It’s time for a project update! I’m always kind of surprised that I manage to get scholarship and creative stuff done, but apparently it happens.
Last year started off with a research bang with my Le Guin Feminist Science Fiction Fellowship. I am finally ready to start delving into the 100s of letters I scanned. While it is true that I have been preoccupied with other work, the delay in getting back into this research was more due to the need to have mental distance from it. I was unprepared for how emotionally overwhelming I would find the research—the letters I was reading (from Le Guin, Russ, Tiptree, Delany, and many more amazing SF writers) brim with the lives of the people who wrote them. Given that I am an “emotional sponge,” I soaked up everything I was reading. Apparently, I needed nine months for things to get quietly sorted in my head so that I can now focus on drawing out conversational threads most relevant to my research interests. While I intend to incorporate some of my findings in a chapter on feminist SF in my planned book (more on that at the end of this post), I’m excited to see what other projects will spring from it.
One of those projects, actually, is an upcoming chapter titled, “Becoming Adult, Becoming Other: Anomalous Embodiment in Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle.” I’ll post more details about that piece (and the edited collection by Sherryl Vint and Mathieu Donner that it will belong to) as the publishing details become finalized (as it is still in process). You can also read an interview I did with Alice Evans (of the CSWS) about the fellowship and my archival research.
In terms of notable scholarly publications in 2014, my “Disability Studies ‘101’” is in SF 101: A Guide to Teaching and Studying Science Fiction. It’s available as an ebook for a few dollars. [I’m also considering republishing it here on my blog, for free for all to read, if it doesn’t end up in the next issue or two of the SFRA Review—that decision will be discussed in an upcoming blog post]. For 2015, I am eagerly awaiting the April publication of Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media by awesome editors, David S. Roh, Betsy Huang, and Greta A. Niu. I’m honoured to be a contributor with my chapter, “Re-imagining Asian Women in Feminist Post-Cyberpunk” (make sure to check out the super cool cover at the link). And while not a scholarly essay, I’m proud of the blog post I wrote about Misha’s Red Spider White Web for tor.com’s “That was Awesome: Writers on Writing” column last fall.
In just a few weeks, I am off to my favourite conference ICFA. I had originally planned on presenting a paper on disability in feminist SF along with organizing a panel on archival research in the field of the fantastic. Due to scheduling issues, however, I withdrew my paper and will be focusing my energies on the archival research panel. It feels a bit strange to not be delivering a paper this year, but I have good reasons (which are, again, being written up in an upcoming post).
Of course, the biggest news is Accessing the Future! Co-edited with Djibril al-Ayad, our disability-themed speculative fiction short story anthology is in the finishing stages. Accessing the Future will be published this summer (ah!) and it is amazing. While you wait for the summer publishing date to arrive, read one of the many blog posts Djibril and I wrote during our successful crowdfunding campaign. Working on this anthology has been life changing for me (and, yes, there will be posts coming about that too). Check out the awesome Table of Contents over at The Future Fire’s blog and look at the fabulous cover art by Robin Kaplan (below).
My next goal is to start, in earnest, writing a book on disability representation in science fiction once I am back from ICFA. I have set out two timelines for myself—one has me finishing a full draft by this time next year, and the other is accelerated, with a full draft come late fall. I do need to keep working (running Academic Editing Canada, which is work that I really enjoy, especially as I continue to receive more challenging and interesting client projects), so I’m keeping a flexible schedule of deadlines ahead of me. But still, a book! It’s hard to imagine such a huge undertaking coming together but since I also felt the same way about Accessing the Future (and Disability in Science Fiction), I know that it is possible.
I’m going to try to keep Bleeding Chrome blog better updated throughout this year. Writing leads to more writing, and it is helpful for me to keep engaged with other people and work out my thoughts in a more public space. So 2014, all things considered, was a darn good year, and 2015 is looking just as interesting and challenging. I’ll let you all know how it turns out!
A few weeks back I tweeted: “After leaving academia, I had to really think about what I wanted out of life. I have far more ambition now than I ever did before.” For whatever reasons, the sentiment resonated with a lot of people and the positive response I received prompted this post.
The entire time I spent in academia, from undergrad through to the completion of my PhD, is best characterized as deadline oriented. Write a paper. Submit. Receive grade. Apply for next course/program/degree. Rinse and repeat. Of course, there was a lot more complication to that process, but the way in which I approached every year of my higher education was essentially the same: meet pre-existing deadlines and fulfill pre-existing requirements. The end goal was the degree, obviously, but I can’t honestly say that I was driven by a specific sense of ambition. “I want to be a professor” was not so much a statement of ambition as it was an assumption of the final outcome of my academic efforts. Once I realized that a professorial life was not in my future, I was faced with a question that I had been avoiding for the entirety of adult life: What do I want to do?
