Redefining the independent scholar

Buecherregal2Three weeks after quitting my job as an academic historian it’s high time I reinvented myself. I might no longer work at a university, but that doesn’t mean I love history any less. On the contrary, maybe I had to leave because I loved my subject too much to see it destroyed by a changing academic culture driven by unrealistic targets, implemented by the corporate whip, and accompanied by an ever-growing array of pointless paperwork.

Naturally, I won’t give up my research, and I hope I will stay in touch with my former colleagues and students. I will just turn into an independent scholar – at least for a while (until Jeremy Corbyn becomes prime minister, abolishes tuition fees, and learning for learning’s sake will be valued again).

Admittedly, independent scholars have a bit of a bad name. ‘Independent’ is too often considered as a euphemism for ‘unemployed’, ‘amateur’ or ‘hobby’. Independent scholars are the cranks and underdogs of the discipline, who, obsessed by an idea, send random emails to busy university academics trying to convince them of the value of their projects, while struggling to get access to the most basic research tools and resources. But ‘independent’ also means ‘free’.

I have declared independence from an academic system that has left me unhappy and exhausted, and, at times, properly ill. There is only so much research, teaching and admin you can do in your officially paid for 35 hours a week, while our workloads have been expanding ad infinitum. So most full-time academics either have to cut corners or do serious overtime. From my experience in the ‘sector’ (that’s how academics nowadays refer to their line of work) it’s mostly the latter.

After a number of years without proper holidays and many weekends and evenings spent with university-related work, I’ve simply had enough. In future it is me who will be setting my work agenda and bring the fun back into studying my subject. I won’t need to go with any fashions, tailor my research to funding body calls, or invent undergraduate module titles including ‘sex’ and ‘crime’  to pander to the smallest common denominator. I will be able to take scholarship as an intellectual challenge again, follow the path of my own research and see where it takes me.

Buecherregal3I take heart from the fact that there are other academics out there who share my unease with the status quo. For that also means the image of the independent scholar is changing with more of us challenging the idea of what a ‘proper’ scholar should look like. Many of my Twitter chums sharing information under the #twitterstorians hashtag are independent or public scholars. And I can only commend people like Katie Rose Guest Pryal, who in a recent blog post called on all ‘freelance academics’ to get out there and make their voices heard.

In any case, the more of us disenchanted academics decide to stick two fingers up to the system and go our own ways and do our own things, the more people will come to understand that there are other ways of doing scholarship and that you don’t have to play the game to be part of a wider community of (independent or freelance) scholars who just enjoy what they’re doing and hopefully benefit society nonetheless.

Maybe, at some unspecified time in the future, when I’ve done this long enough, I might want to return to the academic scene because I miss having colleagues and students and access to resources. But it will be on my own terms.



By thehistorywoman

Historian & journalist.


  1. This is a fabulous post. I’ve been quietly despairing about how I might gain proper affiliation with my current institution. The thought of forthcoming publications listing me as an ‘independent scholar’ alongside my academic idols seems truly embarrassing. The obvious difficulty is that my institution doesn’t have a literature department, so without intervention there’s no hope to cling to.

    What your post does so well is to marry thoughtfulness with confidence. And rightly so. Once you have a well-received first monograph and recognition of quality teaching, I think your reputation is preserved (or, at least, preservable). From someone who struggles often with his sense of career direction, I’m pleased to hear you sounding so much in control of your own destiny.

  2. Thanks! Maybe my confidence is misplaced. But I think it’s never a good idea to let other people determine your destiny or stay in a situation that feels incongruent. You have to make your own decisions about what fits and what doesn’t fit and trust in your own ability to succeed on your own terms. If independent scholars stopped believing the hype that only a tenured position is the real deal and spoke up for themselves things might look different.

  3. I have raised the issue of the loss of people deeply interested in the discipline of history but obliged by circumstances to lose contact with the subject after completing their undergraduate or postgraduate degrees on my blog and in comments in other places on a number of occasions. To my regret, I have not really succeeded in starting a wide-ranging debate although most academic historians recognise the importance of this haemorrhaging process and agree that something ought to be done. The fundamental question is what can or should happen to maintain links with such people.

    If contacts are to be maintained with those who wish to sustain their interest in history after leaving universities, there must be mechanisms in place to facilitate this process. In other words, there should be forums for discussion, links to academic databases and networks of historians covering university departments and those beyond employees and students. I have been giving some thought to how this problem may be tackled whilst trying hard not to be too prescriptive.

    The first idea that has come to mind is to utilise the resources of the web to provide an overarching site linking these two groups. It is perfectly possible to find blogs that provide news, comments, lists of events, etc., and websites that provide details of forthcoming conferences and seminars, of prospective publications, reviews of recently published books. Other sites reproduce audio and video recordings of lectures and seminars. There are other places where one can find downloadable copies of published documents and of older books. Some academic journals offer temporary access to articles in their contemporary editions or to older articles after a certain laps of time. It is not as though historians generally are short of material to exploit as a random search of Twitter will show.

