On being an indy scholar

Now and then people ask me, ‘Do you miss academia?’

The question always surprises me, because to my mind, I never left.

I’m not affiliated with a university; not since I left Cambridge two years ago. But I never stopped doing and publishing research.

I call myself an independent scholar. When I tell people this, they look at me as though I’ve said I’m a Christmas elf or a teapot.

‘Is that even a thing?’ they want to know. The next question, invariably, is ‘How do you fund that?’

The answers are yes, and surprisingly easily.

Before I started my PhD I freelanced as a translator and editor and, like anyone who’s built up a client list, I couldn’t bear to let it go. So I didn’t.

Only later did I realise my part-time business was more than just a sideline. It was a way to buy my freedom – to be an academic without being at the mercy of the academy.

Towards the end of my PhD, I grew increasingly bothered by the dodgy incentives in academia. Having to game the system in order to land grants (‘just’ doing high-quality research is not enough). The emphasis on output at any cost (fraud is a systemic problem, it’s not just a few bad apples).

In my case – less sinister but equally disheartening – I found myself spending all my time writing grant applications about projects I wanted to do, instead of actually doing them.

I got interested in the idea of a more humane academia; in networks for ‘rogue’ academics like the National Coalition of Independent Scholars in the US. Gradually I came to realise there was another way.

While most researchers teach in order to ‘buy’ their research time, I translate. Two to three days a week is plenty, income-wise, and this frees me up to spend the rest of my time doing research, presenting it at conferences and publishing it.

The downside is the vanity thing. ‘I’m an independent scholar’ doesn’t have quite the same ring as a casual ‘I’m at Cambridge, maybe you’ve heard of it?’

Other than that, it’s all upside. Choosing projects because they interest me, not because they look good. Feeling the pressure to publish, but as a personal compulsion rather than a necessity. Knowing my boss (me) can be a jerk sometimes, but at least she’ll never make me cover her course for 150 undergraduates on Romanian transvestites in the textile industry.

Ultimately, it’s a way of cherrypicking the best bits of academia – and that without having to get dressed.