The Independent Scholar as Artist

Follow Your Dreams (Cancelled) by Banksy, Photo by Dunk, 2011

The glut of Ph.D.s in academia is common knowledge. The cynical consensus is that graduate assistantships and postdoc appointments provide much of the cheap labor that keeps university classrooms and laboratories operational without much concern for what comes afterwards. Any offered defense of Ph.D. overproduction tends to follow the vague assertion that graduate training makes one versatile or that education is its own reward. Both assurances are true, but useless as career guidance. Rather, individuals committed to scholarly life are in need of more realistic advice.

First, the bad news. While the academic job market is infamously bleak (even in the sciences), desirable research jobs are also hard to find outside academia. The US unemployment rate may be low right now, but that rosy statistic hides rampant underemployment and stagnant wages. The reality is that modern career planning is an exercise in optimism. Everything is moving fast and it’s hard to know if your career choice is about to be automated away or freelanced into poverty. Even the traditionally prestigious professions of medicine and law are suffering their own crises. So if the grass is not much greener elsewhere, what is a Ph.D. to do?

Hopefully, the desire to pursue a Ph.D. stems from the love of the intellectual challenge of research. Assuming one still loves research after graduation, technology now allows us to avoid some of the simplistic careerism of the past. Failing to get an academic job no longer precludes most Ph.D.s from still being scholars. It may seem trite without further explanation, but we need to reframe scholarship as a creative calling rather than a job. The appropriate model is that of the artist. Many people, including some now famous artists, have composed, written, or painted with hopes of social relevance and commercial success, but without the expectation that the arts would provide their primary source of income. For example, poet William Carlos Williams spent an entire career as a pediatrician and Charles Ives achieved prominence in the insurance industry all the while composing music. Despite what motivational posters may tell us, making a living from one’s creative passions is the exception, not the rule. The following outlines three reasons for considering this scholar-as-artist model.

First, ongoing corporatization is devolving academia into three unpleasant tracks: adjunct teachers with terrible pay and no job security or benefits; rare tenure-track positions which are increasingly treated as grant-generating machines; and the burgeoning administrative jobs best described by David Graeber. The rise of tenured “quit-lit” suggests that academia is no longer the ivory tower where one can glory in the life of the mind (if it ever was). If faculty are slowly becoming subordinates to be managed rather than independent professionals, independent scholarship starts to look more appealing.

Second, it’s not clear that academia is always the best place for all research. If less than ten percent of grant applications are being funded in most fields, this means that the other 90 percent of grant writing is basically wasted effort. Yes, writing grants may sharpen ideas, but not as much as actually doing the research. Although the topic is controversial, there is evidence suggesting that many non-academic jobs would actually afford more free time to do research. The corpus of knowledge probably also benefits from the independent scholar who is freed from chasing fundable hot topics and the conservatism of grant committees.

Third, the lack of academic jobs and grants is unlikely to change any time soon because society consistently undervalues research and scholarship. Scholars in the humanities have been lamenting their decline for a while, social scientists have more recently come under fire, and now even the physical sciences see the sad truth (hence, the difficulty in getting grants). Unfortunately, governments are often irrational when setting spending priorities, so getting more funding for research is a much larger issue that one cannot assume will be solved any time soon.

So what should would-be scholars do in the meantime? In short, get a job and then self-fund your own research. It’s understandable to resent the unfairness of others benefiting from your unpaid labor, but if we choose not to participate in a broken system, we also punish ourselves by denying that which would give us satisfaction. Trying to discourage society from free-riding on unpaid researchers is pointless. Society regularly fails to respond to well-known physical dangers, such as climate change, let alone more esoteric social justice issues.

To create a better future, one must imagine it, and then start acting in that direction. While forging your own path is no simple feat, it can be done. Centuries ago, it was difficult to create a personal science lab, yet history is full of amateur scientists of modest means, such as Michael Faraday and Gregor Mendel, who made important contributions. Although the state of science has advanced in complexity, it’s now even easier to make contributions in many important fields. The humanities and theoretical sciences have always enjoyed the ability to work alone on a shoestring budget. However, we have entered an era of big data, D.I.Y. labs, and open-access academic publishing where even social scientists and molecular biologists can accomplish a great deal without those elusive federal grants and tenured positions. Sure, there are fields that are hampered by the need for huge facilities and government funding (sorry, experimental particle physicists), but there are so many avenues accessible to the independent scholar these days that it’s better to focus on the new possibilities. Of course, we should still be politically active and advocate for more public investment in research, but we shouldn’t let the absurdity of our modern economy and old cultural expectations limit us in the meantime. The lack of patronage is not the hurdle it used to be.

Aspiring artists are often advised to get a “day job” that pays the bills and affords the time to be creative. This is now also practical advice for scholars who still love what they do, but cannot find research jobs either inside or outside academia. Artists are defined by what they produce, not their affiliations or who pays their living expenses. The same is true of the scholar.

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