Think Twice, It’s Alright: Reflections on Leaving Academia

By Meritxell Ramírez-i-Ollé

I write this blog post moved by a mixture of feelings of rebellion, excitement and thankfulness. I rebel against the sense of urgency, determinism and short-sightedness that has pervaded my short postdoctoral life; I am excited about developing a more creative, unconventional and open-ended career as a sociologist; and I am extremely grateful to the community behind The Sociological Review, and particularly its Managing Editor, Michaela Benson, for supporting my attempts at doing sociology differently.

Since I defended my doctoral thesis in November 2015 I have grown used to the distressing idea that the clock is ticking. I came to regard my career as a sociologist as a race, with a clear set of goals, timings and strategies to win it. My main goal was, for a long time, to get a permanent position at a university within five years of finishing the doctorate. The best way to achieve this goal was, I reckoned, to spread one’s ideas through papers and talks, create bonds with colleagues and modulate one’s research interests to available positions and funding calls. I have happily complied with these expectations for a long time, often at the expense of my health and personal life.

In the last year, though, I have started to question the obviousness and desirability of the life of the academic sociologist. I have done the opposite to what Bob Dylan recommends in his song “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”. He tells us, “Well it ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe / If you don’t know by now /An’ it ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe /It’ll never do some how”. Well, I disagree with the Nobel Prize winner. I have found it very stimulating to sit down and wonder why I should continue doing academic sociology.

My decision to reconsider my professional future does not come out of sorrow or rage. Quite understandably, many people seem to be quitting academia because of its problems of hyperprofessionalismboredomhyperbureaucratisationfinancial insecurityideological bias; and sexism. The (unappealing) contemporary features of the university have played a minor role in my decision. I would be ready to fight for a better academic world if I thought it was worth it. But I don’t believe in the academic enterprise enough, or, at least, I aspire to do something else with my life.

I am not disappointed to leave academia, because being a scholar has never been my vocation. I did a PhD, and I would do it again, because the sociology of knowledge excites me and our societies need more of it. Understanding that our ideas about the world are conditioned by our surroundings and circumstances helps me to live a more content life, and I am sure it could help others too. The difficulty I face now is to maintain my vision of the broader, longer-term transformative powers of sociology in the face of the practical, shorter-term demands of everyday life. In other words, the question that concerns me now is: How can I pay my bills by doing sociology of knowledge? So far, I haven’t found a way. I have just returned to my native country of Catalonia – at a time of extreme state repression and violation of human rights – and my PhD is not immediately helping me to pay my rent.

I’m optimistic though, and I have the intuition that I’ll find a way of living by doing sociology outside the university. I understand the frustration of those who feel that leaving academia means that knowledge and people get ‘lost’. However, this is just one way of seeing it. Those of us who abandon – partly or totally – the academic life could generate value elsewhere. My optimism might just reflect the enlightened, capitalist and liberal ideology of my time. If this is the case, surely I am not the only one who is excited about the uncertain prospects of making sociology mainstream and commercially viable (please write me an email if you’re one of these).

I am thrilled to imagine myself applying my sociological ideas and skills to new contexts and usages. What are the alternatives to an academic career? Who else other than the (obliged) taxpayer would pay me willingly to do sociology? What are my unique selling points (or in other words, what do I know or see that others don’t?). To stimulate my imagination, I have been compiling examples of sociologists and anthropologists doing exciting non-academic jobs. Do I want to edit an influential newspaperlead the research team within an information-based companyset up my own research businessjoin the army or the police force; or advise policy-makers? I accept that not everybody wants to find a new career at 32, but I personally need to see what else I can do with sociology and my life.

The timing of my decision has, not incidentally, coincided with the period in which I was the Sociological Review Fellow. This fellowship provides early career scholars with the opportunity to convert their PhD research into publications. I have certainly built up my publication portfolio, but this fellowship has meant much more to me. Being the Sociological Review Fellow has involved having the freedom, the time and the institutional support of my community to think twice about what else I would like to do with sociology, and how to work to make my vision possible. This is why The Sociological Review is a great, long-standing project, and why I would encourage you to be part of it by contributing with your research and blog posts, attending its next conference in June and organising seminars.

Meritxell Ramírez-i-Ollé held the Sociological Review Fellow in 2017. Her academic interests are in the sociology of knowledge, ethnography and social research methods. She is currently finishing a book monograph based on her doctoral dissertation whilst teaching English in her native city of Terrassa (Catalonia) and figuring out how to make a living from sociology. You can contact her at: meritxell.ramirez@gmail.com

Originally posted 20th March 2018.

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