So You Want to be an Independent Scholar. Why?

Monday, 10 June 2013 16:16

So you find yourself on the outside of the ivory tower (either by choice or not) and now you want to become an independent scholar. First off, a definition for you to consider: an independent scholar is actively pursuing knowledge (and presenting/publishing it), is tangentially or not associated with a university, and does not have funding/financial support for their scholarly work. If you are still thinking “sounds good,” then here are some questions you should ask and answer before spending your time, energy, and financial resources pursuing independent scholarship:

Why do you still want to do academic research and writing when you no longer have to?

Of all the questions here, this is the “big” one to puzzle out--and the one that leads into all the other questions (and late nights second guessing yourself). When you first leave the academy, chances are you are leaving with some baggage about what it means to succeed as a person with a PhD. If you have made peace that a tenure-track job is not in your future, then take a good hard look in the mirror and ask yourself: “Am I wanting to keep researching/writing/publishing simply because that is the kind of work familiar to me?” Transitions are hard. Transitioning out of academia into the non-academic working world is particularly difficult for many people due to the insular and cultish culture of academe. After x number of years carrying out academic duties, it is possible that you are still caught up in academic definitions of what constitutes worthwhile work.

Doing scholarship without a formal system of support is a whole other game. Do you actually love researching? Or is it just what you are used to doing? Distinguish between feelings of obligation (“I should be doing what I’m trained for”), expectation (“everyone expects a PhD to publish at least something”), fear of being seen as a failure (“if I don’t keep up scholarly appearances, everyone will think I suck”), safety (“this is all I know what to do”), and passion (“research is what keeps me going everyday!”). I’ve worried my way through all of these feelings and, admittedly, they all contributed to my decision to become an independent scholar in some small way. At the end of the day, however, it is a passion for learning, higher education, and seriously engaging in the genre of science fiction that continues to motivate me to spend my time and limited income on my independent scholarship.

Do you see scholarship as a hobby or as a part-time (unpaid) job?

As you’re figuring out why you still feel the desire to keep up your scholarly pursuits, (1) accept that independent scholarship pays no money and then, (2) ask yourself about how much time you are willing to commit to it. If it’s something that you only want to do on some evenings and weekends when the mood moves you, then it might be more difficult for you to meet the demands of academic publishing (which is something you may or may not be interested in…we’ll get to that issue soon). Good scholarship involves a lot hours—make sure to factor in how much time it really takes to research, read, write drafts, revise, submit, etcetera. I treat my independent scholarship as a part-time job and include it in my schedule as I would any paid work task.

Who is your audience? Do you want to publish inside or outside of formal scholarly publications?

You need to decide whether you want to even bother with academic publishing. Unlike non-academic publications that don’t require the same peer-review process, academic publishing takes forever and a day. Do you want immediate gratification from your writing? If yes, then you don’t want to go the scholarly route. Get your thoughts out there by writing for magazines, blogs and the like—just be cognizant that if you don’t have peer-reviewed publications, many academics won’t consider your work as on the same level as theirs. This may or may not be a problem for you (see next question).

Does academic acknowledgement of your work matter to you?

If you want to be a noticed voice in your field, then you are going to have to publish at least some peer-reviewed work and present at conferences. If you don’t care at all about academic acknowledgement of your scholarship, then perhaps you don’t actually want to be an independent scholar. And that’s okay. Be an awesome freelance writer or blogger or [fill in position here] instead. Being an independent scholar, however, does mean that you need to be actively engaged in scholarship—and this involves being in some sort of conversation, for at least part of the time, with fully ensconced (TT and all the rest) academics.

Is your particular field of study open to contributions from independent scholars?

Some disciplines have a long history of positively valuing independent scholarship, while others regard a lack of university affiliation with great suspicion. Knowing the landscape of your field will help you determine where your work will get the best reception and if it is worth your effort to pursue independent scholarship in the first place. By all means, be a trailblazer, but keep in mind that it’s often thankless (and expensive) work. See “Who is your audience?” above.

What are you hoping to gain from independent scholarship?

And finally, what is the payoff of independent scholarship for you? Remember, it’s probably never going to be money. Stop hoping for money! (Note: I’m still hoping for money). It might, however, be a way of finding an interesting career path that you never considered, or it might mean developing new relationships that will challenge and support you in your future endeavours. For myself, I’m still not completely sure what I want from my independent scholarship in the long term (like 10 years from now), but I do know that I have no intentions in stopping anytime soon. I have my next year of scholarship already planned out. I know that I want to write a book. I want to keep identifying the hidden corners of my field and help open them up to exploration. I want to start discussions, not end them.

When you are an independent scholar, you are essentially a university of one: you need to dig deep for motivation to finish projects, meet deadlines, and justify conference expenses.


Ultimately, being an independent scholar should make you feel happy and fulfilled. If, after mulling over all these questions, you do decide to become an independent scholar, please make sure to represent and rock out the title with pride!


1 comment

  • Comment Link Joan Cunningham Sunday, 25 October 2015 16:58 posted by Joan Cunningham

    Being an independent scholar can be very rewarding, and you are in good company! Consider joining the National Coalition of Independent Scholars ( It is open to indies from all countries and continents, so don't let the name discourage you!!

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

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