Three Reasons Why Independent Scholarship is Awesome!

DCFC0013.JPGThere was a piece yesterday in The Chronicle of Higher Education titled, “Who Prepares Humanities Ph.D.’s for a Nonacademic Search?, which reported on findings from a study on how well history graduate students felt they were prepared for life outside academe. Though many of us enter PhD programs with visions of The Dead Poets Society in our heads, after a couple of years we realize that reality is much grimmer. We will not spend our days before wide-eyed pupils and our nights in quiet study and reflection. Rather, we will take out huge student loans to fund our intellectual addictions. We will write dissertations, earn letters behind our names, and get funny caps on our heads. Then, if we are both gifted and lucky, an institution that is doing a search to fill a chair will give us a contract for a year or two. We will take up the task that is given to us with gusto, hoping that if prove ourselves, maybe the institution will award that chair to us. Sometimes that happens, but more often our contract expires and we move on to the next thing and the next thing, wandering like the Hebrew children in the barren wilderness of the academic job market. We may get adjunct work, which pays $2500 per course, on average. So if we taught three courses per semester (which is rare for all but English majors), we would still be below the poverty level. Thus we must rely upon the fading grace and good humor of our spouses to sustain our addiction.

Addiction is the right word to describe what it is we humanities scholars do. I think most humanities PhDs would agree that we got into this line of work because there is something wrong with us. We are the kinds of people whose idea of a good time is to think deep thoughts about Origen’s concept of time.

I have not written off an eventual career in academe. But I am not anxious to uproot my family and subject my children to more years of financial instability and emotional hardship. Tenure was supposed to be a reward for years of hard work (after proving yourself to your dissertation committee, in order to get tenure, you must next spend several years proving yourself to an academic department, who then might decide not to hire you for reasons that have more to do with personal than professional qualities.) But tenure is going away. Adjunct teaching is becoming the new model.

I became an “independent scholar” (a euphemism for “under-employed academic”) out of necessity, but I am growing to enjoy this life. Here’s why:

  1. Security – I am fortunate enough to have adjunct work. I love to teach, and I am happy for the opportunity and the little bit of extra income. But I do not go into financial limbo at the end of every semester, hoping that the institution invites me back next time. I have a day job that I love. I work at a university, just not as a professor. So I still have access to the libraries and other resources. In my particular position, I am also fortunate enough to work with nationally recognized experts in gifted education. So I am learning a lot about how to be a better teacher, too.
  2. Politics – Namely, there aren’t any! Okay. That is not entirely true. There are politics no matter where you go, but interdepartmental politics can often be cutthroat and especially dangerous to someone who is just establishing her career. I do not have the worry that irritating someone will cost me tenure.
  3. Research – Remember what I said about having access to academic resources? I work 40 hours a week, more in the summer. I spend an additional 15-20 hours per week working on my own materials. I still write. I still publish. I still present at conferences. I do not know any academic who spends less than 60 hours each week working. Those with tenure probably have more time to research than I do, but I have as much time as I would if I were just trying to establish myself in a department.
My First Year at "Nerd Camp." They hired me anyways.
My First Year at “Nerd Camp.” They hired me anyways.

I wish I had good advice on finding work outside academe. I don’t. In my case, I taught summer courses with the program at which I am now employed, and then I applied for a position they posted.

What I can tell you is that many humanities PhDs I know are moving away from the traditional academic job market into non-professorial professions. The market is not what it used to be, and it is not going to get better. Most of us still write and research. The dysfunctions that turned us into humanities scholars have not gone away. But we are finding ways to work outside academe to pay for our addictions.

If you are a humanities PhD outside academe, share your story! How did you get where you are?

4 thoughts on “Three Reasons Why Independent Scholarship is Awesome!”

  1. Great post, David. Thanks for the assist, Mary Evelyn… My name is Greg, and I'm an addict. I was warned by my own humanities professors that graduate school in the humanities was not a good career path (my thesis director at Vanderbilt: "Do you want to be happy? Don't go to graduate school"). I did it anyway. The addictions were too strong, and there was too much left to learn before leaving a university setting. So I spent six years doing so. And after struggling to teach all over town and online, I am much happier in a position, like yours, that keeps me connected to the world of higher education but allows me to pursue my own interests at my own pace. Seeking and generating knowledge is A Good Thing, but I'm becoming more convinced that this can happen anywhere at any time. They say that with the humanities you learn how to learn. I have learned how to move on, but maybe not yet move away, from the academic addiction.

  2. I'm making Greg read this when he gets home. He finished his PhD in English two years ago and after 3 years of going on the job market and one year of the adjuct grind he decided to move on to a non-academic career. I've seen his stress level drop significantly but it was a hard dream to let go of for both of us.

  3. Amen. While I do (occasionally) envy my friends who have made it into academic posts, I really do love being a pastor. And in my guild (homiletics), we need people both in the academy and in the churches. Of course, I'm not entirely sure my field should exist as an independent entity, anyway…

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