Is there life after economic sociology? We had the opportunity to talk about non-academic career tracks with three outstanding interviewees, each of whom has taken their sociological trainings in different and exciting directions. We speak to Peter Levin, who after experience in academia has switched onto a non-academic track; Karina Kloos, a more recent PhD who went straight to a non-academic career; and Charlie Gomez, a PhD student with recent experience in the private sector. Their contact information is provided at the end of the interview.
Tell us about how you landed on a non-academic career track. Were you always interested in working outside of academia or was this something you decided while working towards your PhD?
Peter Levin: I went for my PhD because I wanted to be a professor, and I had been an assistant professor for a long time before looking for a non-academic job. I had a great job at a great institution. My decision to leave academia was gradual, and it came mid-career. I started becoming restless about teaching, and I was increasingly disaffected by the disciplinary part of sociology. Of course, once I “decided” I wanted out, it took me another 3-4 years before I had the courage to jump.
I landed at Intel mostly by accident – I heard they had a lab, and I contacted the director out of the blue. What started as a conversation became a collaborative engagement and ended up becoming a permanent position at Intel Labs, in the user experience research lab (UXR). So we joined the long trail of hipster migration from Brooklyn, New York to Portland, Oregon…
Karina Kloos: When I decided to apply to PhD programs, I had already been working with nonprofit/ non-governmental organizations for a few years. At the time, I had been exposed to enough international development work to have a sense of how much I didn’t know and how much I needed to learn. For me, the PhD was an opportunity to put a ‘pause’ on my work and see what I could figure out: explore issues in depth, learn about different theories for understanding social change, and develop research skills to critically analyze and understand what is — and isn’t — effective.
I learned that I had been accepted to the PhD program at Stanford while I was living and working for a small educational non-governmental organization (NGO) based in Cambodia—one of the countries with the highest NGO densities in the world. When I started the program, my cohort teased me with phrases like “I heart NGOs” because I came in with such a keen interest in dissecting the NGO world… This turned out to be way too big for a PhD dissertation!
In my fourth year of the PhD, I found my way back to working directly with NGOs. I took on a consulting project for the Global Fund for Women. My job was to assess their work and impact over their twenty-five year history, which included funding more than 4,600 grassroots women’s organizational across 175 countries (!). Bringing in my academic social movements background, I also worked with my advisor to frame a movement building strategy for the organization. That work really connected me and my academic experiences and knowledge back into the ‘NGO world.’ A year and a half later, just as I was finishing my PhD, I started working for Landesa, a global land rights NGO based in Seattle. In hindsight, I was really lucky. The kinds of jobs there are now, including the one I have today, weren’t there six years ago when I started the PhD and had these kinds of quixotic aspirations.
Charlie Gomez: This past summer, I interned as a quantitative user experience researcher at Facebook. Going to graduate school in Silicon Valley affords many unique opportunities that you don’t really have anywhere else. I’m still committed to a career in academia, but many graduate students in engineering and in computer science frequently leave to join companies in the Valley. It was only recently that colleagues of mine in the social sciences followed suit and joined start-ups and established tech giants – first as research interns and then as full-time employees. The academic job market is stereotyped as unpredictable and bleak. So, from my point of view, I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to do academic research in-house at a company in the area. I wanted to see if I could have an equally fulfilling career doing industry research.
Did you get guidance from anyone regarding a non-academic job? Did you feel supported in your decision to not seek an academic position?
Peter Levin: Getting the support of your departmental and/or committee chair is important, if you are able to talk to them about it (and Debra Minkoff and Carol Heimer are rockstars). Honestly, in the end, most people want you to be happy.
But it was quite a break, at least in my personal experience. Sociology has no real love for corporate life, and I have fewer relationships with my former colleagues than before. It really is more of a divorce than just moving next door.
Karina Kloos: At Stanford, at least in Sociology, talk of working outside academia – outside a top-tier research institution, really – was generally treated as taboo. Because I started the program with the intention of returning to international development work, I didn’t feel as bound or intimidated by that norm as others might have. I also was fortunate to have really good relationships with my main advisor, Doug McAdam, and also with Woody Powell, who I worked with a lot throughout my PhD. Doug was unconditionally supportive no matter my path. Woody was a bit more intimidating and more – I think he would admit – invested in academia. I was pretty upfront about my intentions with him. I remember at some point stating clearly that I didn’t want him to feel resentful or feel that he had wasted his time investing in me if I did indeed leave academia. He assured me he wouldn’t. And he did ultimately support my decision to pursue my non-academic career.
Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s as easy for others. While the University made efforts to support non-academic careers, the department was pretty unsupportive, which I think is really unfortunate. So many people enter sociology PhD programs because they are passionate about an issue, such as inequality or gender. These are people who have developed incredibly useful skills! I wish there was a more supportive and encouraging culture to build up strong research skills exactly to bring those skills into policy-making, educational, and social change institutions.
Charlie Gomez: Most of my guidance came from fellow graduate students who had already taken the first leap out of academia. My advisors were very supportive. It was an opportunity to learn some valuable skills, as the data I was going to work with are truly unparalleled in size and scope (it’s Facebook, of course!).
What are the most significant differences between your current job and academia?
Peter Levin: There are some structural differences, and one substantive one I can point to. First, there is a non-trivial amount of uncertainty with which you have to be comfortable. Reorganizations are not uncommon, and I have had projects pulled within days or weeks, depending on the needs of the organization. You cannot dwell on these things, or you’ll just lose it.
Second, my corporation owns my time, my work, and my ideas while I’m working here. That is the inverse of academia, where the main things you own are your ideas. The upside of this is that I have been able to go to colleagues and say, ‘I’m just failing at this,’ and they will help finish it, or fix it, or revise it.
Third, I don’t have to demonstrate being the smartest person in the room, because everyone here is already smarter than me, in complementary areas. That lack of ego can be pretty amazing because I get to tap my colleagues’ brilliance. People are more mutually supportive in my current environment than what I experienced as an academic.
Finally, there is no room for your personal inner demons. I’ve been more productive at Intel than I was as an academic, because you have no choice. Presentations, projects, budgets, come, they arrive, they go, and that’s it. There is no lingering ‘paper in a drawer’ that most academics have going on. Correspondence requires immediate attention, and deadlines are quick and continuous. Corporate decisions are inextricably linked to timeliness; getting it out the door is actually as important as getting it right.
Substantively, in academia I was working with other people who could do what I do, but who study different things. At Intel, I work with many other people who can do things I cannot do, and we study the same things. For example, I’ve done work on distributed ledgers and crypto-currencies, and this work brings together systems engineers, silicon architects, user experience researchers, and finance people. These are projects I simply could never do as an academic, because it requires skill sets that cut across disciplines. It is possible (and in some places they do this all the time), but I could never pull it off. Now, it’s routine.
Karina Kloos: Working with people; towards a common purpose; that is greater than myself. The second year of my PhD I saw a documentary at the Stanford International Film Festival called “Happy” and those were exactly the three common denominators they identified that determined people’s happiness. It may not be true for everyone, but it certainly was and is true for me. The PhD was a constant challenge spending so much time alone, working on my own dissertation project. While I really liked the people around me and was fortunate to collaborate on a few really great projects, most of the time it was a lonely slog. Now, I genuinely love walking into my office, knowing that I’m working on projects with other people, towards a common purpose, and for something that is way, way beyond myself.
Charlie Gomez: Academia, at least in the social sciences, tends to be monastic. My internship was much more team-oriented and collaborative, with many more deadlines that were much more frequent. Academic research is oriented towards perfection: you revisit and revise your theoretical framing and models until it’s ready for scrutiny. In industry research, perfection is the enemy of “done.” Of course, you want to do high quality work, but you often scope-out projects that were much smaller and that had practical impact on the business. It was much more bottom line driven than shaped by concerns for theory.
What do you enjoy most about working outside of the academy? Least?
Peter Levin: I enjoy the breadth of topics the most. Since I’ve been at Intel, I’ve worked on: a marketplace for personal data; “internet of things” around precision agriculture; the future of transactions; the emerging ecosystem around digital assistance. These projects have involved field observations, network analysis, interviews, building prototypes, and socializing strategy frameworks. I sometimes can’t believe they let me do this stuff, and there have been a surprising number of occasions where I have no idea how to do most of it until I’m actually doing it.
On the downside, organizational uncertainty sometimes provokes anxiety. Two years in, I still spend more time than most worrying about how to reduce this uncertainty. That’s a legacy of my academic inclinations, I think.
