Going Rogue?

[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. Read Nathan’s previous post here.]

So, in my last post I spoke mainly about my current situation as a post-graduate in employment limbo, experiencing the strain of potentially leaving academia. In this post, I want to start to unpack what I meant by “selling out” through a discussion of some of my own experiences on the job market. Specifically, I’ve chosen the two positions I’ve applied for that most clearly evoked the stigma of selling out. None of this is to say that I think there should be a stigma attached to leaving academia in all cases, or that people who have taken jobs outside of academia have “sold out,” but rather that leaving academia comes with baggage that deserves at least some attention.

On any given weekday, you’ll likely find me in the hanging chair on my front porch, with an aging MacBook open in my lap and two black cats sprawled at my feet. My job hunting process is simple – I use various job listing sites to search for positions which contain the term “qualitative” within the state of New York. Beyond that, I progressively widen my search to more inclusive terms such as “internet,” “PhD,” and “research”. The first search tends to bring the results I’m most interested in – and I am often pleasantly surprised to find employers who are aware of, and looking for, applicants with backgrounds in ethnographic research. As I mentioned previously, a wide range of employers are looking for individuals with research experience, including strategic consulting firms, media companies, marketing firms, and think tanks. These positions tend to be located in major metropolitan areas however, so my initial rounds of applications were more frequently directed towards more local, non-research positions where I imagined a background in ethnographic research might give me an advantage.

My first round of interviews included one with a wholly-owned subsidiary of Goldman Sachs. In many ways, the position would have distanced me from research work and ethnographic practice, bringing me closer to my former life as an IT worker. As an Information Security Analyst, I would have been engaged in various forms of training, investigatory work, and contract analysis. In my mind, I had still envisioned a site for ethnographic practice – after all, information security is universally concerned with networks of trust and authority, and fostering a culture of security is often more important than strong technical safeguards. How do everyday employees within a particular corporate culture frame information security risks? What is the discursive work of a contractual agreement to protect sensitive financial information? While it may seem slightly idealistic, I genuinely think that ethnographic practice can provide new and useful insight into these kinds of issues.

Further, thinking about the position as ethnographic work provided me with an explanation for how my background made me a candidate suited for the job in ways that distinguished me from others – which excited the employer enough to garner me an invitation to the final round of interviews. Through my experience with Goldman Sachs, and those with other employers that followed, I started working out exactly how non academic employers viewed my background. Having a PhD in the social sciences, I was simultaneously overqualified and underqualified for just about every position I applied to, and I believe that I was frequently framed as something of a novelty. One interviewer with a market research firm actually told me this in an interview – as he explained, other candidates were technically a better fit given their background and experience, but I demonstrated a broad skill set, strong curiosity, and a perspective that set me apart from the other candidates. I imagine the same could be said for most PhDs, particularly the interdisciplinary weirdos like myself.

Considering Goldman Sachs as an employer led me to joke about selling out with friends, which was more of a means to casually judge the acceptability of my pursuit than an attempt at genuine humor. It was my first encounter with the discomfort of potentially leaving academia, but that said, much of my discomfort was due to the reputation of Goldman Sachs. This form of discomfort is at the core of selling out – the idea that one is abandoning what Laurel described as the pure and disinterested pursuit of knowledge in search of a paycheck. It is a difficult transition, at best, to go from criticizing neoliberal endeavors to supporting them from within. Regardless, my friends and colleagues quickly dismissed my concerns, correctly noting that it was unlikely I would be directly involved in any unethical practices – and more importantly, everyone understood the need to find sustainable employment.

Not all positions I’ve applied for have been so distanced from my background in research, however. At least, not in ways that would require a form of surreptitious ethnographic work in service of what are ostensibly non-ethnographic corporate tasks. This became particularly true as I expanded my job search to include the New York City area. However, these kinds of positions evoked another aspect of selling out – the sense that I would be abandoning my area of expertise. I’ve spent nearly a decade working on youth Internet safety research, and nearly all of the positions I’ve applied to would be a radical departure from that work. Effectively, by taking any such position I would lose the freedom of being able to choose my own research. Although, it can just as easily be argued that given the political nature of funding decisions, even career academics do not have complete freedom of choice. For me, at least, the actual work of doing research is a large part of what makes it attractive as a career choice, more so than the topic itself, but there is still a sense of loss associated with changing course away from nearly a decade of research.

