Tips on Being an Independent Scholar: Julie Smith

We are pleased to welcome our first entry in this series from Julie Smith.

1) Tell us about your background, education, and career goals when you were just starting out? Did they change over time?

So I started out getting an English degree and teaching certification (from UT-Austin) because those seemed like practical things to do. One of my mentors began a lecture (I think this was a 17th century British Literature class, but it’s been a few decades so I may be off by a few centuries) by saying that you couldn’t understand anything going on without some background in Christian history—which she knew few of us had—so in a twenty-minute whirlwind tour, she mentioned in passing that there were female bishops in the first century. I tentatively approached her about this later and she launched my interest in women in early Christianity by handing over a stack of dittoed (remember those—with the purple ink?) articles about women in the Bible and early church. I was hooked. I did a senior thesis with her and then decided to go to grad school. I went to the GTU (where I affiliated with the San Francisco Theological Seminary) where I did an MA in Biblical Studies. My thesis was on Mark 14:3-9, the anointing of Jesus by a woman. I didn’t get a PhD because I had gotten married and in the late 90s, it didn’t feel like an option. I had three kids and decided to homeschool. Biblical studies became a hobby and I spent many years studying on my own, teaching Institute and Adult Religion classes, and that sort of thing. For about a decade, I had no contact whatsoever with others in the field. Then I started blogging at Times & Seasons, got to know some people in Mormon Studies, and starting presenting at conferences and writing for publication. I’ve written a book that is basically a study guide for the gospels and I’m currently working on a commentary on Mark for the BYUNTC. I didn’t really have any career goals. I still don’t. I’ll be finished homeschooling in about 5 years and I have no idea what I want to do then.

2) How did you decide to become an independent scholar?

I didn’t; it sort of just happened!

3) What are some lessons learned along the way?

Well, I haven’t learned this lesson yet, but I wish I wasted less time and was more focused and more productive.

4) How do you balance your work as an independent scholar with your other responsibilities in life?

Great question. Fortunately, my kids are older and pretty independent now. And my husband is willing to pitch in and do a good bit. (But I have to confess that no one would confuse my house with Martha Stewart’s; I’m not Superwoman.)

5) What do you see as the biggest pros and cons to independent scholarship?

The cons are that no one pays you; in a sense, I don’t mind since this is my passion, but it does make things like travel difficult. (I’m profoundly grateful to the various organizations and people who have covered my attendance at various conferences, seminars, and other events.) The pros are that I probably have as much if not more time for research and writing than those who have professional obligations where teaching and various meetings and other professional commitments commandeer vast chunks of their time. (I think over the last two years, I’ve had about 20-30 hours per week to research/write.) I’m also free to research and write about anything I want to with no external considerations, career concerns, or institutional restraints.

6) What advice would you give to undergraduates or masters students considering independent scholarship?

Well, you can’t support yourself—let alone a family—doing this, so you’ll need to figure out that piece of the puzzle. If you are married, you’ll need to be sure that your spouse is on board with the idea of you basically having an unpaid part-time-but-all-consuming job—not everyone would be OK with so much of the family’s resources going toward what is basically an overgrown hobby. It’s obviously going to be easier for the non-primary-wage earner to go this route. (This is speculative, but I wouldn’t be shocked if in 20 years, the gender disparity in Mormon Studies has flipped due to the presence of female independent scholars.) But Mormonism has had some exemplary independent scholars who have had other “day jobs;” I’m thinking of people like Kevin Barney here. My advice to the undergraduates would be: do some graduate work. One of the problems in the fields of Biblical and Mormon Studies is that everyone thinks that s/he is an expert as a result of logging so many hours in church classes and thus there is a lot of work floating around that is methodologically dubious. Get at least enough training that you can be aware of the prevailing methodologies and theories before you begin contributing. There is nothing wrong with a decision to challenge the prevailing views, but you need to know what they are in order to challenge them properly.

7) What do you think the role of the independent scholar will be in the future of Mormon Studies?

Well, I see two different trends working in opposite directions and I’m not sure which will win out. The first is increased professionalization in Mormon Studies, which may mean less room for independent scholars. The other trend is the increased “adjunctification” of higher ed; I can envision someone thinking: I can earn a PhD and be an adjunct and research/write in my “free time” or I can earn a PhD and be a lawyer/nurse/whatever and research/write in my “free time” . . . and the latter option might mean more money and less frustration. This could increase the number of independent scholars. So I guess we’ll see.

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