Transition Q & A: Sam Ladner

Sam Ladner is a senior researcher at Microsoft, researching the future of productivity. She holds a PhD in sociology and has studied work, technology, and organizations in both academic and applied settings. Find her online at SamLadner.com and follow at @sladner.

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

I had hoped to get a tenure-track job. I did the math. I recall specifically the median age of Canadian professors was 53 at the time I was considering applying for my PhD. I considered that good odds. I did not anticipate a fundamental reconfiguration of the academic job market.

What was your first post-PhD job?

I’d like to answer that by talking about an unexpected job I took in the middle of my PhD. I found myself, at the beginning of my comps, in need of money. So I took a job in a web design agency, doing consumer and design research for large, U.S.-based clients. Prior to starting my master’s, I had worked in various content and journalism roles in online newspapers. This web experience became a competitive advantage after I had additional training and experience in social research. The agency job I took halfway through my PhD allowed me to both finish my PhD, and unbeknownst to me at the time, saved my career.

After finishing my PhD, I applied for a handful of academic jobs and was never shortlisted for any.  Instead, I went back to the agency world. My first job after my PhD was in another web design agency. Eventually, I opened my own research company, and ran it successfully for 4 years. My clients paid me to do social research about their customers and potential customers. I helped design web sites, commercial products, and marketing campaigns.

What do you do now?

In late 2012, I saw the perfect job advertised, but it meant I had to leave my country, my own business, my hard-earned first house, and my strong social network in a city I loved. I applied, and got the job. The biggest surprise? This was not for a tenure-track job. It was for Microsoft.

Looking back, I was never willing to make such sacrifices for a university job, probably because I knew I wouldn’t find it worth it. My former classmates who had taken jobs in remote rural areas didn’t seem happy. They also seemed deeply exploited.

I feel extremely lucky to be working in this role, which is uniquely suited to my skills. I research the future of work and productivity at Microsoft, in the Office division. My role is to work with designers and prototype engineers to create prototype productivity technology.

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

I research socio-cultural trends and analyze their implications of these trends for designers and engineers. I do some empirical research as well, both with technology customers and potential users. I lead a fair number of workshops, helping my coworkers think through the implications of my research, and ideate potential solutions.

What most surprises you about your job?

My colleagues are incredibly well informed and well intentioned. Their genuine desire is to make technology that make people’s lives better. I personally am not that surprised by this, but I know my former classmates and supervisors would be.

What are your favourite parts of your job?

I love being able to make complex ideas simple and useful for technologists. They haven’t had the privilege of my social research training; I love being able to open their eyes to social theory and research.

What would you change about it if you could?

I would like more space to think—but I’d imagine I’d probably have the same complaint in a university. There’s little time anywhere these days.

What’s next for you, career-wise?

I’m currently writing a book called Practical Ethnography, which will allow me to reach even more people with social research. I’d like to start working on my second book before long. At the same time, I’ll continue to work on the future of work at Microsoft.

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

If you’re afraid there won’t be a job waiting for you when you finish, you are right. You won’t hear that from your committee because they genuinely have no idea how bad the academic job market is. Listen to yourself and your concerns. Look at those academics around you and pay attention to how unhappy so many of them are. Think about how narrow their experience is and how little they know about the world. Then spend a minute imagining doing what you like to do, be it researching, writing, lecturing, teaching or doing analysis, or even something completely different. Then imagine all the other places in the world that kind of work happens. Yes, you can leave the university and yes, you can be happy.

11 Replies to “Transition Q & A: Sam Ladner”

  1. Thank you for sharing your story, Sam! I resonated with much of what you said in your last words about looking outside of the academic bubble for new opportunities. I saw how unhappy most academics are on a daily basis and wanted out ASAP so I’ve decided to leave before I take my qualifying exams but after I get my “masters” degree. I felt at peace for the first time in 2 years once I made the decision to move on from academia.

    Your job and career sounds fantastic! I wish you all the best.

    1. I’m so glad, Christina! There is absolutely no reason to stay in a toxic, miserable culture. It’s still amazing to me how few academics have realized that that university is an exceptional place (and not in a good way). Good luck!

  2. Absolutely I still value my PhD. It’s what gave me a unique perspective on the world. Would I make the same choice, if I knew now what I knew then? Probably not. The Phd is far too long a process to be worth all that sacrifice. Your time out of the labour force is a recipe for disaster. But worse, as the faculty teaches now, students internalize the shortcomings of the job market and believe it is somehow their fault. That is the real tragedy. If you know that going in, you may survive with your ego intact. Chances are you don’t and you won’t.

    1. Thank you Sam! I am glad I stumbled over your entry JUST when I pondered multiple academic job rejections for the next job after the post doc (plus having my PI take all the credit for the work I am doing right now), trying to not take any of this personal and finding it impossible to do so. Sometimes it takes someone else who has been through it to say it and for you to realise ‘Oh yeah, actually, why am I thinking this is my fault?’ Thank you!

  3. If the faculty, if one follows the logic of your statement above, are at fault for creating the myth of failure by not being upfront about the shortcomings of the job market they must then admit that they’ve created the very scenario into which many PhD graduates find themselves. They have trained too many people for the academic world to absorb and trained their students to internalise the short comings of the job market. If one continues in your logic the faculty must be responsible for indicating which skill-sets that they are teaching can be readily redeployed after the PhD in a non-academic environment. Furthermore, one could also argue that ego is ultimately far more important than academic ability if one is to be successful in obtaining a PhD.

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