Shortly after my encounter with Goldman Sachs, I stumbled on a opening for a “Social Scientist – Human Terrain” in New York. At the time, I had vaguely heard of the Human Terrain program, having had some brief conversations about the ties between anthropology and the military during my time working with the Journal of Cultural Anthropology. Thinking that maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if the position was located in New York, and given that the application process was a simple resume submission, I gave it a shot. Within two hours I had a representative on the phone with me, explaining that I had the kind of background they were looking for, and that I would be moved to the next stage of the application process, with a 14-month deployment to Afghanistan in my future with a successful completion. Politely, I ended our conversation.

I think, at this point, the arguments against the Human Terrain System have already been thoroughly discussed. I bring it up, however, for two reasons. First, it is an example of a career option which clearly evokes selling out, perhaps better than any other. It is research in service of an institution commonly criticized by those doing ethnographic work, applicants effectively ignore their current research trajectory and position within their academic networks, and further, has the real potential for harm. While the military use of ethnographic work brings this into focus best, the element of harm is present in other career opportunities as well. Someone with a skill set like mine could easily set up a research project which served to develop more compelling digital casino and social media games. Second, I bring this example up because even after they told me I would be deployed to Afghanistan to actually do the dirty work, with enough pay on the line to keep me afloat for years, I actually considered it. Ultimately, I decided I didn’t need to turn my life into the social science rewrite of Breaking Bad – whether it be to map human terrain, or to “drive” use of gambling devices – regardless of how desperate things seemed.

Now, let me be perfectly clear on one point – all of my colleagues and friends have been completely supportive of my endeavors. Beyond the threatening comments on the Human Terrain incident, none of my colleagues or former faculty mentors have been anything less than encouraging. That said, there’s still a feeling that I’m going against my training, and that I’m abandoning the righteous pursuit of knowledge in favor of a bigger paycheck. Do I genuinely think I’m abandoning the moral high ground – or even that such an academic moral high ground exists given the current state of affairs? Not really. Further, I’m genuinely interested in work outside of academia, along with all of the very real benefits such work entails. However, I would argue that the academic ideal of the tenured professor is still deeply entrenched in the culture of doctoral and academic work, and continues to exert pressure on us all. After all, the entire system is oriented towards producing scholars and professors, not professionals – and in the current academic climate, perhaps that’s not a good thing.

So, coming up in my post for next week, I’ll actually get around to addressing Gottlieb’s comment from my previous post and discuss what I think can be done to counteract the stigma of “selling out” for future cohorts. As Amy mentioned in her comment, and I hope to discuss further in the next post – staying in academia increasingly involves a mode of selling out as well.

9 thoughts on “Going Rogue?

  1. An excellent post – and a difficult point you raise. I am presently employed in a Big Four consulting firm, and have had the same exact questions you raise on a daily basis. For me, the balance between my anthropological training versus the reality of business is always a difficult one. But what keeps me here is the fact that I am asking the questions about balance, ethics and what is the ‘right’ thing to do. And I notice that when I start asking those questions, my colleagues around me do the same.

    So perhaps then, we can be a force for positive change in the areas where our training tells us we should never go!

  2. Thanks for reading and responding, it’s been really great to hear from people who are actually out working beyond academia!

    I agree – I think there are real opportunities for positive change (even more so after your comment about your colleagues), and my co-blogger Lane made a similar statement earlier on Facebook. I don’t want to give it away quite yet, though, it’s part of my post for next week!

  3. This is all fascinating. I especially appreciate the discussion of ethics and complicity, issues which may seem obviously present the case of the Human Terrain System (great, illuminating links–$300K!!), but are, as many of us are getting at, very much at play in most of the contexts we all work in.

    @Beth: I think your comment is right on–how indeed do we work for positive change wherever we are planted? I’ll talk about this in my final post where I take on issues of complicity and complicity at the margins of the academia.

