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From PhD to Life

Transition Q & A: Paul Hartley


Paul Hartley trained as an ethnomusicologist at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, where he is currently a PhD candidate. He worked on music production practices in the Turkish film industry with the help of an IIE Fulbright grant, but now works as Sr. Resident Anthropologist and Head of Human Futures at Idea Couture, a strategic innovation and experience design company. You can follow Paul on Twitter @pauldgh and find him online here.

What did you hope for in terms of employment as you completed your PhD?

My understanding of the employment opportunities in academia was heavily coloured by my father’s experience in academia. My father was a professor and I grew up knowing that being an academic professional was something wonderful but that had its limitations and struggles. I entered grad school fully intending to go into the family business and become an academic researcher and teacher, but I did so with a strong sense that being a professor was a job like any other. This ultimately made it easier to leave it behind when I made the choice to beyond the academy for employment.

I have to admit that despite this, I had a naïve view of academia and thought that it was simply an extension of grad school. The closer I got, the more I realized that it is not, and that I was less interested in the reality of being a professor. I wanted academia to be a society of people who are devoted to scholarship and who were genuinely interested in talking about ideas from morning until night. It very rarely lives up to this ideal, and despite my attempts to make this happen, I quickly became somewhat disillusioned. As I got closer to looking for work, I found I was more interested in looking for something that is closer to this ideal outside of academia. I still have not found it, but I fully believe that it can be captured, albeit only for fleeting moments, anywhere. Academia does not have the monopoly on interested people doing interesting things.

What was your first post-PhD — or, in your case, still-doing-my-PhD job?

My experience has been a little different because I have technically not left the academy just yet. I got a job outside the academy immediately after I finished the fieldwork for my PhD dissertation and have worked full time as I have completed my dissertation. I will defend very soon, but it has put me in an interesting spot because I am neither fully in academia nor outside of it completely. My “clock” has not started and I have not had to face the true nature of being post-PhD. This makes me different from a lot of people who have finished their PhD. However, I believe I will continue with the job I have now and not seek immediate employment in a university position.

I work as an applied anthropologist for a global innovation and experience design firm. I am co-head of the research practice and the head of one of our multi-disciplinary research areas. As a consequence, I am about as close to being a practicing academic anthropologist that one can get outside of the university system. I’ve found that my willingness to be a bit more entrepreneurial about my career has finally worked to my advantage. Critics may suggest that I am simply being mercenary about my employment opportunities, or that my chosen job is unethical for a host of reasons. However, I feel that I have found a comfortable spot placed exactly between the two career options.

What do you do now?

As an applied anthropologist I do ethnographic field research for hire. I conduct commissioned research for companies, foundations, government agencies and non-profits from all over the world. However, despite this, the nature of my job is not that far from the work of a practicing academic anthropologist or social science researcher. The only major difference is that I do not initiate the research protocol myself. Instead, we are brought problems to solve and I do the work that sets up the context of what the problem is and how we should solve it in an ethical, human-centred manner. The best part about this role is that I get to work with people from a host of backgrounds, from business to design and foresight. I would not have had this opportunity had I stayed in the prescribed path for a scholar.

Because I am no longer stuck in the area-studies model of doing anthropology, I have been able to expand my interests and apply my skills to a wide range of different work. I have even added foresight to my skill set and have developed a new form of foresight work called human futures. Ultimately, what I do is the same as an academic researcher, just with a different set of emphases and priorities. I do more fieldwork than an academic researcher, but while I still teach and mentor, I do those things less that I otherwise would.

What kind of tasks do you do on a daily and weekly basis?

My weekly work changes as a project progresses. I work with a multi-disciplinary team of strategists, designers, engineers, foresight strategists and other social scientists to develop a research programme based on the business problems we are brought. From there I build and execute ethnographic field research designed to answer the questions raised in developing a project. Once the fieldwork is done, I prepare a document that explains what I found and why it matters so that we can build a set of solutions and build them. I am present throughout a project and after the fieldwork is over, I participate as an analyst and advisor to help keep the voice of the people we spoke to in field as we design products, services, solutions, and other things.

As the co-head of the research practice, I also mentor our team of anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, and behavioural economists. I do a lot of administrative work to help the practice run smoothly and work with the other team leads to develop a vision for how our multi-disciplinary work can improve in the future.

