The way to avoid being institutionalised

November 10, 2000

You do not have to be a full-time academic working under the auspices of an institute to publish serious works of research. John Davies spoke to authors who have forged a reputation and made a good living outside the traditional patterns of scholarship.

When Julian Barbour returned to England after gaining a doctorate in theoretical physics in Germany in the late 1960s, he had what he describes as a "very helpful" discussion with a professor of maths. "He said: 'Look, if you think you can turn out one or two solid research papers a year, and do the teaching and the other administration, then a university career is the thing for you. But if you've got doubts, think very seriously about it.'" The advice he received - from Felix Pirani, then at King's College London - meant that Barbour did not go into academia. He did, however, stay with theoretical physics: his first book, a major work on the foundations of dynamics ( Absolute or Relative Motion? , "a book of 746 pages with index and bibliography that I wrote in three and a half years from scratch") was published in 1989, and he is "close to finishing" a book continuing the dynamics story to the present. Last year he brought out The End of Time , a popular science book "at the serious end of the genre", on the problematic nature of time in physics. And he is still at work on some of the implications of Einstein's theories.

Barbour is a rare example of an "independent" scientist, someone of academic standing who has never held a university post or been funded by a research institution. So does he prove that there is academic life outside academia? Can one be treated on a level with one's academic peers without actually holding a university post? Although there are a few respected scientists detached from the mainstream - the example of James Lovelock may come to mind - it is probably in the humanities that one is more likely to find the "independent" scholar.

In history, for instance, writing can be a career for those who might otherwise have considered entering academia. Amanda Foreman has done well out of her biography of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, which was originally a PhD thesis. However, another young biographer-historian, Lucy Moore, "didn't even think of" an academic career after reading history at the University of Edinburgh. Instead, she worked in magazines and for a political lobbying company before writing her first book, the well-received The Thieves' Opera (1997), about the Georgian underworld. She recently published a biography of Lord John Hervey, and has now moved to a much earlier period to work on a book about Richard II.

"I'm interested in character more than anything," says Moore. "Obviously I want to be academically correct - I wouldn't dream of writing a book without footnotes - but I'm not really interested in academic history per se . My stepfather teaches at a university in America; I wasn't ever interested in that life."

There is also a different kind of historian outside academia, who writes for the love of the subject rather than to support him or herself. Jonathan Sumption, a high-earning barrister, has earned academic kudos with books about the Albigensian crusade and the hundred years' war. Michael Wood (see below) has also made his mark in 10th-century history. And at a less glamorous level, there is David Evans, a police inspector with the Gloucestershire constabulary. His one book, A History of Nature Conservation in Britain , was first published in 1990; now, according to Sussex University social historian Alan Howkins, it is "a book that's on all the reading lists in the subject area".

"I started writing it as a hobby," says Evans, who has a degree in geography from the University of Wales, Swansea. Having realised that there was no full history of the pioneering British nature conservation movement, he spent "four or five years" writing one in his spare time - helped in his research by his local Dursley library, which got him copies of specialist publications through the British Library.

It was only after Routledge asked him to update the book for a second edition in 1997 that Evans "realised that it had become a standard text". Nowadays he is asked for occasional articles on his special subject - "mostly from a local rather than academic angle" - although he was gratified recently to have been asked by Oxford University Press to prepare some entries for the up-dated Dictionary of National Biography . Otherwise, he says, "I view writing as something I'd like to do more of in my retirement, in eight years' time."

For Howkins, an "amateur" historian such as Evans is something of a dying breed. "Until about 15 years ago, on History Workshop we regularly had articles by people who Raphael Samuel called 'enthusiasts'," he says. "There used to be a space for people who wanted to do a bit of research but didn't want to be academics. I'm not sure there is now."

