Question Box Question: How do I start a career in internet research?

In an effort to blog just a fraction more than hardly ever, I’ve added the Question Box, where citizens of the internetz can submit their questions and thoughts and I will try my hardest to answer them. As with everything on the internet, YMMV.

The first Question Box Question comes from Grace:

I am currently in a job where I do online consumer behavior research and strategy work. I love it, but I would prefer to use the skill for “good” (education) instead of “evil” (advertising/direct benefit of large corporations). I feel like a research role would be a great fit for me and would allow me to delve deeper into cultural trends and patterns, particular segments and issues, etc. However, the financial/time investment of moving my career in this direction is daunting, as you need a PHD. (I only have a BA). Where would you recommend someone start if they want to explore this as an option? Is there anything you would you have done differently on your journey to where you are in your education/career?

TL;DR: What advice would you give someone looking to research internet culture as their career?

The first job I ever had as an internet researcher, as an RA at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, I got straight out of undergrad.  The idea that you need an advanced degree to do research, especially in the field of internet culture is, as a colleague just told me, “an enormous crock.”  One of the great things about this field is that it’s still very much an open playground. A lot of the most important work is being done by people without tenure or a shiny endowed chair.

Unless you’ve got your heart set on teaching at a university or directing research projects at a big industry initiative like Microsoft Research, there are a lot of places out there where you can do the kind of work you describe. Think tanks, start ups, and non-profits often find themselves in need of solid consumer/user behavior research, especially in the policy field.  While you might not be able to jump into a Senior Research position at, say, the Pew Internet and American Life Project, a smaller organization will probably be more willing to value your experience over your lack of credentials and give you a shot.

The publication side of things has also opened up.  Blogs like HiLoBrow and BoingBoing, web publications like The New Inquiry, and open-access journals like First Monday and Triple Canopy have all done great work publishing high quality research and criticism of online and technological culture originating from outside the academy.

If you feel that you want to one day sport a tweed blazer and shape impressionable young minds, you don’t have to take the plunge into penniless PhD-dom immediately.  Academic research groups and labs are in more-or-less constant need of research assistants. It may not be the most glamorous job in the world, but it can be invaluable for making contacts and becoming familiar with the practical basics of a field.

It’s also possible to sneak into this whole thing sideways, by taking a project manager or admin-flavored position at a research center or other organization. This is what the Assistant Director of my research group says about managing a team of academics and researchers all trying to do Very Important Work:

But seriously, working as an administrator can be an excellent side door to participating in research project.  It can also be a good way to lock yourself into a managerial role you don’t really want. Be sure to ask the organization about opportunities for research before you try this path.

 You’re not going to know how a given organization is going to react to your lack of academic credentials until you ask.  Find a start-up or non-profit that’s doing work in an area you’re interested in, and ask if they need a researcher.  Coming from industry, you’ve probably got mad skillz, so don’t sell yourself short just because you don’t have an impressive collection of framed papers on your wall.

Finally, start participating in the community!  Have a twitter account, and use it.  Blog about the research questions that interest you. Ask questions, hazard answers.  Interact with people who are active in the space you want to participate in.  Don’t be afraid of attention, or of making mistakes in public. Make friends and collaborate.  Ask for the awesome things you want.

Here is an extremely limited list in no particular order of some excellent people making waves in the field of internet culture research without the benefit of an advanced degree (this list currently skews heavily towards people-I-know and people-my-friends-know. Please add to it in the comments!):

And here are some other articles on this subject you might find helpful (have an article to suggest? Leave a comment!):

If you’re brave, try Googling “research without a PhD.” Roughly one third of the internet has an opinion on this subject.

Thanks to everyone who offered suggestions for the List of Excellent People!

Do you have a question? Drop it in the Question Box!