Interview: Sociologist at Work
The career path for a research graduate rarely runs smoothly. There are diversions which can lead to new destinations that a researcher never considered when beginning their studies. To get further insight into this journey and the transitions that can occur along the way, we continued our discussion with Dr. Zuleyka Zevallos, an Applied Sociologist from Australia. Zuleyka started her own business, Social Science Insights, after a time working within academia.
We began by asking her:
What were the steps involved in transitioning from academic research to being a business owner?
I approached setting up my own business as I would any other activity: I researched it. I read a lot of literature provided by government groups and the business sector. Having done so, I felt I could be a successful consultant.
"I approached setting up my own business as I would any other activity: I researched it..."
However, I recognised the gaps in my knowledge about the business side of things, for example, financial obligations and how to market myself to the business sector. To address these issues, I took a training course. I recommend this to anyone who wants to set up a consultancy: get expert support in setting up your business.
In terms of transitioning the research: it took a lot of investment of time, resources and reskilling myself. I learned market research skills, and how to use social media effectively. This was a big leap: researchers are used to simply putting out product, like a journal article, as a deliverable. But when you’re working with business, it’s your advice that’s the end product, and there are many manifestations of that advice.
For example, I had to learn a lot about graphic design to turn my advice into something others could adopt. The variety of outputs means that there’s a lot of pre-planning that needs to be done; furthermore, there’s a lot of work involved in keeping on top of changing marketing strategies, particularly with social media where things are shifting all the time.
What are the positives of making such a move into private industry? What are the downsides?
The positives are that I get a lot of satisfaction from seeing my impact on organisations. I generally work for small businesses and nonprofits: it makes a world of difference to them to explain research, which can be quite dense, and turn it into practical outcomes for them. I see my work adopted quickly, rather than have a publication go through the peer review process.
There’s also an intellectual reward in finding new ways of communicating research skills; I enjoy engaging with clients. One of the big surprises has been not just positive interactions with clients but also with their audiences: there’s a lot of pluses that come out of interacting with new groups who really need that scientific input presented in a digestible way.
"...unlike standard research jobs, there’s a lot of insecurity because you’re going from one contract to another."
Negatives: unlike standard research jobs, there’s a lot of insecurity because you’re going from one contract to another. Being a sole consultant that partners with others for short-term contracts means you don’t have that research group to help you process what comes through on a day to day basis.
Sometimes, people make strange requests or propose a business idea which may raise some philosophical questions, like “Should I do it?” Researchers are generally used to having time to process ideas and make decisions, consultants don’t have that luxury.
Do you have any words of wisdom for researchers who might be embarking on either their first job or contemplating a career change?
After I left academia in 2006, I founded an applied sociology group for The Australian Sociological Association, and in 2009 I began the international website http://www.sociologyatwork.org; I founded these groups to provide support for researchers making similar changes as I did.
The research sector has set up a very linear pathway for people who do a higher education degree: that is, you should try to become a lecturer, scientist or pursue some other research role; or you should go and do a postdoc, which incidentally, are very few and far between these days.
"Having more PhD researchers is not a negative outcome; in fact it’s a great thing for society to have well-trained specialists. The issue is that we just don’t provide enough career coaching to help our graduates plan their career-path beyond the academy."
A lot of students may have a sense that academic jobs are very competitive; this is true. There’s just not enough jobs to sustain the number of qualified researchers the system is producing. Having more PhD researchers is not a negative outcome; in fact it’s a great thing for society to have well-trained specialists. The issue is that we just don’t provide enough career coaching to help our graduates plan their career-path beyond the academy. I see lot of heartache when people come to that realisation themselves. Some continue to take precarious work in academia like casual roles, living contract to contract, and with a lot less flexibility than they may have previously imagined. When you’re working on a short-term or casual academic teaching contract, there’s a lot less focus on producing your own research. All the while, you’re simply hoping to find a more stable research position in the long run.
A lot of researchers feel that a non-academic role is a consolation prize, hence, there’s a lot of stigma around considering a non-academic role. There are sociologists who I look up to, who have known me since I was student, who still ask when I’ll come back to academia. The underlying assumption behind their query is that such a return is the only way in which I can be truly recognised.
"...everyone knows how hard it is to get a tenure track role, but we maintain this illusion that this is the only way we can have a fulfilling job..."
Yet, everyone knows how hard it is to get a tenure track role, but we maintain this illusion that this is the only way we can have a fulfilling job. I advise researchers to look beyond the stigma: once you step off the academic track, there’s a world of opportunities. I’ve done work with government, I’ve led a research team investigating environmental health and safety, I’ve worked with nonprofits. I come to my career with the knowledge that there is a lot of fluidity in what I can do. I may do a lot of consulting for a while, and then go back into working for a traditional research organisation.
Researchers should know: our skills are highly valued outside academia, we need to learn how to market them. We should find a way to show to clients and employers how those research skills can be useful. If you can master that, potential employers and clients will give you amazing opportunities. For example, I once went to a job interview for a role as a researcher, and based solely on the questions I asked, the employers in question offered me a management role on the spot.
A non-academic career role is nothing to be ashamed of; it is a source of pride that strengthens research impact on society, as it brings knowledge to new sectors. There are many, many organisations which are in dire need of scientific skills and expertise; in the process, you can achieve great progress for a variety of communities.
Thank you for your time.
Should I, a researcher, go into private industry?
- Research it first; address gaps in your own knowledge
- Do it if you particularly enjoy seeing the impact of your work on organisations
- Do it if you find it rewarding to communicate in new ways
- Remember the downsides of job insecurity, however