Igor Rubinov *19 (ANT) interviewed by Max Horder (GS, ANT).
In the Trailblazers Beyond the Tenure Track series, current Princeton graduate students interview graduate alumni pursuing a range of careers beyond the tenure track. Collectively, these stories help graduate students develop a vision of the journey ahead by exploring the experiences of trailblazers who have gone before them.
I am fortunate to currently hold two positions: I am the Director of Strategy and Operations at Dovetail Labs, a firm I cofounded. I’m also a Senior Project Manager at Public Equity Group. I graduated from Princeton with a PhD in Anthropology in 2019.
I was born in the Soviet Union and emigrated to America when I was a child, so I've always been interested in disparities between countries. After my undergraduate degree in anthropology, I enjoyed the local non-profit work I was doing but always thought that there was so much need globally as well. These concerns led me to pursue a Master’s in International Development from Clark University and my goal from there was to go and do work internationally.
During my master’s work there were a few anthropologists who really rekindled the interests and considerations that I had from my earlier academic training. And so during the Master’s I ended up doing a research project on remittances and how people from Kyrgyzstan were using the money that they were earning in Russia to support their families back home. And I started to talk with people and essentially carry out an ethnography. I really got involved, intellectually and mentally and emotionally, in the labor of understanding what was really happening in people’s lives. Then I pivoted into the second year of my Master’s into thinking: well, what if I move into academia? So, then that took me to Princeton, and that led me to the Anthropology Department, and when I started, I said, well let's just see what happens!
Laying the Groundwork
I was really motivated and passionate about bringing social science analysis to the realities on the ground, to engage with something like a ‘philosophy of lived experience’. And that's what drew me to Anthropology at Princeton and to the faculty that I worked with. My focus was on Central Asia and my fieldwork was difficult – it really was a series of twists and turns! – I realized that as you go deeper in academia and you learn its pathways and systems, you see that people naturally want to hit the mileposts. Then you inevitably become drawn into it, which felt like something I wanted to do: I wanted to be an academic, to get a postdoc and go on to a tenure track position. But then I also recognized, as I was writing my dissertation and I published a couple things, some articles and book chapters, that it was actually not that satisfying for me.
The moment that changed everything
So, everything was pretty much going well academically until I had a terrible bout of illness during my fieldwork. And I was already wavering at that point, but everyone was suggesting that I soldier on and continue with a promising project. But at the same time, I was starting to waver about how much I wanted to get through with it. When I came back from the field and was deep into the writing process, I think I experienced the most challenging period in my academic career. You’re very unmoored, you're not really in the day to day of the department. It isn’t like the first few years where you have exams and fieldwork, where there's a lot of structure. Afterwards, it's just kind of up to you and you sort of write your piece, and then go out and secure a position somewhere. There's a lot of uncertainty. I was still open to a number of different pathways, but I didn't know what those were.
To make a long story short, I started exploring along two tracks. I continued applying for academic positions and I secured a postdoc at a university on the East Coast. But I also started talking to colleagues and friends to see what other things I could do. An opportunity came up by way of my wife, who happens to be an anthropologist at Stanford University. There was someone who had defended their dissertation at Stanford who was starting a project on bringing social science insights and considerations into industry, beyond academia, and that project ended up being called Dovetail Labs. In essence, it is a research and consulting firm, and after working on a number of things I helped to formally co-found it, which set the stage for my role there as Director of Strategy and Operations. It’s a small firm and we primarily work to address, moral, ethical and societal implications of emerging technologies. For instance, now we're working on emotion recognition systems, and unpacking the problematic social science underpinning that. So that's been really rewarding but a lot of work starting something from scratch.
Life beyond academia
I would say that there's a lot of different ways to be in academia, and there's a lot of different ways to be in the working world, so it's hard to make sweeping generalities. But one thing that I would say about what I personally really enjoy about working in industry and the social sector is that there is a lot more collaboration and teamwork. I would say that I do almost nothing alone. That is not how I felt in academia. Of course there's a lot of collaboration and research networks and what have you, but it felt a lot like a monastic labor at times. That became a lot less appealing to me over time and I’m glad there are other ways of working.
I would also say that the timelines for academic work are very, very long. They're often measured in the years - by the time you do your research and get the book out, sometimes it can be seven years to ten years! Holding the thread from when something real happens to when it goes out and sort of activates in the world is less satisfying, not that I don't see the merit of it. I did publish some articles and then perhaps about five years later people reference them and I'm like, whoa – it’s still out there! But at the same time, it’s so many years ago that I was even there in the field. I really like the immediacy of my current work which – although it doesn’t necessarily have impact every day – is something which is measured in the weeks and months rather than years and that’s something which comports well with how I enjoy doing work.
Best advice for graduate students
I think that one of the best pieces of advice that I got was to think about the work that you've done in the academy as work - as labor - that it is equivalent to anything else one might do. It's a job: you are getting paid, you have an employer, you have a manager, etc. Now, the academy sort of operates in a whole different mental universe but there are a lot of parallels. I have sensed that people sometimes feel this sense of anxiety – that they don’t know how the private sector works or how companies operate or who you’re supposed to talk to. I think that it can be really helpful to translate what you've done for lay audiences – and often that's as simple as making your resume legible. You might need to change your elevator pitch or the way that you talk about it, but you also don't have to shy away from it. Your academic work is valuable beyond the academy, even if you’re no longer an academic.
This interview has been edited for clarity.