Philosopher Jonathan Rée, on the other hand, sees more space opening up for serious work outside academia. "I think the conception, which I had when I was a student, that the life of an academic was identical to the life of an intellectual is a damaging illusion," says Rée, a professor at Middlesex University. "People who want to be creative in the humanities no longer think it is compulsory to take an academic job in order to support themselves. They may take a job earning lots of money in the City or they will manage to sustain themselves by writing."

Ben Rogers is taking the writing route. After an MA at Columbia University and a doctoral thesis at Oxford University on Pascal (which he turned into his first book), he has managed to make a living from philosophy, with a well-received biography of A. J. Ayer and a forthcoming book on 18th-century English rationalism (the serious stuff has been supplemented by journalism such as a restaurant column in The Independent ).

"Oxford and I didn't really see eye to eye," says Rogers. "I didn't get a junior research fellowship, and I must say I have absolutely no regrets. I much prefer writing for a wider audience." Although he says he liked university teaching, he adds: "I don't have the temperament" for committees and the like, "and I certainly get to spend more time in libraries now than most academics do."

This remark is echoed inside academia by Rée: "There are probably people of my generation who envy those younger ones (who didn't) sleepwalk their way into becoming academics." So maybe Barbour is right when he says: "I see so many people much more talented than me who cannot risk going independent. At the end of their life they may have quite a lot less to show for it than I have."


A theoretical physicist, an expert on minorities, a philosopher who teaches Socrates to businessmen and a television historian explain how they found an alternative to academia.

Julian Barbour
While working on a PhD in theoretical physics in Cologne in the late 1960s, Julian Barbour acquired "a rather efficient way to earn money" - translating Russian scientific journals. He had learnt Russian as a hobby after getting an MA in maths at Cambridge University.

Translation was a steady source of income. "In those days, something like 300 Russian journals were translated cover to cover, and publishers in the West always had difficulties getting competent translators. Once I'd got established I very soon got up to earning the same sort of salary as university professors." He translated for 28 years - he says it was "boring but totally reliable" and got him out of university politicking. Although not against university administration or teaching, he says: "I just could not see myself producing the required number of research papers. I wanted to work on very fundamental issues, and I foresaw - correctly - that it would be several years before I produced a single paper. I wouldn't say I was opposed to academia. Far from it. I couldn't survive without it, I collaborate quite intensively with people in academia. But there's a serious problem, certainly in theoretical physics, of people not feeling they can take on a really challenging subject and devote years to it."

His first book, with Cambridge University Press, was to have been about the foundations of dynamics from Newton to the present day, "about the origin of the problem of inertia and the nature of time". But then he started reading Galileo and Kepler "and before I knew where I was, I was back with the pre-Socratics". Then, having got involved in organising a conference on Mach's principle, he decided that the concept of time had been confused ever since Mach and was not treated properly in physics. But he thinks it would have been too big an issue to suggest for a PhD. "There's too little chance of getting a result," he says. Barbour's experience is that "as long as you're not a crackpot and you've got ideas, you can talk to academics who are working in the field and they will collaborate with you".

Hugh Poulton
"Really I'm a sort of quasi-academic," says Hugh Poulton, an expert on minorities in the Balkans and Turkey. Now 50, he worked for Amnesty International "for most of the 1980s" before going back to London University's School of Slavonic and East European Studies to do an MA and a PhD. "By that time I'd written my first book, for the Minority Rights Group, on minorities in the Balkans. I also had a load of articles under my belt and I did actually try to become an academic. I was shortlisted for jobs two or three times. But by that time I was fairly old, and maybe I scared people off."

A member of the editorial board of the journal Ethnic and Racial Studies ("I'm the only non-academic on that"), Poulton is frequently asked to conferences "in my role as a so-called independent expert on the Balkans and Turkey. So, in many ways, I get treated like an academic." He still writes - he is co-authoring a book about "transnational Gypsy consciousness" due out next year. But most of his earnings come from consultancy work for organisations such as the Minority Rights Group.

