Discovering Success: My New Life as an Independent Scholar

Thursday, 16 February 2012 23:28

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.



  • Comment Link Kathryn Wednesday, 14 March 2012 20:27 posted by Kathryn

    Thanks for commenting Laura! As you already know, I definitely believe the science fiction - in particular feminist SF - is a genre that cuts to the heart of the matter, so to speak, when it comes to how we, as a culture, think about race, gender, sexuality, and dis/ability.

    Knowing that there are writers out there, like yourself, who are willing to put themselves and their ideas/hopes/fears about the future out there, pushes me to respond with the same kind of thought and consideration.

    If you keep writing, I'll keep researching!

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  • Comment Link LauraJMixon Tuesday, 13 March 2012 20:09 posted by LauraJMixon

    (er, make that "most IMPORTANT." Talk about dropping the point... right on my toes.)

    (PS Attending your talk was one of the high points of my year, also.)

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  • Comment Link LauraJMixon Tuesday, 13 March 2012 20:07 posted by LauraJMixon

    I believe that the art of storytelling is one of the most human endeavors there is. It gives life meaning when nothing else does. And science fiction, to my mind, is a critically important area for women and genderqueer folk, people with disabilities and people of color, to focus their attention. Someone who treats that subject with the respect it deserves is to be lauded. Just sayin. :)

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  • Comment Link Kathryn Sunday, 26 February 2012 21:49 posted by Kathryn

    Thanks for commenting Saran. I completely agree with you that there are opportunities to learn everyday. I think that fact is easily lost for people who are overworked, stressed, and tired (like I was in grad school). At my lowest point, I even stopped reading for pleasure!

    For me, it was discovering the awesomeness of science fiction that kept me in grad school long enough to complete my degree. I feel like I am finally on the right career path - I love doing copy editing and working with different kinds of graduate students, and pursuing the independent scholarship is deeply satisfying.

    I think that is great that you are following your own path to life-long learning. With all the pressures to conform to normative ideas of success (in terms of finance and career position/advancement), I salute anyone who keeps learning for learning's sake.

    Best of luck to you!

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  • Comment Link Saran Saturday, 25 February 2012 05:10 posted by Saran

    I recently decided that I would be independently going back to school - but not by paying for courses and going into debt or to get a degree in order to get a job.
    When my father asked me "Why would you go to school if not to get a degree or a job?", I replied:
    "To learn."

    Too often we miss sight of that. There is nothing wrong with being an "independent scholar". In fact, I encourage it and sympathize with your sentiment of stress in grad school. But learning is done everyday, everywhere, and opportunities for it are all around us at all times. A true scholar takes advantage of that learning, whether it is as an "academic" or not.

    You are not a failure, but in my eyes, a courageous success.
    Some of the greatest and most successful minds and businessmen of our generation dropped out of high school - From Steve Jobs to Bill Gates to Mark Zuckerberg and more. If anyone thinks they stopped learning simply because they left academia behind, they are just wrong.

    Thank you for sharing.

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