Hey Academics, Please Stop Calling Me an “Independent Scholar”

I didn’t know how much I hated the term “independent scholar” until people began to use it to describe me. I left academia four years ago to try to make it as a full-time writer; when anyone asks me what I do, I say, “I am a writer.” Academics, however, still seem to struggle with this marker of identity and others like it, and they almost always default to “independent scholar.”

When anyone calls me an “independent scholar”

The term usually describes a person with a PhD who does not have an academic affiliation but who still participates in academia in a number of ways, including going to conferences and publishing articles in journals and books with academic presses.

It does not matter whether this person is unaffiliated by choice or because of the terrible job market. It is a marker specific to academia; no one uses it in other contexts, because outside of academia it makes no sense.

“Independent scholars” came into being during the 1970s and 1980s, as the population of PhDs doing scholarly work outside of academia grew larger and formed organizations of their own. I imagine that this first group conceived of the term as positive – something akin to “independent filmmaker” or “indie rock.” It denoted a certain kind of freedom and rebelliousness; without being tied to universities and their rigid expectations for promotion to tenure, these scholars could do whatever they wanted.

However, the term has morphed into something less positive in the years since. Instead of suggesting a liberated approach to scholarly work, it emphasizes failure: the inability to get or retain a tenure-track job. It is a term that silos people working in different areas of knowledge production. It marginalizes and others them.

At no time is this more apparent than in the late summer and fall, when scholars are scrambling to put together panels for next year’s round of conferences, and to register and make arrangements for attending this year’s meetings.

When I am forced to “Other” myself while registering for conferences

In order to do any of this, we must fill out forms and identify our “institutional affiliations.” Sometimes there is an option for “independent scholar.” The best-case scenario is a box to check called “Other” (a-hem). On most academic conference registration sites, however, there is no option to choose writer (or artist or journalist or freelance editor). For anyone who defines her/himself in one of these ways (or a host of others), the inability to accurately identify ourselves is alienating. It suggests that academic organizations do not welcome – or at the very least, are uncomfortable with – anyone who writes, teaches, and does scholarly work in contexts other than academia.

This can lead to strange situations. In the 2017 Western History Association program, for example, I am identified in one place as a writer (awesome), and in another as an “independent writer” (WTF?). This latter phrase has been suggested to me several times recently as an identifier – again, usually in the context of proposing panels. It is a ridiculous term. But it is a useful one, as it actually illuminates how “independent” in this context allows academia to simultaneously claim and diminish an unaffiliated scholar’s identity.

When someone suggests I am an “independent writer”

As the number of jobs in the humanities continue to decline and the numbers of PhDs continue to grow (a situation that is profoundly unethical, but that’s an issue for another post), the number of scholars working in contexts other than academia is only going to grow larger.

We shouldn’t have to think of ourselves as “unaffiliated” or working “outside” the academy – for these phrases, too, other us.

So. Please stop calling me an “independent scholar.” Instead, do these things:

  • Embrace writers, journalists, artists, and other scholars as true colleagues, by asking them how they would like to be identified. If they choose “independent scholar,” great. If not, great. But let them decide.
  • As Rebecca Bodenheimer has suggested in her piece for Inside Higher Ed, begin a conversation with a fellow scholar with “What do you work on?” rather than, “Where are you?”
  • On conference registration and proposal submission sites, give scholars the opportunity to define themselves and their work in whatever way they wish.
  • Or, perhaps, forego printing affiliations on conference badges and in programs altogether.

These are small steps, but they are a big deal. And they will make academia a more inclusive place.

32 thoughts on “Hey Academics, Please Stop Calling Me an “Independent Scholar””

  1. I agree with the notion that we should be allowed the opportunity self-identify and brand ourselves. Sometimes it may appropriate to include our institutional affiliation in introductions and on conference badges, but this should be optional and depend on the situation and audience.
    It’s especially irksome to those of us working in Public History (in my case museums) when we’re referred to as “Amateur” or “Popular” historians. As already noted in the thoughtful comments above, “Professional Historian” is reserved for academics.
    This distinction is, technically and lexicographically speaking, stupid. Writers of history, history curators, and others working in Public History are historians, too. If truth be known, many of these full-time professionals are paid more than Professional Historians in the academy.
    It seems to me, we should all refer to ourselves as Historians. If academics feel the need for some additional modifier, let them be known as Academic Historians.

