[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.