Transition Q & A: Sarah Kendzior

Sarah Kendzior earned her PhD in anthropology from Washington University in St. Louis. She is
now a columnist for Al Jazeera English, a public speaker, a researcher and a consultant. Find her online at SarahKendzior.com and follow her on Twitter @sarahkendzior.

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

I started my PhD in 2006. In 2008 the economy collapsed, and the academic job market collapsed with it. I used to be a journalist—my first job out of college was for the New York Daily News—so I had been through this before when the media industry collapsed in the early 2000s.

When you continually board sinking ships, you stop having hope. In a collapsed economy, this is an advantage. The most unnerving thing I see in the job market nowadays—academic or otherwise—is people working in terrible conditions in the hope of a future that never comes. Hope is something you should have for other people, not for yourself. Hope holds you down and blinds you to possibilities.

As a PhD student, I had one goal—to do the best work I could on topics that I felt were important. In my case this was how the internet is used in authoritarian states—a subject that anthropologists thought was bizarre when I started my degree in 2006, but was of great interest to the public by the time I graduated in 2012. While in graduate school, I published widely. I wrote six peer-reviewed articles, including in two flagship journals in two disciplines (anthropology and communication). I became well-known as an expert in my field.

This made no difference when I went on the anthropology job market, which contrary to popular belief does not value prestigious or prodigious publication. But my publications, as well as interest in my research from people in a variety of fields—media and policy as well as academia—left me in a relatively good position when I graduated.

What was your first post-PhD job?

Toward the end of graduate school, I started to do some blogging for a Central Asian news and analysis website called Registan. This was a fantastic experience—I only wrote a few articles, but I got an engaged response from a broad audience.

In October 2011, I defended my dissertation, but I had a national fellowship that provided a stipend through May 2012, so I ended up with more time on my hands than usual. I started writing for Registan regularly, working out a lot of ideas that I had had during my dissertation research. Other media outlets read my articles and began recruiting me. One of those places was Al Jazeera English, who asked me to contribute pieces on digital media and politics in Central Asia.

By the summer of 2012, I was in an unusual position in terms of employment. I had become well-known enough that I was frequently being asked to give guest talks at universities. I had interest from corporations and think tanks—I spoke at Google’s “Internet at Liberty” conference, at the New America Foundation, and other venues. I was starting to get interview requests from the media. I was publishing constantly and winning awards and recognition, but none of this made any difference in terms of finding an academic job. Because the only thing that really matters in academia is whether you have money.

No amount of achievement could compensate for my lack of financial resources. If I wanted to stay in academia, I had one option—to adjunct, living on poverty wages, until someone would hire me for a tenure-track position. I would have to quit my writing and consulting jobs, which paid me, in order to devote my time to poorly paid teaching and unpaid academic writing. I knew I would have to shell out for the AAA conference to even be able to interview for jobs, and I could not afford to go. It amazed me how much academia relied on personal wealth as a means to entry.

In August 2012, I reflected on this in an article called “The Closing of American Academia.” The article went viral and while it was controversial, the response was largely positive. I received hundreds of emails from people thanking me for speaking out. Al Jazeera English asked me to write for them on a regular basis, and I’m still doing that a year later.

What do you do now?

I am a writer, researcher and public speaker. I write regularly for Al Jazeera and, in the last year, have also written for Foreign Policy, the Atlantic, Slate, Radio Free Europe, and other publications. I’ve started writing more about social injustice in America—particularly in higher education, and particularly regarding the exploitation of America’s youth. I also write a lot about politics in authoritarian states, and about the politics of the internet.

There is not really a commonality to the topics I cover, but there is in the response I get—I get a lot of emails from people saying, “Thank you for speaking for me when I don’t have a voice.” I am fortunate to have a platform with Al Jazeera so I am trying to use it to draw attention to issues of injustice that are often ignored. These are the kinds of topics that I find interesting anyway.

In addition to writing, I do consulting, mostly for organizations that cover Central Asia or groups concerned with human rights. I continue to do independent academic research, and I am working on projects about digital media in Central Asia and Azerbaijan.

I also serve as an expert witness in Central Asian political asylum cases. I don’t get paid for it, but I’m pointing it out because it is by far the most valuable thing I have done with my PhD. Sometimes I think my degree was meaningless—of all the things I’ve done, it’s the thing that means the least to me—but then I’m reminded that it has value, just not in the way I anticipated.