    I wonder whether, for early modern historians in particular, it would be worth trying to construct a website offering pages covering (and linking to):
    • News
    • Academic journals
    • Books
    • Book reviews
    • Documentary sources
    • Audio and Video recordings
    • Comments and debates
    • Blogs
    • Forthcoming publications
    • Seminars
    • Conferences
    • Historians
    • Papers available online
    • Using Skype to host discussions

    These are preliminary suggestions of mine. It might also be possible to seek volunteers amongst academic historians willing to help independent historians secure copies of articles that the latter cannot gain access to directly. Others will certainly have further and better ideas. I am strongly tempted to try to create such a site. If anybody is interested in helping me, please contact me.
    17th September, 2015

  4. I am independent scholar after graduating in middle age with no attractive (most are not attractive if you read between the lines, heavy course loads, tons of committee work, little time to think) academic opportunities. I refuse to adjunct and feed the abusive beast. I am not an amateur or a hobbyist as write a book and do podcasting. Podcasting has been a way for me to stay current with my fields of interest and keep me connected to other scholars. Others who are “independent scholars” need to stand up and own it rather than shrink away from it. Come out of the closet sort of speak. It is not lesser or a failure but a choice many have made.

  5. Very inspiring! I wonder about lack of affiliation though. In science it can be difficult to get access to materials without at least an industrial address, and while the open access movement is finally getting some traction, a great deal of the literature requires library privileges.

    Perhaps it’s different in history. Are institutions willing to open primary sources to members of the general public?

  6. You’re right, access to resources is probably the greatest problem for independent scholars. However, archives are usually very good about admitting members of the general public. It’s more difficult to get into university libraries or to access pay-walled journal articles.

    Open access material would benefit all of us. But that’s a different story.

  7. I think it’s great you’ve left academia. Independent scholars do important things too, and they (tend to be) a bit more flexible than academics, who are often stuck in the ivory towers with little experience of the real world. You were the exception and it’s really good that you’ve left that behind and are doing something which you enjoy. Well done. Inspiring for others who have left academia – that there is life beyond the four walls of the academy, and that you can be just as (or more) successful outside than in.

  8. It also gives you more opportunities to engage in popular history, which (some) academics sniff at but actually brings a lot of students to their classes. You can do that without the pressure of having to please colleagues.

  9. It is a shame you felt you had to leave, but welcome to the ranks of us happy few who trundle on regardless of the crapness of academia. Just have friends who can pass on their passwords to you (shhhhhh) and stay up night after night downloading everything you can get your hands on…

  10. Excellent post, and I hope that your decision gives you the freedom you need for the moment. I hope our paths will continue to cross at those republicanism conferences – keep in touch! Rachel

  11. Ah, I am now an independent scholar having been told by one ‘University’ that I lacked expertise in Renaissance Literature, lacked teaching experience and IT skills, thus failing to meet minimum criteria (I applied under Two Ticks as I have Parkinson’s). When I attempted to explain to HR I a) hold a PhD on Francis Bacon, b) have taught at 5 Universities incl a Temporary Lectureship at Goldsmiths and c) produced video, podcast and vodcast material while coding XML she said ‘I’m not listening’. Delightful. Not that sad to have shipped out.
    Now I do interesting stuff. I just have no pension!
    It won’t be long before the freelance expert is the hot ticket …

  12. This sounds wonderful, I wish I could do it to but… I need a salary in order to survive. If I left academia, I would have to get a full time job doing something else, so I would end up having only nights and weekends to work on my research. How do other independent scholars manage? Sorry if my question seems too naive.

  13. Well, there is the National Coalition of Independent Scholars which has been around for 25 years and is re-inventing itself in this age of adjuncts, MOOCs and the digitization of everything. Please visit us at (getting the site ready for a new look but it is still functioning) and let’s have a conversation about how to strengthen, broaden and unify the community of independent scholars.

  14. What a fabulous post – thank you! I have been an independent scholar since gaining my PhD in England seven years ago (I’m British but live in France where I earn my living working as a translator). At first the lack of affiliation bothered me a lot and I didn’t really know how to identify myself, but then I googled ‘independent scholar’ and came across the National Coalition of Independent Scholars (NCIS). I promptly joined up, and NCIS has since provided me with many benefits including an affiliation, contact with other Indies, and a massive discount on the all-important journal access through JSTOR.

    On seeing the calibre of NCIS members (they include retired academics as well as people like me, and some serious CVs) I came to realize that it’s the quality of one’s work that matters, not who you work for. My own work has been published in good journals and books by major publishers, and I’m often invited to lecture or do peer reviews…. and I’m nothing special. However I do good work and hold my head high when I describe myself as an independent scholar – no apologies – and I’m sure this positive attitude has played a large part in this. Oddly enough, I now find myself teaching part-time at a French university, but still choose to call myself an independent scholar (affiliation NCIS) whenever I present or publish my research.

  15. The rise in the number of independent scholars and their great efforts to do intellectual work reminds one of the Fitzgerald Hemingway exchange, which can be paraphrased in the following way

    ” The dependant scholars are different from us ” Fitzgerald queries again
    ” Yes , they have more money ” Hemingway rises again.

    us here is the independent scholar.

  16. Did anything come of this fascinating exchange? A recent feature in ‘The Oxford Historian’ on this very topic attracted a contemptuous silence.

    1. Well, I can see where there silence might come from. The existence of independent scholars is somewhat awkward. What does it say about privilege in the academic community?

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