As a person who most often did what was expected of me—I truly excelled at listening to authority figures—it was extremely difficult to not have my efforts directed by an outside force when I found myself no longer a graduate student and unemployed. In my mind, I was a failure. I tried to work for my spouse. That experiment failed spectacularly within a few weeks. In those first long months out of my PhD program, I can only imagine how awkward and challenging it was for my partner to have me (unconsciously) looking to him for the direction and guidance in my life that he couldn’t provide. My housekeeping and pet tending efforts were doubled. But a spotless house and an increasingly spoiled cat did nothing to give me purpose. I was depressed for quite a long while (and it certainly didn’t help that I was coping with chronic pain, which, at that time, was quite severe and debilitating). I was completely adrift without institutional structure. I had no deadlines to meet. I had no ambition.
Graduate school showed me what I didn’t want—an academic career—but it also provided me with experiences of work that were outside of any possibilities I was exposed to as a child. People can, and do, make a living from researching, writing, and exploring difficult and new ideas. There wasn’t any discussion of an intellectual career happening outside of academe, but I read enough to know that independent scholarship—respected, widely read, and transformative engagement—does exist. When I made the mental leap to thinking of myself as an independent scholar, all of the institutional rules of "what is possible and who can do what" started falling away. Freed from other people’s deadlines, I started making my own. The first goals I set were small: set up a website, read a book, write a blog post. Then they started to grow: present at a conference, start a business, edit an essay collection. Each time I devised of and completed a project of my own choosing I became more confident in myself. And I started wanting more.
I want to write a book. I want to write a screenplay. I want to edit science fiction. I want to be an invited keynote speaker. I want to be the next big theorist. I want to never limit myself to the options in front of me. I want to go beyond the obvious outcomes of my current labour and find new ways to grow as individual.
To make my new found ambition public is both terrifying and liberating. Part of me worries that people will say, “who does she think she is?” Another part whispers to me that these dreams are too big for such a small person. But there is also an ever increasing desire to try. I finally understand now that I am only a failure if I don’t take risks. I spend much of my time alone and it is easy to become lost in my own world. My newly found ambition pushes me to write, to learn, to reach out to other people. I have no idea what my future holds but I no longer feel like I am staring into some horrible directionless void. Instead, I am curious and eager to find out what I’ll be doing at this time next year. While not every project I dream up will work out, some of them will.
When asked about her best advice to writers, Octavia Butler (in Bloodchild, p. 144) said that it was to persist: "It’s a truth that applies to more than writing. It applies to anything that is important, but difficult, important, but frightening. We’re all capable of climbing so much higher than we usually permit ourselves to suppose. The word, again, is 'persist'!"
I have ambition. I will persist.
As is common at the turn of a new year, I have found myself reflecting on all of the changes that have happened in my life since I completed my PhD in 2010. Last year, in particular, was an amazing year for me professionally: in addition to presenting at three conferences (ICFA, SFRA/Eaton, McMaster), I published my edited collection, Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure, and won the inaugural Le Guin Feminist Science Fiction fellowship. As well, my editing and coaching business grew and stabilized into sustainable employment, and I ended out 2013 with the first two months of 2014 already booked with client work.
When I was still in grad school, there was no way that I could have imagined a year like 2013. I was sick, poor, and justifiably angry. I'm a lot healthier and more financially stable these days, but honestly, I'm still angry. I don't dwell on my disappointment with my graduate school experience anymore, but it occasionally informs my decisions to take on certain projects and it certainly comes out whenever I talk with graduate students and faculty. I don't feel like it is necessary for me to lie about my struggles with academia. After all, I left the university for many reasons. When I attend conferences, I identify as an "independent scholar" and many people are curious as to what that label means, what motivated me to leave, and how I go about my work life now.
I thought I would start the new year by revisiting some of the first posts I shared here on Bleeding Chrome. These are the entries that hurt to write and were terrifying to share. Even reading them now makes me tremor. I wish it wasn't true, but I suffered through graduate school. I made many choices to stay within a system of work that I knew didn't accommodate my sick body or respect me as an individual.