What most surprises you about your job?

As I mentioned above, what most surprised me about this work is how close it actually is to being an academic. Although it comes in different proportions, I do the same work as an academic. I do research, I mentor others, and I have to participate in the committee life that keeps the business running. Beyond that, what I have found surprising is how misunderstood post-PhD academics are outside the limits of the academic world. The term ‘academic’ is used as a pejorative correction signalling that I, and my fellow researchers, are being too complicated or difficult to understand. Both of these are negative things in business and much of my transition away from academia has been to be more careful with the way I explain things. My job is to be a translator. I discover things in one cultural and social context and have to translate them to another. It has forced me to be more specific and not to rely on the shorthand that academic anthropologists use. I think this has actually made me better at being an anthropologist.

What are your favourite parts of your job?

I love doing fieldwork, and I get to be in the field well over three months of every year. I also love working on a number of different projects in a year. The variety is exciting and forces me to learn every day. I find that the work that we do often forces me to deal with some of the most fundamental issues in anthropology. It means I am constantly dealing with ‘the big issues.’ It is a more elemental way of being an anthropologist since I am often dealing with questions of how people experience chronic illness, or how they understand the purpose of technology. The fact that I get to explore these issues with literally hundreds of people in a year, is really exciting. I still do my work within the tenants of anthropology, and as a consequence, I’ve met some really wonderful people who are now good friends.

The collaborative aspects of my job are also amazing. I get to work with other anthropologists on research projects. I get to partner with designers and strategists who have a remarkable way of looking at the world. Additionally, I have really enjoyed working with people who do not see job precarity (i. e., working as a freelancer or founding a start up) as a bad thing. There is such a refreshing sense that the world is open to you here outside the quadrangle.

What would you change about it if you could?

I have often struggled with the world of business because it seems like such a small conceptual world. However, business is really more of a sub-culture. It has its own values, its own ways of speaking and its own view of how the world works. While this is usually fascinating—and is actually the stuff of anthropology—it is difficult to feel that I always have to adapt myself to this world. I miss the ability to discuss, debate or ruminate on a particular topic for fun. The academy afforded me the space to do that, and I have yet to find a replacement.

What’s next for you, career-wise?

Being a grad student makes you an effective autodidact—or it should, at any rate. I’ve used those skills to develop myself and to learn a new discipline. I am now working on expanding my role as an anthropologist to become a design anthropologist working as a foresight practitioner the foresight role.

What advice or thoughts do you have for post-PhDs in transition now?

It is essential to overcome the feeling that you’ve failed by leaving the academy. It is an inevitable part of leaving, but it can be overcome. The sooner you start realizing that academia is only one of many available paths, you realize that by leaving you have opened up your future rather than closed the door on the only one so far.

Also, you have to start seeing yourself as something of value. In academia we learn that only our accomplishments can speak about our capacities. But you have to give voice to your intangible qualities and possibilities for growth. For most employers your credentials or abilities are ‘table stakes,’ meaning the minimum bar to entry. Everyone they are interviewing has those. You have to be willing to sell yourself by saying that not only are they getting someone  competent, but they are getting someone who has a number of interesting ‘soft’ skills as well. This sometimes requires being able to tell your story in a way that might feel a little bit uncomfortable and ‘sales-y.’

I would also say that there is no reason why the more idealistic ends of scholarship cannot continue once one leaves the university system. I’m a firm believer that there is a difference between being an academic and a scholar. While they are meant to be found together, they are not synonyms and interchangeable as a result. One can be a great thinker, writer and scholar without having the imperator of a university. However, I recognize this is harder in the sciences—it is hard to do solid research without a lab.

Finally, as someone who regularly hires post-academics, I can say that we hire people that we want to work with. We pre-screen a group of people who have the credentials and skills as a first step. We use the interview to determine how well the person will fit in our organization and will be happy with the way we work. For us, confidence, a healthy scepticism and a willingness to learn are what usually seal the deal.

Jennifer Polk
Jennifer Polk is a career coach and entrepreneur. She earned her PhD in history from the University of Toronto in 2012. For more information and resources, check out her website:
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