am I an academic?

academia (n.): The academic world or community; scholastic life.

academic (n.): 1) An ancient philosopher of the Academy.
2) A member of a college or university.
3) A member of a society for promoting art or science

At every academic conference I attend, I hear a constant refrain: “How does it feel to have left academia?” The tone changes dependent on who is doing the asking. Sometimes, it’s pure curiosity or puzzlement, fascination at my choice. At other times, there’s a hint of condescension, as though the question is actually: “Couldn’t make it in academia, eh? Stuck in industry, eh?” I try not to bristle at this but I do find myself getting defensive and trying to explain my position at Microsoft Research over and over again. So I couldn’t help but think that maybe it’s time to write it down.

Microsoft Research is an industrial research lab in the old skool sense. In the world of computer science, the industrial research lab is well understood; it has a long history of success in producing valuable, field-changing research. Like AT&T Bell Labs or Xerox PARC, the halls of MSR are filled with scientists of the highest caliber. People who invented things that you take for granted. MSR grew out of this tradition. It’s primarily filled with computer scientists (and engineers, physicists, mathematicians). Researchers are encouraged to pursue research questions that they feel are important and they are evaluated based on their publication record, contributions to the scholarly community, and innovative research that produces “tech transfer.”

Being a social scientist in one of these labs is peculiar, but not new. I have long admired the anthropological contributions Lucy Suchman made to research while at PARC. Being a social scientist at an industrial research lab can be a tricky balance. There are plenty of anthropologists and other social scientists who do applied work at Microsoft, focused on specific product needs. This is extremely important work, but it’s different than scholarly research. It’s also tricky to say what constitutes “tech transfer” as a social scientist. I don’t really produce IP in the traditional sense, but my work contributes to the company in other ways.

Yet, tech transfer is only a fraction of what I do. The vast majority of my time is spent doing the same type of research that I’ve been doing for years. I follow topics that interest me and dive head first in, regardless of whether or not it involves Microsoft’s current or future products. I publish articles without seeking approval from anyone. I blog about my research without vetting it through Microsoft. I attend academic conferences, review papers, and contribute to scholarly discourse. It looks a whole lot like academia to me. Yet, I hear all sorts of remarks that indicate that folks don’t believe that what I do is akin to academia. I feel the need to account for these and offer a different perspective.

But you’re working for a corporation! Since when are universities not corporations? Best that I can tell, most universities are fundamentally real estate barons who gain public credibility by offering higher education. The difference is that Microsoft’s products are very visible and related to the types of research that they seek to support. Both Microsoft and the university invest in research in the hopes that it will benefit the corporation as a whole, directly through the production (and protection) of IP or indirectly by creating an atmosphere where productive work can take place. The outcomes may look different, but both Microsoft and the university are large corporations with a fiscal mindset.

But a company makes you focus on the company’s bottom line! There is no doubt that Microsoft would love to have research that benefits it financially, but the dynamic is far more symbiotic than parasitic. We’re welcome to do the research we’re most passionate about, but we get financial bonuses for creating patents or for producing quality research that benefits the company. It’s an incentives system. On the contrary, I would argue that the university model is predominantly parasitic. Researchers at universities must run around begging external agencies for money so that they can do the research they love to do. When they finally succeed in getting a grant, how does the university respond? It takes 30-60% for “overhead.” And when they don’t get funding, they’re punished with lack of research resources and students. Furthermore, most university researchers don’t get to do as they please – they do what they (think they) can get funding for. I suspect I have far more freedom in terms of my research agenda than most university scholars.

Still, you have to spend time helping the company directly! Yes, I spend time working with product groups. But I like to think of it as my teaching duty. Rather than teaching Soc 101 to hung-over 18-year-olds who didn’t bother doing the reading, I teach an interactive form of Soc 101 to engineers who are filled with questions that start with “but why?” and “but how?” I have a hard time imagining that my engagement with product groups takes up more of my time than teaching, office hours, and prep. And it’s often quite fun and thought-provoking.