    1. Hi, Andy. Having visited the Library of Congress this spring and seen what (public) historians do, I have renewed respect for your work. To me, it is less important what we call ourselves, or even what others call us. It is more important that we are open to each other’s work and respect the processes by which we share our findings. My colleague and I have had professors and some journals ignore us and some agents tell us no. But our work on the explorer La Salle has also benefited from the insights and encouragement of academics. Thanks in part to these open-minded folks, we have had our work accepted for publication in journals from Pennsylvania to Illinois and, we now hope, Texas. Synergy is a good thing. Given that, I will make a nod to Rebecca Bodenheimer, whose article Megan Kate references above, and ask you, “Where are you?” and “What are you working on?” You never know how your work might color and even bring to life the work of others, maybe even ours.

      1. I started my career with the creation of a Civil War museum in my bedroom when I was 11 years old. Visitors had to take a mimeographed brochure from a rack at the door.
        Determined to “dig up the past,” I double-majored in history and anthropology and soon discovered that written histories were inadequate to truly uncover the rich stories of past peoples. Artifacts, art, ethnography, oral traditions, photography, film, were needed to flesh out the human experience.
        While I teach American History and Public History at Carnegie Mellon University (where I earned my PhD), my “day job” is running Pittsburgh’s Senator John Heinz History Center (www.heinzhistorycenter.org).
        I share your interest in open-minded and interdisciplinary approaches to history. And I love the serendipitous connections that are inevitably made when scholars of different backgrounds collaborate.
        My current research is focused (or unfocused, depending on your point of view) on civil wars in the Southwest Borderlands, Gateways West (including George Washington’s and Meriwether Lewis’s early travels in the Pittsburgh region and the importance of rivers in the westward movement), Gender Studies and Martial Cultures, Sports History, American Indian Ledger Art, and helping the next generation of Americans better understand the basics of their nation’s history and civics.
        It’s my hope that by 2026 (US 250th anniversary) most Americans will know enough to pass the USCIS Citizenship Test.

  2. I am proud to call myself an independent historian, one who never was and, given my situation, never will be part of academia. And, yes, it requires “thick skin and tenacity” to pursue your craft and communicate your findings to the public through existing academic portals. It is difficult to break through the walls of academia to be taken seriously by “the profession,” by academic publishers or within organizations and their conferences. But it is not impossible. I take heart in the 2018 address of Edward Ayers to the Organization of American Historians, urging “the profession” to embrace those outside academia who share a respect for the evidence. And I have experienced the fact that networking with academics and continuing to learn the game, if you will, eventually produces results. I also take heart from the fact that so many independent scholars (be loud and proud) have responded to this blog. It’s nice to know there are more of us out there. Now I will start looking at online networks for “the rest of us.” Blogs can’t be our only forum. But thanks, Megan, for giving us a voice here.

  3. I totally support the idea of giving participants on academic panels full freedom to identify themselves. Still, I think the logic of your complaint over-values “academic” affiliation (and the reputation of academic work at large) immensely. Within the tiny world of academic conferences, people preen around with credentials that the larger world in many cases rightfully dismisses out of hand. To be an academic in this country means getting some obligatory, mumbled honorific respect at a party, but the number of academics with real influence or power in our culture (in the humanities anyway, and that is where I mostly see this “I.S” thing deployed) you could count on one hand after a grenade went off in it. Since the lack of funding and high workload at my university makes the kind of research that gets me to a conference well-nigh impossible, and since that same lack of funding and high workload makes the kind of writing I finally do more or less “good enough for a conference” but certainly nothing I feel I should share with the world, I would much rather NOT affiliate myself with my University, most of the time, or give them any credit for the good work I struggle to do despite the institution, the state that fails to support it, and our dumbass culture that doesn’t want to be bothered to think.

  4. As a non-Phd whose day job is engineering but one who engages in academic historical research & writing, I encountered the title “Independent Researcher” from another direction. Every so often, the people I interact with while in the academic endeavors assume, (a) that am a PhD, and (b) that I am affiliated with a learning institution. So I get referred to as “Dr.”, “prof”, etc, which I find thoroughly embarrassing. If the interaction is brief and fleeting, I simply let it slide, but at other times, I have to set the record straight and that is a quite awkward.

