Crafting a Research Practice After the Ph.D.

If you’re contemplating a nonfaculty career, the idea of giving up your research might be keeping you from going forward, writes Melissa Dalgleish. But such a move doesn't mean you have to relinquish your passion.

August 14, 2017

I fell into a dual career as a researcher and a research administrator. I submitted a request to finish my Ph.D. part-time to the graduate studies office on the same day I started my first job in that very same office. My university hired me to manage research funding and the professional development program for graduate students. I planned to finish writing my dissertation in my free time. I didn't have kids or a second job, and I had the support of my new bosses and colleagues, so the plan seemed workable.

Long story short: it wasn't. You're not surprised.

I wrote almost none of my dissertation during the two years I worked at the university where I was doing my Ph.D. Learning how to be an employee was a job in itself. I'd already written so much by the end of the workday -- reports, letters, applications, guidelines, articles, web content, process documents -- that I had nothing left in the tank for my own writing. Developing a sustainable writing practice had to wait. It took switching to a job at a research institute where I was responsible for 1,200 students and postdocs, not 6,500, and had a 30-minute walk to work, not an hourlong subway ride.

I started getting up at five most mornings and writing until 7:45 a.m., then getting ready for work and starting at 9 a.m. I'd often pretend to be leaving voice messages for someone else as I walked to the office. I was actually recording ideas and encouragement for myself to listen to later. I finished my dissertation a year after I started work at the research institute and defended it a year ago.

Somewhere along the way, I realized that I was a writer. Even though I didn't have to get up at dawn to do it anymore, I very much wanted to keep writing about the lives of female poets and academics after World War II. My feminism means working to make academic and writing communities more fair; helping others understand their histories as sexist spaces is part of that work. What’s more, doing research and writing feeds my brain and my heart in ways that my day job doesn't, as much as I love it.

Could I continue to do both in a way that was sustainable in the long term?

Moving into a nonfaculty job shouldn't mean having to give up a passion for research and writing. If you’re contemplating a nonfaculty career, giving up your research might feel like what’s keeping you from moving forward. I needed to see if I could find a sustainable way to continue being a researcher and building a career in research administration, one that would let me have a life that included friends, hobbies and family, too.

Those are the questions I asked myself, that I’m still asking myself, as I renegotiate my research career as an independent scholar. It’s going well for me so far -- my first book will come out sometime next year -- and I hope that some of my questions and suggestions will help you in developing your own research practice off the tenure track.

I want to be clear that I am not advocating that you should keep doing research while working at something else as a way to find your way back onto the tenure-track path. I'm talking about becoming an independent scholar because you love research and also the benefits and advantages of a nonprofessorial career. (There are so, so many.) If that’s you, read on -- and ask yourself the following questions.

Why are you doing it? Why do you want to do research and your day job, especially if that research is going to cost you money? What does it feed in you? What do you think it can change in your field or in the world? Is it going to help you build your career or your own business?

Where will you take the time? I am deliberate in using the word "take" instead of "find." None of us have unused pockets of time waiting to be discovered. Time spent on research is time not spent doing other things, so you'll have to figure out what time you want to take. Family time? Random internet surfing? Sleeping? (That’s me.) Your lunch hour? Weekends?

Where will you get the money? Research isn't free. Even basic library access can cost hundreds of dollars. What about research trips, supplies, open-access fees? Are there grants for which you can apply as an independent scholar? Are you willing to contribute your labor for free to a system that didn’t have room for you or that you chose to leave? Continuing to pursue research while working is more possible in the humanities and social sciences than it is in the basic sciences. There, volunteering your time in someone else's lab may be the only way to stay involved. I don't know anyone who can afford their own scanning electron microscope!

Will someone pay or support you to do this? Is there the potential for financial gain, or at least a chance to break even, in doing research? Could your next project be well suited for a trade press, which is more likely to pay good royalties? Are there news outlets, blogs or websites that might pay you to write about your research for the public? Would your employer support your research? (The kinds of employers that are willing to do this may surprise you. A friend who is also an independent scholar works as a proposal writer for a private-sector company. They let her do research during slow times at work and are funding her small press.)

How will you maintain research relationships and collaborations? Once you're no longer a full-time academic, it can be harder to maintain relationships and build new collaborations. You're no longer down the hall or across the campus. If you decide to use your vacation time for actual vacation rather than going to conferences, you're not going to have that same regular network-strengthening time. How will you stay connected with the field in which you're working? I decided that I would attend local conferences, keep up with lots of people in my field on social media and get the scoop from friends who are academics in my discipline.

How can you take advantage of the freedoms of being an independent scholar? What could your research look like now that you're not bound by the constraints of the academy in the same ways? What does it look like if you're writing for an audience beyond the academy? Challenging the conventions of your discipline in ways that you couldn't if you were vying for tenure? Blending the best parts of academic and nonacademic thinking, rigor and style? I find these questions exciting! It's a whole new world! I signed a contract to publish my dissertation monograph with an excellent academic press, but my editor is as interested as I am in pushing the boundaries of format and style and making it appealing in style and cost to a broad readership.

How are you going to deal with maintaining a dual identity as an employee and a researcher/writer? To what extent will you let those things overlap? How do you identify -- as a researcher or as whatever you do from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.? As both or neither? What happens when your research makes demands on you that impact your job, or vice versa? What strategies will you use to make sure that you don't start to resent or neglect either? What would you do if your ambition for one realm of your life meant that you had to limit what you could do in another? Does work give, or does your research?

How might your research impact your employment? Despite happening on your own time, your research could impact your job. In addition, your employer can have a surprising amount of reach into the rest of your life. Make sure that you understand your employer’s rules about conflicts of interest, intellectual property, use of work resources, second jobs and use of the company name or logo. Your employer might forbid writing at lunch on your work computer. It may not allow you to name where you work in your publications. It can even limit the number of hours per week you can do paid research.

Becoming an independent scholar while building a career can be challenging. But if you think through the major issues before you start and get creative about finding the time, resources and energy, it can provide you with an energizing, engaging and exciting way to keep doing work that you love.

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Melissa Dalgleish runs a center that supports the graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in a teaching hospital-based research institute affiliated with the University of Toronto. She is a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.


Melissa Dalgleish

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