Earning a PhD in a Post-Academic World

This is a question I’ve been thinking about very deeply lately. The question in my life in 2015. I’m embarking on some new adventures this summer, all of which have grown out of my grad school experience and dissertation research. But what I’m putting together in my professional life doesn’t look like what a typical PhD student or young scholar would do.

This is not exactly academic quit lit, because I’m not quitting scholarship and I’m not cutting ties with my scholarly communities. I have a specific and doable plan in place for wrapping up the dissertation, publishing articles on the most important results, deciding whether I want to publish a book, and giving the academic job market a go or two. And I’m not vindictive or disappointed about taking on new professional identities because I knew what academia really was long before I started my PhD.

Rather, this is a reflection on what it means to be a scholar, a professional, and a human who wants to have a good life.

This, in a nutshell, is the next year of my life:

  • Finish the dissertation.
  • Present talks and publish articles (one under review, a second to submit this fall) on my dissertation research.
  • Work at Allovate, a specialty pharmaceutical company developing new treatments for allergic conditions. My role will be to help develop research collaborations and increase expert and public familiarity with the company.
  • Assist with leading the Food Allergic Adults Connection Group.
  • Participate in the thriving community of anthropologists and science studies scholars in New York City.
  • Stay connected with all of my new friends, acquaintances, and colleagues in the allergy world.
More on that at the end. Feel free to skip the next two sections if you’re not interested in the politics of the modern university.

 

The Crisis of the Humanities (and the rest of academia, too)

Academia doesn’t look too good for new PhDs these days. There are very few jobs in my area that would compensate me for the time and money spent earning this degree. (There are plentiful jobs that would pay me less than a barista with zero job security, but that’s not why I’ve spent 26 of the past 30 years in school.) Of those jobs that exist, most are in places my partner and I don’t want to live in right now – and even decently paid jobs at my level would barely be worth it financially after the hassle and expense of moving across the country or the world. The academic job market, especially in the humanities (which my field is, more or less), is so inhumane that it’s spawned dozens of advice columns, books, and even specialized, former academic career counselors.

And if you do land a job, a good job, it’s really three jobs all at once: a full-time job as a researcher, a full-time job as a teacher of college students, and a full-time job as an event planner and administrator. People burn out early and often. In my first year of grad school, I learned to clear my schedule in weeks 5 through 7 of the semester because I burn out after a month of doing three jobs at once and have some kind of odd and exhausting physical collapse (in order by semester for the first 3 years: series of allergic reactions and chronic GI problems, concussion, oral surgery, 6-week sinus infection, one semester when nothing went seriously wrong, and depression). And don’t complain or seek help, because even having a student or faculty position makes you one of the lucky ones!

I knew all this going in. I knew all this as an undergraduate after working in a plant science lab for a year; it’s why I didn’t pursue a PhD in plant biology right out of college. What I’ve decided to do with the next year of my life isn’t the result of some sudden existential crisis. I went into grad school pretty well informed about the realities of academic life and thus pretty ambivalent from the start about whether I wanted to continue on to professorhood after earning the PhD.

There were moments when I could see myself dedicating my life to the teaching, research, and service of the professoriate, but other times I was just so tired it felt like I was capable of nothing more than getting to the next day, and I might as well just keep drifting in that direction if it minimized the need for creative thinking. I watched my college friends and even my five-years-younger little sister fly past me in life.

The Dissertation as Opportunity

Getting to the dissertation phase was like finding paradise. For me, it was a period of independent, self-directed research and service to the academic community supported by a small but livable salary from Cornell that let me move to New York to live with my partner and near my closest family and friends. It really was the fantasy everyone has about being an academic. But I also knew that it wasn’t going to last; every time I talked to my committee members – particularly the two younger women faculty advising my project – I was reminded of how onerous and exhausting the actual job of a professor has become.
So while I did my dissertation – the research, networking, thinking, and writing that everyone has to do – I didn’t just do my dissertation. I worked as a test prep and college admissions counselor for a boutique company to see what it would be like to be, essentially, a permanently freelance (but better paid and more stable than an adjunct) teacher. I did an internship for a small PR shop working on an up-and-coming immuno-oncology drug. I got myself up-to-date on social media marketing through the online portions of my research, and by establishing a reasonably sophisticated social media presence (this blog, my Twitter account, etc). I helped plan conference panels and joined societies and committees – tasks which are highly transferrable to any field or career. I worked for a day at a social media start up. I went on informational interviews and interview-interviews for private sector jobs with varying levels of seriousness.
In short, I started to think of myself as a person with skills, and then I found ways to explore and develop those skills, to learn about different ways I could use them, and to talk to and work with people who specialized in those skills.

And while I did all that, I woke up every weekday at 7:45am (just before my partner left for work, when he delivered a mug of black coffee to my bedside table) and wrote in bed for two to three hours. Grants, project reports, emails, dissertation, ethics board paperwork – it didn’t matter, as long as I was writing.

So now I know more about my skills, my strengths and weaknesses, and the kinds of people I want to work with, and I have 3 of 4 dissertation chapters fully drafted.

An Anthropologist Walks Into a Pharma Company…

So I have skills. I live in NYC. I have a manageable portion of a dissertation to finish. I started helping out with the Food Allergic Adults Connection Group earlier this spring and am now fully committed to growing the group. And I now I’ve joined an amazing group of colleagues at Allovate to develop new allergy treatment technologies.
It’s perfect, for me, for right now.

It’s not the research, teaching, service triad of a traditional academic job. Yet it lets me do research, hone some of my research design and strategic thinking skills in a very different context, and, unlike I would do as a traditional humanistic academic, try to directly improve the lives of people with allergies. I’ll squeeze in some pedagogy through scholarly talks and… well, I’ve got some things in the works. I’m excited to see how my anthropological perspective and the things I’ve studied as a grad student – on doctor-patient relationships, on ethics/morality in medical practice, and on patient community concerns about life with chronic conditions – will help my company’s products truly respond to the needs of patients and allergists.

And now for the public service announcement: Although my current pursuits grow out of what I learned and became interested in during my dissertation research, they are separate endeavors. The skills and general knowledge certainly translates, but the data I collected as part of my dissertation research is still, and will only ever be, used for my dissertation and scholarly publications. If you’ve been involved with my research and have any questions, please get in touch.

Some Final Ramblings

I’m envisioning this new trajectory as a cousin to the now rather normal “alt-ac” track – academics who do administrative work while, optimally, pursuing some scholarship on the side. It already feels more fulfilling than the paths some humanities and social science PhDs take: I get to stay tapped in to some of the same ethical, medical, and scientific questions that I’ve been studying for the past five years! I’m not leaving English lit to be an entry-level marketing copywriter. I just get to do what I already do in a more practical (and, yes, profit-oriented) setting. And still finish my dissertation, which I love.
Academia is not the haven for intellectual pursuits or the “cushy job” (TM my mother) that many outside the ivory tower imagine it to be. It’s hard work, physically and emotionally punishing in a way nothing else I’ve done has been. Working at a start-up is a respite compared to doing a PhD.
People are not nice in academia. They are not nice because there is little incentive to do so. I am a permanently sadder and more distrustful person for the manipulation, exclusion, and mean-spiritedness I’ve had to put up with in my PhD. I much prefer working with an awesome group of people who value what I know and what I do, and express this sentiment often, in a friendly and socially competent way.
Being an academic is not some magical calling exempt from corporate profit motivations. Academic labor is heavily exploited, in part because academics aren’t good at imagining non-traditional ways to be scholars and intellectuals and keep grinding away year after year on the job market. If I ultimately wind up as an academic, it will be on my own terms – in the right place, at the right time, surrounded by the right people. It won’t be because I haven’t tried to do or imagine myself otherwise and elsewhere.
So this year, I’m imagining – and doing – otherwise. We’ll see where it leads.

Future of the Blog

I’ll continue this blog to document those parts of my journey that touch upon my research on food allergies. I’ll also provide updates as I go to conferences and food allergy events, as I’ve done over the past year. I plan to update the blog 2-3 times per month, focusing on food allergies but now and then addressing other issues in medicine and healthcare that I find myself compelled to write about.
I’m also happy to talk to anyone with questions about social science approaches to food allergies, any aspiring medical anthropologists, anyone interested for any reason in my research. Frustrated grad students, academics in the humanists and social sciences thinking about a career change – I am your people. Let’s chat.
Wish me luck!! And stay tuned in late July for a new allergy-related post.

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