“Become an Independent Scholar and Do What You Love” – Keith Harris

Earlier today my friend, Keith Harris, published his manifesto encouraging people in his position to “reject the academic job market.”

Here is my advice: become an independent scholar and do what you love.

Having known Keith for a number of years I am not surprised by what I read. It’s straight and to the point. Without forming much of an opinion one way or the other I re-tweeted the post. Keith thanked me and suggested that I share my thoughts on the blog. At first I resisted, but taking a break from student comment writing is just what the doctor ordered, so here it goes.

I suspect that Keith is interested in my thoughts on the matter because he considers me to be an independent historian and a fairly successful one at that. While I agree with the first part I will leave others to judge in reference to the latter. It will come as no surprise to many of you that I also agree with Keith that it is possible to find success and happiness as a historian outside the hallowed halls of academe. As I suggested back in 2010, the opportunities to do history, engage fellow historians and the general public has opened up in ways that few could have imagined just a few short years ago.

If by referring to himself as an “independent historian” Keith simply means the ability to produce scholarship and engage audiences of various kinds than there wouldn’t be much to be concerned about beyond figuring out the practical necessities such as income. I do, however, think that in his moment of passion Keith has lost sight of one of the major obstacles that others like him have faced in recent years. Please keep in mind that at this point my thoughts are pure speculation. I have never experienced the frustrations and disappointments related to the current academic job market. Back in 2003 I applied to the University of Virginia’s doctoral program in history and was rejected. Looking back it was the best thing to happen to me for some of the reason Keith mentioned.

I suspect that part of what holds people in Keith’s situation back from taking that final step is the sense of failure that looms over leaving the profession before even getting started as well as the deep commitment to living a certain lifestyle that likely took hold at the end of an undergraduate education. There is something very seductive about the scholarly lifestyle even if the facts suggest that is becoming more and more unattainable. I sometimes wonder what keeps many of my friends in the field going between having to deal with job location, teaching loads, and the quality of their students. Even those who are lucky enough to land a job tell me they have almost no time to research or take part in other aspects of intellectual life.

To whatever extent this is true I wonder if Keith ought to think more carefully about what an independent scholarly community in the field of Civil War history or any field might look like. Perhaps more thought should go into the question of what it means to be an independent historian with a PhD in the age of social media and so many other digital tools that have the power to connect with other scholars and beyond. Keith has cleared this psychological hurdle and is forging ahead. My suggestion is to more directly engage others who may already have an inkling of such a life.

OK, back to comment writing.

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

Purchase your copy today!

10 comments… add one
  • Rob Wick Jan 18, 2014 @ 15:04

    One fly in the proverbial ointment where independent scholarship is concerned was tentatively touched on by Brendan, and that is the amount of resources available to academics as opposed to those who practice history without benefit of institution. As an independent scholar I have no outside access to JSTOR or other databases, although JSTOR is headed in the right direction with its JPASS program, and there are very few research grants available to independents. I joined the National Coalition of Independent Scholars for a year, but never really got much for my membership fees. Even grant programs that invite independents to apply, like the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Stipend program, seems weighted in favor of those with academic ties. Obviously no one’s getting rich off these funds, but I would like to have the opportunity to at least apply.

    What’s needed is a better appreciation for the role played in the field by those, like myself, who have no graduate degree but whose research and scholarship standards are just as rigorous as those held by a Ph.D. I’ve never attended a conference where I’ve felt my work was not appreciated, but the path it took for me to get there was burdened further by a lack of institutional affiliation and the concomitant funds made available to those who have said affiliation.


    • Janet Wasserman Jun 22, 2014 @ 15:21

      Dear Rob and All,

      My apologies for the lateness of my posting but the issue under discussion last January is still a live one. I’m sorry to hear that you found little to satisfy you, Rob, as a former member of the National Coalition of Independent Scholars. Let me update you – there is a new executive leadership and Board of Directors that are working hard to renew, enlarge and improve NCIS and the benefits it offers it members.

      To speak specifically about JPASS/JSTOR – early in 2014 NCIS negotiated a significant discount for its members for JPASS – 50%, which is as good as the major disciplinary associations get. We also negotiated a group discount subscription to Chronicle of Higher Education that began this year. We have instituted new Research and Conference Grants and plan for their implementation and award this Fall.

      We are in a major redesign project for our web site on which these and other benefits will be listed for an Independent Scholar to have with membership. We are aiming to complete the web project and have the new site up this year. In the meantime, we left the old site up for contact.

