About The Guest: In an ongoing series of interviews with PhDs with diverse perspectives about academia and career pivots, I interviewed Ethan Levine. Dr. Ethan Levine is a Research and Data Analyst at a non-profit organization called Coalition To Abolish Slavery and Trafficking.
About the Interviewer: Ryan Collins, PhD is the founder of After your PhD. He graduated from Indiana University Bloomington in 2021 with A PhD in Media Arts and Sciences.
Note: This interview transcript was edited for readability and brevity.
Can you describe in your own words your current role and responsibilities?
Dr. Levine: My job title is Research and Data Analyst at Cast, which is an anti-trafficking organization. Yeah. This was a brand new position. They’ve never had anyone with research in the job title. So I think the best and most stressful part about the job is that we’re kind of making it up as we go along.
Can you tell me more about that?
Dr. Levine: Yeah, absolutely. My background was kind of split between advocacy and higher ed. So CAST is an organization that they do mostly direct service, So providing direct support for people who have experienced trafficking. They also do some work on policy, and they’ve done this little one-off kind of research projects, like with one university partner here and there. They collect a ton of information from service providers that just sits there, and they also wanted to start generating some of the research that like they wish they could cite.
You’re also a counselor part-time?
Dr. Levine: Yes. So I guess all three of the things technically. My full-time official job is a data analyst. I like that part-time for that other position is extremely part-time. When I was finishing my PhD, I actually went into advocacy first before I took an academic job. I took a very wonderful, but very low paying job as originally an LGBTQ advocate at a sexual and domestic violence org, where again, it was like the first position of its kind. I kind of built it from nowhere, but the pay was not sustainable. And so a little over a year ago, I had really wanted to get a connection back to that organization and continue some of the work that I had started there. So I basically just approached their director and said, I’d love to give you a few hours a week if you’ll have me for that. Can you find funding? And she did.
You do a little bit of quantitative work and qualitative work. Can you tell me about that?
Dr. Levine: Yeah. I’ve only been at CAST for about eight months, so some of this is also developing projects in the works, One of the other great things about this is that we are building as we go. We’re able to decide what kinds of research we’d like to see, so everything that I’m doing looking at in-house client data is quantitative. Largely for confidentiality reasons, so I don’t get access to open ended responses to most things. But we have been developing projects that are qualitative or mixed methods as well. A lot of that is going to be ultimately driven by what research questions we have, you know, what’s interesting to the organization and what methods we all feel would be best for them. So there’s a lot of freedom to develop that as we go – which suits me really well because I think I’m someone who generally works best when I have a variety of different things happening.
Do you think your PhD prepared you for this position? Or did you have to learn a number of skills outside of your degree?
Dr. Levine: Yeah, that’s such a hard question. This job is kind of unique because of the kind of organization. There actually wasn’t a specific degree requirement. They wanted a range of research skills. Cast really wants to be able to give opportunities to folks who have the skills to do a job, but haven’t necessarily had opportunities to pursue higher education. That being said. I draw on those skills all the time. I’m the only person who is a full researcher type on staff. And so I think a lot of times I’m working with folks who have really big ideas, problems they’ve noticed and service provision, and this sincere interest in like let’s find out like what’s happened with clients’ mental health in the pandemic, or what happens with survivors who are treated as criminals instead of victims in court.
Do you consider the work-life balance much better in your current role than it was in academia?
Dr. Levine: Yes. That part has been really wild to me. CAST let me wait as long as they were able, but I wound up having to start this job six weeks before the semester ended, and I couldn’t get out of my teaching early. So for six weeks I had two full-time jobs and it was a nightmare. But after that, once I had a couple weeks only, you know, where my only full-time job was CAST, I gotta tell you, I had no idea how many hours I was working in my tenure track position.
It was so constant. It was absolutely seven days a week because there would be all these moments where I would start to feel really anxious out of nowhere and realize, Oh God, I’m worried that I missed eight student emails, You know? And I worked at a school where people really expected a quick response from you kind of no matter what, no matter when. And student evaluations played a heavy role in our job evaluations. There’s a joke post that goes around a bit that says, you may have to work seven days in academia, but the freedom to choose which seven days.
Would you advise that for PhDs that want to work and finish school at the same time?
Dr. Levine: That worked well enough for me. A lot of that’s probably gonna depend on the balance between like how much your timeline to graduation matters and what your financial circumstances are. If it’s better for you and let’s assume someone wants to finish, right? Because you also don’t have to finish your PhD.
Do you find your job personally fulfilling or career-wise fulfilling? Can you see yourself in a different role? Or do you still have being a professor in the back of your head?
Dr. Levine: My partner seems convinced that I’m gonna be going back and forth forever. I do have a little bit of both of those in me. Doing some kind of work that is connected to supporting survivors is really, really essential. I don’t think I was ever gonna make it in any job where that wasn’t at least part of it. Half the reason I got a PhD, honestly, because back a hundred years ago when I was just working as an advocate. I knew what was happening in the field. My colleagues knew we had an idea of what our clients needed, what we needed to improve our services, but we got dismissed because we were like just advocates and what did we know?
I realized that we needed credentials. I have been amazed and horrified at how effective that was. So the icky side of that is that it is as elitist as you think. Right. But, you know, like I am now in a role where I can like, use the credentials I have to like elevate the voices of advocates and survivors, who might be right silent and just, I’m using those skills all the time. It is absolutely incredibly fulfilling. I’m able to set boundaries and work a set number of hours, which is really cool. I would say that I think that having some connection to academic work is really wonderful and important to me. I’ll probably always have some outside research thing and maybe teach a class, but I don’t think I’d ever wanna be full-time at a university again.
Do you have any advice for PhDs like in social sciences and humanities, especially sociology, who wanna pursue a career outside of academia, especially like non-profit work?
Dr. Levine: When I was a PhD student, I was really fortunate to go to a school that had respect for non-academic careers. Which I’ve learned is not standard. I was about halfway through our student union hosted these events where we brought in alumni who had gotten tenure track positions and alumni who worked in industry and they gave us career advice…
I would encourage folks to think more broadly and what kind of balance is necessary for you and what’s like fulfilling and sustaining for you. Salaries vary a lot. I worked at a state school with a great union when I was in the tenure track. I took a $13,000 pay cut to come to my current job. And I will never catch up. I hear about people who left for tech jobs with way higher salaries. Although no one’s laying off 11,000 people in my field right now.
I would ask, are there particular skills that you wanna use? Are there particular values that you want driving your work or communities that you wanna support? Those questions never came up even in my PhD program. It was all either you’re a professor or you’re a research scientist?
Is there anything that you wanted to add, or something that PhDs or academics would like to know in their kind of transition? Any resources that helped you along your way?
Dr. Levine: I wish there had been more projects like this. I would really encourage folks not to feel locked in. The best piece of advice I got was actually from my grad director at my PhD program who brought all the first years and said “Hey, so you’re in a sociology PhD program. Where are you hoping this will go?” And I told him I’d like to direct research at an anti-violence organization, which I do now. His response was so great that he said, uh, basically I have no idea what that job is or who has that job and I don’t think I can guide you. So your homework is find two or three people doing the work that you wish you were doing, and connect with them and ask them how they did it.
It took some time. These jobs are also relatively new. The first two people that I spoke with had no one to guide them along in the process. It’s only the last 10, 15 years where these jobs have been a thing. If you can kind of muster the courage in the moment, I would say reaching out to folks who have the work that you want and just asking them how they got there.
Visit the CAST website to donate to a great cause!