  5. Call me an Independent Scholar. I reject institutional identity. I can speak/write with total freedom from worry about what some hiring committee or tenure committee will think of it. I attack quantitative political science openly, although it is the Dominant Paradigm in the field. I’m free to engage in the kind of guerrilla warfare that “Prof” this, or “Asst Prof” that would shudder to even think of. @wjkno1

  6. I wonder, Megan, as long as we are talking about statistics, what percentage of the independent historians of the last generation have been women? While in the last few years the percentage represented by men may have increased, I would be willing to bet that the overwhelming percentage have been and continue to be women. I’d like to hear from that generation of women on this issue, Megan. The ones who toughed it out without a blog.

    1. This is a great question, one that could be answered by asking the National Coalition of Independent Scholars about the gender breakdown in their membership. I would bet, as you suggest, that the overwhelming majority of scholars working outside academe are women.

  7. I liberated myself from academia in January 2013 and never regretted my decision. However, I also felt compelled at first to affiliate nominally with a program at my doctoral institution to maintain access to libraries and resources. And since then, to form with two other “indies” a research institute so that I could put something on those darn conference badges. Thanks for this reminder that in an era of gig work and adjuncts working 80 hours a week it’s past time to rethink our labels.

  8. I have been working since some time to an ecclesiastical institution (with very important holdings i.e. 700 monuments, 8000 panel paintings etc.), doing research, publishing academic books and papers and being well accepted by the scholars of my field (Art History).
    I find very embarrassing and very awkward the moment when I have either to explain my situation, or, to have as unique option the “independent scholar” definition when applying for funding or sending an abstract for a conference. On the other hand, the affiliated scholars that do not value “independent” ones and see them as failures (more or less and I am not talking about everyone of them) depend on the services provided by people working in archives, libraries, heritage institutions and often have a far more important research record than them. These are people that we often see at Conferences and publications as unaffiliated since they are paid for curatorial work but are doing research on their free time that is not paid by their employers.
    I am also as you can understand against the affiliation thing. In the end I think that it is much more a matter of human quality, how people are treated shows more that anything else the vanity and emptiness of academia.

  9. The only argument I can see against allowing people to define their own affiliation (rather than using check boxes on a form) is that having the check boxes aids doing a statistical analysis of which groups are represented among speakers at a conference (which in turn can aid awareness of who is and isn’t appearing in the program, which may lead to questions about why).

    Of course, one could have both checkboxes for statistical purposes and “type what you’d like to appear on your badge/in the program” fields for those purposes. Some people might still feel marginalized or stereotyped by the checkbox categories, but at least they could control their public presentation.

    (Lit scholar rather than historian here, but I think the issues are similar, at least in the U.S. I’ve been a full-time contingent long enough that I’ll probably be able to claim emerita status at my current institution even if my contract is not-renewed before I’m ready to fully retire. In my mind, the most important perk of that status is continued library/database access — and, to a lesser extent, retention of an university email address, another indicator of affiliation — but if I needed to identify myself as something other faculty — albeit faculty with a teaching-only job, but that isn’t clear from the title — I think I, too, would choose “writer” over “independent scholar,” partly because one of the few advantages of not being on the tenure track is that I get to choose the audience for my writing).

    1. This is a great point – and statistics are vital for proving what everyone knows to be true anecdotally, which is that the academic job market is profoundly messed up. The combination you suggest could be a win-win.

  10. Megan I feel your plight, I have been in a similar situation myself. Although I was “employed” by the University of Edinburgh in the role of a tutor on a series of guaranteed hours contracts I was never properly treated as an employee within the department and did not feel that my contributions were valued by those who actually depended on them.
    When it came to the annual conference for my field last year I was so disgruntled by that point that I did not see them as my affiliation because they did not treat me as such. Nor did I want to be an independent scholar. Independent scholars in Religious Studies aren’t just those who have failed to secure academic posts, they’re generally seen as quacks who have ideas too far fetched (or too theological) to properly belong in the field.
    My solution was to represent myself as a part of the Unseen University (of Ankh-Morpork fame). While meant in a slightly joking fashion, it was interesting to see how many feathers got rankled by this; an “independent scholar” can be sidelined, but a representative of a fictional university challenges the status quo.