      I can assure you that we are concerned about all Independent Scholars and especially our members. We are growing the list of benefits that come with membership – and, best of all, we are well along with planning a national conference in June, 2015 at Yale University. We’d love to hear from you, Rob, and tell you more.

      Best regards,

      Janet Wasserman
      Secretary, NCIS

  • Brendan Bossard Jan 17, 2014 @ 20:56

    I have a Bachelor’s degree in Social Work, so feel free to take my comment with a bag or two of salt.

    In my opinion, the situation described here could be a good thing. I am a philosopher by nature, and catch myself dreaming about what it would be like to live a “scholarly lifestyle” once in a while. I certainly am intelligent enough to have earned the degree. I also love reading and researching things. But there is something insidious in the picture I get: I slowly transform into a dusty old “expert” in an increasingly narrow field of knowledge, surrounded by books in my den, entrapped by institutional tradition, and out of touch with the outside world.

    I, personally, need to stay free of that prison. We need scholarly institutions; they provide support and resources for historical research and analysis that would be much harder to obtain by individuals. There is nothing quite so invigorating as independent scholarship, though, because independent scholars love what they do, and they are much more likely to make a fuss when they find that conventional wisdom should be challenged. In short, institutions preserve, and independent scholars advance.

  • Graham Jan 17, 2014 @ 17:03

    I think I have about one years’ worth of rejection before I call it quits, and I’m already two months into that year. Not that I lack persistence, and not that I am impatient, but certain parts of life that depend on stability and income beckon.

    At this point I think that earning a Ph.D was kind of a pointless career move, but I didn’t know it when I started. If you have enough idealism to do this, not amount of real-life horror stories are going to dissuade you. (I’ll say that no PhD-granting history department is going to present these dismal facts to new recruits–yet another tragic fact for the newbie candidate.) Having said that, I am glad I did it. The intellectual satisfaction is worth it, but is also the thing that you will gnaw at you as you eyeball the escape hatch. That, and the tremendous student loan debt I have, is the only regret.

  • Keith Harris (@MKeithHarris) Jan 17, 2014 @ 15:39

    Thanks for posting this thoughtful response, Kevin. While I am certainly passionate about this subject, my original post was less of a fleeting moment and more of a direct expression of an accumulation of thoughts. I am saying what I suspect many others are thinking. I think reforming the system is pointless. The traditional vocational path (degree/postdoc/tenure track) is quickly fading into the past. Further, I expect that such linear thinking/planing will soon be obsolete. I am quite convinced that there is more than one way to do history, as it were. While I am happy that I went on to earn a doctorate, this degree is not necessary to produce first-rate scholarship (as you have demonstrated). Since there are multiple ways to have your voice heard and people everywhere who wish to learn, why limit yourself to the traditional academic job?
    I hardly think of myself as one who knows what the future holds – but I will say that it is a brave new world and the potential to reach an audience (and yes, make a good living) is without precedent. So when I call for people to reject convention, I am also challenging them (and myself) to create and to innovate.

    • Patrick Young Jan 17, 2014 @ 16:05

      I am challenging my law students to do the same. The well trodden career paths of the past are grown over with weeds. The traditional routes have abandoned you. Time to take responsibility and innovate.

      • Keith Harris (@MKeithHarris) Jan 17, 2014 @ 16:24


      • Brad Jan 17, 2014 @ 16:31


        I’m wondering what you’re suggesting to your students. When I got out of law school, I got a job at a large company’s law department and have been there ever since and happily so. I didn’t take the law firm route although in retrospect I probably wish I had.

        • Patrick Young Jan 17, 2014 @ 18:10

          Unemployment among new law grads runs around 50% six months out of school. Students from second and third tier law schools face 150,000 dollars worth of debt with curtailed prospects for earning a living. My clinic tries to prepare students to assess underserved communities to set up low-cost practices. Several have already done so. Touro Law School is starting an “incubator program” to do something like this as well.

          • Brad Jan 17, 2014 @ 21:58

            The problem is that, frankly, there are too many law schools and people who want to be lawyers. I saw this coming in 1980 when I graduated law school. I saw this happen in the history profession in the 1970s, when I was studying history in a masters program at Vanderbilt and realized that jobs were not plentiful and that the history profession could probably get along without me. I was probably in Graham’s position at that time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *