Corporate exodus narratives: A close look at the tension between the corporation and academia
Going to an academic conference
Last year I started a project aimed at bridging the gap between practitioners and academics, and after a number of conversations with one academic, I was invited to speak at the Symposium for Communicating Complex Information, which is a small conference (held in Louisiana this year) that consists almost entirely of academics.
I’m always intrigued at opportunities to attend conferences I’ve never been to before, especially to interact with people I’m not accustomed to interacting with, so I thought a two-day immersion with academics might be fun. I agreed to present on trends in technical communication.
The conference took place in Louisiana Tech University’s Academic Success Center in Bossier City (just outside of Shreveport), LA. Presenters followed a format where they spoke for just 15 minutes and then transitioned to 15-minute Q&A with the audience. The presentations demonstrated the breadth of the tech comm discipline, and covered topics as varied as establishing credibility on Facebook to Burkesian dynamics in collaborative writing to wayfinding in hospital emergency departments and more.
There wasn’t much time to socialize during the conference, but as the day ended and dinner plans were made, a large group ventured over to a nearby Mexican restaurant where, I soon learned, as is the case at most dinner events at conferences, when the right people get together offline, the real conversations would begin.
During a lengthy dinner that lasted two-plus hours, I sat next to academics from various institutions and in different phases of their career — some tenured, others associate, others adjunct, others just embarking on their own PhD journey.
Overall, I found a greater understanding of academics that I hadn’t grasped previously. If I can paint a few broad strokes here, it might help more practitioners get a better understanding of the tech comm academic — their challenges, unique situations, and the difficult spaces they inhabit. Some descriptions won’t apply to every academic, for sure, but I hope to capture a common story (at least from my vantage point and the academics I’ve interacted with).
The corporate exodus narrative
Most striking is that most academics I spoke with started out working in the corporate space, but they had a negative experience that prompted them to reroute their career toward academia. One academic said he used to get regular migraines (caused by stress) while working at a company — migraines so frequent and unexplainable that he sought medical advice. When he switched into academia, these migraines just seemed to vanish. I think his story is symbolic of the common emotional healing that seems to occur when others make the transition into academia.
Another told me about how he found the corporate environment too cut-throat, and when I pressed him for details, he explained that his job function was to replace a support group through a knowledge base, and that he was the key instrument in the corporation’s downsizing initiatives. He described how he facilitated local workers sharing desks with their overseas replacements; the local team trained the replacement team for a full week. The many employees let go even included his high school friend.
Another explained that while working in his company, every time he suggested that they do user analysis or investigation about their products or docs, the company resisted and dismissed the idea, explaining that they didn’t want to find out that they were wrong; they didn’t want to learn that users might not want the product they were designing. This baffled him. He couldn’t understand why the company wouldn’t want to learn this information. It turned him off to the corporate world.
Although everyone has a unique story, I couldn’t help but draw a conclusion that most academics have similar bad experiences in corporations. These experiences were so common, I’m calling them “corporate exodus narratives.” Almost everyone seems to have a story about why they left the corporation. This turning point is an important event in the tech comm academic timeline. After they left the corporate space, they found more engagement in academic settings, where they could pursue intellectual interests in a much more open way. The academic space was more breathable for them — for their sanity, temperament, and well-being.
Switching from the corporation to academia wasn’t without sacrifice. Pretty much everyone accepted a significant pay cut in order to switch to academia. In fact, one academic told me that he made more as a technical writer 15 years ago than he currently makes as a professor today. The decision to accept an environment and role with a significantly lower salary only reinforces the intensity of their turning point.
Tensions between the corporation and academia
Although academics have cut ties with the corporation for their paychecks, the tech comm academic still must keep the needs of the corporation in mind, more so than many other departments. Entering tech comm students want to be sure that upon completion of their program, they’ll land a job. And departments use hiring rates as key selling points of the program.
And yet, academics also do not want to become a tool of the corporation. Their sole purpose is not to fashion and mold students to fit into corporate cubicles. My dinner colleagues explained that over the years, academic institutions have actually drifted further away from corporate agendas. One academic said that during a meeting at his university, as the topic about adjusting their curriculum for students to have better success in finding jobs was discussed, one more liberal academic (in an English discipline) rose up and questioned, in anger and with an upturned hand, “So, should we just become a tool of the Capitalist State?”
