My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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why i’m in academia

Wow. I’m back in school. And overwhelmed in that way that only school can offer – more reading than is physically possible combined with a radical shift in discursive styles and output combined with the weight of feeling as though everything is overdue. Of course, everything *IS* overdue, including blog entries.

Because i’m back in school, what’s on my mind is why. Some of my dearest friends have left this semester and nothing makes me cringe more than being asked when i’m going to graduate. (I promise that until i do i will continue to say “3 more years” as i have since the beginning.) I’m trying to unpack why i believe in academia and why i want my PhD. Or maybe this is an annual reality check.

I love having a knowledge project, a philosophical direction to grapple with a core issue of humanness. I love being intellectually engaged with the end goal being knowledge above all else. I love learning and i love teaching.

Of course, i absolutely despise writing – it’s like pulling teeth and i seem to avoid it like the plague. There’s nothing fun about grant writing and the internal politics are brutal (although not as bad as in non-profits).

The irony is that the deeper i go into academia, the more i enjoy having one foot in industry. I really like helping people work out development problems, offering applicable critique in a way that they can move forward. Of course, my goal isn’t monetization so i can’t imagine actually being responsible for the development of a product inside a company, only for helping people who are motivated by monetization figure out flaws in their plot. Of course, my politics are still strong here and i cannot imagine helping projects that will monetize by abusing people in any form.

I am not invested in only communicating with other academics or people whose end goal is knowledge production. I’m happy to talk to developers, journalists, businesspeople. I find the conversations stimulating and the questions that are asked challenging. That’s part of why i read blogs not just academic papers – access to diverse views. I love thinking of my peer group as being broader than just other academics and i love getting feedback or having conversations outside of the academy. Unfortunately, peer reviewed papers in academia take forever and it’s really hard to motivate to get my ideas out that way when i can just throw things up online and get burnt at the stake and then rework my ideas. Somehow, the idea of not sharing until it’s peer reviewed feels so institutional.

Of course here is where i’m going to get myself into major trouble with academia. I don’t think that the institutional boundaries are the end-all-be-all and i do think that they’re quite limiting at times. I’ve never been one to appreciate rules for rules sake. I’m half terrified that my openness is going to get me into major trouble down the line (another reason why i’m terrified of graduating).

The other trouble is that by having feet in multiple worlds, i’m not doing justice to any of them. I’m not the best academic i could be and i’m not the best consultant or whatever that i could be. And i have a million things that i should write about here but never get around to. Worse: there are a million conversations that i would love to have but simply don’t have time for. My desire to have it all means that i can’t actually balance anything.

In the meantime, i feel like i’m moving forward at speeds far too fast for comfort, continuing to balance on the weeble wobble system and hoping that it will all work out. Am i naive as hell?

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17 comments to why i’m in academia

  • Bill

    I remember the “three more years” phase. Next comes the “six months” phrase. That one lasts a year or two. Escape velocity seems to be correlated with breaking the “six months” barrier.

    – Bill

  • What a great post, thank you.

  • Jack Dalton

    Naive as hell? No…. More ‘refreshing’ in a cynical sort of way 🙂

  • Looks to me like you’re carving one hell of an interesting path. I did my PhD, published a book and then left to work in tech. Lately my corporate gig and PhD training have converged in interesting ways that I would never have expected. I still do low key things (a lecture here and there) to stay connected to the university world and can envision returning in some capacity at some point. The point of this vague thumbnail bio is that you know very well how interesting things sprout up at the margins and interesections of different worlds; you write about it all the time (and very well for someone who claims to hate writing! 😉 There is no good reason to follow the conventional wisdom that says you have to choose one. I find your path completely inspiring. Good luck moving forward!

  • maoon

    you absolutely must teach me how you manage to overachieve plus be in academics while weeble wobbling :). I am helplessly drawn to academics yet again after reading your post.

  • awu

    I don’t know, but best of luck ^_^.

    Weeble wobble, awesome!

  • And again – another great post. 🙂 Part of your post was particularly reassuring to me, that the deeper you get into academia the more you like to have one foot planted in industry. And here I thought it was just me. 🙂 I like academia but wonder if, the more I get to know it, the more I appreciate industry. I feel like a straddler all the time (in multiple ways, but I digress), but more so lately.

    For instance, I love academic research (especially for its depth, that you’re expected to delve deeply into things), but I also appreciate and admire the speed and… currency of industry. Industry seems to do newer things, faster, in more useful ways, in ways that are known about and used by larger segments of society – making things oodles more interesting. Yes, industry has more money, I realize, but I’m just saying.

    I can’t balance anything, at all – it all happens, somehow, but I don’t know how. The especially ironic thing about grad school has been how little time I actually have to sit and THINK. I feel that I produce things that don’t have as much thinking as I’d like behind them.

  • I don’t subscribe to the idea that one ought to pick one thing and do that thing to death. Bollocks. That’s the quickest road to obsolescence and boredom, IMHO. I don’t presume to know you but you so often read like the inside of my head that I have to surmise you’re as much polymath as I am, in which case, you’ll never be satisfied/happy/fulfilled doing one thing anyway. The breadth and experience of walking in multiple worlds is an advantage, no matter what ‘popular wisdom’ says. Everything is connected and, increasingly, the folks who will succeed will be the ones who can draw connections between seemingly disparate phenomena/ideas. Apophenia… right? 🙂

    There are institutional boundaries in academia and industry both, and politics, and balancing acts. Choosing one or the other, for me, has never solved my desire to have it all nor made it any easier to balance – weeble wobble solution in full effect!! 🙂 I think it’s just a property of me, and not a property of any system in which I operate. If you (grossly, but hey) simplify academia as the archetype of ‘thinking’ and industry as ‘doing,’ it makes more sense that anyone who desires balance is going to want to walk in both worlds, not the other way around. I currently spend about half of my working life in each realm and I’ve never been happier. Each informs the other. Each tends to get bogged down in its own world-box and walking between the two helps keep me from getting trapped in either narrow view, and allows me to cross-pollinate. It’s awesome!

    Again, not to presume anything so if what i’m saying doesn’t fit, feel free to throw it out, but – i have a hunch you’re going to get yourself into major trouble no matter you do, danah. 😉 And that the million conversations/ideas/projects waiting in the wings will always be there, so it’s best to figure out a way to feel good about what gets done, and to enjoy the time that you spend, rather than beat yourself over the head about what’s still on the table. The 200 ft. banquet table that disappears into the shadows. 🙂 At least, that’s the strategy I’ve been using to mitigate my own perfectionism and do-too-muchiveness and… it ain’t always easy, but as with anything, practice helps. I used to look at life as if there were a million paths to take and absolute disaster would loom if I chose wrongly. Now I look at it as if there are a million paths to take and how outrageously exciting it is that I could choose any one (or rather, several!) of them and enjoy it immensely, and that it would thus instantly become the right choice. Now when I pose the question of what’s more important – to be the best or to be happy/connected/fulfilled – I know the answer, and I know that focusing on the latter more naturally leads to the former than the other way around. Regardless of whatever that hodgepodge of personal and pop psych/metaphysics is worth, I wish you well on your journey. 🙂

  • “In the meantime, i feel like i’m moving forward at speeds far too fast for comfort, continuing to balance on the weeble wobble system and hoping that it will all work out. Am i naive as hell?”

    Well, It’s worked for you for as long as I’ve known you. I’m confident that it will continue to work for you in the future.

    You’ll continue to play in lots of different areas, connecting lots of people, getting in lots of trouble, and creating and doing things that leave the rest of our jaws dropped in disbelief. And you’ll feel stressed and overwhelmed while you do it. But you’ll do it.

    ‘Tis the nature of danahs. 🙂

  • Terry

    I can really relate to the way you think. It’s the excitement of learning from a variety of sources. I am a Systems Archtect who started out as a developer, but a few years ago I was seriously considering an academic career, but I like to apply knowledge. I read your blog because it is academic approach. I also read technical, business and social writing whenever possible. I like to question or be questioned and to “create” something. Breaking “rules” the magical sparks of innovation. You are a rare person follow your instinct and learn to live in each moment. Learning to live in each moment will balance everything out.

  • Zen, Motorcycle Maintenance and the Church of Reason

    danah recently wrote an interesting and provocative blog post about

  • stephbot

    I wonder when we let go of the idea of “Renaissance man” (person). When did culture shift from thinking that well-roundedness and exposure to myriad subjects meant “unfocused” or “less dedicated”, while what could (in a Renaissance context, anyhow) be dubbed “narrow minded” came to mean “focused” and “dedicated” and “expert”?

    I don’t know nearly enough about history, sociology, or many other subjects to say when or why this particular shift took place, but I’ve experienced many instances of it. As soon as we’re born it seems as if the binary speech begins. “Oh, she uses her left hand more! She must be right-brained! She’ll probably be a great artist but horrible at math” and “He has trouble with spelling, but he’s probably great with math”, and on and on – as if everyone is one thing or the other.

    Likewise with so many other things – choosing “a major”, or “a profession”, or “a hobby”, the general idea being that if you’re not *exclusively* devoted to One Thing Above All Others that you can’t be *really good* at it. This enfuriated me as an English major – “You can’t write good fiction and good code! You just can’t!” 🙂

  • why i’m in academia

    apophenia: why i’m in academia is a very interesting and thoughtful post by Danah. More or less I could have written the same, I feel the same. Managing and balancing the industry experience and involvement, and pursuing academic path is not easy. But …

  • why i’m in academia

    apophenia: why i’m in academia is a very interesting and thoughtful post by Danah. More or less I could have written the same, I feel the same. Managing and balancing the industry experience and involvement, and pursuing academic path is not easy. But …

  • Apophenia,
    What you wrote came right on time. But it didn’t help me solve anything obviously. Looking at the comments, it looks like we’re note alone.
    http://yelix.blogspot.com/2005/02/academia-vs-industry.html

  • i know the feeling, so many worthwhile projects and avenues of thought, so little time. i too am guilty of spreading myself too thin and failing too afford each project the attention it deserves. It’s a shame really but i think its something thats becoming harder to avoid with the wealth of content surrounding.
    In the words of Confucious
    “He who chases after seven sparrows catches none”

    (im not sure confucious said that, maybe he did, he said a lot of things. Anyway i stand open to correction)

  • Josh Hyles

    “My desire to have it all means that i can’t actually balance anything.”

    Thats exactly me right now. I just finished a semester and I the farther I get away from school, the better I feel. I have been juggling both school and consulting work since 2004 and I continue to struggle with the idea that I’m a terrible consultant because i’m stretched so thin. Not to mention that idea that my grandmother(a professor) was told by her university that she needed to fail some students in order to have an average or she’d be fired. I cant help but be frustrated with academia. Some things really need to change.