Should I go back into academia?
August 22, 2012 6:42 PM   Subscribe

I'm in desperate need of direction in my career and don't know how to make a decision.

I finished my PhD in sociology when I was 27. I'd literally gone from kindergarten to graduate school without a break. As a young 20 something I had basically no aspirations or dreams. I did a PhD because I really liked research and I got offered a scholarship. I've had a great deal of difficulty expecting anything from myself or my life. Aside from a couple of publications, glowing examiners reports and completing on time I'd describe myself as an undistinguished PhD student.

At the end of my PhD I followed my partner to a new city, where I somehow managed to get a toehold in the advertising world. After less than a year I'm now a junior to mid level with a reasonable amount of responsibility. I've sold work and have a couple of projects with my name on them in production. I'd say I'm doing okay in my new industry. I'm not a glowing star, but I think I'm getting a reputation as someone who can crack a brief fairly quickly without much fuss.

I left academia because I was worried I 'defaulted' into it without exploring my options, and I was really scared I wouldn't be good for anything else.

I don't think I want to work in advertising any more. I think I want to be an academic.

There's a lot that I enjoy about advertising, but I don't think I've got what it takes to be truly great at it. Out of anything, I just don't think that brands are... that important? I take a great deal of pleasure out of working on a brief, and I love the opportunities I've had to develop design and production skills, but I don't have the unshakeable faith in brands that my colleagues do. Plus I'm very concerned that it's not a career I could be doing when I'm 50.

I know there's a lot of doom and gloom about academia, but a lot of my friends from my school have landed on their feet with decent contracts. I feel, not so much jealous, but intensely sad when I talk to them about their work. A couple of my friends, in particular, are doing the kinds of fieldwork driven, industry based work I'd love to do. It makes me feel like I lacked ambition and guts for fleeing from research.

Is it completely batshit insane to drop out of advertising to be a researcher again?

I'm not totally sure I'd want to work for a university, but nor do I think I'd want to do advertising strategy or planning (see above skepticism about brands). That said, I am really intrigued by the work of scholars like Celia Lury and, to a lesser extent, Danah Boyd, who work on brands and digital culture but not in brands and digital culture. I just really, really miss doing fieldwork and research, writing things longer than a tagline, and feeling like I'm contributing something of real social value.

That said... I also need to earn a living. And I'm really worried that if I tried to be a researcher again I'd end up destitute and unemployed.

I have a number of problems with laziness, poor work ethic and, above all, attention span. The only reason I finished my PhD on time is that I made a decision to quit teaching and RA work and do nothing but dissertation for the final year. I can - in all seriousness - only do focused work for 10 minutes at a time, 15 tops. This makes it really difficult for me to do the kinds of sustained, career-building things you need to do in research. I haven't been assessed or diagnosed for ADD, but I have limited access to mental health care at the moment for a variety of reasons, so I'm afraid I'm stuck with my inability to focus.

I'm also really aware of how precarious I am, employment wise. Doing my PhD means I'm a good four years behind my peers who got real jobs out of college. I'm building my savings back up after my move, but I can't afford to work for free, and I'm incredibly nervous about hopping from adjunct position to adjunct position.

I'm aware that both fields I've worked in (am working in?) are incredibly competitive, and I'm also aware that a person with my laziness and attention problems has no place in either of them. But I need to make a living somehow, and I'm feeling increasingly sad and aimless, unable to give up on the idea that I'd be more useful in another field, unable to make the leap to leave advertising, unable to totally commit to the industry I'm in.

So help me out, hive mind. What do you think I should do?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (4 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
This may be a naive question, but do you think that your laziness, poor work ethic, and lack of attention span might be due to disinterest in what you're doing (and did during your PhD work)? It sounds from your post that you do enjoy your subject matter, so perhaps that's not the issue, but in my experience if I'm working in a field (or on a project) that I truly have a passion for, I'm able to focus and put in the time in a way that's almost impossible with things I don't really care about. Maybe you're selling yourself short because you haven't worked in an area that really meant something to you, and if you were doing what you wanted, you'd be more able to dedicate yourself to it.
posted by odayoday at 7:10 PM on August 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

Public intellectuals have a solid record behind them, usually.

And to do research, you need an infrastructure - university or in danah's case, a research organization.

And better attention span training, obviously.

And as someone who travels in the same academic circles, more or less, as danah boyd, there are a lot of hard working grad students busting their asses to be the next danah. Can you compete with them?

From where you're at now, you'd have to work with your old network to start building up some pubs.

So what can you do?

While you're working your day job, see if you can get put on a friend's research project.

FWIW, don't forget about the biggest difference in your current job and academia... The time. I've been working on a grant and 2 research projects for about 12 hours a day for the last 3 weeks. (And I have a small child to be concerned about.) AND this is summertime. I'm not teaching right now. Add another 5 hours a day onto that during the school year.
If you had a hard time during your dissertation, I want to warn you that it only gets harder after.
posted by k8t at 7:39 PM on August 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you're making good money in advertising, continue there until you have built up your savings again to a manageable level. Another year isn't going to make or break your ability to return to academia.

While you're working, be thinking about how you can use your insider industry knowledge for research. You'll be a more attractive candidate for academic jobs at certain places if you can talk about how you have this outside-the-ivory-tower expertise too, you just need to think about how to make the expertise build toward an academic project.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:32 PM on August 22, 2012

I am really intrigued by the work of scholars like Celia Lury and, to a lesser extent, Danah Boyd, who work on brands and digital culture but not in brands and digital culture. I just really, really miss doing fieldwork and research, writing things longer than a tagline, and feeling like I'm contributing something of real social value.

So, I am close friends with someone who has been quite successful and is semi-famous as a researcher / pundit, and who got there through non-traditional means (as in not through the academic hierarchy). Through him I've met and talked with several others at similar levels. (Not going to get name-droppy in public, especially as some of this isn't necessarily all that flattering, but if you want my bona fides feel free to MeMail.)

The minimum standard for success at this is to be a workaholic, extroverted, self-directed, totally comfortable at public speaking, willing to deal with constant travel, good at fundraising and self-salesmanship, who is obsessed enough with a particular research area to be willing to squeeze it into the few hours of spare time left after all that travel, public speaking, and fundraising. It helps to be super smart, too.

I am occasionally somewhat jealous of my friend's fame and influence, but I would never want his job -- even if I were capable of it in the first place, which I am definitely not. Given the issues you describe, neither are you.

So help me out, hive mind. What do you think I should do?

I think you should face the fact that "I have limited access to mental health care" is entirely false, and get yourself some mental health care. You are employed, you have money... unless there is some country somewhere in the world that has advertising jobs but no mental health care providers at all, you have access to it.

An inability to focus on anything for longer than 15 minutes certainly seems like a problem worth solving first, as it will affect literally any career you choose to take on (including your current one). Maybe it's ADD, maybe it's disinterest in your current work, maybe just plain old laziness, whatever it is, find out for sure and get yourself some appropriate coping strategies; only then should you consider major career changes.
posted by ook at 8:16 AM on August 23, 2012 [4 favorites]

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