This post reflects on a whirlwind year because today, April 12, is my first postdoc anniversary. Some of you may wonder why something as mundane or boring as a job would get a space on a blog largely about pole dancing. Still, the first year of my postdoc brought me both professional and personal highlights that I am proud of. My life truly has changed since becoming a full-time researcher and, since often my research and pole dance identities blend at work and on social media, a blog post was in order – at the very least to continue my favourite trend of autoethnography and research in practice.
Wait… what do I actually do?
Quite a few people, and definitely a lot of my family members, don’t really understand what I do. Camps are split between the: “So you’re sort of studying stuff with your ass out on the Internet?” And “Oh, you work for Meta, help me get my account back.”
The truth is somewhere in the middle, with the exception that I very much DO NOT work for Meta.
I do not study anymore either, in the sense that I have a PhD now, so the studying I do is not to get good marks but to publish peer-reviewed research papers which will (hopefully) make an impact on society – more on the ultimate academic buzzword, ‘impact,’ later.
Because I’m not Barney Stinson, or a consultant, I do not answer “PLEASE” to questions about what I do. I can tell you straight away.
I’m an innovation fellow at the Centre for Digital Citizens (CDC), a research centre based at Northumbria University and funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), a British Research Council that provides government funding for grants. My title is a fancy version of “postdoctoral researcher” or postdoc, meaning I get to lead on and carry out innovative projects of my own choice for 50% of my time, and to help my more senior colleagues with theirs for the remaining 50%. This is a GREAT deal: a lot of postdocs have to fully commit to working on someone else’s project, while I have so far gotten to choose which projects to join according to my expertise and abilities, and have been granted great freedom by my role.
As part of my postdoc project, I use my doctorate and formation in digital criminology to research on issues at the intersection of online abuse (like harassment and malicious reporting) and censorship (like de-platforming or shadowbanning).
Now that we got that cleared up, no, I don’t work for Meta, but I do communicate with Meta as part of my research. Which means I have very little power over recovering accounts. This is just something I try to expedite on a voluntary basis because the emotional and financial impact of de-platforming is one of the key themes of my research.
My postdoc – professional highlights
I have been oversharing, photodumping, reeling and TikToking my postdoc left, right and centre, so forgive me if this sounds like a boring re-run. But as someone who had lost hope in finding work by the time I was offered my postdoc (more of that in the next section), this series of career highlights is more than a highlight – it’s heartening relief, and it fills me with pride.
“WTF?” is most non-academics’ average response when I tell them about the time and emotional energy I spent applying for postdocs and for funding to run my own project. I’m talking hours, days spent coming up with 30+ pages of research plans, costings, ideas and theories only to be rejected with a one-liner. “I just need to get this project out of my system!” I would tell anyone who listened. “Just please pay me to do research!”
So you have no idea what it means to finally be able to actually do that project, and to get published in the leading academic journals I used to cite during my PhD as a result. Now, academic writing takes ages and academic publishing takes even longer – unpaid reviewers anonymously peer review your papers multiple times (on top of their existing institutional workload) to suggest improvements and make sure they are empirically and methodologically sound. This means it can take more than a year for a single paper to come out which… is not great for early-career researchers depending on publications to get jobs. Still, in the first 10 months of my postdoc I was able to publish two peer-reviewed studies in two leading digital sociology journals, and to submit six more. Find the published papers below:
- An autoethnography of automated powerlessness: lacking platform affordances in Instagram and TikTok account deletion, focusing on my own experiences of de-platforming, published in Media, Culture and Society;
- The Emotional and Financial Impact of De-Platforming on Creators at the Margins, co-written with my amazing boss Prof. Pam Briggs for Social Media + Society and focusing on my participants’ experiences.
A particular highlight of working at the CDC has been my research centre’s encouragement of individuality and creativity. As a result, throughout Spring 2023 I’ve been able to host three virtual workshops to co-design better solutions to platform governance with users from communities affected by censorship, such as sex workers, nude content creators, LGBTQIA+ folks, journalists and activists.
The workshops, organised and facilitated in partnership with the World Wide Web Foundation, used reimagined tarot cards as an archetype for users to engage with complex tech policy issues. Never would I ever have thought I’d be pulling my Rider-Waite tarot deck out in a work meeting! More importantly, seeing groups of users I admire come together and show up to imagine a better future was really moving.
