On Going from Industry to Academia

There was some discussion on Twitter approximately a billion years ago (I don’t know, last month maybe? Internet time has always been messed up.) that I believe started when @georgeonline was musing about transferable skills and how there’s work to be had for digital humanities scholars outside of academia. My curmudgeonly self popped up and noted that jobs are hard to come by for everyone, that as an industry person it’s easy to see gaps in the skillsets of some academics working in digital humanities, that people coming from academia to industry are competing with people who have been in industry all their lives and have been laid off/downsized, and that it would be generally bad advice to tell an academically-oriented digital humanities scholar that they are automatically competitive for industry jobs (just like it would be bad advice to tell an industry person that they are suited for a wholly academic job without spending any time in the academy, IMHO).

Then I said that I should really get off my butt and write my “what it’s been like going from industry to academia” post, and @barbarahui said she’d like to see it—she did the same thing—and then I stayed really busy and never got around to writing it or anything else. But here we are. I’m going to take a crack at it.

First, brief background on me for those who don’t know and might be interested: skipped high school, BA in English from a mediocre SLAC in ’92, went to UKy for PhD immediately after and lasted exactly 6 weeks until I determined I was ill-prepared and unmotivated to do anything about it so I quit, did the obligatory coffeeshop thing for a year, worked in data entry/analysis at a medical center, met my BFF on a listserv, she said come to California and check out this web thing, did (this was ’94), worked for her for a couple years, the company kicked us (the web dept) out because they were dumb, so BFF and related folks formed a new company, I decided I needed a break from purely web stuff and moved into tech writing (end user, administrator, API docs, etc), then went back to the company that my friend formed, then left again and worked for an info architecture company in DC, then came back, then made a seriously bad business decision and elected to go off with someone and try to make a company, that failed, came crawling back to my friend’s company, decided it was time to fish or cut bait and figure out if I wanted to be in business or academics (had always been nagging at me) so while still working for my friend I did a second BA in BusAdm/Managment from ’03 to ’05, came to the conclusion that I wasn’t a fan, so again while still working with my friends I did an MA in English from ’05 to ’07. Came up here to WSU to do the PhD, am also still working for my friends. Also, in 1999 I was asked to write a book on PHP, which I did, and that led to all the others I’ve written and revised since then (and continue to do).

I could be snarky and stop here and simply state that I am ill-suited to write a post about going from industry to academia because I am still pretty damn immersed in industry. I didn’t leave. It was never the plan to leave 100%, but it was also not the plan to stay involved to the extent that I have. The plan was to sell my condo in San Jose, pay off bills, dial back the work for my friend’s company just so that they were able to maintain the status quo and I would have a little extra income. But I didn’t sell my condo (housing crisis: I’m over 50% underwater now), my bills creep upward instead of down, and I need every cent I can generate on a monthly basis.

So all that background out of the way, and the caveat that the events of my life are not at all as planned or even as desired but instead just are what they are, I’ll talk about what I knew before and what I’ve learned since I ostensibly moved from industry to academia.

I knew going into this that the job market is…sucky? A crap shoot? All of the above. I’ve been lucky enough to know some people who, while I was frittering away the 90s, were working toward a PhD, a job, and tenure. I got to see what that was all about. Nothing I’ve learned since then has been a surprise except for the sheer amount of people in graduate programs who seem not to have even a shred of a clue of what it takes to get and keep a job in academia.

Following along the statement above, I’ve learned that a lot of people in graduate programs would not last very long in jobs outside of academia. It’s interesting to hear people talk about some of the things their students do (or don’t do) in the classroom, but yet fail to see that they aren’t exactly models of productive behavior. Of course I realize that in academia although you are a member of a department you are also pretty darn autonomous, so what does it really matter if you’re inefficient or ill-prepared? It doesn’t. I’m just saying that’s not the way I operate, because I’ve been conditioned differently outside academia, and it’s simply an interesting observation—and in theory it wouldn’t fly in industry. Except it would in a lot of places. Some departments within corporations aren’t exactly models of efficiency either, a lot of the time.

