How to construct a DIY scholarly career

Can you still be a scholar without an academic post? Increasingly, people are making this seeming contradiction work for them – in diverse and creative ways.
This post is by Aleisha Ward, who was one of the first graduates of the Bachelor of Music (Jazz Performance) at the University of Auckland (2003). She holds a MA in Jazz History and Research from Rutgers University (2006) and a PhD in Music from the University of Auckland researching jazz in New Zealand 1920-1955. She is a writer, editor, lecturer and tutor in music history, and also works in a library. Aleisha writes about jazz in New Zealand for Zealand Musician, on, and on Twitter as @nzjazzhistory. She writes about other topics on, and about jazz flute for

You’ve made it- your PhD is bright and shiny, so now getting a scholarly career off the ground should be easy right?

Well, as many of you know, not necessarily. Many departments in tertiary institutions are suffering from budgets slashed to ribbons and there are fewer and fewer jobs out there for early career lecturers/researchers, or even long term tutoring or professional teaching contracts. So what to do if this is what you really want to do and you can’t?

This is the position I found myself in in late 2013- I’d just graduated and I was realising very quickly that the jobs just weren’t there to be had (they were when I started…sigh). To compound this people kept telling me that it would take about 5 years (on average- several people I’ve talked to have been eking things out for closer to 10 years!) to get any sort of ‘permanent’ job.

Screen Shot 2015-07-03 at 7.02.42 pmWith very few academic jobs to apply for I decided that I’d just have to do it myself: get more strings to my bow and establish myself in such a way that when I do find jobs to apply for I can stand out from the crowd, or if I don’t find that mythical job I have enough skills and contacts to become an independent scholar.

Since I’ve begun this process I’ve found that established academics and PhD students are interested in how I’m doing this so I thought I’d share it with a wider audience- I know I’m not the only person in this position. You’ll already know that getting articles published in peer- reviewed journals is one important aspect, but what else can you be doing?

First off having a job as base income is a necessity and working at a university in any capacity is useful because it keeps you close to what’s going on in your field. I’m a music historian (specifically of jazz) and I work part time at the Music and Dance Library at my alma mater- this has given me opportunities for tutoring both there and at another nearby university that I wouldn’t have had if I wasn’t on the ground- while these were just one semester contracts they’re useful for building up the teaching side of my CV and demonstrate that I can teach in areas outside of my immediate specialist area.

The rest of my income is from freelancing as a writer, proof-reader, editor, and a public lecturer, which are useful in establishing myself as a music historian and commentator. I proof and edit articles and theses in music, which expands my contacts, builds good will, keeps me in touch with the latest research going on, and also keeps my own hand in on these tasks (useful when it comes to my own work!).

As a writer I cover popular scholarly work and music journalism, and by writing in popular forums (including my own blogs) I’m expanding contacts, my audience, and getting my name out there in a number of capacities. I’m starting to make a name for myself in this area and this is beginning to translate into people coming to me for commentary on my area of expertise. As a bonus I can also publish parts of my research work that are considered too small or insignificant for academic publication (and occasionally I’m paid to do so!). Although some academics might tell you that being seen as populist is an impediment to your academic career I believe that in the long run (these days, especially) being the right type of populist could work in your favour- institutions certainly won’t look down on you if you’re an established and respected commentator in your field.

Don’t neglect social media either- it too can be used as a tool to establish you in your field. I have recently started a micro-blogging venture on Twitter, and trying to articulate a meaningful snippet of jazz history successfully in 140 characters is an incredible challenge. It makes me rethink what’s important about what I’m trying to say and how I’m trying to say it- we learn to write long in a PhD, but writing short is actually much more challenging (and when you think about it much more necessary: abstracts, proposals, grant applications, etc., are more likely to be well under 1000 words than not)! However, you need to really think about what you’re trying to achieve before you start and also how and who you’re going to engage with, otherwise it will become just another [insert social media of your choice] account, and that’s not the most beneficial to establishing yourself in your field.

