Carry the Life of the Mind With You

I’ve always had an independent streak, academically at least.

I received my BA in Individualized Study from NYU and an MA and PhD in American Studies from George Washington University—both fields notorious for allowing students to chart their own paths. There were few requirements placed on my education, and I appreciated the ability to study what I wanted, whether that was Kurt Vonnegut in my undergrad or marijuana as a grad student. This freedom of inquiry, alongside the implicit trust of my advisers, was thrilling. To me, academia was a magical country, a place where creativity and the life of the mind thrived.

When I left academia in 2014, I didn’t want to leave those ideals behind. As much as I loved teaching, it didn’t make sense for me to pursue a tenure-track job. In the six years since I had started my program, my husband and I had built lives—and he had built a career—in DC, and we wanted to stay. Compounded by the limited number of teaching jobs available, finding alternative work seemed like the best choice. Still, I didn’t want to abandon the life of the mind completely, so I kept up my academic independent streak, trying to fit in research and writing wherever I could.

It wasn’t always easy. The first jobs I took were as an engagement analyst in an investigative newsroom and a development associate at a policy studies organization. I liked the work and the people, but the jobs never clicked. I always felt like the positions were pulling me away from what I really wanted to do, which was to continue the research I did in school.

So, on the sidelines, I started setting up another career. Before graduating, I began contacting literary agents to see if anyone might be interested in a book-length expansion of my dissertation on the history of grassroots marijuana activism. It took years—and dozens of bad proposal drafts—to find someone to represent my book, but it finally sold the summer of 2015. It was one of the happiest days of my life.

Selling the book was not a huge financial gain; the money barely covered childcare. But it was definitely a learning experience. And what it taught me was that what appealed to me most about academia wasn’t teaching; it was writing. With the book sold, I learned that I didn’t have to be a professor to share my ideas with the world.

Since then, I’ve tried to build a career that keeps my vision of the life of the mind—one centered around words and ideas—at its core. My first book was published in December 2017, and I’m working on my second book proposal now. I’m also editing a collection of essays on alternative academic jobs, and I manage Points, the blog of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society. I continue to present at conferences, and I do academic writing whenever I can. And, since almost none of this extra-academic work pays, I also co-founded a small company that provides editing and ghostwriting services for people in and around DC. After years of misdirection, I’ve finally cobbled together a life that lets me do what I really want: write.

Naturally, I recognize that not everyone can pursue this same path, and that I’ve had numerous advantages along the way. Still, I don’t think pursuing a life of the mind beyond the professoriate is relegated to my story alone. I believe anyone with a PhD has been granted the power to carry the life of the mind with you; it just depends on where you find the opportunities. And, for historians at least, the public is far more welcoming to our ideas than ever before. Historical context is available in places like the Washington Post, with their “Made by History” series, and via public-facing blogs like Points. Historians in and beyond the professoriate have ample opportunities to reach new readers with their work.

If I had to go back and do it all over again, I still would have gotten my PhD. But I also would have continued to pursue the life I’ve created for myself today. I’m proud of my hard-fought post-academic career, and am available if anyone would like to talk more.


Emily Dufton earned her PhD in American Studies from George Washington University. She’s currently an independent historian, freelance writer and editor, and book author.

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