A "transition in career paths" may be an understatement for Anne Helen Petersen, academic turned longform writer and investigative journalist. With a PhD in media studies from the University of Texas-Austin and a book on the American gossip industry, Petersen brings an analytical quality to her writing on popular culture that is rare for most news media outlets. And even before her job at BuzzFeed, Petersen managed to engage her academic writing with public interest at every step of her career; she's written on different aspects of culture for many major publications including The Believer, The Awl, The Hairpin, The Baffler, Slate, and Los Angeles Review of Books. But what's most impressive about Petersen is the resilient quality she's brought to her transition out of university life and research. With this "Second Act," she has managed to combine the best qualities of both job paths into a career tailored to fit her perfectly.
For those readers who don’t know, could you talk a bit about how you came to the decision to redirect your goal of becoming a professor in academia to now being a writer for a major online media publication like BuzzFeed?
It was mostly a decision made out of necessity: it wasn't as if I were mulling an exit from academia. Instead, I applied for dozens of academic jobs, interviewed for a few, and received zero job offers. I don't say that to be dismal, just to be honest. As application after application failed, I started to think seriously about turning what had to that point been my "side hustle" into my "main hustle," and amping up my writing production. As detailed in the piece below, that's how I fell into the BuzzFeed job offer.
After reading your piece, Leaving Academia for BuzzFeed, 6 Months Later, it’s clear that the satisfaction you’ve received from your “Second Act” has something to do with the academic background you came from. What experiences in your time as an academic do you think have lent the most to the kind of writing and work that you do now?
As an academic writer, I learned to synthesize numerous histories and theories into concise paragraphs of lit review, which has served me extremely well. I also learned how to "gut" a book — plow through it and take out its most salient arguments — which also serves me well as I research a particular history and attempt to immerse myself in the literature. Back when I was in coursework in my PhD, we often had to write three giant seminar papers at the same time, which just taught me how to be prolific — a great skill in journalism! Finally, grading piles and piles of papers, and working with students to improve those papers before they arrived at a final product, has absolutely made me into a better editor.
One of the ways most people tend to unwind at the end of the day is with a bit of television (read: guilty pleasure reality TV), but we’re guessing that it would be difficult for you not to engage analytically with the popular culture that gives some of us sheer comfort. What are the ways that you choose to relax and decompress?
I never consider "thinking" about the media I consume as unrelaxing. It's pleasurable! I've always thought that a text just gets better when you think about it. But I do a lot of running, and refuse to listen to anything (or bring my phone along) while I do so. That's a wonderful escape.
It seems that during your time at BuzzFeed, although you began mostly writing about celebrity culture and its historical lineage, you’re starting to branch out in the different subject-matters you’ve taken on; we’ve seen pieces from you on the rise of tracking devices and the class and racial intricacies of Tinder. Do you enjoy covering topics outside your perceived comfort zone? And if yes, why do you think it is important to do so?
Oh I love it. For something like the tracking device piece, I get to talk to people who are real experts on these issues — including but not limited to academics — and meld their commentary (and my own) with access to the companies themselves. All of these topics, including Tinder, are really just me looking at larger cultural phenomena and applying one of the many lens of cultural studies that I accumulated during my academic training.
What was the scariest part about leaving academia? What advice do you have to give to those of us who want pursue our passions in a different, more fulfilling way?
I was honestly too excited to be that scared. Most days I do something that challenges me, even if that thing is just trying to get a CEO to say something other than PR-talk in an interview, or just talking on the phone (I've always hated talking on the phone). When I did my first celebrity profile [of actor Nick Kroll] a few months ago, I was totally terrified. But all of that is edifying in weird and wonderful ways. I think that the current structure of academia really puts us on a specific track towards professorship, and we talk about other options so seldom that anything "out of bounds" seems odd, shameful, even transgressive. But a PhD equips us with so much knowledge and perseverance, which are invaluable and will serve us well in any vocation.
With all the transitions that have happened in your life in the past year, what new goals have you set for the future?
I want to write another book, and I'm still figuring out what that will look like, but like my first book, it'll be a "hybrid" academic/popular text. I want to do more investigative journalism that changes the way people think about a particular issue. I want to continue to do work that makes people take celebrity and those who consume it seriously.
Clementine Daily’s mission is to create a space for women to live their hectic and sometimes frenzied lives while still taking account of the simpler pleasures in life. What are some everyday moments you consciously embrace?
I love the 30 minutes on the subway when it's just me and my reading material, and I can lose myself in it much the way I did when I was a teen. The way the late evening light slants on the sidewalk. And a glass of wine on an empty stomach.
p.s. Did this put you in the mood to devour some popular culture? Look no further than our list of our favorite Sundance films with strong female leads.