This is the space many tech comm academics find themselves in — on the one hand, tasked to help prepare students to find jobs and succeed in the corporate space, but also often surrounded in academia by those who are anti-corporation and don’t want to just slot students into cubicles. Corporate agendas do not drive academic curriculums. But students should also get (usually corporate) jobs after graduating.
Given this paradox of being pulled in different directions, tech comm academics often adopt a flexible approach. Yes, they are interested in trends and the skills corporations want (which is what my presentation focused on). But they also want to allow a corporate-free, safe space where students are free to explore ideas on their own merit, without service to the corporation. Students should be able to explore rhetoric in any context, without having to focus on topics that corporations might find useful.
To illustrate this freedom from corporate needs, my academic colleagues say to fill in the blank: “The Rhetoric of ____.” They say, C’mon, think of anything — say the craziest thing that comes to mind. I say sports, and they say this isn’t even close to being fringe enough. But the idea is there — academia has become a free-for-all where any idea can be valid, and whether it connects or applies in any way to the corporate space is not really the concern of the university. For example, you could write a dissertation on the rhetoric of sharing your own genetic sequence, if you so chose. Or on the rhetoric of fence lines between feuding farmers. Or whatever.
Though these academics were clearly being facetious, the overall point they were trying to make is that the main concern of many academics in the humanities is critical analysis, not necessarily job preparedness. (And sure, fence line rhetoric might be a real issue for some groups, but it typically veers away from the technical communicator’s domain in the workplace.)
From what I could tell, the tech comm academics (at least those at this conference) were somewhat uncomfortable in drifting away from the concerns of the corporation. This drift can be more apparent if you’re embedded within an English department or some other humanities discipline. One academic, feeling the need to maintain credibility about corporate trends and skills, even said he has “imposter syndrome.” He fears being outed for not having more current workplace expertise.
Others feel a similar unease and as such, many academics at this conference engaged in consulting on the side — not just to supplement their incomes, but as a way to stay current, even if the side business is small. It helps them keep one foot in the real world, so they can maintain credibility in the classroom and keep in touch. Other academics participate in STC and other practitioner-dominant groups in order to maintain close associations with practitioners.
Fuzzy discipline definitions
Despite the need tech comm academics have to prepare students for the workplace, it can be a nearly impossible task given the breadth of the tech comm discipline. “Technical communication” isn’t just technical writing or software documentation. It involves a wide breadth of disciplines that range from science communication, health and medical communication, corporate and business communication, policies and procedures, social media, visual communication and data visualization, rhetoric and influence, omnichannel enterprise publishing, content strategy, and more — not just software and hardware documentation.
Given so many different directions students can take, what tools and technologies do you teach them? And how can professors adequately cover the needed ground in all of these areas? Tech comm academics acknowledge the need for students to pursue technical tracks in tandem with the theoretical tracks, but technology is too vast and diverse under the tech comm umbrella to pin down as anything specific or actionable. Even so, many academics heavily encourage students to take a number of supplementary technical courses based on their particular focus.
In addition to the diversity of job categories and technologies, academics often teach classes across the disciplines as well. Not just classes for aspiring technical communicators, but writing classes for chemists, biomedical engineers, mechanical engineers, future NASA scientists, international affairs students, and other disciplines. Each of these disciplines has its own genre and discourse conventions, making it unique from others. The same sections and styles used in software documentation are not equally applicable to a civil engineering specification, for example.
Add to this the many types of business writing that fit under this umbrella — white papers, RFPs, project plans, requirements documents, corporate communications, newsletters, breach notifications, shareholder reports, and so on — and you can begin to see that the tech comm academic has a tremendous amount of ground to cover. Exactly what are you supposed to teach in a technical communication class?
Part of the problem is with the tech comm profession itself. There isn’t a common definition for what technical communication means, nor is there a specific track of study. Apart from the many TC degree programs, there are certification programs, certificates, and more. The STC tried to define a body of knowledge and pick a textbook as the core, with a multiple choice test based on concepts in the book, but most academics find this entirely inadequate — as if you can become a credentialed professional communicator by cramming two weeks for a multiple-choice test.