Regarding workload, efficiency, and responsibility, I’ve learned that just like in industry, in academia you can continue to operate as a slacker or as a worker bee for a long time before anyone notices or does anything about it. Of course, if you’re a worker bee there’s no need to be noticed or anything done about it—worker bee is a good thing. My outrage over other people’s inefficiency and poor output in academia (and here I’m talking about teaching and being a student) can’t be my concern, it will always exist, and I have to focus always on doing a good job for myself and my students, period. This is exactly the same in industry only swap “myself” for “the company” and “students” for “clients”—I don’t have to worry about efficiency and output within my company, because we are three very hard-working and efficient individuals and always have been, but as a vendor we deal with clients every day who are the opposite. In fact, it would not be out of line to say that the vast majority of our jobs come in without notice, immediately before the job is due, and without most of the required information. We then know exactly what questions to ask, how to get the answers we need, immediately shift priorities until the job is done, and produce the desired output on time. Always. Almost without fail, over the last 10+ years. [I realize I’m precariously close in this paragraph to saying that students are consumers who pay us to teach them and therefore they get to make demands on us, but I don’t believe that at all. I’m just saying that I operate similarly in both working situations.]

That description of workflow in my industry life has had an effect on my academic life in two main areas, one good and one bad. First, the good: In theory, I know my limits as far as how much work I can shove into the day, and those limits are pretty high. When I plan out teaching prep or grading or reading for classes or writing for classes, I always know I will get it done on time. I say “in theory” though because while it is true that I always get things done on time, and I do a pretty good job, industry work always comes first because there is money and people’s livelihoods riding on it. So, I am efficient in that I can get a lot done in a short amount of time, but I am inefficient in that I can rarely get things done in the original slots in which they were planned because other things take their place. Industry work has trained me to be ok (minus occasional bitching) with either situation. Next, the bad: Industry work has conditioned me not to release products that aren’t ready. This has greatly affected my scholarship. By that I mean that I have not yet been able to let go of papers or projects and “release them” into the wild—in the case of papers, this means I’m still futzing with essays that should be out for review by journals. In the case of digital scholarly projects, it means I have a few sitting on my machine or in my head that I haven’t released because I know all the things that must happen before anyone sees them. I am slowly but surely getting over the first issue, which requires trusting my committee that they wouldn’t tell me to send something somewhere if it wasn’t ready enough. I don’t know that I’ll ever get over the latter issue, though, because the window of opportunity to gather adopters of a product is always going to be small, and I think it might take a gun pointed at my head to get me to put something out there that isn’t minimally ready. That gun might very well be the upcoming hiring cycle, though. We’ll see.

This has been pretty long and rambling so far, and I think has made painfully clear that the title is a misnomer since I’m not anywhere near leaving industry although I am currently in the exam-taking/dissertation-writing stage of academia and will be trying the job market this fall (and then the next, most likely).

So why am I in academia? It really boils down to this: I like to teach. I’m good at it.

I’m also really good at making things. For most of the last 13+ years it has been my job to take a list of needs and make something from it—a new process, a new piece of software, something that fundamentally makes a difference in the way something is done. A company will come to us and say “we want X” and we will ask all the good questions and realize they want Y but with the abilities of Z, and then I will make it from the ground up. I can architect the hell out of an idea, do anything with data as long as I have it, and produce an interface through which a user can attack a workflow process from any angle and upside down—because that’s what I would want if I were that user.

If you’re in academia, you might be reading this and saying “that’s awesome! what a great addition to the team!” and in theory you’d be right. But when I survey the field of researchers, teachers, and students, I see enormous gaps in knowledge and baseline skillsets (not to mention money) such that I wonder where my skills and knowledge can best be used. Despite what I’ve been told, I don’t think it’s at a research center. Now let’s be clear: if a job at [insert awesome research center with great people doing great things and probably located in a mid-atlantic state] were offered to me I’d take it in a heartbeat, do a great job, make new knowledge and new paths to new knowledge, and help move the field forward. But, I think more people would be better served if I were teaching six or eight core courses a year in literary studies or literary theory or composition, in which I ensure that students learn both the content presented to them and the technological means through which it is presented and produced—not only so they obtain the communication and thinking skills that they’ll need outside of the classroom but also so that the research happening elsewhere is to be of use beyond the couple hundred or so of us invested in making it.

I don’t know if that makes sense to anyone besides me, but it really does go back to Thoreau:

Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at; as railroads lead to Boston or New York. We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. —Walden

Those of us working with the pretty toys—as creators and users and teachers of the programs and processes—can see the value in them. But not everyone does. HASTAC and MLA wouldn’t be talking about “Tenure in a Digital Age” if everyone was on board with the importance of current (and future) technology to reach an improved end.

The primary thing I’ve learned from going from industry to academia is that my place is exactly the same. I’m not going to build the next killer app—not because I can’t, but because my mind is on other things. Those things include making sure every student and other teacher (if they are so inclined) I encounter knows how any why we use the apps we do, in order to give everyone the same access and opportunity to gain technological literacy, ways to make new knowledge and/or build on previous knowledge, and fundamentally empower people to take steps toward improved ends on their own. Lather, rinse, repeat, see what comes next.

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