Well, there’s no tenure! What exactly is tenure? The promise that the university will promise you a salary in return for perpetual grant begging? Tenure guarantees a job, but it doesn’t guarantee an enjoyable one. There’s no promise of a pay raise or good classes to teach. Microsoft Research does have the right to fire me but, from what I can see, it’s more common for people to leave when they don’t gel well (just like in universities). The bigger threat is whether or not Microsoft will be around in N years (arguably, also true with many universities). I suspect that my job is just as solid as it would be in most university environments. The difference really comes down to bonuses. At the university, there are no performance-based bonuses. At Microsoft Research, a large chunk of my salary is linked to performance. Thus, I have an incentive to do well. There are also promotions that parallel university levels; Researcher = Assistant Professor, Senior Researcher = Associate Professor, Principle Researcher = Full Professor. This may not offer the on-paper guarantee of tenure, but it is pretty darn equivalent.

It’s not like you have students! Most professors love having students because of the collaboration potential. (Some enjoy the empire building but that’s not my bent.) Of course, this varies by field. Some scholars feel as though they need students to complete their work; in other fields, students are more an opportunity to mentor. My approach to students is more of collaboration and mentorship rather than slave labor. It’s true that I don’t have students, but I have the fortune of being able to take a handful of interns each year for 12 weeks each. These interns are primarily post-quals PhD students who have the skills and passion for collaboratively working on a constrained research project. No, it is not the same as 7-year students that you get to watch grow, but it’s not like I’m not engaged with younger scholars. My time with them is just more constrained and focused. There are also postdocs who come for 1-2 years. And when I’m craving collaboration, I can bring in visiting researchers to work with me. So it’s a bit more hodge-podge, but there’s still tremendous opportunities for engagement with scholars at all levels.

Whatever… it’s not real research. This is what it always comes down to… “Real” research comes from the university, suggesting that what comes out of industrial research labs is “fake.” I’m never quite sure how to best respond to this except to commit to proving folks wrong.

I feel very fortunate to have a position at Microsoft Research, even if lots of folks don’t seem to get why it’s a good deal. In many ways, this environment is far more academic than what I witnessed at MIT’s Media Lab or Berkeley’s iSchool. The biggest downside is that it’s not helping with my disciplinary identity crisis. If I had joined a specific disciplinary department, I might have had a clearer sense of the “top” journals, relevant conferences, and whether or not publishing a book is a must to succeed. Perhaps not, but I like to think so. Instead, I’m as confused as ever about where to publish and how to best disseminate my research in a manner that is generally useful. Thus, instead of becoming a proper -ist, I’m continuing to pave a strange path that may or may not bite me in the ass in the future. Of course, this identity crisis is pure academia. And one of the clearest reminders that I’m still an academic through-and-through.

I may not be a professor, but I’m still a scholar and, arguably, an academic. The title of “Researcher” may not seem very impressive or academic in social science realms, but practically speaking, it’s akin to “Assistant Professor” (and that’s even how people discuss it internally). What I do looks a lot like what any university researcher does, but with fewer restrictions. I don’t have to beg for grants. I don’t have to battle onerous IRBs (note: dealing directly with lawyers is MUCH easier than dealing with academics who are worrying about the legal repercussions of research). I can travel when I need to for research. I can do research that I think is important. I can collaborate with whomever I please. In return, I make certain that my research (and that of others) is translated into language that product people can understand. Personally, I think it’s a pretty amazing trade-off.

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37 thoughts on “am I an academic?

  1. Ralph Haygood

    It shouldn’t be necessary to point out that large amounts of important progress in science, let alone technology, have been made by people who weren’t employed by universities. Charles Darwin never had an academic job. Albert Einstein did most of his best work while employed by the Swiss patent office. William Gossett worked for Guiness. Etc. The notion that you can’t be a serious, capable scholar unless you’re an academic is patently preposterous.

    I recently left academia myself, largely because I didn’t care to waste my time on the busywork, bureaucracy, and politics that consume much of the lives of most of the academics I know. The endless begging for money, substantially driven by the addiction of university administrations to overhead, is indeed a serious problem. Frankly, I wonder whether the strident insistence of many academics that academia is the best place to be isn’t mostly directed at themselves, by way of reassuring themselves that they’ve chosen well, despite all the nonsense they’re obliged to endure.

  2. Kamal Jain

    I am impressed you understood Microsoft Research (MSR) so much in just half a year. It took me couple of years to understand MSR. I have given several colloquia about my own career in particular, and career path to graduating students in general. The “science” job which Microsoft offers is unparallel. It has the best of both the worlds, that is freedom to pursue any scientific interest and no burden of arranging funding. It is like a tenured professor, whose “grant” is also tenured.

