Going Rogue

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

October 09, 2012

Editor's note: This is the second in a series of columns about a Ph.D. candidate in history who is going on the tenure-track market for the first time. Her initial column can be read here.

I'd like to offer two vignettes.

In the first—a cool spring night during my fourth year of graduate school—I am sitting on the floor of a bar bathroom, not drunk, but devastated. I've just received a gut-wrenching e-mail from my potential adviser. After many long hours of thinking it through, he's decided to leave our department for a better opportunity at a new university. This is the second time I've lost an adviser in the space of a year.

In the second vignette, I've just done something bold. I've declared candidacy, put together a new committee, am finishing up my fifth year, and hope to complete my dissertation by the end of my sixth. There's been a fellowship announcement that, at first glance, doesn't exactly apply to my work, but I think I would gain and contribute a lot during a year at the granting organization. I've just sent off my application. In my cover letter, I've literally called myself a "rogue scholar." I've admitted that I am not the sort of academic that the institution traditionally gives money to, and I've explained why they should take me anyway. Two months later I will be shocked but pleased to receive an acceptance letter.

In this buyer's market for Ph.D.'s, graduate students are used to hearing about the slim chances of getting a job. What I naively failed to realize was that my professors, too, were constantly on the job market to improve their current positions. The truth is that I was able to handle these changes with relative calm because I'd learned how to go rogue. Being a rogue scholar has served me well in my dissertation writing and fellowship applications. Now, I hope it will also help me in my academic job search.

At some point, all graduate students must go rogue. By that, I mean I had to figure out how to make decisions about my research and writing without relying on my advisers for direction. I do not mean that I refused to seek them out when I got stuck, or that I ignored their advice when they offered it. Happily, both professors who left for new positions elsewhere stayed on as members of my dissertation committee. Indeed, I was lucky because they continued to check in with me to see how my work was progressing.

By going rogue, I also mean that I had to forge ahead on my own without waiting to hear back from them, since they were not always easy to reach. I had to choose which sources to look at, when to start writing, and when to begin asking other people to read the words I put on paper. I submitted abstracts to conferences, applied for grants, and got in touch with scholars outside my university. Obviously, I adjusted my course if one committee member or another suggested that I submit to a certain conference or apply for a specific grant. For the most part, though, I made those sorts of decisions on my own.

The point of doing a Ph.D. is to become an expert in your field. The crucial assumption is that although your adviser and committee may be able to offer guidance, you will become the more learned scholar of your topic. I'm not suggesting that advisers should withhold moral support and maybe, if necessary, an occasional cheerleading talk, but I don't think they should be responsible for hounding you to apply for grants, present your work, write your dissertation, or publish.

If you can't go through the process without learning how to plan your own scholarship, you'll never go rogue—and you need to go rogue to finish.

The loss of two advisers made me reach that point sooner than I might have otherwise, precisely because they were farther away, and I had to take action on my dissertation before waiting to meet with them. I could no longer pop my head in their offices when I had a question. Even if they had been around, I was often traveling for my research.

Being absent from my university was less of an issue because I didn't feel too geographically tied to my advisers. Going rogue entailed leaving the comforts of my university, my apartment, and my friends to pursue the research I needed to undertake, and the fellowships that would look better on my CV than departmental money from my own university. Going off on my own was, in a word, lonely; but it has made my work better.

More generally, I think that self-identifying as a rogue scholar has been liberating with respect to my academic persona. It's inspired me to:

  • Avoid "academese," the jargon that plagues the pages of certain books and journals. I would probably have avoided it anyway because I think it's more effective to write in a straightforward way than to get mired in jargon.
  • Eschew the three-part questions that so many academics are fond of asking at conferences and meetings. A colleague taught me the virtues of admitting in plain terms that you don't know the answer to, or explanation for, a portion of someone's talk.
  • Attend lectures beyond the purview of my own academic interests, not to avoid working on my dissertation, but because I know that seeing other people present their work will be useful on the job market.

Going rogue has taught me that it's acceptable to open the academic rule book and choose the rules that serve me best.

I can't take all the credit for my rogue state of mind. I've also noticed the ways in which one of my committee members has encouraged my behavior. Early on in graduate school she would return my papers with tracked changes and comments on every page. Now she still diligently reads my work, but she's more likely to give me a big-picture evaluation and leave the line edits to me. She also expects me to work without her direction during the interim period when she's reading over a chapter or a dissertation draft.

With the exception of my job materials—which she helps with because they involve learning so many new genres of writing in such a short space of time—my adviser doesn't offer very many alternative ideas anymore. Instead, she simply tells me what doesn't work. It's been a difficult transition, but I recognize the need for it as I dive head first into the academic market. If I have to rely on my adviser to articulate why my project is important, then I'm not ready to complete my training.

A rogue state will be useful in a market where hundreds of candidates write cover letters proclaiming that they are the perfect fit for a position. In my applications, I go ahead and call myself a rogue scholar. I explain that I've held conventional fellowships, and an unconventional one. I try to be clear about my qualifications. Then I demonstrate how my interdisciplinary track record will serve a particular institution and its students.

I suppose I'll have to wait to see how well that aspect of my job search pans out.

As a first-time applicant, I picture two ways of thinking about the academic market. One involves the feeling that I can't control any aspect of my own job search, and ends in a pool of self-pity on some bathroom floor. I don't really want to venture back down that particular rabbit hole.

The other allows me to feel as if I have a choice about how I sell myself and my work to a skeptical search committee. I can't say with certainty whether the distinction really matters, but the mind-set has worked well enough for my research and writing—and I know at least one fellowship committee that seemed to like it.

I interpret my ability to separate the pliable rules of academe from the rigid ones as a virtue of going rogue. Versatility seems like the key for a tough job market. I have to hope so; once you've gone rogue, there's no going back.

Eunice Williams is the pseudonym of a Ph.D. candidate in history at a Southern university. She is working as a writing fellow while she searches for her first tenure-track job.