Recommended if… you want to spend most of your time doing research without the numerous administrative and teaching responsibilities of academic employment. This is for scholars who are prepared to spend time and gain skills in applying for research grants and other means of income. Often, a scholar does not initially choose to become independent, but ends up doing it given circumstances or opportunities.
Requirements… To be recognized as a scholar, one is generally expected to have completed an MA or PhD, although there are exceptions depending on the individual’s quality of scholarship. One may differentiate an independent scholar from an amateur or popular historian by the level to which their publications utilize the analytical rigour and academic writing style emphasized in universities. See non-fiction writers for information on popular history writing. Perseverance, independence, and self-sufficiency are essential.
Motivation Through Dedication & Involvement
In 2010, the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics indicated that 12 percent of polled historians are self-employed (or unpaid). A significant number of these historians work as independent scholars. Some are working independently while looking for a tenure-track or permanent job, while others actively choose this career path.
There are substantial benefits to working independently. You can choose to dedicate your time to the research you find most compelling and the contributions you most wish to make to the field of history without the need to teach or contribute to service and administration in an academy. This is a rewarding but more solitary career route that requires you to set your own deadlines and depends on self-motivation to keep projects on the go. Independent historian of science Pamela Long writes, “Keeping myself going was never really a problem for me because I am (and was always) obsessed. So obsessed people just keep plowing ahead with their obsessions!”
In terms of quality of work and academic involvement, there need not be anything that differentiates an independent scholar from tenured colleagues. Some independent scholars seek out other independent scholars and faculty members with related interests where they live to form venues in which they can share their work and motivate each other. Volunteer work in areas of interest – or that even directly relate to your research – can further provide stimulating social environments. Direct involvement in professional organizations, such as the American Historical Association (AHA) or Canadian Historical Association (CHA) and special interest history associations, keeps independent scholars connected to the broader historical profession.
The independent scholar may need to apply through research departments for access to academic libraries in order to gain access to the range of resources that benefit university employees, and organizations such as the Canadian Academy of Independent Scholars (CAIS) based at Simon Fraser University and the National Coalition of Independent Scholars (NCIS) in the U.S. advocate on behalf of independent scholars to ease such access since challenges have been occasionally encountered in gaining admittance to archives. The AHA provides its members with a letter for archives and collections for independent scholars. Some seek affiliation with academic institutions in unpaid research positions which further enables access to resources and archives.
The greatest challenge that any independent scholar faces is how to keep income flowing. Because of this, independent scholarship may not be well-suited to those who need a consistent income, but very well suited to those with some means of getting by while pursuing their research projects.
The majority of an independent scholar’s income does not usually come from book royalties, but from a combination of research funding, part-time teaching positions, paid speaking engagements, and/or consulting. Sessional or part-time teaching positions, positions as visiting scholars, funding to work in libraries and archives, research grants, fellowships, or forms of employment unrelated to their scholarly pursuits are often central to their income sources. Public history, media and the arts are other venues in which independent scholars sometimes make their mark. As someone who is self-employed, you may have to purchase health and insurance benefits for yourself, benefits that might otherwise have been covered by an employer. Many independent scholars depend on having a gainfully employed partner to maintain their career.
With these factors in mind, one can certainly make a fulfilling career from independent scholarship.
Some starting points
The starting points suggested for all academic historians in the introduction to this section on academia provides general information that will be of value to independent historians. There are several resources that will specifically benefit the independent scholar:
- Canadian Academy of Independent Scholars
- National Coalition of Independent Scholars
- Beyond Academe
- The Versatile PhD (free access to premium content with membership to the American Historical Association)
As recommended above, maintaining involvement with other historians, whether they be independent or faculty members, is key to maintaining motivation, creating a sense of community, and gaining information about opportunities for your own work.
Do you have further insights on working as an independent scholar, or additional information that we can add here? If so, please contact us so we can refine this resource.