Life as an independent scholar


Peer Review

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.

Author Bio:Floor Basten is an independent scholar in the Netherlands.