youth Internet safety, although he has been occasionally been known to make vaguely interesting statements concerning video games, childhood, digital democracy, and hacking. He is the author of two books, “Understanding Online Piracy,” and “Digital Piracy.”