Karina Kloos: What do I enjoy most? Working and interacting with people. And I love the work that we do. I’m still doing research, but I get to connect the research more directly with the work (the projects and programs), and I get to personally connect with the people affected by our efforts. So the research takes on a whole different meaning and motivation.
What do I enjoy the least? Though it was isolating at times, I do miss the flexibility and autonomy I had during the PhD, and the time just to sit and think. That was a luxury.
Charlie Gomez: I think what I enjoyed the most was a sense of accomplishment. In sociology, it takes years to get a paper out, all the while knowing that the odds were never in your favor of it being published. In industry, it normally takes a few weeks to start and to finish a project. You also receive accolades more frequently for your work; you do feel more valued.
Yet, what appeals to me about academia, and why I want to be a research professor, is the freedom: freedom to study what you want, do what you want, when you want, etc. I think many in academia often take that for granted. While academia is far from perfect, I also found academia to be a bit more egalitarian. There’s a clear “command-and-control” structure in industry, which is a bit of a switch to get used to for some. In Industry, you have stakeholders who are not researchers, with very different worldview than you. Balancing their needs with what research can and can’t do was certainly something new for me to consider.
Do you plan to stay involved in the discipline while working in a non-academic setting? If so, what ways are there to stay involved (e.g. publishing, conferences, etc)? Are these sorts of things rewarded where you currently are?
Peter Levin: I’m unlikely to be more than peripherally involved in academic sociology, at least as I see it right now. It’s not so much whether books, articles, or conferences are rewarded where I am (they are, sure). It is more that I have so much less to say to sociologists.
On the one hand, the work I am doing now is cutting edge in so many respects. In surreal, sometimes eye-rolling fashion, I have worked on big (sometimes over-hyped) areas of modern technology – Internet of Things, Big Data, High-Performance Compute, Crypto-currencies. Because Intel builds mostly invisible infrastructure, I often end up working on building actual, silicon-based, future capabilities that will (presumably) shape the world.
And yet, I have almost nothing to say to sociologists about these things, because I’m just not terribly interested in advancing the discipline anymore. I suspect the content of my work looks more like ‘data’ for some intrepid PhD students. The work of translating the work into sociological terms, into things that sociologists care about, it is just too high for me.
For example, through an ethnographic study of farmers, I learned that technologies that allow for precision management of cattle, crops, and food markets are in the process of massively transforming our world. In some ways, I’m actually enabling that world. This is pretty amazing!
But at the same time, I am unlikely to advance the discipline of sociology with that knowledge, even if the data is interesting. It is just not enough of a sustained sociological study (theory, methods, etc.) to publish. And so those insights become substantively interesting, but not sociologically useful. Until, and unless, I wrote about institutionalism, commensuration, or financial domestication, it is simply not a particularly sociological concern. And I’m not really willing to do that.
Karina Kloos: I would like to continue publishing papers. I have tried, and will continue to try to present and participate in conferences and workshops within academic institutions. I will also attend conferences that are geared less towards academic audiences. For example, this year I’ll be attending the Land and Poverty World Bank Conference that includes a lot of researchers, but with an applied focus. Mostly, I really want to serve as a bridge between academia and NGOs, and facilitate more collaboration across the sectors. There is so much opportunity there!
Charlie Gomez: I enjoyed my time as an intern, but my plan is to become a research professor. That said, I think everyone ought to plan on staying involved by publishing and attend conference to the best of their abilities where and when they can. Case in point: Facebook was supportive of this; they wanted researchers to maintain their connections with academia.
How would you define your professional identity? Do you see yourself as a sociologist or in what ways does sociology inform your identity?
Peter Levin: In terms of the tools, methods, and frameworks that I bring to my current job, I am a sociologist to the bones. But at Intel, the closest job title to what we do would be ‘user experience’ researcher, or ‘analyst.’ My current title is something more like ‘strategic planner,’ another term which captures very little of how I identify myself. The running joke at Intel, among my small number of social scientist fellow travelers, is that after a career devoted to making distinctions with (and often feeling second-class citizens to) economists, everyone here thinks I’m an economist. The lesson is two-fold: life is unexpected, and funny; and the person sitting in the chair closest to the perceived, needed expertise becomes that expert.
