dissertation-free research
May 23, 2015 12:37 AM   Subscribe

I love research and learning, and keep running into a lot of research groups and programs that sound absolutely fascinating. However, most of them either involve getting a Masters or Ph.D., or require possession of a Ph.D. beforehand - which I do not want. Is there any way I can still get involved with these research groups that doesn't involve being responsible for an academic paper? Are there similar groups that do this kind of research work that aren't necessarily academic?

I am a year out from a project-based MFA in Creative Inquiry and have over five years of experience with creative production, media-making, arts, activism, and writing. I am pretty decent at academic writing (and have done a fellowship in teaching academic writing) and people tell me that I have a very academic and conceptual way of doing things, which makes sense. I just hate academic writing for multiple reasons - I'd rather get lost in a research warren and let someone else figure out how to organize it all.

I keep running into very fascinating research groups that cover topics and projects that are very interesting to me - some immediate examples are UCLA's Digital Humanities, various projects in MIT's Media Lab and Comparative Media Studies, NYU Game Lab, Stanford's d.school, whatever Henry Jenkins is doing at USC, and there's probably a lot more that I've seen in the last little while. I would love to spend some time supporting them in their research work, even if it was as some kind of lackey - the opportunity to work on big ideas and constantly learn & develop more in issues I'm passionate about appeals to me.

I do not want to write an academic paper, at least not on my lonesome: I'm fine with co-authoring. (Authorship and publishing aren't immediate goals.) I'm not in any need of a Ph.D. or a second Master's, and I especially don't want to get a Ph.D. just so I qualify for post-doctorate work (where a lot of the really interesting research work is). I write a lot already, and would like opportunities to present my work and findings online, in presentation/performance, through projects, or some other means.

Some of them have fellowships, which I'd apply to if I was qualified to. Ideally I would like a paid position - whether it be a job or as some kind of funded stipend situation. My examples have all been US-centric, but at this point I'm open to wherever (part of the reason I'm looking at academia is because I still have a chance at getting a university/research/NPO H1B US Visa; I also have Australian permanent residency and Malaysian citizenship, and love to travel). The places don't have to be strictly academia either - I've checked out places like APC and Eyebeam, and kinda wish the Institute of Art and Olfaction still did longer-term residencies.

Are there good ways to reach out to these groups and ask about being involved? Would it work to email them and say "hi, I'd love to help out, is there a way I can be involved without signing up for a degree?" or are there better strategies? Where else can I look for opportunities like there especially as someone with a non-traditional background?

Topics I'm interested in include liminality, intersectionality, identity, the melding of technology with arts and/or the body and/or spirituality, cross-cultural communication, anti-racism, feminism, LGBTQ issues, media as tools for change, alternative education, fandom and pop culture as a means of exploring social issues - that's just a small sampling: as I said, I love expanding my horizons.
posted by divabat to Education (12 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Can you code? I'm in a Digital Humanities group at a university (not in the USA), and the only sorts of people we employ in paid positions who aren't enrolled as a student of some sort are programmers, really. We have lots of academic people wanting to do the creative, planning, and writing sides of projects, but not so many who want to do the technical stuff (even though most of us could if we had to). So sometimes projects have some funding set aside to hire technicians. Usually we search among our own grad students for these roles, because we want to give them a hand if they need the money, but we would definitely consider an enthusiastic non-student with a background like yours.

The way to connect with groups would be to go to events where they are represented, and just get to know people. Print business cards. Try unconferences and hackathons for DH people, as much as academic conferences.

If you happen to be in Australia in early July, the global Digital Humanities conference is happening in Sydney, and that would be a great place to network.
posted by lollusc at 1:11 AM on May 23, 2015

Oh, and to answer one of your other questions, cold-emailing COULD work, but your emails might get caught in spam filters (or get filtered as spam manually by someone not paying much attention.) I get a few emails a month from random people around the world that seem to be mass mails sent to every academic on our university's website, begging for stipends, fellowships or paid employment. People learn to filter these or press delete very fast.

The other thing that would work would be to apply for your own funding and then approach a university to host you. Digital Humanities funding can come from all sorts of sources: academia, but also museums, galleries, the tech industry, non-profits, etc. Start googling to find even small sources of research funding from these places (you'll probably find a few grants of around $5000 or so you could apply for with your MFA or even with just your undergraduate qualifications.) If you have even a little funding, universities become very interested in associating with you, and then once you are in the door, you'll find more opportunities crop up.
posted by lollusc at 1:16 AM on May 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

Have you considered academic librarianship? (Ha! I see you've gotten that advice before.)

There are librarian roles (sometimes called research librarian, subject librarian, reference librarian) that focus on the tasks of gathering sources and developing broad (but sometimes shallow) knowledge and expertise. Developing that breadth frequently requires, as you put it, "getting lost in a research warren." But rather than writing it all up in an academic paper (which some do, sometimes but less commonly as a co-author), the professional charge is to deliver the overview and supporting sources to the researcher and maintain institutional access to those sources. Academic positions can run the gamut from project to project, depending on a particular scholar or group's needs: from "lackey" to "co-author" (but there's a lot of institutional variation there). It has the advantage that a position is tied to the institution (salaried by the library, sometimes tenure-track eligible if you DO want to publish) rather than any particular project (and the associated funding vagaries).