We can never go back and change the things that injure us physically or emotionally. But we can acknowledge that we suffered and that we are still here, giving voice to our experiences so that others may help us bear the weight. Maybe we don't always immediately emerge stronger or wiser, but I do believe that with enough time we can come to a point of understanding with our past struggles. Here are some of mine:
Post/Academic Shame (my first ever blog post):
After completing my graduate studies and earning a doctorate in English Literature, I anticipated that I would feel a mix of exhaustion, relief, and accomplishment. I was completely unprepared for the overwhelming sense of shame that I would feel – and still feel in part today – that plunged me into a severe depression for several long winter months. Not following tradition, I did not have a celebratory meal and drinks with my supervisory committee after my defense. I was ill at the time and had called off the lunch that was planned. As the days and weeks passed from my defense date, I couldn’t bring myself to reschedule another time to get together. How could I celebrate my failure as an academic? ... [Read the whole post]
In all visible and general day-to-day aspects, I am able-bodied. Such a demarcation between able and disabled was not always there for me. At the height of my health problems, I felt distinctly apart from everyone I knew. I was ill enough at one point in my doctoral education that I missed a year. Not literally “missed a year” of course – I am not a time traveler – but certainly I lost out on a year’s worth of socialization and professional development. While the inability to participate in academe was difficult enough to deal with, the blow that came to my ego was worse. You see, nobody seemed to notice my absence. ... [Read the whole post]
Through such small social and institutionalized codes of conduct, I was always aware of my class status. I sought out others who didn’t see my mispronunciations and gaps in cultural knowledge as signs of my unsuitability for academia (and yes – there were definitely a few individuals who gave me little intellectual credit due to these slippages). I found the silence around matters of money infuriating. In my experience, people who have money are always the ones the least comfortable talking about it – and academia is quiet as a tomb. ... [Read the whole post]
Two weeks ago, long time tweep, historian, and fellow Canadian Merle Massie (@merlemassie) asked me: “Do you recommend your editing/writing life to others? Twitter provides a mix of positive and draining notes.” My first response, in all honesty, was “no.” But that was because I’m feeling overworked, tired, and not at my best. I hesitated. There are so many different kinds of life situations and career paths, and, as a rule, I do not give blank statements on what people should do with their lives. For the most part, I really love what I do day to day. I thoroughly enjoy editing other people’s writing and independent scholarship is pretty darn fun. The truest answer I can give is “it depends.” A wholly unsatisfying response, I know. Instead of tweeting Merle all day long with my work/life reflections, I decided to write this blog post.
The biggest con of a freelancing editing/writing life is uncertainty. Of all the challenges involved in a freelancing life, uncertainty is at the top of my list. I would prefer to have a set amount of hours to work each week and know that those hours will remain in place for the foreseeable future. This is often not the case with freelancing. Some weeks I might only have 5 hours of paid work, while other weeks I put in over 30 hours. In terms of money then, that means my monthly earnings can vary greatly. There are many strategies to avoid long gaps between client work, but when you are just starting out, you will need to plan for inevitable lean periods. You can definitely make a good living doing freelance editing and writing, but you must be willing to accept a certain amount of uncertainty in work hours and income. The longer you are freelancing, the better you will become, hopefully, at networking and advertising, but it really isn’t a job you can just pick up and be immediately successful.
Being a Canadian makes a freelancing editing/writing life a lot easier (since we have government funded health care), but you are still entering a marketplace flooded with other people trying to grab the same customers as you. To be a successful freelancer, you will need to spend time developing a business plan, have a professional internet profile (i.e., personal website, etc.), and learn the art of networking. I actually think of myself as more of an entrepreneur than as a freelancer editor. When I can, I go to local business networking events and do what I can to positively get my name—and services—out there (in the community, on the internet).
The biggest pro of my portfolio career (academic editing, coaching, and scholarship) is that my schedule is flexible. Since I have some chronic pain issues that need managing to avoid debilitating flare ups, being in control of how much I work and when I work is essential to being as happy and productive as I can be. Take this month for example: at the beginning of October, I had several client projects on the go and was putting in full days of editing and coaching. And then I was glutened badly. I was out sick for a week…and then I came down with the flu. It totally sucked being unwell for two weeks but I didn’t “miss” any work because I was able to reschedule and reorganize my client commitments. The weeks I was ill, I made a point not to look for immediate work. I still checked email but simply scheduled any incoming work for the following weeks when I knew that I would (most likely) be well enough to work again. Having that kind of flexibility and ownership over my time is worth any uncertainty around workload and income.
So, to Merle and anyone else interested in pursuing a similar editing/writing life, I recommend spending time figuring out your top work priorities. How do you feel about uncertainty in income? How much money a month do you need to make to support yourself (and your family)? Do you have health issues that need managing? Do you like working by yourself? I have a partner who works full time, we have no dependents (just a spoiled cat), and we’re in a city that is quite affordable to live in. I chose my current career path because it made sense to me. I often tell people that my PhD has enabled me to make an excellent “part-time” career for myself. And for now, the writing/coaching/scholar life is the best fit for me.
