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Jobs >> Articles >> Employment Career Feature >> Academic research can be done outside the academic world
  • Employment Career Feature

Academic research can be done outside the academic world


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The fact that scholarly writing can be done by people not employed as teachers is demonstrated by a few illustrious examples, most of whom are people who did not even need a Ph.D.

Edmund Wilson, Barbara Tuchman, and Theodore White are three who had no occupation other than writing. Douglas Southall Freeman was a hardworking newspaper editor. Wallace Stevens was an insurance executive. Not many such examples jump to mind, to be sure, but neither does the mind instantly produce a long catalogue of professors comparable to such gifted and successful writers.

But it is not, in any case, works such as Wilson's To the Finland Station or Freeman's Robert E. Lee that are in question. Rather, it is the closely focused, carefully documented, not widely read article or monograph that provides the grist for syntheses such as Wilson's and Tuchman's. What is at issue is whether, for practical purposes, only people with professorships can or will produce such work.

In other countries it does occur. Sir Lewis Namier composed his meticulous histories of the parliaments of George III while working 10-hour days as secretary for a Zionist organization in London. Sir Harold Williams became one of the world's leading authorities on Swift while an active barrister and magistrate in the north of England. Montagu Woodhouse became a leading writer on modern Greek history while serving as a Conservative MP., and Sergio Solmi and Antonello Gerbi acquired high standing among students of contemporary French literature and the history of Spain, respectively, while rising in the executive ranks of the Banca Commerciale of Milan. They have few counterparts in the United States.

It may be that this cannot change. Scholarship is facilitated and stimulated by contact with other scholars, including students in graduate seminars and undergraduate pro-seminars.

People who do not teach do not have this resource. The types of nonacademic jobs that provide satisfying challenge and variety are apt to make heavy demands on time and mental resources, and the person purposeful enough to have made a mark as a scholar is apt to be ambitious to succeed in a nonacademic environment and hence to devote most hours and thought to real-world problems rather than to texts or documents or theorems. And others do not have the professor's incentives. Their pay and status are not likely to improve as a result of publishing work on obscure, even arcane topics. More than in England or Europe, moreover, they may run risk of ridicule from co-workers or criticism from employers who feel that they should give their all to the jobs for which they are paid.

Survey and interview data demonstrate, however, that conditions outside the academic setting do not deter all people from pursuing scholarship. In the HERI sample of graduate alumni, the faculty group did more scholarly work than any other. Overall, faculty members were twice as likely as either academic administrators or non-academics to have published a scholarly book or article. The striking fact, however, was the reciprocal.

The average faculty member in the sample had published three-quarters of a scholarly book and just under three scholarly articles, whereas the average person in the nonacademic sample had published a third of a monograph and almost one and a half articles. Of course, some of the latter had previously been teachers and might have done their publishing while in academe. Even so, given a presumption that this was not true of all and that few people not employed as teachers could have expected to gain financially or otherwise, the fact that the amount of publication was so large suggests that some people not in academe are inwardly prompted to continue the activity for which they were trained in graduate school.

Also suggestive-though not encouraging-is evidence that academics in the sample did not derive much satisfaction from scholarly publication. About one-fifth of those who listed publications said they were very satisfied with their jobs, but when the entire pattern of answers was analyzed, what surfaced was an indication that this was the case because the record of scholarly publication correlated with income. For sheer satisfaction, independent of the money brought in, academics put non-scholarly publications far ahead. By a slight margin, non-academics seemed to take more joy from scholarly work. Perhaps it was because almost all of them did it simply because they wanted to.

Once the fact is observed, the explanation seems obvious. The routine, repetitive, time-consuming, unexciting aspects of college teaching become more prominent the farther the re-move from a research university. In a college not located near a major library, with only minimal library holdings of its own, a professor hired to be the one person "covering" a field faces forbidding obstacles even trying to be a teacher, let alone to be a scholar. In many such institutions, moreover, social pressures oppose scholarship. In nonacademic settings, the fact that an individual writes for learned journals represents no reproach to colleagues who have hobbies of a different sort.

In a college, it may be otherwise. Commenting on his own impressive publication record, a professor of philosophy from a small school in the Midwest observed that in his environment "such activities were neither encouraged nor rewarded. The sole incentive was internal."

That a person with such internal motivation can find a non-academic environment congenial is suggested by the example of James Cortada. He did not make a choice between a life in scholarship and one in business. Instead, he developed a captain's paradise. When a graduate student in history, he recognized that his passion for reconstructing nineteenth-century Spain made him too much an antiquarian to reach the very top of the academic tree.

Making an early decision not to teach, he finished up a Ph.D. in 3 years and cultivated his quantitative talents. After graduate school he went to work selling computers for IBM. He did so with a conviction that IBM's latest models in fact represented the best that a customer could buy. Earning a large income and controlling his time, he was able to order first editions from Spanish booksellers and to take time off to visit archives.

By his early thirties, he had a list of articles and books, in both Spanish and English, long enough to inspire envy in a full professor twice his age. "I like the realism of business," he said. 'I like having known benchmarks. In business I use history and the skills I developed in graduate study. I also have freedom. ... I never had the academic ideal of the integration of my life and work. That's part of the academic myth."

Within James Cortada is an inner fire. He would have done what he did almost regardless of how he earned his living. Most humanities Ph.D.'s are not thus driven. Many who became productive scholars as professors might not have done so had they taken other jobs. Although it is clear that people other than professors can produce scholarship, it is equally clear that their doing so requires considerable extra effort.

Intellectual excitement and certain types of freedom may be easier to find in a college or university, and eccentricities of one variety or another may be more readily tolerated, but the differences between academe and the rest of the world are marginal.


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