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The Secret Life of an Independent Academic

(This is an article I wrote on LinkedIn, sharing it here as I am not connected to many of my blog people on LinkedIn)

I’ve just spent the last four days at the 11th International Symposium on Bilingualism, at the University of Limerick. It was a great opportunity to catch up with old friends and colleagues, browse through a lot of new research, make new connections, and, as always, answer the perennial question “What university are you at?”. As is almost always the case at research conferences, I was the only person (at least to my knowledge) to not have a university affiliation on my name tag. Reactions to this lack of official connection vary from dismissive to incredulous to envious. But always, surprised. The Independent Academic is a rare creature, and often misunderstood. Well-meaning fellow delegates express sympathy that I can’t find a job (not true!), that I must be there only to listen and learn (also not true – I presented a paper!). So here is some insight into the world of independent academics, we may be small in numbers now, but I expect that will start changing.

Once we get over the initial confusion about who I work for, the next question is always “why?”. I can’t presume to speak for every independent academic, but I will share my own reasoning for choosing this path. My first venture into working for myself came about because I moved, and there were no universities within commuting distance that were involved in the type of teaching/research I was interested in doing. Newly qualified in Applied Linguistics, I wanted to develop programs to support bilingual/multilingual children, from a family and school perspective. Because there was nowhere I could turn to embed this in a university-based job, I just started doing it myself. After several years, my consulting work brought me to the attention of a university looking for a sociolinguistics lecturer. Eager to be part of a team again, and to delve back into “real” academia, I accepted. But the bloom was soon off the rose – yes, I loved teaching sociolinguistics. But of course, an academic job doesn’t come with the privilege of only teaching the one or two courses you really love – you also have to be a part of a larger effort, and take on courses you are less interested in, and attend meetings, and do paperwork, and all the myriad other tasks university-based academics do these days. So once again, I flew the nest and went back to working independently.

Obviously, there are significant challenges to working independently and trying to remain a connected academic and researcher. For one, no funding body that I have found will allow independent academics to apply for research grants or other funding. So you need to make partnerships in order to continue being a part of a research environment. And that’s not always easy either, as many academics view independents with suspicion or disinterest – we don’t bring a name to a project, or a department and sometimes we are often seen as being “lesser” in terms of knowledge and skills. I’ve been lucky, and have met great people along the way, who have been open-minded and collaborative, but it’s been a lot of work finding those people! A second challenge is professional reputation. Because being an independent academic is so unusual, there is often a perception that it must be your fault, rather that your choice. Unfortunately, at conferences (including this last one) I do meet people who give me the brush off as soon as they find out I’m not attached to a university. The academic world, like most other fields, has its innate snobbery as well.

On the flip side, there are many benefits to being independent. I set my own agenda, and only have to work on projects I am interested in. One of the reasons I left my last job was because I simply wasn’t finding enough time to continue working on the areas that are important to me – the connections between SLA research and teaching practice is where my heart lies, and I believe, where my talent lies as well. Working independently means that all my time and energy (and book/journal budget – I don’t have access to a university library…) can be focused on this one topic and developing my expertise in this area. Having this time to fully immerse myself in my key topics (second language acquisition, bilingualism, language policy and practice) means that I can keep up to date on a vibrant and growing field, and still have time to take all this knowledge and apply it to my own research projects, and to the professional development and school consulting that forms the practical part of being an independent academic (no, there is no money in being an independent academic!). So I get the best of both worlds; I get to continue to do the school-based work that I love, and still have time to engage in key research (both applied and desk) to make sure that I am always up to date in my field.

If you are an independent academic I’d love to hear from you about how you are making it work.


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