My time at the Eaton/SFRA conference last week was well spent. After almost cancelling my trip (due to a heavy workload), I am so glad that I stuck to my plans and made the journey to Riverside, California. As an Independent Scholar, I was in good company: there were many inspiring papers by non-traditional scholars that held their ground with those by senior academics. My own presentation, “Reading Disability in Star Trek” (focusing on the last TNG movie, Nemesis) was an overall success. I am extremely pleased that I was able to demonstrate the productive possibilities of bringing Disability Studies (DS) together with science fiction. Genre studies in general can really benefit from a framework that interrogates the dis/abled body. Every time I had a conversation about addressing disability in SF with someone who had not previously thought about it in any depth, we both came away with new ideas to flesh out and texts to read. I only hope that I continue being a worthy ambassador of DS in the academic SF community.
I also have a renewed motivation to seriously start the research process for my planned monograph (which is, of course, fancy talk for “book”). From my plane ride down to the late night hours after the closing banquet, I was challenged by insightful questions and pushed to think about temporality and disability (the broad topic of my interest) in ways that I hadn’t yet considered. Between ICFA last month and Eaton/SFRA this one, I’ve truly had the full conference experience. I am already looking forward to the SF: The Interdisciplinary Genre at McMaster in September (fingers crossed my paper is accepted, but I will attending either way).
Without a doubt, I am on the right path. Do I know where that path leads yet? No. But I am so happy to find myself in a community of people who are supportive and excited about my scholarship. And I have made new friendships over the past year that have helped fill a gap in my life that has been there for too long. When I was ill during my graduate studies, it felt as if my peer community disappeared. The loss that I experienced at that time was incredibly painful and I have been searching for a place to belong since then. SF has become that home for me.
Since I can’t afford to go to WisCon or WorldCon this year (sniffle), I’m going to make an extra effort to keep in contact with my new SF community on line (through guest blogging—give me a shout if you want me on your blog—and Twitter and emails). I’ll use this extended period of time at home to keep writing about SF as I grow my academic coaching and copyediting business. For the first time since I finished my PhD, I feel like I have a productive and positive direction in my career life. There are actual things to do (that I love doing)! There are clients to help and book reviews to be written. There are deadlines to meet and book launches to throw and films to see (looking at you Star Trek: Into Darkness). This year is off to a great start. Next project please!
The current furor over the University of Birmingham offering an “honorary" research assistant position has caused me to reflect on my own unpaid scholarly pursuits. It is absolutely wrong for a university to expect their research workforce to perform for free, but as an independent scholar, the unpaid aspect of the work – and for me it is work, not a hobby – is a necessary given. At least once a week, when I’m up against a deadline of my own making, I think to myself (usually out loud to the increasing annoyance of my partner), “Why am I doing this again?” When you are working “for free” it is important to be clear about the purpose of your efforts (otherwise, you’ll lose motivation and accomplish nothing). Increasingly, this blog pulls in traffic from people looking for more information (ideas?) about being an independent scholar. There are growing numbers of MAs and PhDs out there who are hesitant to lay down their research books simply because they aren’t in a teaching or tenure-track position at a university. I think that this is a good thing.
For the curious and the disbelieving alike, here are a few of the benefits of being an independent scholar:
While the current academic job market and over-production of professionally unprepared PhDs (in the Humanities and Social Sciences) are not ideal situations, the fact that more post-graduate degree holders are seeking outside alternatives to researching and publishing can only increase awareness that there is a need for higher education reform. The vast majority of PhDs who leave academe for non-academic jobs aren’t solicited for their opinions on their experience of graduate education, nor are they an audible voice in advocating for reform. Once out of the university system most PhDs get on with their lives, and rightly so, but their silence makes it harder to convince people within and outside of academe that reform is needed.
For myself, transitioning from a PhD student who advocated for more transparency (in regards to funding and academic job market figures) into a fully fledged independent scholar was a relatively easy decision. Once I admitted to myself that I still desired to continue my studies on my own, I realized that I was also placing myself in a unique position to voice my concerns about the faltering state of graduate education in North America. As an independent scholar who attends academic conferences and engages with my academic peers online, I have kept one foot in the door of the Ivory Tower. From the threshold, I get to tell those inside exactly why I left academia (while demonstrating my academic competence) and the public on the outside can hear me too. As an independent scholar, I know that my voice is being heard without any professional risk.
When I left academe, I said good-bye to a formal system of professional support and community. Now I work at home. By myself. I interact with my clients through email and phone conversations, so my work life can feel fairly isolated sometimes. In addition to making me a memorable individual at business networking events (since no one else has “independent SF scholar” on their business card), my independent scholarship fulfills my need to be part of a larger community. Through my participation in the science fiction community – both academic and fannish – I get to meet and talk with people whose intellectual passions mirror my own.
At academic conferences, I enjoy the opportunity to be among my scholarly peers and get caught up with the latest research in my wider field of study. At SF conventions, I meet other fans from diverse walks of life and have fun participating as an “expert” on panels. By identifying myself as an independent scholar, especially within the fan community, I occupy a unique position of expertise that has connected me with some of my favourite writers and created new friendships and work partnerships.
