The Plight of the Independent Scholar

Rebecca Bodenheimer describes the trials and frustrations of attending academic conferences when you’re unaffiliated.


August 29, 2017

Since 2012, I have attended numerous academic conferences with the title of “Independent Scholar” on my name badge. I haven’t been affiliated with an institution since finishing my postdoctoral fellowship at Hamilton College, and I have only taught one class since then. I have continued to be active as a scholar, however, by publishing and presenting my research.

Before labeling myself as an independent scholar, I had some trepidation, as I was still on the academic job market and thought it might provoke misconceptions about my intentions and commitment to academe. But what other choice did I have? After a two-year postdoctoral fellowship, and despite my best efforts, I found myself unaffiliated with an academic institution. I couldn’t very well go back to listing my degree-granting institution below my name on the badge.

While they seem like unimportant and banal items that should have no effect on one’s future and job prospects in academe, conference name badges matter a great deal. They can confer cultural capital upon their bearers, or they can connote a lack of status. The title “independent scholar” performs the latter: it sends a signal that a scholar is either unwanted by the academy or unwilling to commit to the sacrifices necessary to succeed as an academic.

The saddest part of all of this is that those seemingly trivial name tags -- which academics lucky enough to have secured a tenure-track position fill out without a second thought about their deeper meaning -- often overshadow and negatively reflect on a scholar’s published research. No matter the fact that the scholar has published in well-respected venues and received positive feedback and reviews from established faculty members.  

It is not only the name badge that projects an assumption about the quality of one’s scholarship but also the fact that the label “independent scholar” is reproduced in other conference materials, namely the program. Established and aspiring academics overlook papers presented and research published by independent scholars, solely because of the negative connotations of that label. It is one of the many pieces of evidence to support the ever-widening recognition that academe is not, in fact, a meritocracy. My advisers told me to publish my book, that this would help me get a job in higher education. It didn’t. My lack of affiliation with an academic institution has overshadowed the fact that I have been a productive scholar.  

The experience of attending academic conferences as an independent scholar tends to be quite isolating. I imagine that is because so few of us even attend conferences when we don’t have an affiliation. First, you have to self-fund travel to and register for the conference instead of being able to use the resources granted to tenure-track and tenured faculty; this is the major stumbling block for most. But independent scholars also feel out of place, othered, at conferences.

When you meet someone at a conference, invariably the first thing that person does is look at your name badge to assess the institution with which you are affiliated. For many academics, that tells them how much time they should spend on learning about you. If you’re at an important institution, maybe you’re worth their time, maybe the networking will be advantageous. But if you’re at a no-name or regional institution or, even worse, an independent scholar, you can’t do anything for them, so you’re disposable. And often they’ll jump at the first chance to start talking to someone else.

That is not to say that bonds aren’t forged between scholars working on similar regions/issues, or that people don’t approach you because they’re interested in your work. But those are the exceptions. The rule is, if you’re not in the inner circle -- i.e., on the tenure-track or tenured -- you’re simply not worth the time and effort.

Then there’s the fact that attendance at conferences is almost a prerequisite for being seriously considered as a candidate for an academic position. Members of search committees often hold informal interviews with prospective candidates at conferences, either before or after applications have been submitted. In some professional societies, like the Modern Language Association, conference interviews are basically mandatory for candidates to be considered. Imagine, with all the information I’ve provided above, walking into one of these informal interviews with a name badge that says “independent scholar.” Sometimes the faculty member has already seen a copy of your CV -- and can see what you’ve published, that you’ve been an active scholar despite being unaffiliated. At other times, they’re encountering your name for the first time. It’s a recipe for failure, as they’ll often assume you don’t publish good research if you’re unaffiliated.

On top of the often discouraging experience of attending academic conferences as an independent scholar, you are also less likely to be nominated for leadership positions within professional societies -- positions like serving on councils or being nominated to be chair of a special interest group. That reinforces the barriers for independent scholars to getting academic jobs, as often one of the criteria is that you’ve provided service within your department or professional society.

I have fantasized about creating a new special-interest group within my home society, the Society for Ethnomusicology, specifically to advocate for the needs and perspectives of marginalized independent scholars. But that would require self-funding travel to and attendance at the conference every year, and I’m not yet at the point in my post-academic career where I can afford such a commitment. It was encouraging to learn that the Society for American Music has a fellowship aimed specifically at funding independent scholars’ attendance at the annual conference; I hope this initiative will be duplicated in other societies.

Beyond initiatives by professional societies, I encourage academics and graduate students to shift their perspective and approach when networking at conferences. Instead of asking the ubiquitous opening question when meeting someone new, “Where are you?” (meaning, with which institution are you affiliated?), why not ask, “What do you work on?” (a question that focuses on the person’s research). That will go a long way in making independent scholars feel like a genuine part of the scholarly community to which they contribute research.

The neoliberalization of higher education in the United States in recent decades, where over 70 percent of instructional faculty members are teaching with no job security, means that the majority of Ph.D.s will not end up in tenure-track positions. While some people will be content to pursue alternative careers that don’t involve academic publishing, many, like myself, will still want to continue writing and publishing. Of course, the largely uncompensated labor paradigm that defines academic writing is a major barrier for scholars not receiving a paycheck from an institution, but some paying opportunities are peer-reviewed and highly respected, such as Oxford Bibliographies and Oxford Research Encyclopedias. In addition, scholars are increasingly publishing in non-academic digital outlets.

The ranks of independent scholars are growing, and many of us would like to be active in our professional societies and at conferences. Our scholarship is no less valuable than tenure-track or tenured faculty members, and I hope that someday it will be assessed on its own merit rather than overshadowed by our lack of institutional affiliation.


Rebecca Bodenheimer is a freelance writer and independent scholar. She is author of Geographies of Cubanidad: Place, Race, and Musical Performance in Contemporary Cuba (University Press of Mississippi, 2015).


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