Tech comm academics also struggle with their identity in the university. It’s not clear where they belong, or even if they belong as a standalone discipline at all. Should tech comm be aligned within the English department? If so, technology focus is often looked down upon as vocational. Should they be grouped within Rhetoric and Composition (the same group that heads up composition writing curriculums)? One academic said grouping tech comm in rhetoric has generally been more successful than being grouped in English, and as a result, many tech comm programs will use the term “rhetoric” in their academic programs. At the same time, practitioner-focused academics often see rhetoric as a fuzzy method that is out of whack with the realities of the workplace.
One academic told me there’s an argument for not treating writing as a standalone discipline at all, but rather grouping it within the respective science and engineering disciplines as a required track. By putting technical writing as courses in their same tracks, engineering students learn early on that writing documentation is their responsibility. In contrast, if tech comm courses are relegated to Tech Comm or English departments, after they move on to the corporation, they might more naturally delegate documentation efforts to the tech comm group to handle.
Let’s put the fuzzy discipline definitions aside and explore the journal publishing requirements that hang over the heads of academics. One academic explained that he’s expected to publish a certain number of articles in peer-reviewed journals a year per job requirements. But peer-reviewed journals can require months of evaluation and review, with no guarantee of publication at the end. You have to begin the submission process years in advance to get these articles going into production at the yearly intervals. As a result, academics often work on many different articles and projects (10+) at once, setting them all into motion.
When practitioners read academic publications, they often balk at the jargon, thick/obtuse language, and the hyper-emphasized methodological details. But this discourse is part of the peer-reviewed journal genre. It would be nearly impossible to write in the style of Intercom, or even a blog, and find your work accepted in a peer-reviewed journal. Thus academics are trapped into writing in a way that remains largely inaccessible to mainstream readers, both due to the language and conceptual layering, but also because the journals are literally behind university paywalls. To have access to academic journals, you usually need to be an academic or a student who pays tuition.
By the way, STC’s Technical Communication journal, available to STC members, is only a sliver of the possible tech comm journals academics can publish in. There are at least 7-8 more technical communication journals where academics publish. Given this funneling of their information into a private, inaccessible journal space, academics largely remain invisible to practitioners.
There is also little incentive for academics to publish in non-peer reviewed journals. One academic briefly took up creating podcasts for one of the journal sites, but after realizing that these would largely be irrelevant to the tenure process, he reprioritized his efforts. Another explained that he actually published a book of poetry but purposefully omitted listing it in his publications as he applied for tenure because it would only confuse the tenure committee (they might suspect he had a different agenda).
Constrained by the need to publish regularly, many academics look for shortcuts to publication. It can take months to find practitioners in companies who will agree to share data collected in research (this data might result in competitive advantage). And to do research that involves experiments involving people (“experimenting on humans”), academics also have to secure formal university approval (which can also take months).
As a result, academics might choose to focus on research that does not involve actual users, or which might use students as participants, or do research that might not involve users at all (just an analysis of data), or focus on research that avoids company NDAs. This further separates academics from practitioners because practitioners begin to see academic research as too focused within its own academic space. Practitioners often comment that academics are merely talking to themselves.
From the frying pan to the fire
Not all academics who have negative experiences in the corporation find a safe haven in academia. Academia is also a space with its own cut-throat culture, its own university agendas, its own power hegemonies and identity politics. But from what I could sense, academics were largely satisfied with their choice (however contradictory it might seem).
I wasn’t sure why they felt why the academic environment was acceptable whereas the corporate environment was sometimes toxic. Perhaps the issues, though equal in severity, are in different categories? Or perhaps they’ve become resigned to a world where all environments are problematic in some shape or form? Or maybe the issues surfaced in academia are just more suitable for their particular mindset and lifestyle?
One academic explained that when you earn a PhD and become an academic, it’s like being admitted into an elite club. You have a sense of belonging and acceptance among your other TC academic peers. In this way, the more ostracized you are from other groups (both corporate and academic), the tighter-knit you become with peers in your same discipline.
I wondered if, just as there are corporate exodus narratives, the opposite narratives might also exist — academic exodus narratives. Although I didn’t meet anyone who had left academia for the corporation, I can’t help but think these opposite narratives exist. In Why we left academia: Corporate scientists reveal their motives, the authors highlight stories of scientists who emigrated from academia to the corporate world. These scientists grew tired of writing papers and wanted to actually create drugs that would make an impact. Instead of just doing research, they wanted to develop therapies that would help patients.
