Sociologists Outside of Academia (why in retrospect it was never very likely I’d finish my PhD during a daily commute)

(via AyeshaKazmi from the Occupy Boston protest)

Some thoughts for the Sociologists Outside of Academia panel discussion I’m taking part in on Wednesday at 4:30 at #BritSoc13

I felt slightly nervous about this panel prior to it because of the change that I’d undergone inbetween originally being invited and the actual BSA conference itself. I’d previously been hugely enthusiastic about the idea of ‘Sociologists Outside of Academia’ but now I’m more cautious, albeit not hostile to it at all. Around 6 months ago, having pondered the idea for ages, I went to work full time in a social media role (at the LSE so I didn’t get particularly far ‘outside’ of academia but the move into a non-research role was subjectively very meaningful).

I’m in the 5th year of an unfunded part-time PhD, I’ve freelanced and worked lots of part time contracts in a wide variety of roles over the course of my thesis. For much of this time, the workload outside my PhD has added up to something much more than the 36 hours a week I was contracted to work at the LSE. So I didn’t think working full time while continuing to do research would be any more difficult than this. But it REALLY was and I’m still trying to understand why that is – in the freelancer / part-time researcher lifestyle I’ve had for the past four years, I’ve enjoyed having an awful lot of space to think and develop projects on my own terms.

I’d seen the prospect of being a ‘Sociologist Inside Academia’, with the social structures it unavoidably involves subjugation to, as threatening that space. But in the last six months that space largely vanished, retreating to little more than my morning commute on the train and some time at the weekends. Which leaves me confused about a notion which I had previously been so enthusiastic about. It’s left me thinking about what is it to be a ‘sociologist outside of academia’? Is it to continue to identify as such? To continue to engage with sociological literature? To continue to engage with other sociologists? To continue to do research?

It was the last one that was key for me. My enthusiasm for the concept of abandoning a traditional PhD route, supporting myself through other means so that I could do the research I wanted to do freed from audit culture and the instrumentalism it fuels, was predicated on being able to continue to do research. Though I do realise when saying this that the kind of research I do (social theory & theoretically motivated small scale qualitative research) makes this possible in a way it might not be for others.

At present I feel like an idea that came very naturally to me, to have one foot in and one foot outside of the academy, probably isn’t possible in the way that I hoped it would be. But I’m not certain by any means. Not least of all because there’s a lack of any serious discussion of alternative academic career paths in UK sociology, something which is much less true in the US – perhaps because some of the pernicious trends in the academy which lead people out of necessity or chocie to pursue alternative academic career paths are much more developed there.

But I think these broader trends aren’t going to go away and there’s a need to seriously address them in practical terms. The ranks of the ‘para academics’ (those precariously employed but still actively working within academia) and the ‘alternative academics’ (those with graduate level training seeking alternative career paths outside the grouping we call ‘academics’) are only going to grow. At a time when Sociology is under great threat in the UK, it seems blindingly obvious to me that taking practical steps to incorporate people with sociological training and/or doing sociological work outside the academy is integral to preserving the discipline.

So things like making conferences more financially accessible, running lectures and engagement events which are accessible to those outside the academy (in all senses of the term ‘accessible’) and using social media to start to move sociological debates more into the open, as well as creating resources and multimedia publications which make sociological knowledge more accessible to those outside the academy. I think there’s been a pervasive failure to value the communication of sociological knowledge (at least outside of a classroom context) which really doesn’t help in this respect.

There’s also a need to offer much more multi-faceted career advice and skills training for PhD students. This is something the BSA’s PG forum, which I helped organise for a couple of years, has tried to do. But it’s still sadly absent at a more localised level and I think this contributes to a lack of understanding of the transferable skills gained during a PhD (particularly the value that being able to digest, understand and communicate academic research has for other roles both in and outside the university) and little sense of the options available

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