A Scholar, But Not a Professor

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By Michael R. Wing

I earned my Ph.D. in earth sciences, and left academic life 20 years ago. As a high-school teacher, I have tenure, I earn a secure six-figure income, and I’ve published as many peer-reviewed papers and books as some professors, and more than others. I don’t share all of that to brag, but rather, to persuade the many Ph.D.s stuck in low-paying adjunct jobs that they can pursue their intellectual interests outside of academe without sacrificing their dignity or their family’s finances.

I’ve done fieldwork on five continents with outside organizations paying my way. I’ve won grants from corporations and the National Geographic Society, and collaborated with organizations like NASA, the University of California system, and the National Park Service. I’ve done projects involving marine biology (elephant seals), archaeology, and the microbiology of extreme environments like deserts, mountaintops, and the Arctic.

It took time for me to discover the opportunities that were hiding in plain sight. Along the way I’ve met other independent scholars who use ordinary resources to do extraordinary things:

  • I knew a high-school teacher, Ray (Bones) Bandar — he passed away last month at age 90 — who collected 7,000 animal skulls for the California Academy of Sciences as a volunteer field associate. The museum put on a giant and well-publicized exhibition of his collection. It’s probable that no one person will ever amass a collection like that again.
  • I know a retired third-grade teacher named Ralph Shanks whose research is on California Indian baskets. His books are beautiful but also so scholarly that the University of California hired him to teach anthropology.
  • Ralph’s neighbor, Charlotte Torgovitsky, is a self-taught expert on California native plants and is in demand as a consultant. Her native-plants garden has been featured in magazines and books. She learns how to propagate native plants by trial and error since, for some species, nobody else knows how.

I know other people — engineers, poets, naturalists, and schoolteachers — who have intellectual lives as rich as any professor’s.

All of those people pursue projects that are long-term, scholarly, creative, and original — things nobody has done before. They think about their projects often, even when they’re not working on them. The French have a related concept they call "le jardin secret" (the secret garden) that most often describes an extramarital affair. I’m not urging former academics to have an affair. What I am saying: Having an absorbing but part-time scholarly project to occupy your waking thoughts is sort of like having a romantic affair.

To pursue that affair outside of academe, you need a "real" job with benefits and decent pay. Find that job — at a school, a company, or a government agency — and you can still live like a professor. Here’s how we do it.

We don’t work on projects by ourselves. We affiliate with institutions and collaborate with people. It really helps when seeking access, grant money, and advice to be able to represent yourself as more than just yourself.

Affiliation gives you access to resources, opens doors, confers status, and gives you credibility. A college or university affiliation is a valuable asset because universities have libraries, collections, and helpful librarians. You don’t need to be a full-time student or employee to get a university library card. Other useful affiliates include schools, government agencies, museums, libraries, technology companies, historical societies, arts organizations, TV or radio stations, newspapers, and environmental organizations.

If you work for one of those, you already have an affiliation. If not, there are plenty of titles — singular or in combination — that you can negotiate, such as "adjunct," "visiting," "associate," "volunteer," "in residence," "researcher," "docent," "intern," or "board member." As Herman Melville wrote in Moby Dick: "A whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard."

We aren’t afraid to apply for things. Applying for grants, programs, and contests is like buying a lottery ticket, except with better odds. When you apply for programs and grants that seem like a good fit with your interests and experience, the odds are not one in a million. I get between 25 percent and 50 percent of the things I apply for. It helps that I have a record of past achievements, that my school administrators support me, and, most important, that I know how to read the application materials and figure out what the funders want.

But my best asset is the taste of success. Sure, I strike out plenty of times. But having scored big before, no application form ever seems onerous to me. While I wait for the decision I get to daydream like any lottery ticket holder, except I know I actually have a decent shot at winning.

We travel with a purpose. Traveling with a sense of mission is more satisfying and more transformative than travel without one, and you still get to experience the hotels, restaurants, and tourist sites that anybody else does.

The mission might be to attend a conference or to do location-specific research, whether it is scientific fieldwork, archaeology, examining museum collections, or reading texts in library archives. In the past decade I’ve been lucky enough to travel to the Galapagos (study tour for teachers); Northern Finland and Alaska (archaeology expedition); Namibia, the Canadian Arctic, the Mojave Desert, the United Arab Emirates, and the Himalayas (microbiology project with NASA); Costa Rica (sea-turtle conservation); the Pacific Ocean (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research cruise); and California’s White Mountains (bristlecone-pine study).

On nearly all of those trips, outside organizations paid my expenses. I have some great memories, like the time a stranger in Madinat Zayed, in the United Arab Emirates, invited a few of us scientists to visit his camel stables. I was expecting some place dusty and smelling like animals, but instead we sat on rugs and cushions outside under the stars, with a big wood fire and a widescreen TV. Servants brought us dates and coffee, hot milk with ginger, and water pipes while we talked about world affairs for hours and ate a delicious dinner of chicken biryani with our fingers. Or, my day off in the Galapagos when a teacher from Arizona and I bicycled across the island in the fog and went swimming with sea turtles on a deserted beach.

Pursuing a research project always makes for a much more authentic travel experience.

We also teach and mentor others. You can do that even if teaching isn’t your day job. Every city has extension courses, adult-education classes, community colleges, and arts organizations. Many nonprofit organizations offer ways to teach classes and field institutes. If you’re an artist, you may take on an apprentice. If you’re a scientist or a historian, you may get an intern from a local college.

We publish our work. We do that for our own satisfaction, for a measure of credit, and for posterity. Articles in peer-reviewed journals are the gold standard of course, but we also publish in newspapers. magazines, newsletters, books, web pages, and blogs. It’s easier now than ever to get the word out about your work.

Nobody should accept poverty and insecurity as the price of living an intellectual life. It’s pretty easy to have it both ways. The first step is to take a normal, permanent job, with benefits, at a school, a company, or a government agency. The second step is to start a project, just like you would if you were a full-time faculty member.

So if you feel like your Ph.D. — and the expectations that come with having one — is running your life instead of the other way around, take it from me: You can enjoy the best parts of being a professor without having to become one.

Michael R. Wing earned his Ph.D. in earth sciences at the University of California at San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography. He is a science teacher at Sir Francis Drake High School in California, and author of Passion Projects for Smart People, published last November

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