Benefits of Being an Independent Scholar

Thursday, 05 July 2012 17:27

The current furor over the University of Birmingham offering an “honorary" research assistant position has caused me to reflect on my own unpaid scholarly pursuits. It is absolutely wrong for a university to expect their research workforce to perform for free, but as an independent scholar, the unpaid aspect of the work – and for me it is work, not a hobby – is a necessary given. At least once a week, when I’m up against a deadline of my own making, I think to myself (usually out loud to the increasing annoyance of my partner), “Why am I doing this again?” When you are working “for free” it is important to be clear about the purpose of your efforts (otherwise, you’ll lose motivation and accomplish nothing). Increasingly, this blog pulls in traffic from people looking for more information (ideas?) about being an independent scholar. There are growing numbers of MAs and PhDs out there who are hesitant to lay down their research books simply because they aren’t in a teaching or tenure-track position at a university. I think that this is a good thing.

For the curious and the disbelieving alike, here are a few of the benefits of being an independent scholar:

Advocacy

While the current academic job market and over-production of professionally unprepared PhDs (in the Humanities and Social Sciences) are not ideal situations, the fact that more post-graduate degree holders are seeking outside alternatives to researching and publishing can only increase awareness that there is a need for higher education reform. The vast majority of PhDs who leave academe for non-academic jobs aren’t solicited for their opinions on their experience of graduate education, nor are they an audible voice in advocating for reform. Once out of the university system most PhDs get on with their lives, and rightly so, but their silence makes it harder to convince people within and outside of academe that reform is needed.

For myself, transitioning from a PhD student who advocated for more transparency (in regards to funding and academic job market figures) into a fully fledged independent scholar was a relatively easy decision. Once I admitted to myself that I still desired to continue my studies on my own, I realized that I was also placing myself in a unique position to voice my concerns about the faltering state of graduate education in North America. As an independent scholar who attends academic conferences and engages with my academic peers online, I have kept one foot in the door of the Ivory Tower. From the threshold, I get to tell those inside exactly why I left academia (while demonstrating my academic competence) and the public on the outside can hear me too. As an independent scholar, I know that my voice is being heard without any professional risk.

Community Engagement

When I left academe, I said good-bye to a formal system of professional support and community. Now I work at home. By myself. I interact with my clients through email and phone conversations, so my work life can feel fairly isolated sometimes. In addition to making me a memorable individual at business networking events (since no one else has “independent SF scholar” on their business card), my independent scholarship fulfills my need to be part of a larger community. Through my participation in the science fiction community – both academic and fannish – I get to meet and talk with people whose intellectual passions mirror my own.

At academic conferences, I enjoy the opportunity to be among my scholarly peers and get caught up with the latest research in my wider field of study. At SF conventions, I meet other fans from diverse walks of life and have fun participating as an “expert” on panels. By identifying myself as an independent scholar, especially within the fan community, I occupy a unique position of expertise that has connected me with some of my favourite writers and created new friendships and work partnerships.

Intellectual freedom

I get to read and write about whatever I want for whomever I want. It’s wonderful not having to worry about funding or departmental politics that (not-so) quietly dictate what one should or should not study. While I was a grad student, I deeply felt pressure to perform intellectually in specific ways that were not necessarily natural or agreeable to me. As an independent scholar, I never worry about whether or not my research is in vogue at the moment. If a peer-reviewed journal isn’t interested in my latest article, no big deal. I’ll send it to an SF-blog or post it on my own instead. My goal is to put my work out there for other interested parties to read – where that place is (online or in print, academic journal or SF book review blog), doesn’t matter to me so much.

Being an independent scholar has also given me the confidence to take risks in my intellectual pursuits. Freed from the pressures of academia, where publishing success determines advancement and changing one’s disciplinary focus is an arduous process, I find myself sketching out projects that I never considered before. If I’m going to be an independent scholar, I might as well take risks with that scholarship. While I still fully intend to keep my SF research going, I have decided that my next book-length project will be on theory – I want to rethink and reframe the concept of agency. Not a small task. Just writing that out for public eyes makes me sweat a bit, but it’s also damn exciting. Independent scholarship doesn’t come with a set of rules and regulations, so why contain my intellectual efforts to what I already know (and what already exists)?

Personal Satisfaction

Above all else, it feels wonderful to be able to do the work that I was trained to do. I spent six years in graduate school learning how to be a researcher, writer, and educator because I enjoyed those roles. While I get to put my skills into practice through my paid working engagements (as an academic coach and copyeditor), my time is spent helping other people with their intellectual or professional pursuits. I absolutely love working with my clients, but I still have a strong desire to do independent research into my own areas of interest. If anything, I am more motivated to keep my clients happy because their business gives me the financial freedom to take the time to write academic articles and attend SF cons.

In the past year, I have surprised myself at the level of success I have already achieved as an independent scholar – by the end of next year, I will hopefully have published at least three peer-reviewed articles, one peer-reviewed book (my edited essay collection, Technology as Cure: Representation of Disability in Science Fiction), and three non-academic pieces of writing. This list doesn’t include all of the smaller writing and SF-fandom projects that I’m involved in or the conferences/conventions at which I will be presenting . Basically, I experience all the best parts of being an academic without the institutional constraints.

Being an independent scholar is not for everyone. It requires a certain privileged position – I have a full-time working partner, no children, and state heathcare – and a willingness to work with no expectation of financial reward. I’ve become a firm believer, however, that one should live their passion. For me, I want a life full of science fiction and life-long learning. Even though this work will not produce any income (and often costs money to pursue), the benefits I have experienced as an independent scholar make the financial sacrifice worth it.

2 comments

  • Comment Link Kathryn Wednesday, 10 September 2014 15:17 posted by Kathryn

    Hi Ilham, Thank you for commenting.

    In terms of getting started with community engagement, it really depends on what your area of expertise is in. Social media sites, like Twitter, are good places to start to "meet" other people with like interests, and to share blog posts and other things you have written. Also, go to conferences/conventions if you can afford them. Don't be shy about introducing yourself as an Independent Scholar. Be professional and excited about your field of interest, and people will engage with you.

    Since I study science fiction, I already had a huge established fan community to get to know. While not all academic disciplines are as open, the SF academic field has a long history of independent scholarship, so I found it relatively easy to give talks and have papers reviewed. Again, I'm always extremely professional and don't give people the opportunity to dismiss me because I lack an institutional affiliation.

    Get out there, connect to people, and take risks. Good luck!

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  • Comment Link Ilham Tuesday, 09 September 2014 16:38 posted by Ilham

    Wonderful Article. I especially found the "Intellectual freedom" section most interesting.

    I do have a question as to how best to start community engagement? Did you find it hard in the beginning to get accepted to give talks or even to have your papers peer-reviewed?

    At the moment I am working hard to develop a business which I hope will give me financial freedom in the future to pursue independent scholarship. Although I do also want to get some further graduate experience, perhaps at least an MSc.

    This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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