"I have occasionally taught - I covered for the MA course on minorities (at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies) for a term when somebody was on sabbatical, and I've done the odd guest lectureship at Central European universities, but it's quite pleasant not being an academic; I have friends who are, and I'm glad to be out of it."

Poulton has also earned money as a musician - "which I think used to put people off when I went for more academic jobs. I had a big gap in my CV - I had dropped out in my 20s, wanting to be a rock'n'roll star." Currently he's in a band called Walking Wounded, "playing a mixture of East European, Arabic, Celtic, Balkan Gypsy, you name it", which mainly performs in the London area but has an appearance at Glastonbury the year before last to its credit. "I'm still expecting to become a rock'n'roll star," he laughs. "The dream never fades."

Karin Murris
It was while Karin Murris was working on her PhD that, in her words, "my whole idea about academic philosophy changed". The result is that, instead of teaching philosophy at a university, she lives in the Pembrokeshire countryside and works as an independent "consultant philosopher". Even in the early 1990s, when she had her own Centre for Practical Philosophy at the University of Wales, Swansea, she was financially independent. And now she has confirmed that independence by setting up a company with two colleagues that specialises in the use of Socratic dialogue in classrooms, businesses and elsewhere.

Born in Holland, Murris got her first degree at the University of Leiden before coming to England. As the mother of young children, she took an MA at Birkbeck College in London.

After going to a conference about the teaching of philosophy to children, she decided that could be the subject of her PhD.

Murris has no regrets about practising philosophy outside academia. "Increasing competitiveness and emphasis on the necessity to publish make demands that are difficult to combine with motherhood and raising a family properly; make it almost impossible to live in parts of Britain I would prefer while raising a family; and make it hard to prioritise quality of teaching and contact with students."

Publish-or-perish demands, she continues, can also "prevent real thinking and creativity" and favour "a regurgitating of what has been said before, either by oneself or others". The fact that within universities it takes "a long time and a tedious bureaucratic process" to set up new courses is a further disincentive.

"I am interested in practical philosophy, dealing with questions relevant for everyday living and philosophically reflecting on the everyday language we use," says Murris. "Academic philosophy too often focuses on the answers given to philosophical questions by the great philosophers." Although things are changing in the way philosophy is taught, she feels that "if you want to teach students to think for themselves, you need a different methodology from what is fashionable, and that can cause resistance from existing staff".

Michael Wood
"I kind of keep a foot in academia," says Michael Wood, best known here and in North America as a television presenter. As recently as May, he was lecturing at an international medievalists' conference in the United States and shortly he is to publish a long article on a crucial passage in the chronicler William of Malmesbury's account of 10th-century England. He wrote it some time ago and was encouraged by friends to publish it. "It's now coming out in a key publication on this period. I'm particularly gratified by that," he says.

Wood never completed his Oxford doctorate, on 10th-century Anglo-Saxon history. Instead he became a journalist and made films, one of the first of which was the 1980-1981 series In Search of... for BBC2, about a variety of historical figures in the Dark Ages, from Eric Bloodaxe to William the Conqueror. Since then Wood has ventured further afield, from the Trojan war to the Spanish conquistadors, about whom he has a new series starting in December on BBC2.

"Television is all-consuming when you're doing a series on an area you're not that familiar with, such as conquistadors," he says. "You have to work hard on the original sources, and you're away for weeks on location. It becomes extremely difficult on top of your normal life at home to do any other work, especially detailed work such as text criticism."

Access to reference material has not been a problem for Wood since he acquired a reader's ticket for the British Library's manuscript room while a postgraduate. "It's one of the greatest privileges you could ever have," he says.

He continues his academic output "only because I love the subject so much. My ambition was to be a medieval historian, but you need certain special talents for that, I think. The medieval historians of my generation who I really admire - such as Simon Keynes in Cambridge - are scholars of fantastic learning and discipline and linguistic skills. I'm more of a dilettante.

"But there has to be a bridge between the scholars and the general public in any culture. It's not a negligible job to popularise, in my book."

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments