Companion to the Dose and Reboot, the RS Salon (and attendant ‘seal of approval’) supports those scholars working outside their ‘official’ disciplines. It’s an increasingly inter-disciplinary world; we should promote and celebrate those who–as academics, physicians, alt-acs, independent scholars, authors, and just plain curious and intrepid souls–add to our shared knowledge and the search for what it means to be human.
Today, I am pleased to present the Rogue Scholar journey of Dr. Jennifer Roberts. Dr. Roberts did her Ph.D. in early modern (Renaissance) literature and spent a fair amount of time studying the history of science and medicine. She is now writing a novel, a piece of historical fiction loosely based on the life of Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, a 17th-century writer, natural philosopher, and poet. In addition, Dr. Roberts is the mother of two daughters, wife of a family practice doctor, writing teacher, board president of a nonprofit library, and caretaker of one very freaky greyhound dog.
These things, she reminds us, don’t exactly mesh smoothly–but Dr. Roberts, in her life, her work, and her writing, serves as one more shining example of how many paths there truly are (and how to forge your own).
A PhD on the Rogue Path
It’s not easy to drive away from friends, a career, and a city you’ve grown to love, but that’s exactly what I did in the summer of 2001. My husband maneuvered our tiny U-Haul truck out of the married-student housing complex at the University of Minnesota while my 18-month-old daughter and I cried: Lucy because she hated riding in cars, me because I was scared to leave my life behind.
My husband had finished his residency in family medicine and had accepted a job at a community health center in rural Grants Pass, Oregon, a job that would allow us to be closer to both our extended families. I had passed my preliminary exams over a year before and was drafting my dissertation. It would be no problem to finish the diss long-distance, I assured my advisor, my friends, and (kind of) myself: with the internet and e-mail, anything was possible, right?
I didn’t allow myself to think beyond the dissertation; I’d known even before going into the PhD program that I might not pursue a career in academia. My grad school advisors (the brilliant and kind Lucy McDiarmid, then at Villanova where I did a Master’s degree, and the wonderful John Watkins, at the University of Minnesota) had been conscientious in detailing the vagaries of the academic job market. Neither would allow a student to labor under the misconception that a PhD guaranteed a job.
Coming from a blue-collar community, the first person in my family to graduate college, I knew well that the pursuit of intellectual interests was a rare privilege—one I felt I had earned, but that I certainly wouldn’t squander. I loved writing my dissertation, which combined my love of early modern literature with my growing fascination about the history of medicine (“Getting an earful”: The Place and Process of Hearing in Early Modern England). That was, I assured myself, enough.
And it has been, mostly. Since graduating with my PhD in 2007, I’ve gone down some unexpected and enlightening paths. I’ve taught at a local community college, served as interim executive director and board president of my embattled local library (read more here: www.josephinelibrary.org), and raised two wonderful, brilliant, funny daughters.
Still, in spite of the busy-ness of my days, I find myself haunted by the “could-have-been.” For a while it was hard to hear about friends who’d landed coveted tenure-track positions (it no longer is, and I now feel only happiness for my friends when the tenure announcements roll in!). I used to have dreams—not aspirations, but honest-to-goodness, REM-stage dreams—in which I lived alone in Minneapolis, surrounded by books, pushing with all my might on a door through which all of my mundane responsibilities struggled to enter.
Lately, though, I’ve come to peace, or at least a temporary truce, with the decisions I’ve made. Critical to that acceptance has been my work on a novel begun shortly after graduation and—finally!—almost complete: a work of historical fiction based on the life of Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle. The novel’s main character is Cavendish’s companion, and it involves alchemy, early modern mathematics, the English Civil War, and the power of maternal love.
I’ve also started a blog, Out of Time in which I can share some of the odd flotsam and bizarre jetsam I encounter in my research.
Maybe most exciting to me is the realization that I’m not alone, that there’s a whole bunch of us who have made choices outside of the tenure track. Whether those folks are called altac, postac, or Rogue Scholars, we’ve chosen work that the PhD track doesn’t present as possible, or ideal, or even desirable. Regardless of what we call ourselves, there seems to be an agreement that our training in scholarship and research has prepared us for fields we never imagined, and that the deep thinking necessary to attaining a PhD has been—for me at least—its own kind of reward.