Remember the ‘impact’ buzzword? Marta Natalia Wróblewska writes that in academia, impact means “something scientists have always done – interacting with society to offer solutions to real problems.” Still, the ‘impact agenda’ in Western universities has also resulted in the chasing of a series of evaluation metrics, such as the number of published, peer-reviewed papers in highly-rated academic journal publications or the amount of papers published per institution. In a fairly precarious, changing industry, this has made ‘impact’ almost synonymous with ‘climbing the career ladder’ to achieve permanent positions such as Professorships or Head of Department titles, rather than to impart knowledge through teaching or to translate research into new practices, policies, societal benefit, or public awareness.
But ‘real world’ impact is important, otherwise we do research just for ourselves. And as annoyingly thrown around as the buzzword is, it is crucial to prove your research is getting somewhere, being read and heard by somebody. Thanks to my research I’ve been able to reach organisations I was very much on the outside of before I started my postdoc. And while I don’t know if this will make a lasting impact, it’s already something. For instance, this year, I advised Meta’s independent oversight body, The Oversight Board, towards one of their case decisions, which cited my work on censorship of nudity and on malicious flagging. I was also invited to go live with them on Instagram for International Women’s Day.
The Board received valuable comments and inputs for these cases from individuals and organizations such as @bloggeronpole, @silviasemenzin, @joannakatelin, @JenniOlsonSF @glaad, @claricetavaresm @luxfl_ @internetlabbr, @ACONhealth, @AtRiskArtists, @Concordia, @HRC, @AdmsCentre.— Oversight Board (@OversightBoard) January 18, 2023
In my first year as a postdoc, after years of one-way communications with Meta, I was also one of the researchers invited by the tech giant to feedback on their nudity, sexual activity and sexual solicitation policies. This was no mean feat given that the last time I was anywhere near Meta’s HQ I was protesting in stripper shoes with sex workers, representing EveryBODYVisible. To be let in, to be listened to, to be able to bring the concerns of various censored communities to the table meant the world to me, not just as a researcher but as a censored user and activist myself.
Thanks to my work this year, I’ve also been interviewed by some absolute dream publications as the lead expert, such as The New York Times, Le Monde and Cosmo. These were publications I couldn’t get near when trying to pitch my PR clients in another life, so being approached by them was a pinch me moment. More info on cool interviews from this year via my press page.
Last but not least, the travel. Oh, the travel. After two years of hibernation due to the panna cotta, my postdoc opened the (plane and train) door to the opportunity to travel again, not just to learn from outstanding researchers, but to share my own pioneering work as well. I was grateful to be able to do it in my own way.
Thanks to my postdoc, I spoke at conferences ranging from digital economy to psychology, from cultural studies to tech law, from platform governance to media, communications and criminology – all the way to creative and pole dance events. Through either paper presentations at conferences or invited guest talks, I was able to speak in: Trento, Newcastle, Cannes, Amsterdam, Stanford, San Francisco, Rome, Durham, Barcelona, Sheffield.
Three specific talks felt particularly important to me. The first one was speaking at Amsterdam’s Global Perspectives on Platforms and Cultural Production, where I got to present my paper on my own experiences of censorship wearing some ridiculously tiny shorts to highlight the difference between nudity and sexual activity.
The second one was presenting the same experiences to a room full of platform and Big Tech workers at Stanford’s Trust and Safety Research conference.
And lastly, returning to Algorithms For Her in Sheffield as a pole dancing academic, after having done a test run of the blending on my identities there when I was a PhD student, felt like homecoming.
Feeling super energised after #algorithmsforher 2! So grateful for the space, conversations, provocations, fun & lovely people ? the 1st time I came out as a pole dancing academic was at this conference in 2020, so fab to come back as a postdoc with my @digi_citizens project ? pic.twitter.com/mcwJHT6Yc7— Dr Carolina Are ?? bloggeronpole (@bloggeronpole) March 24, 2023
More talks are on the cards for this year and the next, and I can’t wait… even though as an introvert I find conferences as very overwhelming experience, and they do tend to crowd up week after week to the point I just wanna be able to spend some time working at my desk!
My postdoc – personal highlights
The academic job market is currently a precarious, horrific hellscape for early-career researchers. There are many amazing researchers out there whose work I admire but who are still in precarious, under-paid working arrangements. The situation means that after a year of rejections, I was not expecting to find a postdoc, let alone to enjoy it or for it to result in so many career highlights. All the above experiences make me pinch myself every day, so here’s why, personally, even just getting the postdoc was a highlight.
