Jamie Sherman *11 (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’m currently a Research Scientist at Intel Corporation in Portland, Oregon. I’ve been at Intel now for nine years, and I work on dynamic and emergent practices related to technology and society. I’ve done projects on digital content, VR, wearable technologies and a whole host of things in between. I graduated from Princeton with a PhD in Anthropology in 2011. My graduate research focused on dynamics of race, gender, and play in a bodybuilding gym in Brooklyn, New York.
Laying the groundwork
While finishing my PhD, I was on the academic job market for a couple of years. I landed a teaching gig at Rutgers - it was a temporary contract that went year to year. It was great and I loved teaching. I got paid for the whole yearly cycle rather than by class, so it was financially better than adjuncting – but not by that much. I wanted to stay on the TT road, but I also knew the financial reality of that pathway. My husband is a music teacher, and I used to say that he was paying to support my teaching habit!
We had always spoken about what would happen if the academic route didn’t work out, given especially that it was such a roll of the dice where you ended up. If it didn’t work out, we wanted to find a way to move to Portland, OR where my family is. Sometime around March of 2012, my husband ended up in hospital and we realized that his job environment was literally unhealthy, and he needed to look for something else, even if it meant a pay cut. But if he was going to make less money, I needed to make more. So, we thought – why not take the opportunity to move to Portland?
I usually tell people that I then started a new research project. The question was: what do anthropologists do when they’re not teaching?! I had absolutely no idea. What was I even looking for, jobwise? What were the job titles? What were the possibilities? I didn’t know the options at all. So, I reached out through every network I had and asked – does anyone know any anthropologists I can talk to? So, this was a series of informational interviews, talking to anthropologists (and a few sociologists) in many places and asking things like, what do you actually call your jobs? What is the work? I met with a number of generous anthropologists and sociologists places like OHSU, Kaiser, and the VA as well as some working in technology and market research companies.
The moment that changed everything
It’s kind of a funny story, but several years earlier, my mother had actually called me and said: ‘hey, did you know there are anthropologists who work at Intel?’ It was completely random, but I remembered that conversation, and I did a Google search. I couldn’t find an email of someone to talk to. So, I just called the switchboard and gave them the only name I had: ‘ken anderson.’ By a real fluke he answered the phone and agreed to do informational interview several weeks later. It turned out that they had a position open but hadn’t really found the right person to hire. Ken was generous enough to share my CV with the hiring managers for that job and I came out and did a job talk. They were interested in taking a chance and now I’ve been at Intel for nine years!
Life beyond academia
There are many differences between industry and academia, especially in the social sciences. For one, in academia there is a different timescale. As a graduate student, the expectation is that it’s at least a year of fieldwork; as a professor, you often continue to engage in that topic or community for many years. In industry, the projects tend to be framed as close ended and ethnography can become as limited as a series of interviews. If you go to their house it’s an ethnography! This is very different to the practice of participation-observation taught in Graduate School.
I still get the chance to develop an expertise; for instance these days, what I am looking at is how content producers use technology to do creative work. The people I talk to change over time, and each study is very much its own thing. But there is a continuity to the topic that I’m thinking about that has built over time across discrete studies. Another difference is that in academic anthropology, there is a fairly common trope that goes something like: ‘I went to X to study Y and now Z happened so now I’m writing about that’. But when you’re in industry there isn’t that flexibility – we still look for underlying patterns and let participants lead, but we also have an obligation to answer to the specific research questions we started with. It’s a little less freeform, a little bit more constrained around particular topics or questions.
Ways of talking about work are different too. I’ve been doing PowerPoints for nine years now – it becomes hard to think in sentences! Plus, the use of theory is a little different. While I think theory does shape my work, I wouldn’t lead with a theoretical lens when I talk about it. Instead, I lead with what my findings mean for the team I am talking to. In academia, something being ‘interesting’ is a compliment, and adding to our understanding is a good reason for doing the work. In industry, it’s not. Being ‘impactful’ is much more important. I find it a lot riskier than academic work, too. It’s important to critique social power, but oftentimes scholars are hesitant to risk solutions. In industry, I have to put my neck out and risk something. It’s hard, and scary, but the challenge is exciting and, I think, important.
Best advice for graduate students?
One thing I would say is that informational interviews--talking to people whose jobs you think might be interesting, finding out more about what they actually do, and how they go about it--are incredibly useful. I don’t think I could have gotten this job without that process.
The other thing that I highly suggest is internships. Most of the people I’ve met in industry who are anthropologists did some kind of internship as a student. They’re usually paid, and are a much easier way of getting into the field to see what that work is like; most big tech companies do have these. They also help show experience when applying for positions after graduation. This is especially important for those who want to work outside of academia.
This interview has been edited for clarity.