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  • Writer's pictureJames Ron

On Feathers and Achievements

Updated: Jan 2, 2022

I left academia in the summer of 2020, and have been working ever since on establishing an independent business. One of the biggest challenges when talking with friends, mentors and professional coaches is the difficulty in enumerating my “achievements” and “products” during those decades of teaching, researching, and publishing.

When I was an academic, I was reasonably successful at my job. I did well enough to secure a government-endowed research chair at McGill University, and a privately endowed chair at the University of Minnesota. I published regularly in my field, and was cited by my peers. In academic terms, this was success.

What, however, does any of this mean in the world outside of academia? As my resume writing coach asked, “what have been your demonstrable achievements?” My answer – “my publications, my grants, and my Google Scholar citations” – mean a lot in the academic world, but very little, if anything, elsewhere. In academia, publishing an article with original data and creative theorizing in a top journal is a major achievement; it can take years and absorb all of one’s energy. Publication of an article on politics or society, however, is viewed as – at best – a minor means to an end by non-academics. “It’s nice that you published a piece in journal xxx, but did that change the world? Can you demonstrate that?”

To be sure, some publications really do shape the world in observable ways by stimulating a change of government policy, revising the numbers on a hotly contested topic, or adjusting the way in which private or nonprofit organizations function. We’ve seen a lot of that during COVID, as academic epidemiologists weigh in on the numbers, protection methods, and so much more. But the parallels between the social and hard sciences only go so far. More often than not, social scientists simply add a small pebble to a very large pile, and their real world “impact,” as opposed to their reputation among peers, is hard to discern, if it even exists. In academia, publications or the improved thinking processes of one’s students is the “product.” Outside of academia, these have little meaning.

In my discussions with mentors, I’ve been focusing on my research skills; research design, database building, data analysis, or directing and interpreting a population-based survey. At least some of those areas are tough to excel in in the private sector, however, as there will always be younger and better trained data analysts with more recent and advanced technical skills, and whose “skills contribution” to the business world are likely to be greater, all with lower salary expectations. For example, people my age use a statistical package called STATA, but that is nowhere to be found in the business world. Instead, Python is the preferred private sector program, and that’s something I’ve never worked with.

There are solutions to this problem, and many academics have successfully transitioned over time to the business, government, or non-profit sectors. It takes some doing, however. After 20 years of being a tenure-track and then tenured professor, and another six years prior to that as a sociology graduate student, it’s not immediately obvious how best to describe my “achievements” in a way that makes sense to the 99.9999% of the world that works and lives outside the university setting.

The currency of my prior achievements needs to be converted, but there is no agreed-upon exchange rates or kiosks. It’s like the feathers that were so well regarded in the pre-Hispanic world; valuable as they were to the area’s original inhabitants, they had little worth in a Spanish-dominated system. If you couldn’t exchange your cache of feathers for gold, land, or silver, you had no assets once the Spaniards had destroyed your world.

It’s a challenge worth confronting, however. Why collect the same feathers for your entire life, when you can experience new ways of earning new currencies in new contexts?

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