    1. I love “Unseen University” – that’s a great way to critique the system AND start some amazing conversations in the hotel bar.

  11. To take a contrary view I think the notion of independent scholar is more and more important, and the point must be to revive its respectability as a title. Universities here in the U.K. Increasingly claim to ‘own’ all the research we do, even that conducted at weekends and during vacations. Independent scholarship can be a positive choice, too, for those who want to walk away from the institutional but not the intellectual. My proposal would be to let people choose what their badges say.

    1. It might be possible to appropriate “independent scholar” and use it in the ways that you suggest. But yes – letting people define their own identity, as I suggest in the post, is the most productive way to move forward and to create a more inclusive community of scholars.

  12. This is a great piece, thank you for writing it. I will share with the AHA Council. I’ve also hated the term – although it’s a small step above the even worse “contingent faculty” – which makes it sound like someone’s existence is contingent somehow. But “independent scholar” definitely has a negative connotation, which you describe so well. I’ve heard some historians describe how when they have that on their badge at a conference, others look down on them. It seems to be a scourge on one’s professional identity, in a sense, within the academic world. As much a bad reflection on the academic world as it is on the terminology itself. We need to keep pushing on this – give me ideas to take to the AHA Council! I’m all ears.

    1. Fantastic! Thank you for sharing this with the AHA Council – our professional organizations are important in shaping professional narratives, and can do a lot to help make the world of scholars more inclusive. Allowing self-definiton in member profiles, conference registration, badges, and programs are good first steps. And a more vigorous effort to recruit scholars without affiliations to participate in panels (that are not overtly about “alternative” careers) and roundtables would be a good way to validate the many forms of work that scholars do.

  13. Megan, thanks for this thought-provoking post. Per Paul Clammer’s response above, the dispute here is a reminder of the origins of the split between “professional” historians (university-trained, university-employed) versus “amateur” historians (ranging from the 19th C lady and gentlemen scholars to the large number of genealogists/antiquarians/keepers of museums and material culture.) So-called professional historians clawed their way to distinction from the untrained masses, so they’re not eager to give up on that distinction easily!

    But as you note, there’s a tragic, undermining aspect to this now that a plurality of us don’t and perhaps won’t have jobs in universities. Among those of us who still are employed in universities, half of us are doing so in non tenure-track positions. We might wonder why so many historians are so loyal to universities and eager to brandish any attachment to them, when they haven’t shown loyalty in return.

    I think your recommendation that we merely ASK people’s preference makes all the good sense in the world, and after all it’s only common courtesy.

    1. Oh, indeed. When I was in the professoriate, I was always thankful to have a title and affiliation; and when I was adjuncting, I remember thinking that “any affiliation is better than no affiliation at all.” Which meant I was a part of the problem, of course.

      And yes, I have thought many times about why I want to continue being part of this community, by publishing in academic journals and going to conferences. I have my reasons, both personal and professional. Most of my friends are academics and so I see them at conferences; and I do want to be part of the ongoing conversations in my field, which happen almost solely in academic contexts. But at some point, sooner rather than later, this may change. We’ll see.

      And yes! Just ask. It’s not hard, and it makes a world of difference.

  14. Great article, thanks.

    I saw a response on Twitter that spoke to me a lot – ‘Try being a serious private researcher writing historical non fiction without a PhD. Recognition is hard-won.’

    I write travel guidebooks for a living but I’m currently researching a history book, which involves a lot of primary sources, archive work and keeping on top of current research trends in the field. I enjoy my sideways connection to the academy but it certainly comes with drawbacks. I only attend conferences if they’re within a reasonably-priced train trip (not very common), and my academic friends are well-used to me emailing them requests to pull something off Jstor for me. I’ve been lucky in that my involves travel so I’ve been able to arrange side-trips to archives I wouldn’t have otherwise had access to (‘If I re-route my transatlantic connection through NYC, I can bag two days at the Schomburg, hurrah!).

