University of One: Becoming an Independent Scholar

Monday, 31 October 2011 18:00

I haven’t had a lot of time available for writing and scholarly projects this past month – other work commitments (aka. my job) kept me from pursuing all of my SF and academic interests. It has totally sucked. Like many other things during my transition from PhD student to self-employed independent scholar, the depth of that suckiness has caught me by surprise. I don’t think that there was ever a time in my entire graduate education that I lamented: “I want to write but I have no time!” Instead, I rued the fact that I had to write, when I wanted to be doing just about anything else. Yet, here I am, absolutely thrilled to be finally have the time to focus on writing.

Yesterday, Julie Clarenbach (from Escape the Ivory Tower) interviewed me for a podcast she does for University Affairs magazine. I won’t give away any of the exciting details of our conversation – you’ll just have to wait for the podcast to air – but she did ask me about what it was like to be a scholar without a university affiliation. My answer was somewhere along the lines of “it’s awesome” and I started thinking about all the small (mis)steps and successes that I’ve experienced in the process of establishing myself as an independent academic. As I have yet to meet another person who also identifies her/himself as an independent scholar, I am totally making up it up as I go. I admit to feeling daunted, at first, by the “University Affiliation” field required for all academic article and conference submissions. Now, though, I have Independent SF Scholar proudly printed on my business card. Yeah! Here are some of my thoughts on how to turn into a successful “university of one:”

Identify the audience for your work. When you are in academia, the audience for your work is a given –the other 5 people in your field. Well, okay, maybe there are more than 5 interested readers (10?), but the relevant journals and conferences for your particular field of study are obvious. When you are an independent academic, however, you should be looking for audiences that exist outside of academe as well. For example, as an SF scholar, I have been integrating myself into the well established community of SF fandom. Large fan-driven conventions are excellent places to present your ideas and engage with other people interested in whatever obscure thing your dissertation was on. Trust me – far more people from SF fandom have read my thesis than people within academia. And, what’s even better, they tell me and give me compliments and ask questions (huge thanks!).

It is a great feeling to know that my years of research into feminist post-cyberpunk have not gone to waste. More than that, non-academic conferences are usually quite happy to have an academic speaker presenting a paper or included on a panel. Since a non-academic conference holds little weight on an academic CV, there are not a lot of academics willing to attend them. If you are going to be an independent scholar, engage with reading groups, cultural centres, and organizations that you think might be interested in talking with you and discussing your work.

Rethink what “being published” means. As a rule, the more prestigious the academic journal, the more impressed your department will be with your CV. Well, as an independent scholar, the name on the journal does not matter as much. In fact, I will even go so far as to suggest that you place academic journals lower on the scale of “good places to publish” if want to be a successful independent academic. Again, it goes back to the question of audience. For myself, I want as many people as possible to read my work and talk about my research. Getting a paper in an academic peer-reviewed journal is fine, but the potential number of people I can reach is limited. Plus, by the time my pithy article deconstructing race in the Smurfs* reboot comes to press, my attention – and that of my ideal audience – will have moved on.

While I have only been working at establishing my cred as an independent SF scholar for 6 months, I already have several publications on the go in various kinds of media (i.e. a freelance article for a well-known magazine, blog posts, an edited book collection, and a paper for 2011’s WorldCon). Considering that I was entirely unpublished as a graduate student, I am still impressed/surprised by the scope and success of my current output. I even recently received my first unsolicited invitation to an academic conference! Without the same pressures and stressors that attend the academic publishing process, I can be more creative and, as a result, I am finding lots of cool places to publish my work (and some of them even pay!).

Have exceptional self-motivation and self-discipline. If you are someone who needs your supervisor prodding at you to meet a deadline, being an independent scholar is probably not for you. When you are a university of one, you are only responsible to yourself. If you don’t care about the deadline for your article on zombies, who will? No one. Your great idea about how zombies are a modern day metaphor for the obesity epidemic will never make it public. If you are, however, a self-motivated learner who can stick to self-made deadlines, this is the ideal low-paying second job for you!

For myself, I do have excellent self-discipline in setting and making deadlines for my research and writing projects. Since I cannot devote all my working time to scholarly work, this means that I carefully set aside dedicated days for research/writing. Now, going to the library is a reward for having completed a client’s project (and not a procrastination technique). Being outside of academe means that you will probably feel isolated in your research at times. I say, turn that outsider mentality to your benefit. As an independent academic, you set the standards and pace for your work. You have the freedom to research, write, and publish whatever it is that interests you, without the worry of how it will impact tenure applications or the kinds of classes and grad students you have to take on.

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While in grad school, I remember I used to laugh about the prospect of becoming an independent academic because it seemed like an existence as likely, and about as common, as a unicorn. I am still figuring out my niche in the world, but it is becoming clearer to me by the day that my heart still is an academic one. If I am not deeply engaged with critical work, I am miserable. Of course, like most people, I need a break from academic thinking and this is where I find balance with my “day job” (editing for academic and professional clients). For months now, I relish the breaks in between client projects – that is the time for me to indulge in the latest novel by my favourite feminist SF author, attend a conference (when scant finances permit), or write about the never-ending awesomeness that is cyberpunk. Being an independent scholar, for me, is about exercising my unique skill set and knowledge in order to become a contributing (and hopefully, one day, an influential) member in a larger public community of shared interest. As a university of one, my future looks bright and brainy.


*Have not actually seen the Smurfs movie nor written about. No money in the world would be enough to sit through that monstrosity of a "film." *Shudder*

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