When I began coaching sessions with Nethra Samarawickrema last summer, I was flailing. Having earned a PhD in literature from Stanford in 2018, I’d supported myself through adjunct teaching positions at multiple universities while also working on my writing projects. As teaching jobs grew increasingly hard to get, as they have in anthropology, I realized that I needed to look for different employment. But what to do? Knowing that my own writing would always be a priority—though not yet a primary source of income—I was in a tricky position. Should I plunge into tech to secure maximum financial stability? Apply for editorial positions at university presses? Go for a job in a plant shop while I focused on my writing? Anything and everything seemed like a possibility, which was overwhelming and produced a healthy dose of paralyzing anxiety. When every option was open, I felt it was impossible to take a step in any direction.

Right away, Nethra helped me refocus on my skills, strengths, and interests. She helped me see that instead of thinking about what kinds of employment “boxes” I could contort myself into, I was free to imagine where I could best utilize my abilities and passions. If there weren’t job descriptions that described the ideal work for me, then I could take the opportunity to create them. More than anything, Nethra helped me realize how important this independence was to me. Anxiety was pushing me into considering uninspiring or unfulfilling work. Released from that anxiety, I was free to make my own path.

Forging my own path called up new uncertainties. Imagining something that doesn’t yet exist takes time and patience. Lucky for me, Nethra is a deep listener with a talent for recognizing and synthesizing patterns and flows. Giving free rein to our imaginations, I saw various shapes begin to emerge that we could evaluate together. We wasted no effort in this process, which was one of self-discovery. When I felt discouraged or negative, Nethra taught me how to pay attention to and learn from those critical thoughts, affectionately dubbed “friends with a communication problem.” Instead of trying to plan out the perfect life trajectory, we thought in terms of distinct life “odysseys” that allowed room for branching and the unexpected.

The important thing was to take first steps, which, for a deeply introspective and overactive thinker like myself, is not easy. Without Nethra’s encouragement, I’m certain it wouldn’t have happened the way it did. But once things were put in motion, a possibility became reality so fast I almost didn’t know what hit me. We envisioned work that would incorporate my deep experience in teaching and editing—incorporating my talents for translating philosophy, conceptual brainstorming and shaping projects, as well as my interest in writing practice and routine. The role of a “writing producer” materialized as a completely natural fit.

As scholars who left the academy, Nethra, an anthropologist, and I also share a personal knowledge of the kind of pain, disappointment and conflicted feelings that might come with moving on—often involuntarily—from something we’ve worked so hard to achieve. For anthropologists especially, these feelings of responsibility for other people’s stories might prove acute when facing the difficult decision to enter another line of work post-graduation. But choosing a new field doesn’t have to mean abandoning the wellspring of knowledge that took its first form in a dissertation.

In my discussions with Nethra, the phrase “dissertation rescuer” was born. I’m still uncertain about the label, but I am certain that the work I’m doing now draws deeply from my most integral talents and interests. I offer three-to-ten-month programs and writing support for anthropologists and other academics who want to turn their dissertation work into more public-oriented projects. I emphasize experimentation and see this work as an opportunity to explore a creative and intellectual freedom that might have been lacking in the process of producing a dissertation.

My experience as a scholar, teacher, editor, and writer uniquely positions me to walk with writers through every stage of the process. “I work with my clients to answer questions such as: Which are the most fertile seeds of my dissertation that I can grow into something fresh? What shape does this new work want to take? How do I develop the kinds of practices and routines that will allow me to move through the writing itself?” In providing a space for writers to bring these new projects into being, I help them answer these questions not with rote formulas or step-by-step guides, but rather by working together to develop habits of mind and writing practices shaped by the raw material of the project.

I’m especially grateful to collaborate with other academics who have made their lives outside the academy. We are marked by the experience of passing through PhD programs. What I hope to maintain and nourish—in myself and others—is the spark, curiosity and devotion that led us there in the first place.

About the Author: Luke Barnhart

Luke Barnhart
Luke Barnhart is a writer, editor and teacher. He helps other writers realize projects and reimagine their relationship to the writing process. He especially enjoys working with academic and academic-adjacent writers to turn their research into public-oriented articles and books. He has a PhD in English from Stanford University and currently lives in the Bay Area. More info about Luke and his work can be found at lukebarnhart.com.