    The best part of Microsoft Research is its size. It is bigger than universities CS departments. That means you could find diversity of top scientists in pretty much any domain of CS in building 99 in Redmond. This allowed me to pursue a diversity of interests which I can’t imagine I could have pursued so easily at any other job. This is my biggest attraction to MSR. During summer building 99 is the hottest place in CS. It is full of youth energy of the smartest interns in CS. The density of the CS talent in summer is higher than you would find in any other single building. I had the fortune of mentoring 4 interns this summer and we touched 4 different areas of CS just this summer itself.

    Another advantage of MSR is the open culture of Microsoft. One could write to top executives and hope to get a thoughtful response back. This culture is very benefecial to researchers in increasing the contribution of science to the world via Microsoft product. It also helps that Microsoft leadership is always open to listen to new ideas, even if the ideas challenge the current world order.

    The only downside I can think of by being in Microsoft is not being able to try a start-up. Many professors productize their ideas via start-up route. By contract, every research a researcher does is owned by the company. So in case the product folks are not interested then you do not even have a “theoretical” possibility of transfering the benefit of the research to the world. Fortunately it does not happen too often in Microsoft. Microsoft’s interests are so broad that you could find somebody interested in your research.

  3. Kevin Marks

    I continue to be amazed that ‘academic’ and ‘amateur’ are both seen as terms of abuse. You embody the best of both, pursuing ideas and work you love, then teaching us all about it. Long may you continue to be an academic amateur.

  4. Adam

    You are not only a scholar, you are the scholar getting her hands dirty with the truly interesting research in new media.

    University politics are small and petty; take it as a good thing that all you have to put up with is their snooty definition of what being an “academic” is.

  5. Tom Guarriello

    Refreshingly clear-headed. Navigating the modern world using 17th century conceptual frameworks is dangerous. Your work demonstrates the evolution of both academia and the corporation.

  6. Jim McGee

    To the extent that people asking this question understand what you are doing, their responses are more likely driven from envy than any other source.

    It is unfortunate that more organizations are not investing in research along the lines of MSR. You are tackling tough questions with data that is hard to tease out. I’m glad some organization has enough foresight to be willing to fund it

  7. Cenate Pruitt

    “Personally, I liked the university. They gave us money and facilities, we didn’t have to produce anything! You’ve never been out of college! You don’t know what it’s like out there! I’ve worked in the private sector. They expect results.” – Dr. Raymond Stantz

    Seriously, though, I’ve always found that kind of disconnect between the Ivory Towers of Academe and Th’Private Sector to be much stiffer on the corporate side of things – that whole “out-of-touch academic with the head in the clouds” stereotype (or maybe it’s just my family), so it’s cool to see people out there in the (dumb old results-expecting) real world doing stuff that’s important and relevant and that can immediately be pointed to with a “No, look, seriously, we’re not all just sitting here contemplating our belly buttons – freakin’ Microsoft is paying someone very real (and I would presume very good) money to do exactly the same stuff I’m doing.”

    It’s also disappointing how clannish and insular “REAL ACADEMICS!!!” can be about it – on some level I think there’s a perception of a threat from industry (especially as regards for-profit institutions ala U of Phoenix, etc.) that “the private sector” is not only inferior to traditional academia, but that the private sector is out to “get” academia somehow, when the real problems come from within (i.e., grant whoring and the like).

  8. David Berry

    It is interesting to note that regardless of your claims to be in a ‘better’ or ‘similar’ position to an academic you continue to use academia as the anchor point of a frame of reference. I don’t see any need to make that claim – the work in a corporate R & D environment is just different – it is based largely around performativity (here I am thinking of Lyotard).

    A conceptual framework that I think you might find helpful to help think through your argument is the interesting idea that our societies are passing from so-called Mode 1 knowledge (academic, disciplinary, university based) to Mode 2 knowledge generation (interdisciplinary, multi-institution, performative). See “The New Production of Knowledge: The Dynamics of Science and Research in Contemporary Societies” by by Professor Michael Gibbons, Dr Camille Limoges, Professor Helga Nowotny, Simon Schwartzman, Professor Peter Scott, Martin Trow. This remains a controversial thesis, however.

