Essay on finding your alt-ac career without losing your mind
The Rogue Scholar Strikes a Balance
May 6th marked the one-year anniversary of my alternative-academic (alt-ac) career. It began, in many ways, with my keynote address to the ALHHS (Archivists and Librarians in the History of Health Sciences), and just last week I went to the meeting again — this time as a full participant. I’ll have a lot of explaining to do, I thought. But I didn’t. In a year’s time, I have made a full transition into my new career, so much so that a colleague at the subsequent American Association for the History of Medicine conference asked, “Why wouldn’t you be here? You belong.”
I begin here to illustrate a point. Outside the academy, people do change careers, and with more frequency. Inside academe, though, I encountered first a sense of impossibility, and then a sense of indignation. Those who choose to embark on this alt-ac journey frequently do so as mavericks. I described this in a recent post for Magical Words: the rogue is an outsider. Imagine the highway white with moonlight and scholarly rogues riding from shadowed enclaves, brandishing the sharpened steel of alt-ac rigor. It takes a thick skin and the convergence of opportunities to make the leap from tenure track into an unstable world of soft money, public engagement and freelancing. Along the way, it is possible to lose sensitivity. We run the risk of not recognizing the destination when we get there — and of being suspicious when anyone tells us we “belong.”
Some of this is natural. “Belonging” is two-edged, breeding exclusion along with inclusion. What my colleague revealed to me, however, was my own lingering tendency to doubt and to suspect others of doubting. Once we have made the transition, we have to make a similar adjustment to our sense of self, striking a balance between what we did and what we do, how we work and who we are. This is partly about work/life balance, but it is also about a kind of internal balance, the ledger against which we are always measuring ourselves and our decisions. In this third installment of the Rogue Scholar, I want to talk about finding that equilibrium without losing our way.
In my last post, The Rogue Scholar Goes Digital, I talked about digital networks as a way of finding your feet and advertising your work. That was one of the many nets I cast as I sorted out what type of career I ultimately wanted. Six months in, I could put names to this amorphous creation: research associate and guest curator (my titles at the Dittrick Medical History Center); public engagement and outreach (also for the museum); managing editor of Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry (a medical anthropology journal); teaching fellow (Case Western Reserve University); medical humanities freelance writer and blogger. As you can imagine, that is hard to put on a business card. Through the winter and into spring, however, I noticed something. Despite first appearances, these are all related. They could — they had to be — combined, because I was wearing out.
Having five jobs murders your immune system, but whenever I managed to gain ground, I used the free time to continue working longer and harder. Over time, I began to realize something important: my workload wasn’t the problem; I was the problem. As alt-acs, we are the engineers of our own future. But we must be smart about it. There is nothing wrong with casting a wide net, but when you start catching things, you need a sense of what to keep and what to let go.
In the beginning, I was a bit indiscriminate about the projects I undertook — mostly because I had to be. Take my first freelance project, for instance. I am writing Death's Summer Coat about cultural grief rituals. It is very important to me, but in many respects this project doesn’t overlap with my work at the museum. By contrast, my second book project, on forensics, will be part of my research for the Dittrick. The same can be said for the teaching. Initially, my class didn’t make use of the museum collection; now, I teach the class in the museum. Similarly, my public outreach presently extends to promote the library as well as the museum, so my conferences about public and digital engagement exist under that umbrella. Essentially, I’ve been gathering sheep into the fold. My “jobs’ remain separate, but are increasingly linked into a single coherent career. Best of all, by remaining semi-freelance, I have more writing time (especially for fiction — High Stakes came out in April). What changed to make this possible? Not my workload, but my perspective. And that brings me to the second set of checks and balances.
The Internal Ledger
When I left my tenure-track appointment, I believed the two primary obstacles to my success would be funding limitations and potential antagonism from peers. The hunt for funding has been challenging but also rewarding. The Cleveland Medical Library Association generously supplies half my salary, and the rest is made up through my editorial work, teaching, and freelance. “Soft” money (grants, etc.) may seem unstable, but it is not uncommon in museum and library work. As to the second obstacle, I did encounter some antagonism (something I talk about in my first Rogue Scholar article). But as with so much in life, my worst enemy turned out to be me. I make unreasonable demands. I expect too much. I abuse myself over the slightest misstep. And because of this, I’ve come to expect it from others.
What do we really expect from our colleagues? Do we think they will take us at face value and respect our achievements, or do we expect them to sneer at our every move, watching like vultures for our next failure? As I spoke with colleagues and met new friends at the AAHM, I was reminded that — to most of them — I am not a “former tenure-track” person at all. I am a historian, a writer, a medical humanities scholar who works in public engagement and promotion for museums. If there is any baggage from my former life, it only got there because I brought it. I don’t mean to suggest that those seeking alt-ac won’t encounter hostility — or that the sense of antagonism we feel is imaginary. It can be terribly real, and many of my friends can attest to its razor’s edge. However, we are not beholden to the naysayers, nor is it with their perspective that we have principally to deal. It is our own. And this is where social supports become crucial.
We need friends and colleagues, both inside and outside academia. We need people to talk to, groups to follow, Twitter discussions and face-to-face meetings. Happily, these support systems do exist. One notable consortium is From PhD to Life. Everything from resume-writing to transition tips may be found there, and a nice collection of other resources. Another excellent blog is PhDs at Work, which connects Ph.D.s across industries. The most useful to me, however, has been the community of support I’ve encountered on Twitter and through a cohort of colleagues who, like me, also left the more standard route for Ph.D.s. Knowing that you aren’t alone — and that balance cannot be achieved alone — is an enormous part of doing #altac without losing your focus or your sanity. It’s a different kind of belonging.
The internal ledger must be a flexible one. We aren’t superhuman, even if we are multidisciplinary and multifocused. I do a lot of different things — I manage multiple digital platforms and I write almost without ceasing (about 300 pages of work since January). The most common question I get is, “Do you ever sleep?” The answer: I do now. Going rogue is a challenge, and writing your own script means constant pressure to perform. It’s bold and sometimes it can be overwhelming, but I’m learning to balance this new career better than I balanced the old one. We must let go of lingering doubts — and to stop expecting them from others. We must make peace with our agendas, combining and overlapping where we can. But mostly, we must choose to be well, and the best way to do that is to reach out. In seeking to strike a balance, strike up a conversation.
We are listening.