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21st Century Scholar: When You Can’t Always Get What You Want

Evelyn Tsitas' chapter in the 2015 book New Human Fictions came from a conference paper and chapter of her PhD
Evelyn Tsitas’ chapter in the 2015 book New Human Fictions came from a conference paper and chapter of her PhD

It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that a person in possession of a PhD must be in want of an academic job. It is also a truth, universally understood, that academic jobs apart from sessional work are alas thin on the ground.

What do you do if you want a career in academia but you also need a steady and reliable income? If you aren’t willing to be sessional fodder and find your income dries up the moment face to face teaching contact ends?

What indeed.

My suggestion is to think outside the box. Or, in the words of the philosopher Mick Jagger, if you can’t always get what you want, you can find sometime that you get what you need.

I was wondering what to blog about after returning from overseas when I read Aleisha Ward’s timely post in The Thesis Whisperer “How to construct a DIY scholarly career”.

My own blog has been a little quiet as I have recently spent five weeks presenting at three conferences, travelling to four countries for my research, and on coming home, launching back into my full time university job and life as a single mother to two demanding teenage sons. Plus, I have been furiously busy writing a rollicking adventure story for an independent publisher and putting a book proposal together for an academic publisher. Both ventures which came about as requests for me to pitch, rather than the other way around.

diana huntress

My recent time spent trawling museums and art galleries around the world was with purpose – research for my creative and academic projects. I am interested in hybridity and the human animal relationship throughout history. Now, if you are reading this and thinking “research and conference trip and university job – being courted by publishers – what is this woman talking about – she obviously has an academic career, already, lucky her” I can tell you that I do not have an academic job.

My research trip and conferences were self funded. I used my annual leave and instead of lying on a Bali beach, chose to back my career. I see it as being an entrepreneurial 21st century scholar. Hot desking academia, as it were, without a university ‘home’ as an academic, but still at home within the university in a professional role.

I have made my DIY scholarly career work ‘outside the box’ – but only because I have treated an academic career the same way that writers and actors have always seen their careers. As precarious, patchwork affairs made up of many different strings to one’s bow. Some teaching, self-directed research, writing paid and unpaid, spending time promoting one’s work, networking, getting published or pitching to publishers – the writer’s equivalent of going on endless casting calls.

Not every job in a university is for academics, and not every PhD graduate working in a university has an academic job. But those who do have a PhD and work in professional roles in a university bring their highly developed research skills and scholarly way of seeing the world to their positions.

typewriter keys

Freshly minted PhD graduates want an academic job because of the research time. Yet these days in academia, if you are lucky you get one research day a week. I am always surprised by how little full time academics manage to achieve of this time allocation.

As a 21st century scholar, I have managed to published widely and present my research at many conferences in many different subject areas. Papers I wrote for conferences several years ago are being requested for use in teaching programs on the other side of the world. My ‘research day’ is on the weekend. Or time gathered together over a week’s worth of lunchtimes – just the way I did my PhD while working full time.

It takes focus and discipline, but we can all ‘save time’ like we can save money and get serious about our health. Just as financial planners implore us to stop buying take away coffee every day, saving up the money instead, I suggest those who want research days to save up half an hour every lunchtime and two hours a night and a day on the weekend for research.

The beauty of this saved time is that no one can take it away from you.

Like Ward, I take a long term view of my career, and am building towards standing out in a crowd while supporting my family. I work in a university art gallery, running the traditional and social media campaigns, as well as the education and public programs. Like Ward, I find the non academic work in the university very rewarding.

In fact, I was reminded of this while listening to radio interviews with the very articulate Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, as part of the promotion of his Australian tour.

I was inspired to track down a quote that aligned with an answer he gave in response to a query about how to become an astronaut. His reply really resonated with me, making me think about its application to my own career.

“Start moving your life in that direction. Look at who you want to be, and start sculpting yourself into that person. You may not get exactly where you thought you’d be, but you will be doing things that suit you in a profession you believe in.”

What great advice.

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