I get to read and write about whatever I want for whomever I want. It’s wonderful not having to worry about funding or departmental politics that (not-so) quietly dictate what one should or should not study. While I was a grad student, I deeply felt pressure to perform intellectually in specific ways that were not necessarily natural or agreeable to me. As an independent scholar, I never worry about whether or not my research is in vogue at the moment. If a peer-reviewed journal isn’t interested in my latest article, no big deal. I’ll send it to an SF-blog or post it on my own instead. My goal is to put my work out there for other interested parties to read – where that place is (online or in print, academic journal or SF book review blog), doesn’t matter to me so much.
Being an independent scholar has also given me the confidence to take risks in my intellectual pursuits. Freed from the pressures of academia, where publishing success determines advancement and changing one’s disciplinary focus is an arduous process, I find myself sketching out projects that I never considered before. If I’m going to be an independent scholar, I might as well take risks with that scholarship. While I still fully intend to keep my SF research going, I have decided that my next book-length project will be on theory – I want to rethink and reframe the concept of agency. Not a small task. Just writing that out for public eyes makes me sweat a bit, but it’s also damn exciting. Independent scholarship doesn’t come with a set of rules and regulations, so why contain my intellectual efforts to what I already know (and what already exists)?
Above all else, it feels wonderful to be able to do the work that I was trained to do. I spent six years in graduate school learning how to be a researcher, writer, and educator because I enjoyed those roles. While I get to put my skills into practice through my paid working engagements (as an academic coach and copyeditor), my time is spent helping other people with their intellectual or professional pursuits. I absolutely love working with my clients, but I still have a strong desire to do independent research into my own areas of interest. If anything, I am more motivated to keep my clients happy because their business gives me the financial freedom to take the time to write academic articles and attend SF cons.
In the past year, I have surprised myself at the level of success I have already achieved as an independent scholar – by the end of next year, I will hopefully have published at least three peer-reviewed articles, one peer-reviewed book (my edited essay collection, Technology as Cure: Representation of Disability in Science Fiction), and three non-academic pieces of writing. This list doesn’t include all of the smaller writing and SF-fandom projects that I’m involved in or the conferences/conventions at which I will be presenting . Basically, I experience all the best parts of being an academic without the institutional constraints.
Being an independent scholar is not for everyone. It requires a certain privileged position – I have a full-time working partner, no children, and state heathcare – and a willingness to work with no expectation of financial reward. I’ve become a firm believer, however, that one should live their passion. For me, I want a life full of science fiction and life-long learning. Even though this work will not produce any income (and often costs money to pursue), the benefits I have experienced as an independent scholar make the financial sacrifice worth it.
Yesterday, I finally sat down and did some project management for my work life. Without intending it, I have officially become one of those people who must plan out their appointments and deadlines weeks – if not months – in advance. I am taking this new need for long-term planning as a sure sign that I am a fully functioning, on-my-way-to-success, real live Independent Scholar. It turns outs that all I needed to do to get to this point of alternative employment, was to start doing it. Like client work, interesting scholarship is rarely going to fall in your lap – you need to create opportunities for it to happen.
Last August I pitched my idea for Technology as Cure? Representations of Disability in Science Fiction [working title] at WorldCon, and by the winter I was selecting the essays that would make up the collection. Now it’s May, and I am writing the Introduction to the book, while my contributors buckle down on their second draft. My goal is have the full drafted manuscript off to the publishers for peer review in mid-summer. I am damn excited about this project – the contributors have written excellent, ground-breaking work and it seems that many people I meet are keen on picking up the book when it comes off the press. While I am still without a contract for the collection, I am fully confident that I will have one by the end of the year (if not much sooner).
In my role as editor of the volume, I have gone through a crash course in academic publishing. In many ways, the process is a lot less intimidating than I first imagined. I was worried that both academics and publishers would be uninterested in working with me, once they noticed my lack of university affiliation. But, like my experience at ICFA in March showed, I have not encountered any bias that was not easily overcome. Along every step of the editorial process for Technology as Cure, I have gone through bouts of self-doubt: Will this contributor respect my deadline? Will this seasoned academic be insulted by my request for extensive revisions? As always, my worry has been pointless. All of the contributors are committed to the project and I’ve discovered that I can edit with the best of them. It’s incredibly satisfying to be doing the kind of work that I was trained to do.
In order to give my recent scholarly activities adequate attention, I have had to limit the amount of paid client work I have been taking in. This meant making a financial sacrifice. And it’s been worth it. I have gone through a lot of soul searching this past year and I have had to evaluate life’s “big questions.” For me, it has come down to what I want out of my working life and I have chosen happiness, learning, and health over the potential to make more money. If I worked a traditional full-time office job, there is no way that I could pursue my research and writing into science fiction. Besides, I know for certain that traditional forms of employment are not for me – I’ve worked in various offices, taken on different roles within the academy, and no job has ever been fulfilling as the one I created for myself. I simply love being a self-employed scholar.