I can see why some tech comm academics might shift back into the corporate space. How can you research best practices for API documentation without wanting to see API docs improved as a result? How can you study techniques for data visualization without wanting to make cool graphs of your own data? How can you regularly lecture about complex problems but then not seek to dig into and solve complex problem yourself? How could you talk about Bayesian inferences and probabilities but then not want to experiment with these theories in your own day-to-day analysis of an actual tech comm project?
One might argue that academic research is intended to influence practitioners, and they can see the fruits of their research in practitioner spaces. But it turns out, according to Saul Carliner’s recent tech writer census report, in the past year only 28% of respondents read from at least 3 issues of Technical Communication journal (which is the most popular of all journals). More practitioners tend to read blogs than journals. Blogs ranked as the #1 “go-to source” for 7% of respondents and the #2 go-to source for 10%; journals ranked 6% and 3% respectively. (Granted, different objectives/expectations/perceptions of research between practitioners and academics could be contributing to the disparity. For more info, see Practitioner’s Views of Research by Lisa Meloncon.)
Regardless of the percentages, if practitioners aren’t consuming your research, doesn’t it begin to feel, after a while, like you’re writing in a vacuum, or that you’re not having as much influence outside the university walls as you expected? Can a career so focused on research be meaningful without feeling a sense of the influence (beyond the students you teach) of that research? Because of this, no doubt exodus narratives exist on both sides — turning away from the corporation to academia, and turning away from academia to the corporation.
On personal directions
Being surrounded by so many smart academics with PhDs in tech comm, I couldn’t help but contemplate such a path for myself. My wife actually has a dream of being a professor’s wife, though I’m not sure where this idea comes from. However, I’ve never had such negative corporate experiences that would prompt me to seek another space (I was even laid off once). I find the corporate workplace somewhat like an exploratory sandbox, where I can try out ideas without securing approval. I am also not sure I could give up my six-figure salary to embark on a path that would cripple my ability to pay tuition for my four children.
But it’s more than that. When I look deep at who I am, I realize that I chose the right graduate degree for me. I earned an MFA in literary nonfiction because I love the essay format, the interweaving of ideas and experiences in engaging ways. For now, I’m happy being in a space that lends itself to experiences and then writing about those experiences reflectively, without pressing for rigorous methodology and research.
And the more friction I face in the workplace only gives me more fodder for my blog, since conflict is what drives story. My blog is my own space to publish, without being driven by corporate or academic agendas. I can write long essays or short essays, personal narratives or podcasts, sarcastic parodies or lengthy Q&A. The discourse is the language I choose. Almost all forms of content are consumed, and much of it has influence.
Our dinner conversations wore on, and the waiter filled beer glasses a number of times. I asked all the questions I wanted to, and eventually we grew tired of sitting and headed to the hotel. In many ways, this two-day conference was a retreat from my own corporate space, an opportunity to engage in conversations with people genuinely curious about topics and ideas. In that overlap of curiosity, I find a lot of kinship with academics. I’m drawn to the thinking mind in action, and when I see it in any form, whether in presentations, articles, or even at dinner, it pulls me in.
But I also think we might romanticize the academic life a bit too much. The idea that professors get lost reading books in the library for hours on end seems like a naive depiction of academia. More appropriate would be to see tech comm academics caught between two camps — one pulling them toward hiring success for graduates in the corporate world, another encouraging a safe, corporate-free space for independent critical inquiry irrelevant to job hiring. And at other times, being tossed about by a department head dictating incomprehensible requirements about what to teach, and also finding the breadth and scope of what to cover impossible to pin down.
At the very least, practitioners should be more aware of and possibly sympathetic to the plight of the tech comm academic, and offer to collaborate where possible. Sitting down at the same table is always a good start.
Your reactions and input
To gather your reactions and input on the ideas in this post, I prepared a couple of fun surveys (whose ongoing results you can see for yourself).
- If you’re a practitioner, take this survey: practitioner responses to corporate exodus narratives. (The ongoing results are here.)
- If you’re an academic, take this survey: academic responses to corporate exodus narratives. (The ongoing results are here.)
If you’re both a practitioner and academic, take both surveys.
About Tom Johnson
I'm a technical writer based in the San Francisco Bay area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.