My latest venture is public lecturing, which has multiple benefits: I’m establishing myself in my field, widening my audience, building up teaching experience and gaining experience in course design. Approach community learning venues such as Laneway Learning and your local public library- they’re always interested in articulate people who can talk on interesting topics, and you get the benefit of learning how to articulate your ideas to a non-specialist audience. Also try Continuing Education at universities- when I approached my university’s Continuing Education office they were very enthusiastic about having me organise and design an Introduction to Jazz course. It’s quite amazing how receptive people are when you approach them.

These ventures are all about long-term strategy- if it’s going to take five years (or more) to get a long term contract at a tertiary institution I need to be doing things that make my position very strong and make me stand out from the crowd. At the same time all of these ventures are incredibly rewarding in a number of ways, and I definitely encourage anyone else in the same position to give it a go, or if you’re already doing so please share your ideas and experiences in the comments.

Related posts

Academic on the inside?

Transitioning out of academia


16 thoughts on “How to construct a DIY scholarly career

  1. Janet Thomas says:

    Thanks for a very interesting post. I have just started a blog based on my PhD thesis, mainly because I didn’t want my research to languish in a box somewhere. A blog is one way to disseminate my ideas, but I worry about having to simplify it for a broader audience.

  2. Mirjam Godskesen says:

    Thank you for sharing this experience. It was very interesting to read because I do very much the same: I have a Part time lecturer position (20% of my time) and this work keeps me close to academia. Besides that I do PhD supervisor courses, PhD coaching and writing workshops as a consultant. And since I organized my working life like this I have actually had more time to read and write academic articles than I has earlier, when I had a full position at the university. And best of all – I decide myself what I want to do!

    Good luck to all of you who dare to construct alternative careers.

  3. Jasper VdV says:

    This is a very interesting post indeed, thanks! I also agree with earlier comments stating that an ‘alternative’ career path can actually give you more, rather than less opportunities to read, write and get your message across; certainly a path like this has value of its own and shouldn’t necessarily be just a temporary thing before landing that long-awaited academic position… Especially since that position itself, in present-day universities, may not always be the best context for doing interesting work and enjoying it too.

  4. egranina says:

    Reblogged this on Elena Granina and commented:
    A very interesting read on academic career after getting PhD in the modern times. It’s especially relevant to me in my situation of switching from well-paying sales in IT career to the academic life after a 5-year gap. And it’s not only career that I’m switching but also the language and academic standards. I knew the jobs are scarce and underpaid in Academia, now thanks to this post I see what can be done and what are alternative paths even if temporary ones. Might seem a bit far-fetched as my immediate goal is to do the Masters first but it helps to understand the situation.

    I imagine having a history/arts/psychology helps the case because there always be an audience. It’s generally interesting stuff. But I think I also have a chance if I get things right.

    • aleishaward says:

      Hello, and thanks for all the comments- it’s good to know that other people are already doing what I’m trying to do (not something that is very much a thing in my geographic and subject area- everyone’s still very much on the ‘get a traditional academic job’ bandwagon). I totally agree that by doing things the way I have I am getting far more use out of my PhD research than if I had been able to get a lectureship or teaching fellowship. Getting my work on jazz in NZ out there to a wide audience was one of the most important motivating factors in this journey because it is a very new area for research (I can count the people doing work in this area on my fingers, include myself and still have fingers left over!), and I think it deserves more attention. Good luck to all taking a similar path, and Elena- it’s better to think about this now at your Masters stage than be caught out at the end of your PhD like I was!

      • egranina says:

        Hello, Aleisha! Thank you for your insights! I think you are doing a very smart thing, and your subject does deserve all the attention.
        Best of of luck, and thank you!

  5. Deb says:

    Great post – thanks for sharing your ideas. Independent scholars are seeming to pop up on my radar lately – I’m sure it’s a combination of my own growing interest and the ever-declining traditional job market (sure there is a chart in there somewhere but as someone who is no longer a young, start-up or anything-like-that academic who has spent over a decade in sessional work (admittedly, this has been both personal choice and market-driven), I find the idea of not attaching to a traditional post interesting and your approach to this is inspiring! Good luck with everything.

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