  4. Thanks, Nathan, for responding further to the issue of selling out. I think my concern from the last post was that its title made your position more ambiguous than you intended. The decision to leave academia is a complicated one, for many of us. I certainly have a tendency to romanticize returning to academia, but I think the important component of deciding to leave or to stay in academia is to figure out what trade offs one can best accept. Can you accept less autonomy of your work, less in-depth thinking (at most places, though there are a few companies that celebrate the academic approaches), and at times ethically questionable priorities of working in the private sector? (Which is to say, academia has its own host of questions to reconcile.) Does the stable paycheck (and benefits!) trump the constant uncertainty that an early academic career usually includes? My time in the private sector has led me to consider more seriously some of these tradeoffs. I’m actually quite glad for the time I’ve had so far in the private sector, but I also find it incredibly hard. It’s also a little painful to watch the world I knew and participated in start to drift away, as it becomes harder and harder to re-engage and re-enter some of the academic discussions because I don’t get to think that way very much anymore.

    The biggest challenge I’ve found is actually the fetishization of the anthropologist. In previous jobs, I’ve been hired with this excitement and optimism about what I can contribute, but my attempts to actually introduce more anthropological (and not just ethnographic…which is a discussion for another day) approaches have not really fit well with the private sector model. Anthropology and ethnography especially (thanks to its use in design research) are considered a way to show cool cachet, but that doesn’t mean that companies are always that receptive to the real challenges of integrating less conventional approaches into their existing practices. It’s also hard to distill anthropological methods into a 2 month or 3 month project cycle without feeling like you’ve rushed through the way you would normally consider any proposed problem.

    I appreciate the further elaboration, and I think my initial reaction came more from the title than the content of your previous post. I worry about re-hashing a term, even if your goal was to disrupt the assumption that one is selling out for choosing alternative paths. I just want to take an active role in avoiding the term “selling out” so that others will not feel guilt or the sense of having to defend their decisions in the future!

  5. @SD Gottlieb

    Allow me to offer an encouraging word. You may drift away, but reconnecting with academia is possible. In my case, I failed to get tenure in 1976, followed my wife to Japan in 1980, joined the Japanese ad agency where I worked as a copywriter for thirteen years in 1983. It wasn’t until 1990 that I dig out some old field notes, wrote an article, and sent it off to the Journal of Chinese Religion, who changed my life by publishing it. They didn’t, I observe, change the way I made my living. I continued to work at the agency until 1996, when I joined my wife as a partner in the translation and writing company that now provides our livelihood. What changed was knowing that I didn’t have to have an academic job to feed my academic fix. Since then I have managed to publish in academic journals (once in American Ethnologist) and have one book and several chapters in print. I attend conferences, which are a lot more fun since I’m not job hunting or playing career games; I even get invited to some.

    What has made this possible? A smart, supportive spouse, without whose support an encouragement none of this would be possible is reason No. 1. The Internet, which makes access to people, books and articles previously unimaginable without access to a university library. Not owning a car. The several thousand bucks a year I save by living in a city and using public transportation (only renting a car when I really need one) is, since I have no other expensive hobbies, enough to support my research. Plus, being an owner-partner in a small service sector business with an established clientele, gives me a lot of flexibility in how I organize my time.

    I guess what I’m saying is, you may find yourself spending a decade or so in the wilderness, away from academic. But with luck and playing your cards right, you don’t have to stay there.