Karina Kloos: I define myself sometimes as an NGO or development worker, sometimes as a researcher, sometimes as a social movements scholar, as that was primarily my focus during the PhD (in large part influenced by my advisor, Doug McAdam), and sometimes as a sociologist. I do appreciate the perspective I gained through my sociology training. I was exposed to a broad array of new perspectives around gender, race, and identity, in addition to the fields I was more focused on that included political sociology, social movements, institutions, and organizations. I probably still underappreciate and underestimate how much my sociology training now informs how I understand the world from political, social, and economic issues in every day news, to how I understand and approach our work at Landesa on land rights, poverty alleviation, economic empowerment, and gender equality.
Charlie Gomez: I see myself as a sociologist, first and foremost. Even during my internship, sociology often informed how I went about thinking about the various projects I worked on.
Do you expect more PhDs to work in non-academic jobs in the coming years or decades?
Peter Levin: This is a big question, and I don’t purport to know the future composition of the labor market. Maybe government, or non-profit organizations are temperamentally a better fit for sociology PhD students? Also, there are always opportunities for consulting-type project work as a student or faculty member, if you want to hustle for them. Generally, I doubt there will ever be more than a small stream (at best) of PhDs permanently in corporate settings, at least in sociology. There are some organizations in anthropology that are trying to create pipelines into corporate worlds (EPIC, an organization that brings together ethnographic practitioners in corporate worlds, is pretty amazing). But there really are few good parallels in sociology. Without something like that, it is hard as a student or even professor to know where to start.
Karina Kloos: Yes! Building from my comments above, there simply are not enough academic jobs to employ all of the PhDs. Put differently, our system takes in too many PhDs under the current paradigm. And as such, we’re setting people up for failure, or rather to feel like failures. With more awareness about and support for other, i.e. non-academic careers, I think we could fundamentally shift that system and mindset to appreciate how people with strong research backgrounds can contribute towards organizations, systems, policies, and programs out there, in ‘the real world.’ More narrowly from my own experiences and perspectives in the international development/ nonprofit sectors, there are increasing demands and opportunities for those with strong social science backgrounds. PhDs, and academic institutions more broadly, have the capacity to offer the kinds of rigorous evaluation and research skills being demanded and could be effective contributors to those conversations and social change efforts.
Charlie Gomez: I definitely think so. My advisor had an interesting insight on this: thirty years ago, grad students in the biological sciences rarely went into industry, now it’s the norm. I really think you’ll see the same trend happen across the social sciences. We’re highly skilled workers. Social data are everywhere, vital to many businesses. Yet very few people have the wherewithal to properly process and analyze it. And, to be sure, this isn’t limited to quantitative researchers. Conducting ethnographies, interviews, and focus groups are all skills in high demand.
What things should PhDs consider or keep in mind when navigating the non-academic job market? Any advice or words to wisdom you would like to share?
Peter Levin: The single best piece of advice I can give for someone looking for a corporate-type job is: hire a professional career coach. Not a friend, not a partner. Hire a professional, ideally one who works with MBAs. This is a substantial cost. But I can tell you, almost certainly, you are doing your (non-academic) job search wrong. And the general rule is that it will take you about a month per $10k you want for your salary.
Karina Kloos: Fully realizing that it’s not always feasible, I think it’s really helpful if you are able to talk openly with your advisors about your interests. I think professors one-on-one would be more supportive than their departmental culture might suggest of their students pursuing alternative careers, especially if it’s openly and honestly communicated, and earlier rather than later. The other important thing I realized only once fully being back outside of academia is that you are not a failure for deciding you don’t want to stay in academia. Sometimes when I’m back around people in graduate school, I can feel my own anxiety return. And then I go to work at Landesa, and feel great about what I’m doing. Finally, look for jobs in the social development sector! There’s a lot out there and even more to come… (happy to field questions and provide recommendations: firstname.lastname@example.org)
Charlie Gomez: There is a whole world out there where your skills are highly sought after. Even if you don’t have any interest in a non-academic career, a non-academic research internship is a great opportunity to learn new skills and to hone the ones you already have. And I don’t think these skills are always technical. For instance, professors are part-researcher, part-teacher, and part-manager. Grad school teaches the former fairly well; not so much the latter. Non-academic opportunities are a great way to learn how to manage projects and people in a demanding and dynamic environment.