The people who do understand what I do are often surprised to hear I wasn’t doing so well professionally before being hired by the CDC. The truth was, I was doing quite well: my papers were getting published; I was getting more respect in my field… I was just not getting paid for it.
I was working as an independent researcher, supporting myself through multiple jobs – pole dance teaching, part-time lecturing, social media content creation and consulting – while filling out and interviewing for the aforementioned lengthy, disheartening postdoc applications.
For a year and a half since I submitted my PhD thesis.
Yup. That’s a year and a half of precarity (generated by the academic job market and by platforms’ puritan governance of nudity, which put my profile under threat of deletion and made my content invisible).
Of course, I chose this life and I had access to it thanks to the privilege of owning a home, bought by my parents, who live in a country with a less impossible home ownership situation (for their generation, at least). Still, even with my privilege, I was knackered. I kept getting to the final stage of interview rounds with no luck, to the point that I didn’t even wanna apply for this one. When I applied for my position – and I’m forever grateful to the amazing Dr Angelika Strohmeyer for sharing it and pushing me to do it – I was so disheartened I submitted an hour before the deadline and didn’t think much of it. So personally, having a stable salary, even on a temporary contract, felt huge: I could save and breathe out for a while, and I could also start doing research that went beyond my own experience now that I had research budget to pay for participants.
Crucially, my title and the affiliation with a research centre that actually values my skills and experiences as an individual gave me a credibility that wasn’t there before in research circles and amongst Big Tech. I was always featured in the media because of the connections built thanks to the synthetising and key messaging skills gained in PR, but media appearances don’t always get you jobs or a seat at the table with platforms even if… they count as impact (lol).
Lastly, my postdoc has been able to put one of my biggest fear to rest at least for a while. I was always scared that being a pole dancing academic would not work – and I do in fact believe that my openness about my albeit vanilla ‘double life’ is what kept me from getting a postdoc for a year and a half. But I was legit afraid that I couldn’t focus on my research *and* do the things I wanted to do.
Instead, partly thanks to Northumbria’s aim to be a research-first university, a postdoc that is research only (no teaching involved) and most definitely thanks to my amazing boss and line manager, Pam, my role allows me to work flexibly while still being myself.
I still train from one to three hours each day. I can still go to events and have a fun, flexible life as I work remotely in London (my uni is in Newcastle). This, I believe, makes me a better researcher because I have a deep and personal understanding of the communities I research on.
Passed my viva with minor corrections today ?? I had decided this was going to be the day I brought Batman & Bruce Wayne together 😛 So I’m gonna close my academic-only Twitter & unify my presence under this account. Here’s why it's important to me to be both people at once. pic.twitter.com/XzEC5zzek4— Dr Carolina Are ?? bloggeronpole (@bloggeronpole) December 16, 2020
So for now, the pole dancing academic lifestyle has been working, even if I’ve had to make changes: I’ve stopped teaching pole regularly, more due to my wellbeing than to academia since my boss never objected to it, and I’m learning to say no more often and to enforce my boundaries better.
TL; DR: here’s to two more years
I remember leaving the PR and creative industries because I felt like I was largely selling things I didn’t care much about for someone else, without making an impact on the world – and getting depressed and burnt out in the process. This is a massive generalisation because I came from agencies that made a huge impact with their campaigns – the job just wasn’t for me, I fell into it and had to do a bit of soul-searching.
Now I’m quite literally having the time of my life doing a job that, I feel, helps me use my skills in a way that I enjoy, that is important to me and that makes a however small impact on the world.
Are we all slaves under capitalism? Yes.
Is the academic job market exploitative for early-career researchers? Yes.
Is a postdoc all fun and games? No, not at all. I’ve been massively struggling to manage my workload because I get too excited and take on too many project and side hustles, and I’ve been losing my hair due to stress as a result. (I’ve been making changes to be better at this btw, running yourself into the ground isn’t the best strategy, especially since I’ve been doing this to myself due to my own ambition and not as a result of my employer’s pressure!)
But as far as academic jobs go, my postdoc is a hoot. And while it was initially set to last just two years, my contract has now been extended to a third. So yay me, and here’s to more listening to users and holding platforms accountable.