Being an Independent Scholar: How and Why I Became a Free-Range Academic
When I tell people I’m an independent researcher, their faces go like this.
Is that even a thing?
Here, I have a conversation with myself about what it means to be a free-as-a-bird academic.
So you say you’re an indy scholar. Sum it up for me in three words.
Researching, writing, publishing. In fact, it’s a lot like being an affiliated scholar, except I get to cherrypick the best bits of academia. And that without having to get dressed.
So you just woke up one day and decided it was for you?
Towards end of my PhD, I got interested in the idea of a humane academia.
I was bothered by the dodgy incentives in academia today. Having to game the system in order to land grants (‘just’ doing high-quality research is not enough). The emphasis on output at any cost (fraud is a systemic problem, it’s not just a few bad apples).
In my case – less sinister but equally disheartening – I found myself spending all my time writing grant applications about projects I wanted to do, instead of actually doing them.
It’s an unconvential path for an academic, to be sure – but also one I’m convinced we’ll see more of in the future as more and more young academics seek creative ways to find fulfilment and refuse to submit to this fate.
That’s all well and good, but how do you fund it?
I’d already been working as a translator and editor and, like anyone who’s painstakingly built up a client list, I couldn’t bear to let it go when I started my PhD. So I kept it up.I realised I could be an academic, without being at the mercy of the academy pass it on
Only later did I realise my part-time business was more than just a sideline. It was a way to buy my freedom – to be an academic without being at the mercy of the academy.
It allows me to make a decent living, while also pursuing my intellectual passions on my own terms.
Of course, I recognise not everyone has the same luxury; freelancing and getting a mortgage, for example, are two things that often don’t go together.
What does your week look like?
I shoot for 60/40 split between research and the paid language services I provide.
For university researchers it’s usually the other way around: they spend 60% of their time teaching to get 40% for research. And that’s eaten into by admin, which leaves them hardly any time for making wicked memes like this:
So who do you bounce ideas off?
Besides earbashing my husband, also an academic, I’ve built up a network over the years. I correspond with people who share my interests and try to be active on academia.edu. And I show my face and present my work at conferences. As I pay out of my own pocket, it’s always a bit tragic when I discover my favourite conference will be held in Auckland or Buenos Aires. But the same goes for all academics.
Worst thing about it?
The vanity thing. ‘I’m a freelancer/indy scholar’ doesn’t have quite the same ring as a casual ‘I’m at Cambridge, maybe you’ve heard of it?’
Working from home. Choosing projects that interest and challenge me, rather than for the line on my CV. Not having to deal with department politics or admin. Knowing my boss (me) can be a jerk sometimes, but at least she’ll never rope me into covering her course for 150 undergraduates on Romanian transvestites in the textile industry.
And the pressure to publish is still there, but in a good way – as a personal compulsion, a thing I itch to do, rather than my job depending on it!
A version of this post first appeared in Observant.