Life as an independent scholar

Floor Basten is an independent scholar in the Netherlands. In this post she shares her wisdom of 12 years of working as an independent scholar.

A life of unknown wealth and luxury, days filled with sex and drugs and rock ‘n roll, a palace packed with the presents fans from all over the world voluntarily sent you, tabloids stocked with photos of you hanging with your equally illustrious posse, millions of followers on Instagram…

That’s not what indy scholarship is about. But it can give you opportunities to lead a most satisfying life. So why not spend some thoughts on entrepreneurship while considering your post-PhD options? To give you an idea of what that entails, here are five of my lessons learned in the twelve years since I started my own business.

Academic help is different from what clients need

My most important lesson is the understanding that how we learn to help each other as academics is different from how our clients need and want to be helped.

Academic help is based on criticism in a peer review system. Our feedback is generally focused on what’s wrong and can be delivered in fierce wordings. For the individual this might be harsh, but for science it’s a good thing that we’re all focused on detecting flaws. In the larger scheme of things, our societies and humanity benefit as well.

However, this kind of ‘though love’ is often misplaced outside academia. Clients aren’t looking for a verbal beating, they hire you to find out things, analyze what works, what doesn’t and why so, what can be done to make it better.

Criticism is okay, but not the golden standard for research outside academia. Creativity and constructive feedback are far more valued, as are good social skills.

Care to share

Sharing doesn’t come naturally to most academics. The PhD is testimony of our ability to do research independently. We’re trained to work individually and our success depends on some degree of selfishness.

The University is the pre-eminent breeding ground for the idea that victory is up to us. But that’s not what the ‘indy’ in ‘indy scholarship’ refers to. Humans—yes, academics too—are social beings. We need each other to flourish and prosper, emotionally, intellectually, financially.

Tap into human generosity and start sharing. It starts very easily: share with others that you’ve started a business and they’ll immediately recast you from ‘employed academic’ to ‘can be helped’. They’ll offer ideas and network, perhaps even become your first clients. They form the soil from which you can grow.

Sharing is reciprocal, so show appreciation and, if in order, remember them when you yourself need to buy in extra expertise. But reciprocity isn’t necessarily tit-for-tat, it’s also a way of paying it forward, helping B because A helped you.

For instance, you can blog about your knowledge to help people you don’t know—which is hopefully what I’m doing now. Sharing doesn’t preclude money either. Who better understands this than entrepreneurs? Create a network of self-employed professionals to join forces. It’s more fun than working alone and together you can offer a fuller package to clients.

Don’t be penny wise and pound foolish

To get going, take on any project you can to build portfolio, self-confidence and livelihood. It will be difficult to scoop a big project right away.

Your PhD proves your research skills, but not that you can do research that’s meaningful in the eyes of prospect clients. Their perception of a PhD is often one of ‘theoretical hydrocephalus with bound feet’: you’re not credited any unacademic smartness yet.

Prospects want to see which way your wind blows before taking the risk of disinvesting in an unhelpful scholar. They aren’t totally unwilling to give it a go, but they’ll start with small projects (a presentation, a workshop) and perhaps even ask you to do some work for free.

This is okay at first, but try to exit what I call ‘the peanut market’ asap. You risk working for free too much, appear a Jack-of-all-trades and miss the opportunity to build long-lasting relationships if you’re up and out (plus the up-and-out market is difficult to penetrate as it’s saturated with established players).

Bring coherence and focus into your portfolio, assemble your practical research experience as well as some accessible publications under thematic headers that speak to prospects. This will convince them of your hands-on thoughtfulness—the unique selling point of an indy scholar—and will bring you into the market for bigger projects.

Stay in touch with academia

80 percent of us leave the university (Editor’s note: it’s around 60% in Australia). The traditional equation ‘PhD = University’ doesn’t reflect reality anymore.

If you’re one of the leavers, perhaps you feel mistreated by university. It can indeed be a cruel, disappointing place. But there must have been some things you liked about it: teaching, reading, writing, conferencing… If these are the things you miss, why not look for them elsewhere?