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

My schedule is unorthodox because I have two young children. I’m almost reluctant to mention this because it tends to change how people see me. I kept my parental status out of the public eye until December 2012, when it arose in conjunction with an article I wrote, and then I was called a “mommy blogger” by USA Today and others. This was a really degrading experience, because I write about foreign policy and social issues in established media outlets—I do not blog about kids. No man in my position would ever be called a “daddy blogger.”

However, I think the first step in erasing the stigma of motherhood is to be open about being a mother, and not act like it’s something about which we should be ashamed. I want other academic parents—or graduate students thinking about having kids—to know that it is possible to balance work and parenthood, and not reject one or the other purely out of social expectation or self-doubt.

In terms of my schedule, my days are a mix of parenting and work responsibilities—occasionally at the same time. I have been interviewed on the BBC from a Gymboree, I have researched the plight of Uzbek political prisoners during naptime, I have pushed mounds of toys to the side so my apartment looks clean(ish) when I’m on TV. I work most on weekends and nights, when my husband is home with the kids. I have little “time to myself,” but that’s OK because I love what I do—both writing and taking care of my children.

What most surprises you about your job?

I was surprised by how easy it was to transition from academia into professional life—albeit unnerved that the path to doing it was so unpredictable. I am pleasantly surprised that I write so many critical things about powerful institutions but still have positive relationships with individuals within those institutions. There is a culture of fear in academia that makes people reluctant to speak their mind. But I have found that a lot of people share my views, and while there is always a risk in being outspoken, the reward in meeting others who share common cause outweighs it.

What are your favourite parts of your job?

I love to write, I’m happiest when I’m writing. I appreciate the international audience that Al Jazeera and other publications provide. I enjoy having the freedom to research and discuss topics that are important to me. (That was my favorite thing about graduate school too.) I love that occasionally I’m in a position to make a concrete difference in someone’s life for the better.

What would you change about it if you could?

I am a writer so of course I would change how writers are paid. There are a lot of publications that believe people should publish purely for “exposure,” but exposure does not pay the bills. (This is akin to the adjunct situation in academia.) So I tend to avoid those publications, even when they recruit me, and I’m sad that I have to do this because I always like engaging with a new audience.

What’s next for you, career-wise?

To my great surprise, last fall I was recruited for a couple of tenure-track jobs, even though I wrote that notorious Al Jazeera article. That was the moment when I realized I was happier doing what I’m doing now than I would be in academia. I didn’t apply for the jobs, and that felt strange, because as I’m sure readers know, most people would love to be in that position—including me a year before.

What I realized during my year on the job market is that having a traditional academic career is not as important to me as participating meaningfully in public life—and that the former actually precludes the latter. If I had an academic job, all my work would be behind a paywall. I would lose my audience and my integrity—because I would be working only for myself, only to meet tenure requirements, and I like to engage with the world. I speak to the public.

We live in precarious times. I have no idea what is coming next. What that means is that I can’t waste my life living for the future. I only know what opportunities I have now, so I work as hard as I can.

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

Realize that nowadays, everyone is in transition—even if they think they are secure. Ignore people who say that things will “work out eventually,” especially baby boomers who have no idea of the grim prospects for people in their 20s and 30s. Things often do not work out and there is no reason for you to suffer on false promises.

I see so many graduate students and recent PhDs sacrificing things they want—having a family, pursuing outside interests, expressing their beliefs—in order to meet other people’s expectations. They base personal decisions on others’ empty assurances. This is a terrible way to live.

In more practical terms, I recommend all graduate students and recent PhDs maintain a public online profile. Show the world who you are, what you know and what you can do. Academic culture encourages a level of insularity that is harmful if you are to ever leave the fold. There is a great article, “Advice to Future PhDs from 2 Unusual Graduating PhDs,” that gives tips on how to maximize your time in graduate school. I especially recommend blogging and using Twitter to make contacts with people outside academia.

Realize that people in academia have a warped and limited view of what constitutes “success.” Academia has been described as a cult, and when you leave a cult, you have to shake off its values and judgments. Only in academia is working four adjunct jobs for less than 10K a year “success” while working a non-academic job that provides personal satisfaction or a living wage “failure.” A profession that exploits people’s fear to staff its positions is not one to which you owe loyalty.

