In a recent thread on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Forum, someone asked about using the label “independent scholar.” A little digging showed that it wasn’t the first time the topic has been raised there, and there is clearly a lot of anxiety associated with the alternative identification. I read through the threads and took note of some of the stereotypes associated with the independent scholar title (my favourite descriptors are: “goofy,” “crackpot,” and “unhireable”). There is a pervasive sense that identifying as an independent scholar is risky and should be avoided (in favour of other labels, such as “visiting scholar”) if at all possible. From what my cursory research shows, this hand-wringing and name calling comes mostly from those still firmly entrenched within academia. For scholars on the outside, like myself, there is significantly more confidence and feelings of quality attending the label of independent scholar.
Let’s first establish some sort of working definition of what actually constitutes an independent scholar. The National Coalition of Independent Scholars outlines the following criteria for inclusion in their membership: “NCIS welcomes people who are pursuing knowledge in or across any fields whose credentials demonstrate an active involvement in independent scholarship in any field, as evidenced by advanced degrees or presentations/publications. Further qualification is that the scholar not be employed on a full-time basis by an academic institution or other organization in the field to which their independent scholarly activity pertains. Graduate students intent on pursuing independent scholarship, adjunct faculty, and others tangentially associated with academic institutions who do not receive financial support for their scholarly activities are eligible.”
Okay – so an independent scholar is actively pursuing knowledge (and presenting/publishing it), tangentially or not associated with a university, and does not have funding/financial support for their scholarly work. Nothing shameful or embarrassing there, right? Nope. Despite evidence to the contrary*, there nevertheless persists a good deal of myths, mostly unfavourable, about independent scholars. Here are the most popular ones:
Myth #1: “Independent Scholar” is a placeholder title for unemployed PhDs
Two points: First, As the NCIS definition indicates, an independent scholar has an active track-record of scholarly research and publishing. “Active” is the key word that distinguishes an independent scholar from an unemployed PhD. “Independent scholar” shouldn’t be used as a placeholder title. If you are not an active scholar but want to identify yourself to prospective employers as a PhD holder, then use the honorific of “Dr.” or put “PhD” after your name.
Second, it is entirely possible to have a PhD, be employed in a non-academic position, and carry out independent scholarship. Most of the independent scholars that I have met work full-time jobs of some sort, and they integrate their scholarly work into their daily life.
Myth #2: Independent scholars are crackpots
I’m sure that some independent scholars are indeed “crackpots,” but so are some “real” academics and professors. A label does not determine quality of work. Peer review processes are in place, in both Humanities and STEM fields, which ensure a certain level of intellectual engagement and worthiness of the contribution within academic publications. Publishing or presenting outside of traditional academic locations is also a legitimate direction for independent scholars – if you are interested in sharing your knowledge/passion with an appreciative audience, then the opportunities to do so are everywhere, from blogs to community library talks to international conventions.
Myth #3: Independent scholars are really retired professors
Yes, there are definitely retired professors who now identify as independent scholars. They are known to frequent their favourite conferences and still publish a book review or article every now and then. But there are also independent scholars, like myself, who have never been employed by the university past their graduate education. There are even independent scholars who don’t hold advanced degrees because they are self-educated and have pursued their passion to academic levels of intensity.
Myth #4: Academic publications aren’t open to independent scholars
The idea that you must have a university affiliation for any academic publication to take your work seriously is a particularly pervasive myth. Definitely untrue. While it may be easier to get published in certain journals over others (and this is true even for those with university affiliation), if your work is solid, then the independent scholar label will not limit your opportunities. If you present yourself professionally, then you will be taken seriously. Make inquiries if you are uncertain about the suitability of your paper for a specific journal. Follow all submission guidelines to the letter and meet deadlines.
Using myself as an example here, I left grad school with zero peer-reviewed publications, but now I have (in the works), one edited collection of essays, one journal article, and one chapter in a book. (I’ve also presented three academic papers at conferences in the last year, and have written an afterword for this amazing anthology of SF short stories, Outlaw Bodies).
Myth #5: An independent scholar is a wannabe professor/failed academic.
There are many reasons why someone chooses to pursue scholarship outside of university employment. Given the dreary state of the academic job market, an ever-growing number of advanced degree holders find themselves unwilling or unable to chase tenure-track jobs around the world. Choosing independent scholarship can be a political decision, a way of taking some authority away from the university. Or it can be a lifestyle choice – independent scholars are free to pursue multiple career and research avenues that are not possible for a tenure-tracked academic.
Whatever the reason behind someone’s decision to identify as an independent scholar, assuming that they lack the academic chops for a tenure track position just makes you look like a total snob and/or clueless jerk. Scholarship is possible beyond the university, and academia does not hold the rights to original thought or innovation.
I’ve written about the benefits of being an independent scholar before, and there is certainly more to say about the topic. Feel free to add your own thoughts about the myths of independent scholarship in the comments.
*I haven’t included any specific examples of independent scholars (other than myself) here because, well, they really aren’t that hard to find. Also, I’m going to write a post on notable independent scholars and I don’t want to give away all of my fascinating research now. Stay tuned!