    However I think that you miss that there are different kinds of academic work that could not be carried out very easily in a corporate setting, e.g. critical research (looking at equity, fairness, ideological distortion and where there can be a political project to address these issues), literature-based humanities work, analysis of power etc. Could you really undertake a Frankfurt School type analysis of Microsoft monopoly practices, or try to uncover ideology/hegemony? Not likely, and that is why tenure *is* important as it protects the academic from undertaking research which the institution may find unsettling or disagree with.

    I personally think that there are important differences between universities and corporations linked to their respective knowledge domain and notion of contribution (e.g. to the public good vs private gain). To miss this is to collapse all of social life into the market.

  9. Doug Bremner

    Thought provoking post. The flip side of the question about whether the corporation is like the university is whether or not the university is like the corporation. Without directly criticizing my university I was banned from using their name on my blog (i.e. identifying myself as a professor, they claiming that my blog was ‘personal use’ and against their policy) a ban that was later revoked when it came to national attention. When academics are pushed to seek patents and commercial spin offs of their work, and partnerships with commercial entities like drug cos etc, but are essentially censored from making controversial comments or criticizing their employers, there really isn’t much difference. Oh btw academic freedom, is not a legal right, it is the tenure system as administered by the institution.

  10. Doug Bremner

    Thought provoking post. The flip side of the question about whether the corporation is like the university is whether or not the university is like the corporation. Without directly criticizing my university I was banned from using their name on my blog (i.e. identifying myself as a professor, they claiming that my blog was ‘personal use’ and against their policy) a ban that was later revoked when it came to national attention. When academics are pushed to seek patents and commercial spin offs of their work, and partnerships with commercial entities like drug cos etc, but are essentially censored from making controversial comments or criticizing their employers, there really isn’t much difference. Oh btw academic freedom, is not a legal right, it is the tenure system as administered by the institution. @dougbremner

  11. Jen Cardew Kersey

    There have been many anthropologists to write about this juxtaposition and we’ve used the term “scholar practitioner.” It describes someone that is working outside of academia but is academic in the sense of contributing to scholarly discourse, practicing and generating theory, and has a commitment to their discipline. Lucy Suchman, Brigette Jordan, ken anderson, and all of the MSFT anthropologists out here in Seattle are all great examples of scholar practitioners.

    On a different note, it’s also a matter of who is labeling you- in the business world you’ll likely be The Academic and in academia maybe you’re not as much of an academic (although you have established yourself as such so I’m sure it may be different for you).

    Good post and an important thing to think about.

  12. Nicolas Ward

    I work for BBN Technologies, and I usually describe us as either “a research contractor” or “an academic corporation”. I use academia to describe the culture of our working groups, and even though we’re a privately held for-profit company, most employees on the research side work as if they’re in a post-doc-like position.

  13. Jeanette Hawkinson

    Keeping it short and simple here, but our principal this week asked us who our customers are? I teach in a public K-12 district. As long as we provide a service or product of some kind, doesn’t that make us a business? I agree with you whole-heartedly!

  14. Patrick Giroux

    It is interesting to read about how your workplace is different/similar to my own (university). I never really had any chance to learn about how “industrial lab” work on a daily basis… Thx for writing it down! I would be curius to learn more.

  15. Vaneeesa Blaylock

    I’ve been doing performance art in the virtual world Second Life. A lot of the oldschool 2D “artists” there don’t seem to understand my work.

    What I finally realized is, when someone doesn’t understand your work, they do not say, “gosh, your work seems so important and compelling, unfortunately, I don’t really understand it, could you explain your work so I can be enlightened and share in its richness?”

    I’m pretty sure no one has ever said that. When peeps don’t understand your work they say something closer to, “how is *that* art???”

    So when they say, “oh MSR, how is *that* research?” It’s really just a, slightly awkward, request for you to enlighten them about your work. Which you have just done! Bravo! 🙂

  16. Danyel Fisher

    Excellent summary, danah. I’m fascinated to hear you run into this–I guess it must be a field distinction. Certainly, at the computer science and engineering conferences, it isn’t even a discussion: MSR and IBM Research are so prominent (as PARC and BellCorp were before them) that no one thinks about the distinction. They’re just two different funding models.