  6. I have gone back and forth about this very issue. Back in 2009 I went through the Human Terrain System training and (full disclosure) was not selected to deploy. Since then I have worked with the Army and Air Force as a contractor and consultant on a variety of projects.
    In many ways, the very abbreviated “analysis process” the military uses rubs me the wrong way. I find myself sitting on a mountain of data and given weeks to come up with a “surface analysis” while at the same time justifying my existence as a qualitative researcher.
    I agree with Beth, however, in that we can make a positive impact on institutions generally considered antithetical to anthropology but only if we get involved. It may make our employers uncomfortable to talk about such “minor” concerns such as Human Subjects protections, citation ethics, and publication, but they need to hear it. It is one thing to complain that applied anthropology required compromises and shortcuts, or that the groups we work with have a bad record with scientific inquiry (both true), but how can we say we seek positive change if we do not get involved?
    All that being said, I have my days where I doubt myself. I think I am doing a good thing by helping the military understand the complexity and repercussions of our choices in conflict zones, but I am equally frustrated by the antiquated and close-minded nature of many ‘old school’ decision-makers with which I work.
    I believe that as long as we remember our own personal ethics, are able to separate the ‘real issues’ (e.g. subject confidentiality) from our own normative thinking (not all research can be subjected to the rigor of peer review, sometimes it’s just to give decision-makers a hint as to where to go next), and try not to let either or ethics or our skills atrophy in the applied environment, we can make a positive change.
    I’ll let you know if it works for me, but I will admit it hasn’t been easy.

  7. Again, thank you all for reading and commenting back!

    @Gottlieb:
    I definitely wanted to be a little more careful about what I meant after your earlier comment, and I’m with you on wanting to avoid the use of the term “selling out” in a pejorative sense!

    To be honest, no, I’m not sure I want to make those tradeoffs. I certainly could, but I would sorely miss the flexibility and engagement with academic work. But then again, that’s probably part of what makes the transition *feel like* selling out, at least for me.

    I’m also really interested to hear about the fetishization of anthropology – I had suspected that was probably the case, and I wondered to what extent space was/could be made for ethnographic methods by various organizations.

    @John:
    I would never want to understate the importance of having a supportive spouse!

    @Ben:
    Thanks for weighing in – and it’s interesting to hear your comment get back to Gottlieb’s problems with the fetishization of anthropology and ethnographic work. Clearly, part of the problem (at least on the employer side) is a lack of understanding surrounding what ethnographic work is, or can do. Have the groups you’ve worked with been at least partially open to addressing your concerns about human subjects protections, etc?

  8. HSP has been a constant source of challenges for me. On the one hand, there is a cultural and institutional resistance to following any rules that make projects harder, more expensive, or take longer. HSP is often seen as a “petty concern” only social scientists worry about. The government and military have been getting away with ignoring the law for so long, it has become practically unenforceable.

    However, on the other hand, more and more social scientists are helping these organizations and they all sing the same song. It is becoming harder for decision-makers to ignore outright. As of right now, it is left to us to maintain what protections we have in our power to protect (data protections, informed consent, uses for data) and work on getting those aspects we cannot control (the big one in the military is the right of a subject to discontinue participation) to fall into compliance.

    One of the things I struggle with is reminding myself that I am working with people who have different sets of ethics that are equally valid when it comes to their role. For example, imagine a person bleeding on the ground: a policeman should probably go find out who did it, a doctor should help the victim, and a journalist should document it. An anthropologist.. well, we should do all three (investigate, help the subject, document).

    The Human Terrain System explicitly trains the people under its control about legal and ethical considerations, especially in regards to subjects. It also trains its people about the pressures they will be under to violate those ethics from people with different priorities. Ultimately, it comes down to the individual if they can resist those forces.

    I guess it boils down to the fact that no one can force me to violate the ethical or legal codes regarding HPS. In some lesser ethical concerns (such as data reporting, ‘analysis’ and conclusions), I do often find myself weary from years of fighting over this. Heck, I get weary from fighting over HSP. But I have been lucky in that I came into my work with the military with ethics first and foremost in my mind, and I am in fact here partially to better my understanding of ethics as they relate to the field, as well as the luck I have had that my moments of weakness have never come at the wrong time when the decision to do or not do something was imminent.

    I do believe engagement is the only way to resolve some of these issues. if there is no one there to tell the military how to treat subjects, they will do what they have done for decades (Tuskeegee, Trinity, etc). We need to recognize it is not going to be won ina day, decade, or maybe even century. I try to keep this in mind.

    Some days are better than others.

  9. Ben, thanks for sharing your experience and your thinking about it. It is good to see theoretical debates, so often conducted in self-righteous judgmental terms, leavened with a bit of practical wisdom.

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