Above all, stand up for yourself and stand up for others. When someone else is hurt, be their ally. Never accept exploitation as normal. You are worth more than they tell you.

44 thoughts on “Transition Q & A: Sarah Kendzior

  1. I have stated many times to other graduate students that we are not a random socioeconomic sampling and skew severely towards the higher classes. Yet I get argued with consistently. It’s incredibly difficult to live a normal life on a stipend (if you are lucky enough to get one), as well as putting off a career for four to ten years, and therefore it’s common to get parental financial help–or at least parents who support this decision. The problem with this is that academics tend to have a much more narrow scope of experience and this creates a environment where problems of money are unacknowledged to the hindrance of students attempting graduate school from middle and lower class backgrounds. Anecdotally at least I can say those students are much more likely to not finish their degrees, and this is a loss for academia (where they see it or not). Thank you for acknowledging this.

    • One of the other aspects to this is that not coming from a privileged educational background can make it much harder to select the appropriate graduate program. As well, it can be difficult to get meaningful feedback on projects and grant apps, be competitive for the best awards, and succeed in building the collegial network critical to success. And this is all regardless of the candidate’s drive, strategy, potential, or intellectual contributuion and depth!

  2. Many of us, finished or not, could use this reminder, “that it has value, just not in the way I anticipated.” Whether that is a value we would have selected voluntarily is another matter, but also true of other accomplishments and competencies.

      • In just a few years, I’m seeing a turning in attitudes that used to take a hard stand on leaving and against anyone who did so, especially openly. Maybe the idea was that leavers should slink off in the dark of night and then lie about it. Coming in from working much longer outside academia than in it, I recognized the attitude as mass denial.

        The turn is healthy and for the better. Stay or go, up to the individual, no explanations necessary. There should be a Yoda saying for it.

  3. “I see so many graduate students and recent PhDs sacrificing things they want—having a family, pursuing outside interests, expressing their beliefs—in order to meet other people’s expectations. They base personal decisions on others’ empty assurances. This is a terrible way to live.”

    Very well said.

  4. A true academia success story. I hope this lady shares her message with other grad/post grads. This type of outcome needs to be broadcasted much more often. Now that the “establishment” has been given the proverbial “bird”, it’s time her message is elevated to a higher calling to show others what they can do outside of the ivy covered walls.

  5. Such a good article, especially “It amazed me how much academia relied on personal wealth as a means to entry.”

    I have struggled with my own online presence- I’ve written under a pen name for almost 10 years now because of my less popular politicized ideas- But this year I decided to say, “eff it… i’m gonna wear my politics on my sleeve and go for it”. There is no use, in this lifetime, to shy away from what you believe even if it will gain you some enemies– it will also gain you a LOT of supporters. I love what you wrote about finding something fulfilling even though it might not be in academia. Anyhow, well said and the best of luck to you.

    Melissa Fong
    melissafong.wordpress.com

  6. Love love love this – I remember reading Sarah’s article on academia when it came out last year, and wanting to stick my head in a blender at some of the awful responses to it. The point about speaking directly to an audience rather than hiding behind a paywall speaks very much to me; for all the debates on ‘open access’ it still looks as though the standards being imposed (at least in the UK) will reinforce the status quo, allowing rich Ivy League/Russell Group to participate whilst leaving poorer universities and independent scholars out in the cold.

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  8. Thanks for choosing a public voice over “paywall” research. You are the rare anthropologist who values her skills more than her “discipline” does. Great story!

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  10. Kendzior writes: “If I had an academic job, all my work would be behind a paywall. I would lose my audience and my integrity—because I would be working only for myself, only to meet tenure requirements, and I like to engage with the world.” While she makes a number of great points in this fascinating interview, I take issue with statements like these – possibly true of some Research I universities but not the many colleges out there where quality teaching and engaging with the community, through community-based research and service learning, are valued. Granted the academic world has a LOT of problems, but not all professors are thinking purely about themselves and worrying about tenure. And in terms of engaging with the public through the written word, some of us even do both – academic writing and writing in the popular press.

    Great interview otherwise, but it’s not an either/or proposition – that either you’re part of an insular, messed-up, solipsistic academic culture OR you’re out there “engaging with the world” and doing great things. I am glad to see academics using their skills and talents to analyze foreign affairs, but that doesn’t mean our work within the academy is entirely bad.

