Why Non-Academic Need Not Be Un-Academic: Reflections on Working Outside the Academy

Our Brownbag series took a closer look at sociological research beyond the university with an exciting panel, “Un-Academic: Reflections on Working Outside the Academy” on February 13. Following introductory remarks by Professor Mary Rose, graduate students Caity Collins, Kristine Kilanski, and David McClendon convened to share insights about their experiences working at FamilienForschung, the Urban Institute, and the Pew Research Center.

Caity’s summer 2011 work with FamilienForschung, a family-focused research and policy institute in Stuttgart, Germany, provided valuable support to aid her master’s thesis research on working mothers and the opportunities and constraints they face when trying to balance work and family responsibilities. Though Caity had lived in Germany before, she anticipated considerable challenges in conducting her interview research given language and cultural barriers. Taking a risk, Caity contacted FamilienForschung and pitched a collaboration, emphasizing her ability to support the institute’s research on gender and work trends in the U.S. and to assist with their English-language writing. In addition to helping her link up with interviewees for her study, Caity’s invaluable affiliation provided access to the institute’s census data, workshops, presentations, conferences as well as administrative resources (desk and phone line).

Kristine brought up good points from her job at the Urban Institute and the Academy of Educational Development (AED) where she worked as a research assistant and research associate. There, she contributed to multiple education-related projects, including a website on high school reform implementation, co-written with Dr. Nettie Legters and Dr. Becky Smerdon. In addition to assisting with multiple  program evaluations (including the evaluation of the Alabama, Math, Science, and Technology Initiative) and other ongoing research projects, Kristine wrote  evidence-based education briefs for state leaders in the Southeastern Regional  Educational Laboratory. Kristine maintains an interest in education, especially innovative programs for educating youth and preparing them to succeed in the workforce and world.  Her advice when considering research positions in and outside the academy is to make a checklist of their advantages and disadvantages.  For researchers in the academy the security of having tenure is offset by the challenges required to get there: publishing while teaching full time.  Her experience in the world of not for profits taught her the value of working at a well-funded policy relevant institution and staying current by looking for opportunities to publish and network.  However, while it’s nice to work 9 – 5, the uncertainties of grant funding can be a real downside.

David spent the 2011 summer working on the Global Religious Futures Project at the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C. Pew is a well-known “fact tank” that provides facts and data that help inform national dialogues. David came across this research opportunity through the help of his advisor, Professor Mark Regenerus. David’s work at Pew focused on demographic projections of the future sizes and locations of religious populations around the globe. Developing his project into a working paper, David used census data to explore a number of factors affecting religious populations including age structure, religion-specific fertility and mortality rates, and “switching.” David also discussed Pew’s media strategies to publicize research findings non-academic audiences and institutional connections to other contacts in the broader field of religion studies.

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