An Academic in Industry: 5 lessons from my year (or so) in “the real world”Posted in Uncategorized on August 12th, 2011 by Xiaochang Li – Be the first to comment
As many of you may already know, I recently left my job at Weber Shandwick in order to pursue my PhD in the fall in the department of Media, Culture and Communication at NYU. I was with Weber for a little over a year, during which I had the unique fortune of learning from and working alongside some of the smartest, most capable, and most supportive people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. And this latest transition, along with inquiries from friends and colleagues on the more academic side of things, has me thinking about what I learned, the things that surprised me, the things that will be valuable lessons to keep in mind as I head back into the academic world. On obvious caveat before I start: I’m at the very beginning of both my academic and non-academic career trajectories, so I don’t claim to be a seasoned expert in either arena. There are, no doubt, things that my current perspective doesn’t take into account.
Philosophy isn’t Strategy – When I was a researcher at the Convergence Culture Consortium, I had naively imagined that what we did was high-level strategy. I still absolutely stand behind the value of what we produced with that project, but their usuability as strategic guides were limited. In carrying campaign strategies through the execution, I was able to get visibility into far more complex sets of factors than I could have imagined. To generate “strategy” without knowledge of the execution process is like trying to plan a war without knowing the terrain. In that sense, the work we did at C3 (and, perhaps arguably, any “purely strategic” thinking projects) is important foundational knowledge to help orient your approach, but it’s ultimately a philosophy, not something you can take with you to battle.
Smaller isn’t always better – The thing that people always warned me against when I first set out to get an industry job was to not join a big company. Find a boutique, creative shop they said. You’ll be happier/do more innovative and interesting things. Big companies are dinosaurs, on the verge of extinction, out of touch. And, of course, I didn’t listen to any of that advice, and joined one of the largest PR firms in the world. And my logic was simple – even if, at the end of the day, I would eventually prefer to work someplace more independent, it doesn’t change the fact that I will probably have to do business with people who work in big corporations, and I need first hand understanding of what that means, and what their concerns and objectives are. But even more importantly, I think working the a company with the kind of scale and reach that Weber Shandwick has let me work on projects that were below sea-level, as it were. That is to say, the cool, fun stuff is the visible shiny bit, and yes, often smaller companies are better structured to execute that more quickly and nimbly, but they also don’t have the resources (or trust) to handle the far less glamorous, far more difficult work of shifting the business. I’m certainly not a proponent of big business, either ideologically or functionally, but I do feel that working in a larger company, at least in the short term, has given me far more visibility and insight into how this industry really functions.
Being Smart (or “Right”) isn’t the same as being effective - I once helped organize a panel on the unique challenges and opportunities of working across the Academy-Industry divide. One of the more contentions moments erupted when an industry rep said that sometimes, they look to the academy for 3rd party validation, to which an academic rep, offended, suggested that academics might not want to play yes-men. That exchange makes much more sense now that I understand a fundamental, but utterly unintuitive, difference between the two worlds: in the academy an idea’s value is based on its complexity and accuracy, in industry an idea’s value is based on its actionability and efficacy. Or, to put it another way, academia is ultimately an independent enterprise and your success begins and ends with your intellect and capacity (more or less). Not to say that industry doesn’t value or reward intelligence (though it’s a less certain bet), but outside academia, there are so many more factors and objectives between your idea and the end product that require very different skillsets to manage and the most useful ones are the ones that get things done. There’s just a different value criteria at work, and it helps to check your ego and assess what that criteria involves before you make judgements. What was really refreshing about Weber was the number of female role models there, women who were smart and effective, and handled the negotiation between the two while remaining incredibly accessible and pleasant.
You don’t have to take it so personally - Probably one of the most valuable skills that I learned (but far from perfected) was being able to separate myself from my work. One of academia’s great perils is that, like producing art, your work often gets so tied up with who you are that setbacks and frustrations can wreck all manner of emotional havoc, which in turn makes it that much more impossible to get any further work done, which of course will put you even more in a tailspin and then make everything that much more insurmountable. The cycle is barbaric. The sort of fundamental separation (dare I say, alienation) you have from the fruits of your labor in a corporate setting, while problematic in other ways, can be really valuable in teaching some perspective. While not necessarily less stressful (I lost plenty of sleep to client-related anxieties), that stress is nevertheless not quite as epic, not quite as existential in nature. It’s contained in the project, it’s a part of the work, and as much as you put of yourself into it, there’s something liberating in knowing that it can never be yours. That no matter how frustrated and daunting it gets, you have that backdoor, that moment where you can say, it doesn’t matter, let’s just get it done. At the end of the day, having my work be my work is really important to me, and it’s what drew me back to the academic world, but I feel more equipped now to handle the anxieties that can cripple productivity because even if it’s not quite as easy to decathect from your own research, I know at least that it can be done.
Ask Yourself the Right Question - I think, ultimately, the most important thing I learned was that I was asking myself the wrong thing going into industry. I thought the questions I was trying to answer were “can I do this? Will I enjoy it?” and to a certain extent, I did answer them (yes on both counts). But the questions that ended up mattering more, at least in the short term, was “could someone else do this? And is there something else I need to do?” And it was yes on both those counts too, which is why I’m heading back into research. Not because I didn’t like my work, but because I did. I enjoyed my work and still feel that there’s other work that needs to be done that my specific talents and inclinations are suited for, at least for now.
Ultimately, though, I hope to see a little more fluidity between the two worlds. The academy could benefit from more visibility into the day-to-day processes of the industries they analyze and critique. Industry could benefit from the kind of deep, nuanced thinking afforded to those of us who don’t have deadlines and earnings objectives.