    • Yeah. It’s really a shame that there is so much pressure within academia and the culture at R1s… not to mention what it takes to get tenure! It can be overwhelming for people to take on projects outside the actual and implied requirements of a TT job. It’s so hard to balance/have both.

    • I agree, Rachel! I’m encouraged by the many people in public history programs and international development programs who are engaging in the popular media and with communities. I don’t think that the dichotomy between university/public has to be so great.

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  19. I think Dr Kendzior is also strangely un-reflexive for an anthropologist – particularly when it comes to her ideas about the media, the importance of public presence, twitter etc, which are rising in popularity, and are positively hegemonic amongst people in a certain age bracket.

    I’m also very confused, because the author had a fellowship that continued to pay her even _after_ she defended her thesis, she had a number of paid jobs in journalism before and after her PhD, has a husband with a job, was offered tenure-track only a year after her middle-finger article to academia, and yet appears to feel she has had a particularly difficult time with the system. I agree that of course education is biased towards those from wealthy backgrounds – just like everything else in society. But as an anthropology graduate student in her 20s, who teaches and also works part-time to make ‘ends meet’, to me this interview sounds like a continuation of the current self-obsessed rhetoric of middle-class coastal Americans in their 20s-30s, who are annoyed that the ‘American Dream’ ended up a fiction, and are determined to let everyone know it!

    Moreover, I agree with the comment below – academia isn’t a uniform ‘ivory tower’ institution which requires ‘initiates’ to swear off public life entirely! Academia isn’t a “cult”, it’s an institution like any other – just like public media and journalism – and has it’s own practices, and yes, issues. But not everyone has a horrible experience with it – nor should we necessarily abandon it because we have. I’d have a lot more respect for someone who would campaign for reform for young academics, rather than try to convince graduate students that academia is a “sinking ship” that needs to be abandoned in favour of the media or the private sector.

    As for family life, well, the United States is the only country in the OECD with no paid maternity leave – so perhaps the issues around having a family are reflective of wider societal structures in the USA, rather than academia specifically?

    I’m also not certain why she’s surprised about the “mommy blogger” thing – she seems to forget that this derogatory rhetoric is a typical and seemingly inextricable part of the very public media (particularly in the States), that the author appears to be so enamoured with.

  20. Just to be clear: I am not negating Kendzior’s research on adjunct positions in some universities in the United States – but I would like to reiterate that there _is_ academia outside of the USA, and the situation (and attitude) isn’t quite the same. So the issue here may not be an academia-specific one, but perhaps a USA-related one? The USA is consistently presented as the entire world, in so much of popular media.

  21. Something that I would like to ask is: what advice would you give to undergraduates looking at M.A. and Ph.D. programs–the path that you took? I have excelled and distinguished myself at my institution, conducted research and presented at conferences. Yet it is difficult to not become disenfranchised with the pursuit of this academic career, especially when I have read these horror stories. Although my focus within anthropology is physical, rather than cultural, it seems more prudent to either radically redirect the focus of my career–or to pursue study, research and work outside of the US.

    • Andy, this is Jen answering: I recommend taking some time, perhaps working with a career counsellor, to identify what exactly you’re keen on doing—i.e., what skills you like using, what working environment you most enjoy, what difference you want to make in the world, etc. These questions allow you to see that there are different options. Do some informational interviews, perhaps with people who have a similar educational background as you do. You might discover that you’ll find what you really want by joining the workforce than by spending 5-10 years in graduate school… or not! I don’t regret my own (history) MA (which I loved) and PhD (which I loved aspects of), but I would give my younger self the same advice. Either way, good luck!

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  31. Thanks Jennifer for providing a platform for this interesting interview! Sarah, your experience is so unusual, I was fascinated to read about it. So many great points: the need for intellectuals to publicize motherhood, the wealth required to pursue an academic career, the trap of adjunct work (that precludes upward mobility), the importance of a public voice and the value of balancing phd work with other aspects of life. Thanks for a great interview!

  32. It is even more grim for boomers in our 50′s and 60′s. Apparently the 40′s are the only ideal age. The sooner we get together and admit that it is grim for everybody instead of being jealous and judgmental the sooner we might have some power to act.

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