About me

Hi, my name is Jelena and I am a sociologist. Well, sort of.

Sociologist was not something I ever aspired to become. Back in 2001, I went to university with the ambition of becoming an English teacher. I was the first person in my family to ever go to university, although at that time “first-gen” was not something anyone I knew would identify as. Soon, however, I decided teaching was not something I was born to do and, despite all my love for the language, English became a secondary interest of mine. I did graduate, with fairly good grades even, yet by the time I laid my hands on the diploma, I was deeply involved in a range of extracurricular activities that were, according to my mother, a colossal waste of time. Plus, they didn’t pay.

Student activism, I learned years later, was how many who became professionally interested in higher education got initially hooked on it. I am no exception. Not long after I graduated, and very much thanks to my experience with university affairs, I landed my first job. That was a hell of a job, I thought at the time, not least for the regular trips abroad it sent me on, and, back in 2007, regular trips abroad were nothing short of a luxury for the vast majority of Serbian passport holders. I guess I got hooked on that too. Because the 25-year-old me wasn’t a time waster after all, I decided to try my luck with some of the scholarship programs that would allow me to study abroad. And so I ended up spending the next 2 years living in 5 European countries and studying—higher education.

It was during my master’s studies, and perhaps especially in the years immediately following my graduation, that I realized I enjoyed doing research. I was offered a job at a small research center, which allowed me to dedicate myself almost entirely to researching, writing, and talking about higher education. So I worked on learning the ropes and becoming good at it. As a trained philologist and literature nerd, I was poorly equipped to do social science research. But I made up my mind and my master’s had already been a giant stepping stone in that direction. Before I knew it, I ended up in a doctoral program, with a research project on higher education. Make no mistake: I did not pursue a doctorate because I wanted to become an academic. In all fairness, I was clueless at that point about what I wanted to become.

If I could describe my doctoral journey in one sentence, that would be a journey of gradually and irreversibly becoming seduced by sociology. By this, I do not mean that I fell in love with it. It’s more like sociology crept into my thinking behind my back. It corrupted me, if you will. I also took a keen interest in organizations and became fascinated by the study of institutions. All this was a blessing and a curse. Blessing, because it did help me “see” things I deeply cared about as a researcher in a different light (a cliché but so be it), which did feel quite liberating. Curse, because it pushed me towards what some academics would call “epistemic boundaries,” which is a fancy way of saying I was at the same time in many places and no place at all.

A friend of mine once remarked that the worst sin an academic could commit is being an outsider. This became obvious to me soon after I started my postdoc, which happened to be in a group that was in name and spirit as sociological as they get. This was a challenge, which I liked. But, it turns out, prolonged exposure to sociology made me “too much of a sociologist,” but also “too critical” (actual quotes), especially from the vantage point of interdisciplinary and often pragmatically minded higher education studies. Which is curious, because, at the same time, I am “not a real sociologist” (another actual quote), despite having a doctorate that says otherwise. And for the academic scene of Germany, where I spent my postdoc years, I am “too international” (you guessed that right, an actual quote as well). Germany is, of course, no exception in this.

I am no stranger to being an outsider. After all, nothing about my background says “future academic” and yet here we are. If I could point my finger at one thing that led to this moment in which I am contemplating my path and the make-up of my professional identity, that’s a dense web of coincidences, lucky circumstances, and many wonderful people who were there when it mattered. But I embrace my academic outsiderness, as much as I embrace the sociologist, the higher education researcher, the organizational scholar, the institutionalist, and the internationally oriented qualitative researcher in me. And why would the list have to stop there? If there is one thing sociology has taught me, that is that such boundaries are real only insofar as we—in the things we do, write, and say—make them so.