Don’t mix up ‘scholarship’ with ‘university’. The first is a profession, the latter an institute. You can exercise your profession anywhere, independent of any institute. Reread the first sentence of this paragraph as ‘80 percent of me’. Try to devote 20 percent of your time to staying in touch with your academic peers (more here[]).

Be a guest lecturer, write articles and books, visit conferences, consult PhDs, advise research teams. It’s worth your while as you a) grow expert status clients, including academics appreciate, b) continue to learn and develop, c) organize a quality check on your work and d) find a podium for the theorizing your nonacademic clients aren’t that interested in.

Enjoy it

So, no stardom, but a gratifying life. Surely it is a struggle from time to time, but what life isn’t? My indy scholarship has given me a high degree of academic freedom and that to me was worth the try.

I blog about my life and work as an indy scholar. Find the whole series I have written on being an independent scholar here. Follow me on Twitter via @BlanchefleurX to receive weekly updates.

12 thoughts on “Life as an independent scholar

  1. JEBounford says:

    Thank you for such valuable insight. I’m at a crossroads, having just finished the PhD and I formally finish an eleven year stint as a university ’employee’ next month. I’ve always been on the margins and in many ways it still feels like the right place to be. I recently talked over a number of options with a friend who said, ‘do what gives you joy’. Research and writing gives me joy, and I know that doesn’t have to stop. In fact, I’m doing more and more.

  2. Susan says:

    The notion of an independent scholar is very interesting, but I fear more acceptable to the outside world rather than academia. I wonder if academic journals are willing to accept manuscripts from scholars who have no university affiliation. I know for a fact that The Case Centre (who publish case studies suitable for teaching) will not pay contributors who are not affiliated with a university. I was hoping to earn money by independently writing case studies based on my industry experience, but the Case Centre will only pay my institution, not me directly. That’s of no use to an independent scholar with no university affiliation, and somewhat shortsighted of the Case Centre. Congratulations to Floor Basten for making it work.

  3. Michele says:

    Just wondering … Is the life of an independent scholar realistically possible for those in all fields? For eg. Is it really possible for a history PhD to pursue the life of an indy scholar?

    • Zoe says:

      Actually, as a history PhD student, I think this is extremely important! Competition for permanent academic lecturing jobs, post-docs and teaching positions can be fierce. Equally, there aren’t many permanent positions in the arts, culture and heritage sectors. So a good choice for a PhD graduate might be taking on a selection of contract/project work, part-time teaching and collaborations both inside and outside academia. I’ve heard this described as a ‘portfolio career’. In the current job market it seems sensible for all PhD students to look into these sorts of options before they finish.

      Personally I have some reservations about the job title ‘independent scholar’ – I worry that (rightly or wrongly) it might come across as old fashioned, isolated or amateurish to some people? Maybe we need some new terminology for this sort of career, because I suspect it’s going to get increasingly common.

  4. Paul Brown says:

    I finished a PhD about a year ago. Before that, I spent more than 20 years working in a range of increasingly senior roles.

    I’ve now spent a year working as an academic. Flexible work hours are good. But it really does feel like the whole academic thing has little to do with useful education of students or pursuing meaningful research. Or earning money.

    Honestly, now I feel like I’ve got a phd in a good university, and “Dr” label off my bucket list, had a taste of this industry, I have little interest in pursuing work either as a scholar or an academic.

    So, soon back to a real job and reading books for interest. More financially and personally rewarding.

    And if I feel inspired to write something I will under a private company label when I feel like it. Plenty of people do.

  5. John Karley says:

    Last year i complete graduation and this year just admitted in Phd .. interesting thought “Life as an independent scholar” but i’m in confusion how it possible for all field !!!

  6. William Sheridan says:

    I have been referring to myself as an “independent scholar” for some years now. My own criteria is that I continue to research and write about (what I regard as) important social issues. This is NOT a way of grandstanding in support of my own idiosyncrasies – I could just never afford to complete the PhD. Increasingly it seems as if “getting an education” is a rich man’s (or rich child’s) game.

  7. David says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your experience. I’m also considering becoming and independent researcher. I know it won’t be easy, but I think it is the right path for me.

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