    (How surreal is it that I’ve left comments on both of the top-ranked apophenia-related blogs in the last 12 hours?)

  17. wendy

    Interesting. [..] as though the question is actually: “Couldn’t make it in academia, eh? Stuck in industry, eh?” [..]

    in my ‘environment’ it is the exact opposite: working at a uni… couldn’t get a proper job?

    It’s all about perspective, I guess.

    Have fun at MSR!

  18. lilly

    Interesting to read that you’ve been getting this response since, like Danyel, I always experienced industry research labs as a very distinct space from doing industry product development — certainly a place where “real” research happens.

    From my experience at Google and Intel, though, I do feel like industrial research labs seem like an open, unconstrained space for research until you hit a boundary or the annual budget freakout happens and people have to justify themselves or get cut. At the places where I’ve seen industry research happen, there definitely was the sense that you’d want your research to plausibly be related to the company mission, broad as it was. I don’t feel like I could go to an industry research lab and then spend most of my time on marxist critiques of information technology production until I became a casualty of “budget cut layoffs.” The university at least has a historical (though eroding?) academic freedom once you get to that promised land of tenure, though few make it to the promised land and many get exploited trying to make it there. If I’m wrong and MSR is interested in sponsoring my work on postcolonial, cultural specific design knowledge, let me know. 😉

  19. Jo Jordan

    It’s simply pique. You aren’t subordinating yourself to their judgement.

    Academic is a closed shop and to suggest there is an outside world always provokes some chest beating.

    Other than their games with real estate, alumni and goverment funding, which is considerable I agree, their job is to assimilate material and make it available mainly to people between school and work. They do that with (very) varying degrees of quality and effectiveness.

    Sadly the raison d’etre of keeping the institution alive is often a lot more important than the world of ideas and the development of knowledge. But that is the way of all institutions eventually. Hence the banker like salaries paid to university managers.

    So how do you relate to academics – I suppose if you don’t intend to take part in their pecking order again – you simply focus their attention on what needs to be done. If they are questioning your contribution based on your position in their pecking order, you simply ask them to clarify what their contribution will be and when it will be delivered. Or if you are just sharing a drink, and you don’t like them very much, ask what work they have in the pipeline. If you do like them, say, remind me, last time we met you were working on “?”. How did it go? You might be in for a rant though.

    My own advice to you is to look at the structure of Microsoft and its competitors (present and emerging) and ask yourself what you will do after you’ve made Principal Researcher. You might want to set your horizons at 50 years not 15. Most technical positions end in technical management. You might want to be more influential in the future and it is wise to prepare for that and gain an understanding of the business as a whole. Hope that is useful and not undermining.

  20. James Landay

    I find it funny that folks in the social sciences have this issue. Top computing research labs do world class RESEARCH. It is not the exactly the same as at a top university department, but is very close (i.e., the incentive to have product impact does impact some, but not all of the work — this is a good thing). Most folks out there are in neither a top research lab or a top university department, so they might not even understand what the research culture is in either.

  21. Andres

    I’ve got more career advice from this blog post than the couple of years I’ve been in grad school. Thank you!

  22. daniel erwin

    Great post, and great way to fuel a discussion!

    I was committed to being an academic and felt like a sell-out for getting into a company-centric grad program. Until I started to realize that there is relevance behind some claims that academia is a dated setup, that maybe the structural dysfunction goes beyond lower-education. Granted, universities play really important roles – but our culture isn’t done evolving, and maybe PARC and Bell Labs were just the first, mal-formed batch of a burgeoning crop of corporate research facilities.

    I look forward to seeing you use your access to brilliant thinkers in ivory towers to develop a new conception of what learning and cooperation should be, then use your access to the vast resources and talented implementers of MS to bring it to life.

  23. Sidney

    I agree with Andre. As a physics grad student contemplating “leaving academia” this is definitely reassuring. I’ve started to notice myself hints of an unending trail of pettiness, politics, and bureaucracy in the academic ranks. Good to hear that its not just me, but that there’s also a place for real research in the “outside” world

  24. Leaving Academia

    Thanks so much for this. There are so many academics who feel stuck in academia, but hesitate to leave for fear that there is nowhere else for them to conduct research. Your work beautifully disabuses them of this notion.

  25. Laz

    Interesting blog about academia. But the label academic does not matter. What is important is to have the freedom to work on problems that you find interesting. You’re a scholarly researcher danah. No question. You probably have accomplished alot more research than many academics out there.

  26. Nils

    I’ve made the same basic transition you have, Danah, in working at Monitor 360. And while I agree with everything you’ve written above, there’s one point you don’t address: corporate research promotes the privatization of knowledge production, rather than the strict openness which is the hallmark of classic academic-scientific practice. Much of the work I do is stuff I can make public, but a significant portion of it is not, and this is something I sometimes feel some regrets about.

    I know that one rejoinder to this might be that the academy itself is well athwart the path of the knowledge privatization, that the idea of openness is more honored in principle than in the breach, and while that’s true, there’s little doubt that degree zero of academic knowledge production is openness, whereas the degree zero of corporate knowledge production is in favor of proprietary research (either in the form of IP or secrecy).

  27. zephoria

    Nils – this is what differentiates the industrial research labs like MSR and Bell Labs and PARC from research that takes place in other enterprises. None of the research that I do will be locked behind closed doors because of corporate restrictions. (Some never reaches the public because I’m too lazy to write it up or because journals don’t accept it, but that’s another matter.) Knowledge privatization is not a given with research labs and, in the case of MSR, it is strongly frowned upon. We are literally evaluated based on our publication track record so we’re highly incentivized to get things out to the world at large (or at least the niche world of academia). MSR is very very very open. I’m sorry that your institution is not.

  28. Ted Kinzer

    Engaging post. Would you consider yourself a practicing academic? You have the training, skills, and experience of being an academic from your doctoral work. You have deciding to practice within the private sector while applying the academic skills of a researcher.

    Twitter: @terribleted66

  29. zephoria

    Ted – there is a difference between applying the academic skills of a researcher to a set of private sector concerns and doing pure research. I am not actually looking at private sector issues. I am not producing applied reports. The topics that I address are not driven by the needs or desires of the private sector. To the degree that my work aligns with private (or public) concerns, it is used. But there’s a big difference between being an applied researcher and a theoretical (or pure) researcher. At the end of the day, my goal is to produce theoretical contributions to public knowledge.

  30. Michael Mandiberg

    Love this post about MSR. We’ve talked about this in the past. I like how you carefully leave the evil acronym (IRB) for the end.

    Check out for a different take that would be an interesting addition to your list of pros/cons: Paranoia. Along with grant-begging, that is the other side effect to the Tenure process. Fear and Paranoia.

    But, what does this look like for the non scientist, or non social scientist. What does this look like for the humanities professor, or the artist? Don’t conservative political think tanks drastically outnumber all other forms of non-science research, liberal, political, or otherwise?

  31. sedista

    thanks danah for opening up the discussion. i have to go with david berry. i completely agree with your critique of university and academic practices, but still have my reservations about giving up some of the conditions that were offered by universities, or suggesting that corporate research labs are the alternative, or conflating them all into one and the same.

    the way universities have been turned into corporations is a sad fact (in europe this is being enhanced through the bologna process) and exactly for this reason, and a number of others, i may follow your steps, leave academia and apply for jobs in research labs (corporate or based on public funding ( or organized by dedicated individuals like the old

    i personally believe that you can be an academic even without institutional binding, you can publish papers and ask for funding from conferences, you can organize events, even question existing academic machinery and still be an academic (firstmonday is a wonderful example of hybrid academic/non-academic practice and just recently included an article critical of the monopoly that “academics” try to keep over knowledge: or, we can just call such hybrid trajectories punk rock theoreticians and continue actively accommodating their positions in our work and institutions. 🙂

  32. Larry Irons

    Academia has become the equivalent of salt mines for those who don’t make it to tenure. Universities are among the most exploitative institutions existing today. Just ask the “adjuncts” who really make the whole education process work.

  33. Lucy Leite

    Great post! The academia is full of big egos who think that just what they do is right… the ivory tower, someone put it. I think it’s great the fact that you can connect your academic research to the needs of an enterprise. This should be much more common. Many professors can’t see how they can be useful outside a classroom and many companies can’t see what they could do with a professor working in their labs or departments! Congrats, Danah, you’re an example for many!

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