    I’m lucky in that the area I’m researching is also in a country I wrote the only English-language guidebook to (Haiti), so I’ve already earned my stripes a little, as any time a researcher heads there I can be pretty sure they have my book in their carry-on luggage. But without that calling card, I think my introduction would have been a lot harder. But that’s still a hard thing to put on the name-badge for a conference – ‘I don’t have a PhD but I’m that guy who wrote the guide you used to book your hotel in Port-au-Prince, and now I hang out in cool Caribbean archives so I can talk the history talk too.’

    Anyway, thanks for writing what you did. Now I’m off to try to find a travel gig that means I can spend a few days in Paris at the Archives Nationales!

    1. Paul, your story reminds us that there are many ways to be a scholar, and many paths to take to get there. Questions: do you see your conference attendance as a form of research (keeping up with trends in the field) or is it a networking venue for you? Or both? And are you going to try to sell the book you are researching to an academic press, or a trade press?

      1. The conferences I’ve attended have in big part to meet people I only know online, though of course it’s useful to see how what I’m doing connects to the wider currents. And as someone who is a long way from being a professional historian, I’ve also enjoyed presenting papers and the recognition that entails. But networking – absolutely. As a freelancer, I’m always keen to grab any opportunity to get out from behind my computer and see actual people.

        The book I’m working on is intended for trade. It will have plenty of new material from primary sources that I don’t believe anyone has looked at before, so I hope it’ll pass muster with those in the academy. If I was part of that scene I’d go for an academic press, but I rather like not having to play the publish-or-die game my friends do.

        1. I agree with you on the socializing aspect of conferences – that’s the #1 reason I go.

          With trade books (in history at least), there is always going to be a tension between the style and structure, and the passing muster with academics. There continues to be a real bias against more creative/unusual forms of writing within academe – they are seen as less rigorous. But I’m not sure that matters, really, in the end. Trade books depend on public audiences for sales, not academics.

  15. How interesting – in the UK I’ve always felt it had totally different connotations. It gets used for people who have retired, who work freelance or who have independent means and don’t have to work for a living. so it’s actually quite posh and has undertones of the C19 gentleman antiquarian. I shall think more carefully about how I use it in future.

    1. I’m not surprised the term has different connotations in the UK – and that it has class resonance. The term can have those connotations here too – although instead of reading as positive (posh) it can read as negative (trustafarian, dilettante).

  16. I have disliked the term “Independent Scholar” for many years. In Britain and Ireland it isn’t restricted to those with PhDs, but to anyone academically trained not affiliated with what is deemed an “acceptable” institution. I became one upon leaving my Museum curatorial position for employment in the private heritage sector, following which I continued to speak at a lot of academic conferences. At the majority of venues I spoke that is how I was referred to– many shied away from using my company name, presumably because to do so would cause the imminent implosion of the academy :-) For what its worth, I have always disliked the term not only for its awkwardness but also for what it tells us about how “independent scholarship” fits (or dosen’t fit) within perceptions of what academic scholarship actually is. There seems to be a very large blindspot for anyone carrying out what we might term academic-style work in an non-academic setting– I have spoken before about the restriction of access to source material, the dearth of funding opportunities (almost always exclusively limited to those in academic institutions), and the often extensive personal costs that have to be carried by anyone seeking to conduct independent scholarship. These issues are almost never discussed in my experience, and people who are (foolish?) enough to carry out independent work are often seen as a somewhat awkward appendage in academic settings. I agree wholeheartedly with your suggestions for improvements. Ironically, having been an “independent” for more than a decade I am about to once again have the joy of affiliation, though it won’t change my (somewhat strong) views on the topic :-)

    1. This is a HUGE blindspot – and one that is part of the rigidity of academia, which see only narrow paths (for advancement, for publishing, for research) and has no tolerance for diversion. And yes, it is most definitely one of the many barriers to entry for scholars working in contexts other than academia, which you note above. To do this kind of work in our position requires a very thick skin and a lot of tenacity.

      1. I agree. In my experience, I also encounter issues with the “affiliation on name badge” working in a government context. I don’t “own” my work for the government in the same way (it needs to be more “finished” and heavily vetted than in academia), I can’t officially represent my employer if they don’t have the travel funding for me to present (so many of us attend conferences “on our own”), and some of my research questions are inspired by my paid work but not prioritized or funded by my employer. Figuring out my affiliation for this conference vs. that conference would be a lot less complicated if our public presentation could be based on the work we do, not the organization we do it for.

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