Independent scholar, cat addict, tattoo lover

Life and work of an indy scholar part 10 – In an ideal world, academics share their resources like, say their minds to make the world a better place. In another world—the one we live in—they share the findings of their research and conclude there’s more research to be done (read: they need more money). Competition is part of the scientific system as we built it. It’s supposed to bring out the best of us and in recent years, with a growing number of PhDs, competition is created by generating scarcity and budget cuts. Only the crème de la crème will float a top, or so it is assumed. This blog is not about surviving the academic job market, it’s about another approach for bringing out the best in you: care to share.

Last week I warned against too much free work (read here). This doesn’t mean that you invoice every word you produce. That’s just not how social traffic runs. If you share, you’ll notice that the care of others will lift you as well. This is not something you need to be calculative about. Counting on others comes naturally when you work with people you like. So nourish a network with other professionals, self-employed or not. For this you may have to learn some new behaviors and unlearn some old habits.
When doing a PhD, we happily or reluctantly learn to flourish in solitude. The PhD is testimony of our ability to do research independently. Our research is our own and even when it’s part of a larger program, we demarcate our piece and defend it as our unique contribution to science. We’re trained to work individually and our success depends on some degree of selfishness. We also learn to use an authoritative voice. Our thesis (from the Greek tithenai, ‘to place, set’) is what we strongly put forward, our dissertation (from the Latin dissertationem, ‘discourse’, and dissertare, ‘debate, argue, examine, harangue’) is what we persuasively bring into the scientific debate (I wrote about the unhelpfulness of this voice in the non-academic world here). And we learn that scientific value is different from social value, the first higher valued than the latter. I once attended a workshop for early-career academics who needed to apply for large European funding (this is what University Life today has come to, you’re welcome if you bring your own money). We had to write down our proposal in an elevator pitch. One of the participants triumphantly ended his pitch with ‘And it has no social value at all’. When I responded that I could see at least three very useful applications of his research findings, he looked at the trainer as if she were his kindergarten teacher and fearfully asked ‘But I don’t have to put that into my proposal, do I?’ (I wrote more about this here). In response to societal pressures and governmental and commercial interferences with researchers’ ambitions, many academics dive deeper into the bastion we call ‘University’. Indy scholarship isn’t an alternative stronghold for the same self-protectionism. It isn’t about secluding yourself in an ivory attic and observing the world from up high. In contrast, it’s about being in the streets and engaging with the people you meet. To some of us, this comes naturally. And to some of us, it takes some work.
Humans—yes, academics too—are social beings. We need each other to flourish and prosper, emotionally, intellectually, financially. Tap into human generosity and share. It starts very easily: share with others that you’ve started a business and they’ll immediately recast you from ‘employed academic’ to ‘can be helped’. They’ll offer ideas and network, perhaps even become your first clients. They form the soil from which you can grow. One of the first people who helped me, let’s call him X, hired me to help him with his writing and also introduced me to his network. He put me in contact with Y and together with X and Y I did a small research project for client A, later a larger one for client B, after which Y hired me for a long-term period. X also introduced me to Z, who hired me for several large-scale projects and introduced me in turn to clients C, D and E, via D came F and via E came G, et cetera. All in all, via X and the spin-off from his introductions I could lay a firm groundwork for my enterprise and in the years that followed our friendship grew too and I can return the favor by introducing him to my network.
Sharing is reciprocal, so show appreciation and, if in order, remember them when you yourself need to buy in extra expertise. But reciprocity isn’t necessarily tit-for-tat, it’s also a way of paying it forward, helping new starters because your X helped you. For instance, you can blog about your knowledge to help people you don’t know—which is hopefully what I’m doing now. In my case, I created a campus that facilitates indy scholars by providing them with a platform and tools to improve their entrepreneurship (Campus Orleon; more here, but in Dutch).
Sharing doesn’t preclude money either. Who better understands this than entrepreneurs? X, a self-employed professional himself, never assumed I would work for free. In fact, none of my fellow entrepreneurs do so. When we do work together without money, it’s an investment from which we’re all to reap the benefits. Collaborating with self-employed professionals is more fun than working alone and together you can offer a fuller package to clients.
And sharing can occasionally mean doing something for free. Just because you want to. Or because it gives prospect clients a taste of what they can expect from you. Or because you think your gift is necessary. That’s part of being an indy scholar too, you’re free to do as you see fit.

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Part 9: Making money or monkey business          Part 11: Staying in touch with academia          All weekly blogs