By Stephanie Day
Stephanie Day decided against continuing on to the Ph.D. after her MA in anthropology, and instead took her social science training into the private sector. She uses ethnographic methods to match the needs of customers with the educational software developed by her company, Scantron. In this post she explains how she came to that decision, and how she feels about it.
Why did I decide to leave the academic track? The more appropriate question is probably “Why did I decide to get onto the academic track to begin with?”. As a first generation college freshman, a life in academia wasn’t always on my radar. But I was curious about people, loved writing papers, hated math and was perfectly happy to spend days at a time in my school’s library. More importantly – anthropology seemed to hold incredible explanatory power for all of the things that interested, excited and confused me in my world.
When I graduated in 2009, in the middle of the economic downturn where hopes of employment for any college grad seemed dismal, graduate school seemed like as good a place as any to ride out the recession and the opportunity to study the topics I had just begun to scratch the surface of was instantly appealing. It wasn’t until I was actually accepted to several competitive programs that reality hit home. With an eye on my looming undergraduate loans, I chose the program that offered the most generous financial package and was extremely fortunate to have supportive fiancé who moved across the country with me. I remember being a bit skeptical at being asked to chose a narrow region and topic of study right off the bat, particularly because it was the broad applications of anthropology that most interested me in the discipline, but I chose one to the best of my ability based on my narrow 22 year-old understanding of the world and my interests.
For one year, we were able to keep our head above water in a high cost-of-living city without incurring too much debt, so long as he worked six days a week while I held down two part-time campus jobs and a teaching assistantship. I loved every minute of graduate school –lectures, symposiums, thesis reviews, even grading papers. But I was acutely aware that after my first year, there was no guarantee of additional funding. On top of that, I experienced all of the symptoms of the often-cited imposter-syndrome, and I had tremendous self-doubt over my ability to vest the same amount of passion, interest and inquiry into my narrow research topic over six, seven years, or the rest of my life. Far from allowing me the expertise to collaborate on and apply my research across disciplines, each stage of my research seemed to isolate me further until there was only a handful of individuals interested and capable of discussing my focus with any depth.
The first few months of graduate school proved to me that I lacked a passion for knowledge for knowledge’s sake that drove many of my peers. I came to a panicky realization that even if I was (smart/driven/good/fill-in-the-blank) enough to carve out a life in academia, the end goal was not as appealing as it once was. If I truly wanted to be in the top 10% of whatever I did while also enjoying the journey to get there, I was unlikely to be one of the rare few who finds that in academia, either by luck or by talent.
So I met with my advisor and found out what I needed to do to graduate with my M.A. within the year, while I still had some funding. She discouraged it, because it wouldn’t give me enough time to do the conference circuit and publications necessary to be competitive in Ph.D. applications, but I insisted. By taking on three quarters of heavy class loads, doubling up on paper-writing and sacrificing one of my academic jobs in favor of a part-time receptionist gig that let me work on my thesis when not answering phones, I graduated early with a degree in hand and no clue what to do next.
At the time I felt like a failure, but looking back I am glad I got out when I did, while there was still time for me to re-think my career from the ground up and my student loans were still in the five-digits.
I am now an Education Sales Strategy Consultant for Scantron testing corporation. I work in what is known as “Pre-Sales”, but now as a strategy consultant and subject matter expert. Most frequently, that means I help translate the needs of existing and potential customers to the features and functionality of our educational software, and vice versa. I work from home unless traveling, and my day-to-day tasks consist of conducting needs analyses, providing high-level and technical demonstrations of our solutions, and helping inform our sales force by providing real use-cases, and compelling value propositions that speak to the immediate and long-term needs of administrators, parents, teachers and students. Being able to code-switch from talking with educators to talking with software developers has helped me bridge gaps, and share useful insights about our customers with my company.
That makes up about 80% of my work, but I am most excited about the other 20%, which is usually made up of special projects that I pitch the powers-that-be as being important and relevant to the advancement of our business, but which we don’t currently have dedicated time or resources to perform. At the moment, my project is an internal survey of people from all different parts of our company to uncover shared values, themes, and differentiators. I conduct open-ended interviews with people at every level of the company, consolidate and compare the data to identify important points of agreement and divergence, use the information to inform our sales and marketing strategies and share it broadly with the company to help establish a culture of shared goals, customer advocacy and collaborative discourse in an otherwise fractured environment of mergers, acquisitions and change. Sound like anthropology, much? I think so.
The down-side of course is that these projects are secondary to my primary responsibilities, and are thus prioritized only as time permits, which is most often my evenings and weekends. Still, I’ve found that these projects receive significant visibility in my company, and by taking them on I hope to not only make my company more sustainable and relevant in their markets, but also help me do my current job better while building my experience and credibility to eventually find myself in a position where such work makes up 40%, 50% or even 100% of my time.
One of the biggest obstacles to this transition was the complete loss of my carefully constructed professional network. I quickly discovered that my professors who were quite well-connected in academia were, at best, at a loss and at worse, disinterested when it came to helping me apply the discipline outside of academic research. I literally had to start from scratch, find new mentors, make new kinds of connections – and it was a much more difficult task than I had ever imagined. I started by joining professional communities for working anthropologists, making connections with scholars conducting research in my field of work, and finding new mentors outside academia who were interested in the path I was paving. It is something I still struggle with.
My biggest fear in leaving the academic track, believe it or not, was a financial one. I didn’t want to think that I had wasted money getting my degree, and I wasn’t sure if I could get a decent paying job with it outside of academia. This fear was sometimes debilitating, and often came close to convincing me that the safest path, or at least the path of least resistance was actually to get my Ph.D., because that’s what people like me did. And if that’s what people do, then there must be a reason, right? I wasn’t looking for a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, but I did dream of financial security and maybe 1-2 small comforts of life. I was surprised to find that my social science skills are in fact, highly valued in the workforce, so long as I could translate those skills to the every day needs and challenges of business. I know now that the either-or choice between using my degree or paying my bills is a false one, but it scared me to death at the time.