|Assessing the Independent Scholar: Strategies and Suggestions for the Field|
by Aimee Zygmonski
INT. A Bookstore - Afternoon
PHD STUDENTS and the SIMPSON FAMILY. BART begins to taunt
the students working in the store.
Don’t make fun of graduate
students. They just made a
terrible life choice.
This quip from an oft-quoted Simpsons episode may garner an uncomfortable laugh from today’s graduating PhD students. Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus's 2010 book Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—and What We Can Do About It, notes that America produced more than “100,000 doctoral degrees between 2005 and 2009. In the same period there were just 16,000 new tenure-track assistant professorships.” While these numbers do not take into account the graduates of hard science programs that may have no intent on entering into academia, their assessment has been quoted across higher education forums, newspapers, and the blogosphere for the last year.[i] The most viral of such articles, titled “The Disposable Academic,” raised hackles from faculty, administrations, and parents alike. Has our chosen profession become that negligible?
It is common knowledge that the past few years have been “slim” job markets, but when faced with staggering numbers such as these, the idea of a poor job market seems an understatement. Many scholars find themselves unemployed or under-employed by the academic market and turn toward careers outside of academia while still writing and publishing. These independent scholars can be newly minted graduates, tenured professors who have chosen to leave, terminal–degree-holding arts professionals, secondary school teachers, community activists, and everything in between. Individuals may not be associated with an institution of higher learning, but still can be active professionally in the field, preferring to write and work outside the confines of academia.
In light of this new trend, this article teases out and debates the implications and prominence of “independent scholar” rhetoric in today’s changing academic climate and offers suggestions for the independent and institutionally-affiliated alike. I argue institutions must address non-traditional career paths while their students are still in graduate programs, reduce the stigma surrounding the choice of not being associated with the academy, and suggest options for networking and support for independent scholars across the country.
Independent scholars can be researchers and educators at various levels in their careers. The National Coalition of Independent Scholars defines independents as people “pursuing knowledge in or across any fields whose credentials demonstrate an active involvement in independent scholarship in any field” and that “further qualification is that the scholar not be employed on a full-time basis by an academic institution or other organization in the field to which their independent scholarly activity pertains.” It is not to be assumed that independents are entry-level job seekers who are on the market, although for many, that currently is the case. An ambivalence regarding academia, the delicate act of juggling teaching and research loads, and the effects of an academic career on relationships and family all point towards reasons why becoming an independent scholar is an attractive option at many stages of an individual’s career.
However, this career path - and it can be a career pathway rather than a substitute - usually is not discussed in today’s humanities and social sciences graduate programs as a viable option after graduation. An associate professor and ASTR member who requested anonymity offered this thought: “The current paradigm of graduate education doesn’t always acknowledge the possibility of independent scholarship, and good, smart graduates of programs, having not been equipped with a support system and network for being an independent scholar, risk a pretty harsh identity crisis if their criteria for success is linked solely to a tenure track job and they don’t secure one in the first couple of years out.” Some programs may even promote the feeling of entitlement to an academic job after securing the PhD.
While an overhaul of the humanities graduate system seems unlikely, programs need to reorient the ways in which they advise and mentor, not only in their final year of school, but rather throughout their studies. Mentors should instead encourage students to look introspectively, suggesting an assessment of goals after graduate study. Is academia truly the desire and goal? For example, an advanced graduate student requesting anonymity, is finishing her doctoral studies at a Research One university to complement her practical dramaturgical training. She has no desire to become a professor, but rather sees the degree as a way to enhance her ability to dramaturg. She also publishes scholarly articles on research topics unrelated to dramaturgy. However, she has felt ostracized from the academic community for admitting she does not want to join academia.
A better way of framing this discussion may be found in this advice from authors Cheryl Reed and Dawn Formo in an Insidehighered.com article “We Need a Bigger Box:” “The first step toward sanity is looking for ways to make it work right here, right now. The old templates need to be rethought. The work you love is out there. It just may come in a different box than the one you’re expecting.” Many graduate programs offer an introductory doctoral studies class, so why not include the topic of independent scholarship within ongoing conversations about professional and scholarly development? Heather Nathans, professor at University of Maryland, offered these thoughts:
I am definitely trying to encourage my own graduate students to think about other options outside tenure-track professor positions. I think it’s important to do so for several reasons—it allows them to keep their options open as the job markets continue to shift; it helps folks who find successful careers outside academe feel like they put their PhDs to good use, rather than having “wasted their time” in grad school; and it helps me think more creatively about the purpose of the PhD in the 21st century.
In recent years, ASTR has held career sessions on the increasingly diminishing academic job market and offered speakers and suggestions on alternative pathways. According to Nathans there are “a number of initiatives underway via ASTR and the Consortium of Doctoral Programs in Theatre and Performance Studies that could be very useful in allowing us to share best practices.” In a survey of the last four ASTR conferences, 2008’s Boston conference reported three self-identified independent scholars, 2009’s San Juan conference reported four, 23 attended the joint ASTR/CORD event in 2010 in Seattle, and at the recent 2011 conference in Montreal, only nine were listed. The spike in numbers for 2010 may suggest that more scholar-artists were drawn to the conference due to its joint affiliation with CORD but it does show that independent scholars are participating. This also suggests that ASTR might look to organizations such as CORD or ATHE with higher numbers of participating artist-scholars for strategies to help independent scholars feel more included.
Membership and conference fees could also be adjusted to reflect the scholar that has no support funding for the annual dues or conference plane fare, hotel accommodations, etc. One practical solution might be basing conference fees and membership on an income scale, rather than “student” or “general member” designations. The National Coalition of Independent Scholars bases their annual membership fee this way. This move would make the conferences more inclusive to independent scholars who want and need to continue conversations and connections with colleagues that can only happen at annual national conferences as well as honor the disparate salaries in our field at large.
There are quite a few resources for independent scholars that are centered in the humanities, mostly in the field of history yet applicable to most in our field. Books that are a bit dated in publication but not in content are Margret Newhouse’s 1993 Outside the Ivory Tower, which is geared directly towards graduate students as well as So What are You Going to Do with that PhD (2001) by Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius which offers stories and the authors’ personal experiences with interviews and first-hand accounts from independent scholars.
Online resources and community sites are even more plentiful. The Web site “Beyond Academe” was started by independent historians Alexandra Lord and Julie Taddeo to create an online community for fellow historians who did not wish to pursue their research within the structure of an academic setting. Lord mentions that she herself wasn’t willing to settle for an academic job in a region of the country where she did not want to live just to be a “history professor.” She left academia for a full-time job as a federal historian, while still conducting independent research. Her site offers a variety of resources and advice for scholars across the humanities, not just in the field of history.
Versatile PhD is an online discussion forum for those interested in posting queries about anything related to a non-academic career in the humanities. Started as a listserv called “WRK4US” (work for us) in 1999, it has grown in the past decade beyond the outdated listserv format and now even features premium content service especially geared to universities and their graduate students. The forums are congenial and encouraging, and those who post run the gamut from nascent graduates to retired academicians. The replies are compassionate and thoughtful on topics ranging from advisor woes to publishing contract questions, or even how to get library access.
Like Beyond Academe, the National Coalition of Independent Scholars’ Web site offers a myriad of links and resources to grants, libraries, research opportunities, etc. It also publishes a casual newsletter for its members. The ASTR listserv is also a supportive online community, a place to ask questions on anything from plays of similar themes, resources for research avenues, or that hard to find book or article. One can also find a myriad of personal blogs (with titles like “From Grad School to Happiness,” “A Post-Academic in NYC,” the pithy “Selloutyoursoul” and “Another Academic Bites the Dust”) that chronicle decisions to leave academia and its aftermath.
Yet today’s theatre and performance studies graduate students should not have to resort to help from the blogosphere when faced with what to do after graduation if a tenure track job does not present itself or is not the end goal. Current independent scholars within our field are proud of the work we research and publish while pursuing other options. Our professional organizations should also be welcoming and encouraging of this independent route, which at times, can be a very lonely journey. Encouraging independent scholarship does not undercut the purpose of doctoral training; rather, alternative possibilities only strengthen academia through the wide reach of individuals conducting research in and beyond the academy walls. In the end, we can only benefit from on-going dialogue - between scholars, between professors, between students - locally in classrooms or nationally through list-servs, Web sites, conferences, and beyond.
Aimee Zygmonski is an independent scholar, part-time performing arts publicist, and stay-at-home mom working out of Santa Barbara, CA. Her research lies at the intersections of African American Theatre, iconography, and visual arts. Her writing has been published in Theatre Journal, Theatre Research International and the forthcoming The Cambridge Companion to African American Theatre, edited by Harvey Young. She holds at PhD from University of California, San Diego and an MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University.
[i] Here are sources to various reviews and articles about the book, and the Economist article that quoted from Hacker and Dreifus and subsequently went viral over the internet.
Steven Knapp. “Why Johnny’s College Isn’t What It Used to Be.” Review of Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—and What We Can Do About It by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, New York Times, August 18, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/19/books/19book.html
“Talk of the Nation with Hacker and Dreifus.” NPR. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=128933357
“The Disposable Academic.” The Economist, December 16, 2010, http://www.economist.com/node/17723223.
“Rethinking Higher Education.” The Emily Rooney Show, WBUR, March 16, 2011. http://www.wgbh.org/programs/The-Emily-Rooney-Show-854/episodes/Wednesday-March-16Rethinking-Higher-Education--PhDs-26035
“PhD on the Fence.” Blog. http://phd-onthefence.blogspot.com/2010/12/is-it-just-pyramid-scheme.html
“American Bar Association: Think Twice about Law School.” CBS News. http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505125_162-44941459/american-bar-association-think-twice-about-law-school/