The next few months are going to be intense. Here is what’s on my plate right now: a few book reviews, paper at WisCon (May 23-28 in Madison, WI), wrapping up first full draft of Technology as Cure?, writing an Afterword to short story collection on “Outlaw Bodies” (Edited by Lori Selke and Djibril al-Ayad), submitting an article to JFA (special issue on the Canadian Fantastic), and offering feminist feedback on one of my new SF colleague’s novel. Plus whatever other random projects I end up taking on/falling into as I keep working with academic copyediting and coaching clients. My fall is shaping up to be just as busy – if not busier – in terms of scholarship, so I am trying my best to dedicate enough time for all of that reading and writing.
All of this happened because I started writing blog posts about my SF interests and joined in the SF community (making initial connection over Twitter, the only social network I am on - @BleedingChrome). Each connection I made gave me a little more confidence to take the next step, to propose bigger, more adventurous projects. I can’t think of one day in the past three weeks where I didn’t love what I was working on (both in terms of paid and unpaid work). While I still get stressed out about what my future will be like (because it is so uncertain), I am not overwhelmed by it anymore. Instead, each day, I look at my work calendar and think to myself “this is awesome!” And it is.
Last week I attended my first ICFA – it was an amazing conference and I’m still processing all of the information force-downloaded into my brain. I met dozens of interesting and brilliant scholars and writers, as well as received a deep validation of my own career choices. Last week also marks, roughly, the first year anniversary of Academic Editing Canada. I’m not sure exactly, because I never bothered to celebrate the date of my sole proprietorship’s launch last March. As anyone who has been following my blog knows, I left graduate school in the fall of 2010 feeling defeated and suffering from depression and chronic pain. So when I launched AEC in at the start of 2011, I had only the barest glimmer of hope. I could imagine the possibility of success, but only in the way that I can kind of imagine what being an astronaut or billionaire must be like.
Needless to say, I was not prepared for actually succeeding on my own, but here I am, with enough client work to keep me employed and support my independent scholarship (i.e. free up time to research/write and provide resources to attend SF cons). I’m absolutely gobsmacked at what I’ve accomplished. It’s not that I’m rolling in cash (far from it), nor am I racking up prestigious publications (so far). Yet I am happy – I have the academic job I always wanted!
From the completion of my PhD, it took me over 6 months to separate out what I liked about academia and drew me there in the first place from all of the stuff that I detested and could no longer endure. Once I worked out the basics of what I loved doing, I started shaping my career plans around them (creating, what is commonly called, a portfolio career). This is how I have ended up working as a copy editor (primarily for academic texts), dissertation coach, and independent scholar. Just as PhDs looking for non-academic careers need to articulate their “transferable skills,” I began thinking about how I could transfer or recreate the kinds of work I enjoyed performing in academia. Here’s what I did:
I moved my love of teaching and working with students one-on-one in the classroom into copy editing (where I assist people in improving their communication) and into dissertation coaching (where I get to practice mentorship). Basically, I have replaced “students” with “clients,” which, admittedly, is not really much of a stretch these days. I am engaged with people looking to improve their knowledge and skill base, but now I choose with whom I work and I never have to give or defend a C grade ever again. Down the line, I might want to pursue more active teaching avenues, such as working as a corporate trainer, and so I am already networking to keep that possibility open.
Working as an academic copy editor and coach also allows me the space to work with scholarly ideas and get paid at the same time. While a portion of my day-to-day work deals with subject matter outside of my immediate interest, I frequently get to edit challenging and thought provoking texts. In the year that I’ve been copy editing, I have not once been bored by the material I am hired to make better. I have learned about everything from pain management for recovering addicts to the intricacies of the Indo-Pak war of 1965. In terms of dissertation coaching, every client brings with them a unique set of knowledges and challenges. I’ve helped PhD students with all-things thesis, from developing writing schedules to reviewing what it means to “critically read” articles. The variety of work I encounter is fantastic … and it’s only becoming more interesting as time goes on.
And the best pay-off from doing this fun, engaging, and fulfilling work? It allows me the flexibility and opportunity to pursue my science fiction research. When I’m not doing client work, I turn my attention to reading SF, watching SF, writing about SF, and going to SF-centered events. Yep. It’s pretty freaking amazing. Being an Independent Scholar is way more awesome than I first thought. My worries about not being taken seriously by “real” academics? Gone. Going to ICFA confirmed to me that, in the field of SF studies anyways, my contributions to scholarship are valued and desired. I am now even more determined to put my head down and research/write my heart out.
I should add that I am able to maintain my portfolio career (copy editor/coach/scholar) because I am in a unique and privileged position. While I am certainly far from wealthy, I earn more than I did as a graduate student (which was practically nothing), I live in Canada where my healthcare is covered by the state, and I have a supportive partner (both in terms of financial and emotional support) and no dependents (only one little cat). We decided together, long ago, that we would work jobs that we love, even if it meant a materialistic minimal lifestyle. We rent. We have a hand-me-down vehicle. We don’t go on costly vacations or buy things we don’t need. But we work at jobs of our own creation and on our own terms.
All in all, I’m happy with my career success to date. The pay might not be the same, but I wouldn’t trade the freedom I have – to choose my work, clients, hours, research direction – for a tenure track position, even if one was magically dropped on my lap. What makes me really excited is knowing that I’m only at the start of my new career. There are so many opportunities, both known and unknown, ahead of me and I can’t wait to take them as they come. It’s a revelation (and a welcome one): I dared to quit the university and I’m doing okay. Actually, no. Scratch that. I’m doing great.
A dear friend of mine – who also has a PhD – has begun thinking through her next career transition. Towards the end of her degree, she did what many people do: started a family. While she has been working in a research support position at a university for the past few years, she confided to me recently that she is interested in finding other employment. Naturally, her first thoughts have turned to applying for professorships as she is still very much interested in researching and teaching in some capacity. Of course, give the difficulties of the academic job market, this has created a certain amount of stress.
I proposed to her that she might satisfy her desire to engage with those academic job skills in other forums. Her response, like so many other Humanities PhDs coming out of the broken system, was: “But I don’t know what else is out there.” I told her that I would put together some advice, so she can start exploring the many career options – as a sole proprietor or as a member of an already established business – that are available to smart, creative, and hardworking people like ourselves. I realized while composing the email to her that this would make a useful blog post for those PhDs, who, like my friend, have been out of grad school for a few years, are raising children, working unsatisfying jobs, and are now wondering where their degrees can take them.
Identify Your Work Interests
First off, identify what is that you want to do. What is it that you miss about being in academia? Equally important, think through all of the things that frustrated you about being in academia too. Resist the temptation to nostalgize your experience of higher education. Be specific in your answers. For example, if you say that you miss teaching, do you mean that you miss lecturing or is it that you miss working one-on-one with a student? By clearly defining the elements of work that you are interested in pursuing further, the easier it will be to figure out what kind of job position will fulfill your aspirations.
Create Your Dream Job Title
Second, come up with your ideal job title. If you are stuck for ideas, I recommend joining a business networking site like LinkedIn and perusing the job titles that people use there. Many professionals allow anyone to view their page, so you can also get a good idea of their past work experience and education. Don’t worry if your own history differs – part of the transition process from academia to the wider-world of work is learning to how to translate your existing skills into language that the business community will understand. The point of this exercise is to expose you to the possibilities of work that exist for you. Dare to dream big – remember, you are more than researching and writing!
Networking is fairly key to landing yourself a new position or establishing yourself in the market (if you choose to go the sole proprietor route). Get on social media. Use LinkedIn (it’s free and easy). Twitter is particularly useful for making quick and painless contacts with people in the field you want to work in (and they often will post links to articles about their professional community). Set up “informational interviews” at businesses that you want to learn more about – sometimes an informational interview can even lead to a job, but its practical benefit is getting you out of the house and connecting with an established professional to whom you can ask questions. Also, learn what networking events are going on in your city and attend them. Most large communities have innovation centres that assist entrepreneurs get their businesses going – approach them for resources and contacts. Get some business cards - they don’t need to be fancy, just make sure your contact information is on them (and that job title your after, i.e. if you want to be an copy writer, put “copy writer” or “freelance copy writer” on your card).
Take Risks and Believe in Yourself
For most people, transitioning into a new job is scary. For those who have been in academia for most of their adult life, it can be difficult to picture yourself doing other kinds of work. But it is totally possible. Talk to people. Be straightforward about your career aspirations. Reach out to old contacts and ask for references and referrals. Speak positively about yourself and recognize the small successes (from making a new networking contact to landing your first client or interview). Remember that there is no one way to a career – many people take different paths to end up in the same place. If you can survive the PhD process, you can survive (and succeed in) the job search!
It has almost been a year since I launched Academic Editing Canada (AEC) and nearly year and half since I finished my PhD and bid farewell to academia. In the time that has passed, I have slowly progressed through all the various emotions that attend any large transition. When I set out on my own last year, I had two major goals for myself: (1) heal physically and emotionally from the stress of grad school and (2) establish a business that provides me with steady part-time work so that I can continue pursuing my independent SF research in earnest. Despite working diligently towards these goals, it nevertheless has come as a shock that I have succeeded in reaching them.
