Unaffiliated researchers should not be left adrift from academia

Loss of an institutional position closes too many doors for those whose passion for research outlives their academic careers, says Maria Cohut

June 21, 2022
Man overboard to illustrate Unaffiliated researchers should not be left adrift
Source: Getty (edited)

It is no secret that most PhD students do not secure permanent academic employment. Nor is it a secret that deteriorating working conditions are increasingly pushing out established academics.

For a 2021 study published in Social Anthropology, Lara McKenzie, a research fellow in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Western Australia, interviewed researchers in precarious employment, some of whom had decided to leave their academic jobs. Their reasons for leaving “ranged from having actively ‘quit’, undramatically ‘left’, ‘failed’ to find work or been ‘pushed out’”. She notes that many academics who end up leaving academia might not feel they had a real choice, particularly regarding financial security.

When I made my own decision to leave in 2017, a year before I officially earned my PhD, financial concerns played a crucial part. I was living largely off my fast-dwindling savings and scattered earnings from part-time, temporary jobs, which did not cover all my daily expenses. There was a scarcity of teaching opportunities in my department, and competition for scarce postdoctoral funding was intense.

Still, after investing three or more years in conducting research and building a pedagogic philosophy, stepping away from academe entirely felt like too big a sacrifice. PhDs spend a lot of time thinking about what makes their projects unique and what new contributions they bring to their fields. On top of this, there is the special kind of excitement that comes with engendering new ideas and finding avenues of investigation that nobody else has previously explored. And although my new role in journalism scratched my research itch to some extent, I kept feeling the need to go back to my academic interests and continue the research that, it seemed to me, I had left unfinished or had not even had a chance to start. I also missed the exchange of ideas that occurs naturally between researchers in an academic environment.

However, it was at this point that I realised there are many obstacles to independent scholarship. Lack of time and energy may be the first two that come to mind, but these aren’t insurmountable: we make time at evenings, weekends and during paid time off from our day jobs.

The greater obstacle for independent scholars is our lack of affiliation to a research institution. Without one, we lack free access to university libraries, journals and other resources that research institutions subscribe to. Alumni may be granted some access to some resources, such as online journals, but this is heavily restricted compared with what is available to those with an active affiliation. And while university libraries often allow members of the public to consult the books in their collections, loan privilege usually depends on the payment of a significant annual fee. Buying the books ourselves is, of course, out of the question given their exorbitant prices.

Independent scholars are also denied access to on-campus “closed-circle” events, such as reading groups and research seminars. Anyone can, in principle, attend and present at conferences, but some registration fees can be very steep, never mind the cost of travel and accommodation. In that regard, the pandemic-related rise of online conferences was a very welcome development – now sadly diminishing. Moreover, many academic events take place during the week, making it difficult for nine-to-five workers to attend.

There is also the matter of research funding. Bigger, more time-consuming projects that may require access to restricted materials would benefit greatly from the support of established funding bodies – not only for the money but also for the exposure that comes with obtaining an important research grant. Yet research grants are largely out of reach for those without an affiliation. Funding opportunities open explicitly to independent scholars are currently few and far between, and cover very limited expenses.

Membership of the US-based National Coalition of Independent Scholars (NCIS) – which requires payment of a fee and is subject to veto by NCIS decision-makers – may help access some benefits and opportunities by acting as a professional affiliation, but is unlikely to open all the doors otherwise barred to independent scholars.

There is also the sad truth that independent researchers do not always benefit from the same regard as their university-affiliated peers. There is a discourse – often internalised by independent scholars, too – that not “making it” in professional academia is a mark of personal failure or lack of scholarly commitment. For this reason, a perceivable bias continues to weigh against independent scholars who seek to maintain academic connections and continue their research.

But, to me, our position outside the ivory tower gives us certain advantages. We have a bird’s-eye view of the issues that affect academia and its relationship with the wider world. We can point out the cracks in the wall that those on the inside might not easily perceive – and we can contribute to fixing them. Perhaps we are also better equipped to judge the real value of our research: how it is informed by and speaks to real-world problems, regardless of our specialism.

Universities are already struggling with a lack of diversity among their staff. The UK Research Supervision Survey 2021 reveals that universities not only struggle to recruit PhDs from diverse backgrounds but might not even make doing so a priority to begin with. If independent scholars feel barred from contributing to academe in their own way, this will only impoverish the research environment further.

Maria Cohut is an independent researcher. She has a PhD in English and comparative literary studies from the University of Warwick.

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