On leaving academic life

tl;dr version: I’ve left my job as a sociology professor to go work at Intel’s Interaction and Experience Lab.

I wish I had a pithy, epic post about the stagnation of the social sciences (which I think may possibly be the case, but holy cats must we over and over and over again romanticize and overstate the value of the ‘hard’ sciences to the ‘social’ ones?). Or the death of universities to online MOOC-y goodness (for what it’s worth, change is coming but I can almost certainly say that we ain’t gonna remember Coursera in 30 years).

In fact, I have nothing at all bad to say about academia, other than that I wasn’t finding it as fulfilling as it used to be. I know, a tenure-track job at a top-flight liberal arts college, attached to a top-20 department at an R1 university in New York. Not for everyone, but still: a million girls would kill for this job. The relationship between Barnard and Columbia is complicated, and getting tenure at any Ivy League school is a challenge. But there are way more benefits that offset these challenges, including pay, prestige, the quality of the students, the availability of intellectual resources. Being a tenure-track professor is a good gig, there is no doubt about it. I am wildly appreciative of the opportunity to have done it for so long, and I completely recognize the mish-mash of talent, luck, timing, and privilege that went into getting the job. I certainly went into this with my eyes open.

Or you might think there must be something wrong with my department, etc. etc. Nope. Maybe when I arrived there, but certainly not when I left. I can say that Debra Minkoff is the best chair that you could ever hope for, and the best colleague in any academic department. She is real, and amazing, and I’m going to miss dearly being in her daily life. I like my colleagues for the most part, and occasionally they were brilliant (I’m looking at David Weiman specifically). I even got to work with my co-conspirator Jenn for a little while. Wonderful stuff.

Some years ago, for the Columbia pro-seminar, I produced a year-by-year ‘getting through graduate school’ handout. In my little pitch to 1st years, I told them that each year, including your terminal, job-hunting year, you should take stock of your sunk costs, and ask yourself if you still want to be an academic. For me, the answer became no. And for me, like many of graduate students, as well as tenured and untenured faculty, the biggest question was, if not academia, then what else?

It was not government, and it was not non-profit work (for me. Obviously. I’m going to stop saying this, and just assume it, ok?). I’m interested in both, but I think the frustrations of my day-to-day would outweigh either my contribution or my ethical commitments. In between non-profits and for-profits are things like ‘social enterprise’ organizations, doing socially responsible work using ‘businessy’ methods. My partner worked for these for years; without painting with too broad a brush, our experiences did not suggest a sustainable career path for anyone over 30. Or if you want a family. Your mileage may vary.

So, for-profits. I looked hard at more quantitative data jobs. The interesting ones were in the business of turning hard-to-capture information into usable data. They would take unstructured datasets like twitter conversations, and create sentiment analyses that could capture not just that people were talking about something, but what their affect was. There are also a lot of companies looking for specific expertise in social network analysis and data analysis. But this is obviously not my main strength. Also, the end goal here was mostly to do market research. Sophisticated market research, but still pretty straightforward market research. I’m ok with some of this – I am no more derailed by the stupid ‘do you want to just sell more toilet paper’ question than I was by the ‘do you want to write another article/book that no one else will read’ question.

There are also more ‘interesting’ research companies, who do market research but also do their own work. Some of these can be quite entrepreneurial, insofar as you do your own research and then figure out how to sell it to clients. Much of the agency model nowadays is some combination of specific engagements and this kind of spec work.

As that shades into ‘futurist’ work, I get more and more interested. I have some colleagues/friends over at the Institute for the Future, and places like that are really interesting. Again, entrepreneurial, quasi-academic, future-oriented. But those jobs are few and somewhat far between. We live in an era of quarterly results, and the ability to do future forecasting, which is actually incredibly useful, is also seen as something of a luxury.

At the end of the day, there were three main buckets: 1) data jobs, from loyalty programs to unstructured data to straight market research/business intelligence work; 2) research jobs attached to creative agencies or design firms or consultancies, like the planning departments of creative agencies, IDEO design, management consulting (as an aside: if you are awesome, and you want to work with awesome people, and you’re thinking about consulting, you should check out ReD Associates. This is a dream job for the right person, if they ever have an opening. It would be a great internship for an undergraduate); and 3) ‘labs’ jobs. This last category consists of jobs at mostly larger companies, or else at boutique agencies, which have put resources towards strategic forward thinking and analysis. Places like IBM, Microsoft, Intel, what used to be Xerox PARC (now PARC), NYT Labs. These places are kind of amazing – go ahead and check out NYT Labs for a while.

It was the second and third categories where I focused my efforts, and I ended up with a position at Intel Labs. In Portland, OR. It turns out that they occasionally hire social scientists.

Here’s the job description:

Intel’s Interaction and Experience Research Lab is looking for new ways of thinking about markets, participatory social networks, and complex socio-technical systems, specifically in terms of models and theoretical perspectives that combine the strengths of detailed ethnographic research with broader models of human behavior from economics, social network theory or other more quantitative disciplines.

The successful candidate for this position will initiate the design, development, execution and implementation of social scientific research projects to explore this relationship, in order to identify new product or market opportunities that will fuel Intel’s growth. Specifically, the successful candidate should be prepared not only to present and critique existing economic, quantitative or computational models of human social behavior as a way of providing thought leadership to IXR and Intel Labs, but also to contribute to the design and test of novel models of human social behavior, especially technologically mediated social behavior. In this way the candidate will bridge a continuum spanning qualitative and quantitative research methods. Candidate must maintain substantial knowledge of state-of-the-art principles and theories and could contribute to scientific literature and conferences as well as participate in development of intellectual property and coordinate interdepartmental
activities and research efforts.

I couldn’t be more excited about this position. It is exactly what I want to do. It is the application of economic sociology to the future of technology. I am going to be a sociologist in the wild for a while, designing markets and treating commensuration as something to get done rather than something to learn more about.

I’m trading the relative comfort and certainty of an academic life for a more applied position in the private sector. And I’m leaving New York City for Portland, OR.

I will miss many of my colleagues, but I’m also delighted to stay in touch. I’ll actually be blogging a bit more than I have been, hopefully, as a new set of questions and problems begin to occupy my thinking. Wish me well! And if you, or your students, or your colleagues want to talk more about working outside academia, feel free to give me a shout.

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