I still have a way to go on the health front, but day-by-day I am learning how to better balance work and body demands. I am more acutely aware of the connection between stress and my chronic pain – when I’m anxious and binge working, I am not well. Being a sole proprietor definitely helps me control my working hours, but I am still unlearning many of the bad work habits I developed while in grad school. On the business front, I have established myself in the marketplace and developed several excellent long-term client relationships.
All of this progress is great, but I am most proud of the independent academic projects that I am undertaking. I am actually a real, live, breathing Independent Scholar – and I am having a bit of a hard time accepting that fact. It just seems too surreal and ridiculous to be true. I was unwell all of last week, so I had lots of time to reflect on the past year and on all the gains (and missteps) that I have made. When I left grad school, I felt worthless and foolish. Even though it was my decision to leave academia, there was always this little voice in my head telling me that I was a quitter, that I simply wasn’t good enough to make it into tenure-track. The voice goaded me constantly: “Where are your publications? Where are all the grants? You have done nothing. You failed as an academic and that is why you left.” Over and over again, the word failure plagued me, daring me to give up on the alternative career aspirations I had for myself.
I didn’t give up or take an easier, safer path. With the encouragement of my partner Andrew (who is an exemplar of self-directed learning and achievement), I took the risk on working for myself while expanding my scholarly experience. The biggest turning point for me, mentally, in transitioning from graduate student/academic to entrepreneur/independent scholar happened last August at WorldCon. I presented a paper in the con’s academic track and it was an awesome experience. Not only did one of my dissertation subjects, SF writer Laura J. Mixon, attend my talk (on her work, Proxies), I also had the chance to explore interest in my current project, an edited essay collection [working title] Technology as Cure? Representations of Disability in Science Fiction. Since the feedback I received at WorldCon was overwhelmingly positive, I jumped right into writing up a CFP for the book and receiving submissions. Now, I am eagerly waiting to read essays from 12 amazing SF and disability researchers from across the globe!
In addition to working on the essay collection, I am also taking the financial hit and attending (and presenting at) several conferences and conventions this year: ICFA, WisCon, WorldCon, and WFC. Admittedly, going to these events is fun, but I am also aware of the power of networking in person. While I already connect with other people in the SF community (both fan and academic) on-line, meeting individuals in person is immensely more effective and fulfilling. Again, I will be using these cons to test out my latest research interests, but I am also viewing this year as my public coming out as an Independent Scholar. I wish that I had access to the same funding bodies as institutionally-affiliated scholars do, but that is the only aspect where I feel that I am at a disadvantage.
Being an independent scholar is incredibly liberating. I always felt weighed down by the politics of the university and the backroom whispers of who’s (not) getting funding or who’s (not) getting tenure. Feeling like I was being constantly judged – and worrying that I wasn’t meeting the bar of academic success – held me back from pursuing what I wanted to do. Not because I was worried about derision from my peers or mentoring faculty for choosing to study an unpopular subject, but because the constant worry and stress of “measuring up” literally made me sick. Maybe it’s because of my class background or that my personal beliefs of equality and fairness are simply at odds with the current institutional system of higher education, but academia is not the environment to which I am suited.
I am excited about the upcoming year and the scholarly work that I am undertaking. I already have another book-length project in mind once I complete work on the essay collection. Being on my own has given me a level of intellectual and professional confidence that I never had as a struggling grad student. Throughout the last years of my PhD, several respectable people told me: “You know, Kathryn, you can succeed in academia if you want to. You have the skills.” I *do* have the necessary skills, but I lack the desire to compete for a tenure-track job. I think that my lack of hunger for tenure, combined with my deep and thorough academic burnout, was read by some of my peers as inadequacy. This past year has proved that I am anything but inadequate. I want everyone to know that they too have the same options for success outside of academia. There is no shame is leaving the ivory tower – and being on the outside doesn’t mean that you have to stop doing research.
Calling oneself an “independent scholar” is laughable to many people still entrenched in the university system. I know because I used to make fun of the concept myself – for individuals who only know scholarship within the walls of academe, the thought of it legitimately existing outside is both absurd and threatening. Of course, with experience, I’ve changed my tune and proudly call myself an independent scholar, even including the title on my business card. I want everyone I meet to know the kind of work I do and deem important. Sure, I probably won’t save any lives writing about feminist SF or disability in Star Trek, but, on my own terms, I am helping further conversations that I believe are important in establishing a more inclusive society.
I will be writing more about my life as an independent scholar because (1) not a lot of people write/discuss what it means to be one and (2) it is a natural extension of my advocacy for higher education change. I have been doing some research into organizations that support independent scholarship (through networking, grant applications, etc.) and I will post about those resources soon. If you also identify as an independent scholar – or are considering being one – and want to connect (for support, networking, etc.) please feel free to leave a comment or contact me directly.