Trapped in Academia: An Anthropologist’s Job Search

In the continuation of the sharing stories and experiences of PhDs on the job market, I spoke with Dr. Pranav Kohli. Dr. Pranav mentioned earlier in our conversations on LinkedIn about the feelings of being trapped in academia. These feelings are felt by many PhDs looking for opportunities inside and outside of academia. Dr. Pranav’s story is both unique and common for PhDs who lack the institutional support from universities that allow them to support themselves financially or have the means/tools necessary to look elsewhere for jobs.

Dr. Pranav Kohli received his PhD from the University of Maynooth. His doctoral thesis on Hindu nationalism’s weaponization of the memories of the Partition ultimately became the basis for his forthcoming book ‘Memories in the Service of the Hindu Nation: the Afterlife of the Partition of India.

Hi Pranav, can you tell me more about your intentions of becoming an academic? What drew you to academia in the first place?

Dr. Pranav: I have always been interested in political science, history, and cultural studies. My academic journey formally began in 2014 when I moved to Ireland to pursue an M.Phil. in Race, Ethnicity, and Conflict at Trinity College Dublin.

That was an extremely interesting time to be studying this program because it was the year of the Black Lives Matter movement, Russia’s invasion of Crimea, Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, ISIS’ reign of terror across Iraq and Syria, and the rise of Hindu nationalism in India. It was in this climate that I turned to sociology and anthropology to understand the world-historical processes at play here.

Inspired by the classroom discussions on race, ethnic conflict, (neo)colonialism, and nationalism, I decided to turn the lens inward and conduct a limited oral history of the memories of the 1947 Partition of India. My connection to this event was deeply personal since my grandparents were forced to migrate from Dera Ghazi Khan (now in Pakistan) to Delhi, India during the Partition. By recording the memories of others of their generation I wanted to study the lived experience of genocide and forced migration.”

In a past conversation, you mentioned you feel trapped in academia, can you speak more about that quote and your personal experiences? 

Dr. Pranav: Yes, that’s right. I currently feel as though I’m in a double bind. When I apply for non-academic work, I’m either told that I’m overqualified or that my profile is too academic. Meanwhile, academia doesn’t have too many jobs on offer even at the best of times. I feel especially trapped because I’m passionate about my teaching and research, and I had a very promising start to my academic career.

In June 2021 I secured a short-term lecturing position in my university’s Sociology Department, and a week later passed my PhD Viva with zero changes. A few months after that, I signed a book contract with Cambridge University Press. Alongside my teaching and research, I joined some colleagues at University College Dublin on a multi-disciplinary research project called HarP-RoCS which aimed to perfect people-centred technology for robotics aided care. I was also actively part of the life of my department and did important administrative work. But, once my 10-month sabbatical cover contract ended, it wasn’t renewed. I was told that the department’s budget and teaching requirements didn’t justify keeping me on full-time. I was offered two modules but the university’s rate of €3500 per module per semester would have barely paid my bills. So naturally I declined.

My search for work in Ireland didn’t go well after that. Part of the reason for this was that my work visa was set to expire in early 2023. I needed a job that would satisfy certain conditions for the renewal of my visa, or failing that find an employer ready to sponsor me. I couldn’t and was forced to move back to India.

In India, I have been facing an entirely different set of challenges. India’s institutions have surrendered to the tide of Hindu nationalism. While my work is well-received by individual academics here, the political implications of its findings make universities hesitant to hire me. For example, I recently applied to a university that had advertised multiple faculty-level positions in the social sciences. Two months later I received a rather telling rejection email. It read, ‘Your work is indeed interesting and impressive. I am sorry that because of budgetary reasons and our current interests, we are unable to further process your application.’ I have also had a couple of interview interactions where it was apparent that I was being evaluated for my politics rather than my qualifications. Although my book has been described as timely and original by well-known anthropologists such as Arjun Appadurai, Ann Kingsolver and Peter van der Veer, this counts for very little in this climate.

I’m currently looking for work outside India although that’s easier said than done. I am also looking for Postdoctoral funding but I’m hamstrung by lack of access to a university library. I feel as though I’m stuck in some weird limbo. But I remain optimistic and perseverant as always. Giving up is not an option.

I have given up on finding work here and I’m concentrating my efforts elsewhere. However, finding work abroad with a non-western passport puts one at a serious disadvantage. I am also trying to frame a Postdoc proposal but I’m hamstrung by lack of access to a university library. I really do feel like I’m stuck in some weird limbo. Giving up is not an option.

Is there a solution to making academia a more supportive environment?

Firstly, academic appointments need to be for at least a year minimum. 10-month appointments – like the one I just had – are designed to save the university 2 months of summer pay but they deprive early career academics of valuable paid time for writing job applications and grant proposals. These contracts are cruel and exploitative by design.

Stronger unions and the unionization of PhD researchers and Postdocs are a must. PhD researchers in Irish universities have begun unionizing. Recently, PhD researchers at Trinity College Dublin successfully used industrial action to secure better wages and working conditions. A system where teaching staff live in ‘precarity is unsustainable and morally bankrupt. Academia needs to start paying attention to the politics of labor exploitation and inequality under its own roof. I have a PhD friend who has to work three part-time jobs in addition to her PhD research just to pay her bills.

The politics of labor aside, there needs to be more industry-specific support/information for PhD researchers and early career academics. On-campus recruitment would be a massive help. For example, anthropology departments love to cite the fact that Intel is one of the biggest employers of anthropologists globally. Yet, how many departments have meaningful ties with Intel? Are they providing their PhD researchers the skills that will help them get hired by Intel (or other leading industry employers)?

Universities also need internal oversight to identify and remove academics who are toxic mentors. There also needs to be better support for people struggling with mental health and burnout. My university had 4 counselors for a campus of 12,000 students (a number that increases every year). Waiting times for an appointment could often be over a month. This is unacceptable. Depression and abuse are a silent epidemic within academia.

What careers are you currently exploring right now? Which ones and what?

Aside from academia, I’ve been looking at non-academic research appointments. I’m a firm believer in the power of multi-disciplinary collaboration and I have some experience in that field. Similarly, UX research and research for think tanks is an option. I’m also exploring Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion-type HR appointments. With my background in intersectionality and inequality, I would be a good fit there. Project management and research administration are other areas where I love to work if given a chance.

Do you have any advice or any comments about folks considering a career in academia in India or outside of India?

My advice to anyone considering a career in academia is DON’T. There are far more impactful things you can do with your life. Do not do a PhD and consign yourself to a life of precarity. Instead, try to find a job that respects your worthwhile providing you with a stable long-term contract, a fair living wage, and a healthy work-life balance. Academia will give you none of these things. Choose wisely.

How can readers/followers of After Your PhD support you in your transition out of academia?

I’ve been trying to approach my job search/transition like an anthropologist. I’ve been gathering all the information I can to understand the differences in hiring processes, resumes, cover letters, etc. I’m also trying to improve my networking skills because that is one of my weaknesses. So, any information or study material along those lines would be immensely helpful. I’d also love to hear from other people who have been in my situation and successfully found a way out. And, this is a long shot, but if any recruiters happen to read this and have any opportunities that may be suitable for me, I’d love to connect, especially on LinkedIn.

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