Insights into independent research: Moving out of traditional academia and how to keep your research engaging | Lex Academic Blog
Building a career in traditional academia is challenging: more people than ever have advanced degrees, but the number of PhD holders does not match the availability of permanent positions. Temporary fixed-term contracts and hourly paid positions continue to be widespread in UK academia. Yet most people enter academia because they love their subject matter: few would continue to PhD level without serious dedication and passion for their discipline, and it can be hard to give that up. What happens, then, if you decide traditional academia isn’t for you (or if the system forces you out), but you still want to carry out research? If you have left or are considering leaving academia, you might be wondering if it’s possible to carry on doing the research you love.
While it’s not easy to forge a career in traditional academia, its benefits for research are clear: income, resources, colleagues, support and academic recognition. While traditional academia shouldn’t have a monopoly on new contributions to knowledge, unfortunately it does. Moving into independent research thus presents a host of other challenges, the most pressing being lack of income or funding, lack of access to resources and lack of the necessary time and energy required to conduct research. A level of social stigma also exists around independent research. In 2017, Rebecca Bodenheimer wrote about her experience of networking at conferences, which involved people being judged on whether they had an important institutional affiliation. If they didn’t, they were seen as ‘disposable’, Bodenheimer notes, and not significant enough to talk to for long. This is important to bear in mind if you’re planning on publishing your work for an academic audience – these kinds of biases die hard.
Despite these barriers, opportunities for independent researchers have grown in recent years. It’s possible to apply for grants from major funding bodies (the British Academy/Leverhulme Small Research Grants are open to independent scholars) and prestigious fellowships (like the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers Fellowship), while academic associations often have specific representatives for independent scholars on their committees, who work to provide conference bursaries and raise awareness of the needs of independent scholars. If it is possible to make short-term grants work for you, they can provide encouragement and give your research a boost.
One of the major stumbling blocks for independent research is library access. Researchers still need access to resources. Archives are generally easy to access – it is very straightforward, for instance, to get a reader pass for the British Library and start requesting material, with no affiliation necessary. Most university libraries offer access options for members of the public or former students, but during the COVID-19 pandemic, many libraries closed their doors to anyone who was not a current student or staff member. It’s also difficult to secure online access if you’re not currently affiliated – which can make it hard for those who don’t live close to a university. JSTOR has various ways of accessing its content, but access to everything is not guaranteed.
Working independently can be a lonely business, too. However, there are now a number of organisations designed to provide a community for independent scholars. They offer discounts for journal access, as well as resources and grants. The US-based National Coalition of Independent Scholars, for instance, hosts conferences and publishes its own peer-reviewed journal. In the UK, the Forum for Independent Research Endeavours hosts networking events and conferences, and there are similar organisations based in France and Australia. Membership of these organisations generally require a record of active scholarship. Online talks and conferences are now far more prevalent, too; many are free and enable attendance without expensive travel costs. You can sign up to email lists and newsletters to keep up to date with new trends, and follow academics and institutions on social media.
In terms of publishing your work, there are several options for independent researchers. Peer-reviewed journals take submissions from independent researchers, so if you have an article idea or draft, or part of your PhD thesis you can turn into a journal article, you can submit to top journals and stand a good chance of publishing your work that way. This will take up less of your time than starting a new research project from scratch. Many academic presses publish books by independent researchers, and these are peer-reviewed, which again will offer academic acknowledgement outside of the system of institutional affiliation, and enable you to share your research with the world.
Research of course isn’t exclusive to academia: there are lots of jobs that require research, such as roles in the media, the government or with an NGO. It may be that you can pursue a research-focused job in another sector and maintain your interest by reading new publications in your field and attending conferences. You could also write about your topic for non-academic publishers, blogs or magazines. These outlets often pay for your work, too.
Ultimately, independent research requires a lot of time and money. It is not feasible for many people as a full-time (unpaid) job, and it’s likely that you’ll have to fit research around paid work. The wider recognition of independent scholarship, while welcome, is not a solution to the lack of permanent positions and the growing precarity of traditional academia. However, it is possible to continue researching and publishing in some capacity as an independent researcher – there are now more and more ways to access funds and resources that help you to contribute new knowledge and shape the conversations in your field.
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