Most academic positions require, however, a master's (MLS, MLIS, MIS) accredited by the American Library Association.
posted by GPF at 3:03 AM on May 23, 2015

Seconding "technically-skilled lab position," if you have (or can learn) relevant skills. I lucked into an absolutely wonderful job when I noped out of my Ph.D program -- I build hardware and write software in support of research at a lab I believe in. These were always the parts of academia I enjoyed, and now I make a decent living and know I'm supporting research I believe in. I found the gig because a then-colleague of mine met my now-boss at a conference, became Facebook friends with him, and let me know about a job opening he mentioned there.

The trick is that a lot of these positions go direct to graduate research assistants, who are cheaper than experienced engineering talent and can do "good enough" for a lot of research support. You need to find a place that knows it needs skill and time of a kind that a straight GRA can't provide reliably, and then have that skill ready to go. In my case, the circumstances involved tight-timeline software development in support of a relatively big-money grant to the lab, so they were able to hire on software developers and other support staff. No idea how you get lucky enough to find such an opening and get in, aside from networking like whoa. Most of my other staff colleagues graduated from the same university and got involved with this lab as undergraduates or masters students, then transitioned to full-time after graduating.

So, attend conferences and panels, work on picking up related skills to the kind of gig you want; be ready to work hard and make yourself indispensable?
posted by Alterscape at 6:26 AM on May 23, 2015

Grant writing, perhaps?
posted by umwhat at 7:17 AM on May 23, 2015

There's a growing movement that intersects with some of the disciplines you mentioned (e.g. digital humanities, new media) to go "beyond the dissertation." You might want to see if there are academic departments where you could get a phd without writing a traditional dissertation. The degree opens a lot of doors.

Or learn to code as suggested above. That will give you a huge leg up and make you very valuable to research teams in your area of interest.
posted by sockermom at 7:35 AM on May 23, 2015

I just want to add one point - "writing the paper" is a critical part of the research process. In fact I would argue that most researchers don't really know what they have done until they take the effort to explain it to others in a paper.

That said, you do not need to write a dissertation to do good research. I'm sure you could find an interesting home in a more academic leaning industrial or national lab. (Unfortunately not many of these left - but some of the big guys still exist)
posted by NoDef at 9:51 AM on May 23, 2015 [6 favorites]

To add on to that, it may be worth exploring why you don't want to write. Many academics don't enjoy writing. You would not be alone. And like NoDef says it's really a cornerstone of actually doing research - being able to communicate what you've done makes it useful. Researching and pursuing knowledge because it's fun is all fine and good but sharing it is where things really get interesting. Daily writing practice may help you learn to dislike it less and make it less emotional. Writing is not emotional. It's just communicating. The book Becoming an Academic Writer is very helpful for this.

There's also nothing wrong with trying to get a PhD and deciding it's not for you. You sound like many of the doctoral students I know. Why not give it a shot? You can always go do something else if you decide it's not your bag.
posted by sockermom at 10:52 AM on May 23, 2015

On the volunteer opportunities front, maybe contact the Transformative Works and Cultures team & offer your services?

More generally . . . You don't need a formal academic affiliation to learn cool stuff, and reading about what you're interested in when you're interested in it might be more fun, anyway. But if you want to get paid, you need to be making, teaching, or organizing something; simply knowing cool ideas is not enough. You might find it useful to contemplate what exactly you want to make, if it isn't academic articles.
posted by yarntheory at 12:58 PM on May 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

What about being a lab manager, if any of these groups are doing studies that involve bringing people in for interviews or to participate in studies somehow?
posted by karbonokapi at 2:14 PM on May 23, 2015

Response by poster: I have some almost-intermediate knowledge of Javascript, and a better grasp of HTML/CSS, and have been working on learning to code but it's going a little slow. I am pretty Internet savvy though and often help folks understand the best ways to use the Internet for their needs.

I write. A lot. Have been my entire life. And a lot of my writing - often very rooted in research and inquiry, whether it's frivolous or serious - has been pretty effective in terms of connecting people, developing ideas, leading to further opportunities. Most of this writing has been in the form of online essays, social media posts, pieces for magazines or newspapers. Academic writing, even though I am pretty good at it objectively, has been the least effective means for my writing. I have had terrible experiences with academic writing (mostly with universities screwing a lot of students over), and even when it hasn't sucked it just hasn't done anything for me. It gets written, gets read by someone who doesn't really have much of a connection to my subject matter, gets ignored, the end. I get a hell of a lot more done and build a lot more connections with a timely email on a list-serve or a Tumblr post.

The idea that a very specific form of writing that only really reaches a specific audience is somehow the most important part about research is something I actively challenge, having seen other ways of writing be way more effective and useful for the kinds of topics I'm interested in and passionate about.

I would like the rest of the discussion to specifically talk about non-academic-writing means of exploring research, rather than spend a lot of time trying to get me to revisit my disgust with academic writing as though I haven't already explored this thoroughly for myself.
posted by divabat at 3:23 AM on May 24, 2015

I will suggest you consider growing your own as some kind of business.

It sounds to me like you can do all the things you want already as an individual doing blogposts or whatever, but it isn't making you a part of something else and it isn't making you money. If you can figure out how to accomplish the things you want to accomplish and also make money at it, you may have the next big startup or a great lifestyle business.

If you come up with something good, you could apply to Y-Combinator. They do take international applicants. You do not need to be American for them to invest in you short term and bring you to the U.S. for their business incubator program.
posted by Michele in California at 1:18 PM on May 24, 2015

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