Independent Academia

Academia has many problems, as I have noticed in more depth recently. For every article I read about higher education, I see another one pointing out its many flaws: accreditation, accountability, tenure, the amount of administrators universities are hiring, among other things. Despite the fact that the American university system is the best in the world and has a strong reputation for publishing ground-breaking research, universities could be optimized. Indeed, I have a list of problems with traditional academia which could perhaps be made into their own essay. To understand academia, we must first consider its two components: research and teaching. Teaching, of course, is the front-facing side of academia — teachers confer knowledge to students. Research is the other side of academia — professors and researchers will explore topics in a lot of depth, and publish their findings.

Traditional Academia

If you want to pursue a career in traditional academia, you must devote most of your life to the pursuit of knowledge. Indeed, most professors have degrees and PhDs, and have had to overcome significant hurdles in order to reach where they are today. I have recently been thinking about the nature of academia and I asked myself: why does research need to happen in academia? Right now, most people who want to go into professional research do so by pursuing academia. They will earn a degree from a university, and spend all of their time trying to gain an inside edge so that they can be admitted into the academic class. I think that academia being so difficult to break into is both good and bad. It is good in the sense that high barriers for entry prevents people who are not able to produce quality work to get into the industry. But, it is bad because many great people who are capable of producing quality work are filtered out — over a decade in university pursuing a PhD is not for everyone.

Contrary to what academia believes, you do not need to have a degree to become a researcher. In the past, there have been dozens of researchers who have financed their work independently from traditional institutions. In the 18th and 19th century, independent researchers emerged as a new type of academic — those who were passionate about research, but were not interested in academia. I believe it makes sense that people didn’t want to associate themselves with academia. After all, academics often have very specific ways of looking at the world, and can be very territorial when it comes to protecting their work and jobs. After further consideration, there is no reason why universities need to be the only place where great academic research occurs.

The Benefits and Downsides of Independent Research

The main benefit of becoming part of the independent academia is that you are now no longer subject to the restrictions or pressures of academia. You do not have to worry about filtering your research so that you do not publish anything the university does not fully endorse. You also don’t have to worry about changing your way of seeing the world to fit the narrow view developed by academics. Instead, you can work on the things which interest you the most, and view the world as freely as you with. Independent academia can also give you more autonomy over your research, because you will only be researching exactly what you are interested in.

There are a few problems with becoming an independent researcher, though. Working independently from an institution can be difficult because you will not have any external validation — you can’t point to any research fellowships or teaching positions you have. When you are working on complex research independently, it can be easy for you to doubt the quality of your work. Having an outside party validate your work and give you something to assist you — a grant, a job, et cetera — can be liberating. In addition, there is a stigma around independent researchers right now — being able to say you have received a big grant makes people more likely to read your research. This is because academia has been all about signals. You want people to think that you are good at what you do, but most people think that comes from receiving institutional praise.

It makes sense why people want to go into traditional academia. If you work independently, you have to do work nobody else is doing solely because you are interested in it, without knowing whether the public will even be interested in your research. Thus, independent academia is for those who do not need validation and are driven by their own passion. If you are interested in finding out more about a specific subject, you don’t need permission from anybody to write an article or put together a working paper on the topic. But because many people lack that intensity of self-motivation, pursuing a path in the independent academia can be difficult.

Academia also comes with a number of perks that the independent academia cannot provide. If you work for a big university, you will be able to access all of their research facilities and resources, which will likely be very expensive. If you are working independently, you will have to finance your research by yourself, or with support from non-academic sources. Over the last few years, there has been an emergence of new financing options available for independent researchers such as grants and remote non-academic fellowships, which can help members of the independent academia finance their research. Pioneer, for example, provides ambitious people with some capital which can be used to pursue their project. Other similar institutional support frameworks provide similar forms of support for those interested in research, but who do not want to be admitted into the traditional academia.

But this is no substitute for the comfort of academia and the resources it provides researchers. In addition, academia often provides its members with tenure — the illusive status where a teacher or researcher can only be terminated with good cause. When you have tenure, you are almost set for life. Whereas if you are a member of the independent academia, you will always need to find new ways to finance your research — there will be no job guarantees.

Independent academia is not a stable job path. There are now more resources available to researchers working outside of academia, but there is not enough capital to support all of the people who are members of the independent academia. But just because there is not a massive support network around independent research, it does not mean it is not a good path. Becoming a member of the independent academia only requires you to declare that you are an independent researcher and publish research in your field of interest. Research independently can be fulfilling and your work will likely be read by at least a few people. In that case, you have succeeded. As an independent researcher, you are serving society with your work, rather than an institution. You can work on whatever you want, pursue your own paths, and publish papers about the specific topics in which you are interested. If you think about it that way — that your work is a service to society — then it can be easier to justify the existence of your work. [1]

Anyone Can Be a Researcher

In order to be a scholar or an academic, you do not need to join a university. As more grants and fellowships become available, independent research is becoming an increasingly viable path. And the idea that you need to get a degree to study something you find interesting is becoming less common. Publish a book independently; write a research blog; start a podcast. These are three of many ways in which you can start your research as a member of the independent academia. The internet makes it easy for independent researchers to share their work, get feedback, and tap into a massive audience. On the internet, there is an audience for everything, so even if your research isn’t cited hundreds of times, you will still be able to reach at least a few people. [2] And those few people will be enriched by your research — traditional academia cannot prevent that from happening. Researching something you are passionate about outside of the confines of academia is a liberating feeling, and gives you the ability to change the way people think without having to comply with institutional norms.

Notes

[1] Bonus: if someone asks you “what do you do for a living”, you can say “I am an independent researcher” proudly, because you know that your work could have an impact on society.

[2] Most research papers published by traditional academics are not cited anyway. I could not find a conclusive piece of evidence that provides a specific statistic, but this source acts as a good guide to how few research papers get cited.

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