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I hope this is not to much rambling, but there is a concrete question in the end. I really like being a mathematician. I like the constant learning, I like working on problems at research-level and I even like teaching university students. I did my PhD and definitely had fun, but during the time, I have also seen aspects of academia that I do not like, most of which fall under "publish or perish", namely the constant struggle for grants, publications and the all-elusive tenured positions.

I'm obviously not alone in this, but let's assume that I have some money, not enough to be overly rich, but enough to keep a modest standard of living without ever having to work. (The details of this are not part of the question, just assume that salary will not be much of a job-motivation.)

Now this got me thinking. I would never want to "retire" at an early age, but on the hypothetical, what if I do not join the fight for tenure and instead effectively tenure myself?

I know that there are many people without university affiliation, who occasionally publish some papers, but are there any who do this full time? There would be enough time to talk with collaborators, write articles I am actually interested in, visit guest lectures at the local universities and the occasional conference on a holiday. Apart from teaching, I would do what everyone else is doing, just on my own. But would it work the same? A possible doubt is, would many people even be interested in working with me? I'm a reasonably competent mathematician but would probably be ineligible for many sources of funding, couldn't offer a big name or any return visits, and would be less motivated to get joint work published in the best possible journal. To put the question succinct:

Is life as a full-time "independent researcher" feasible?

What are other pros and cons? Are there precedents (apart from bored 18th century noblemen)?

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    I don't think he's fully financially independent, but physicist Garrett Lisi has an interesting approach.
    – Anyon
    Commented Nov 13, 2018 at 16:14
  • @anyon This sounds like one of the examples I was looking for. Thank you.
    – mlk
    Commented Nov 13, 2018 at 16:42
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    @DanRomik I totally agree with you that being a math professor would be a dream job. (Although I know some who got tenure and still quit) But that's not what this is about. Professor is also not a job you simply get. I know no one who wouldn't describe the way there as hard and stressful and there are quite a few who wasted their best years only to not get any tenured position at all. It's less irrational to not want that.
    – mlk
    Commented Nov 13, 2018 at 19:17
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    Akihito, the emperor of Japan, is a published researcher (Ichtyologist). (see for example ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18848978). He's not affiliated to any university, his address is given as "Japanese Imperial Residence". Commented Nov 13, 2018 at 20:30
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    @DanRomik You cannot seriously be saying in 2018 that everyone who has the desire and talent to succeed at being a professor will get a TT position just through reasonable, not too stress-inducing effort. Commented Nov 14, 2018 at 0:17

3 Answers 3

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I think this is completely feasible for a mathematician and maybe several other fields. No academic affiliation is needed to attend academic conferences or to publish papers. What you need is some means of collaboration to help firm up your ideas, nothing more, really. For that you need to meet people and to exchange ideas.

What would be frowned on, however, is replacing a paid faculty member with a volunteer. Most people do need that paycheck and it seems somehow wrong to deny someone that opportunity. You aren't suggesting that, of course, so I see no issue.

The easy way to achieve it, assuming that you live near to some large university (preferably) with a large faculty, is just to go and introduce yourself. You might need an invitation first, arranged by email, campus security being what it is today. If you can interest a member of the faculty (or a few) to talk to you about common interests you could probably get a standing invitation to participate in research seminars and such. If your ideas are sound, people will be happy to work with you.

Since internet communication is easy these days you could even use a conference to meet people and then work remotely. Or use your Alma Mater as a source of contacts.

One possible negative, however, is the level of commitment you are willing to make. If you are working on joint research, you need to do your part so that others aren't let down. I don't see that as a big issue in mathematics, but it might be in some fields.

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    You might need an invitation first, arranged by email, campus security being what it is today. Where do you live that anyone can't just walk onto campus? Commented Nov 13, 2018 at 17:38
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    "You might need an invitation first, arranged by email, campus security being what it is today." In my experience, this is not needed when the campus is in a city that is generally considered safe. E.g., I've never had to get any badges, keys or fobs to get into a maths department building during regular hours at MIT, UMN, UMich, NCSU, Dartmouth, and various other places. No guarantees about USC or Chicago, though. (Also Harvard may be an exception for weird reasons only Harvard understands.) Commented Nov 13, 2018 at 17:40
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    @Buffy: This may be some of the saddest news I've heard about US education for a while. Commented Nov 13, 2018 at 18:20
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    At my former institution, anyone can drive onto the campus, park in visitor parking (and pay the extortionate fee), then walk into any academic building and visit any office during regular business hours and on into the evening. Residence halls and a few other places do need a chipped card for access. However, there's a university in the nearby large city where there are many buildings with either concierge-type security or electronic locks.
    – Bob Brown
    Commented Nov 13, 2018 at 18:36
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    @JeremyC That would have been a problem until a few years ago, but nowadays you can essentially get any paper and book which has a digital version for free, if you just know where to look. It might not always be legal, but I don't think anyone you cite will complain that you didn't pay their publisher.
    – mlk
    Commented Nov 14, 2018 at 12:30
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It's possible but your life will change quite dramatically. See this 2017 Nature article about it. There is a nice summary of the pros and cons, reproduced below:

Pros

  • Scientific freedom: researchers can tackle any topic of their choice.
  • Researchers can choose where they live.
  • Scientists can avoid administrative and teaching responsibilities.
  • Less pressure to publish findings in high-profile journals or attend conferences.
  • Without the need to pay overheads to a large institution, more money is available for equipment and salaries.

Cons

  • Funding comes in at an unsteady rate, and will probably be less than a job in academia could provide.
  • Without colleagues, the workplace can be lonely.
  • Independent researchers lack the status that comes with an institutional affiliation, making it difficult, or impossible, to apply for grants at some funding agencies.
  • Scientists who require wet labs or expensive equipment will experience particular challenges.
  • Less money for travel.
  • Many freelance scientists miss teaching.
  • Scientists in countries without universal health care may have to pay for medical coverage.
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I know that there are many people without university affiliation, who occasionally publish some papers,

sounds a bit like me (I'm still working, a lot actually - started freelancing/my own business which is still quite close to research. I'm chemist specialized at data analysis, so can do with an office. At the moment have an academic side job, though.)

Here's my experience:

There would be enough time to talk with collaborators,

As a lone wolf worker, you may be in more need for that than they are, though. Personally, after seeing former colleagues I'm quite happy that now I'm not subject to certain quite stressful experiences they have. Like having to write articles they are not actually, let's say, interested, in (or convinced about the scientific merits).

write articles I am actually interested in,

(somehow less than I thought I will - they still don't write themselves)

visit guest lectures at the local universities and the occasional conference on a holiday.

:-)

Apart from teaching,

(Well, I still do that as part of my business)

I would do what everyone else is doing, just on my own.

I'm far more independent than I was before. That is, I found that academic independence is mostly reserved to the professors over here but at the same time that any "career advance" above postdoc positions involve a change in profession from researcher to manager of researchers. For me personally, I thought it is easier and faster to achieve independence outside academia (starting a business is not without burocracy, administrative stuff or writing grant proposals [called offers] - but at least the financial results go into my own pocket).

But would it work the same?

(I think it's a bit different)

A possible doubt is, would many people even be interested in working with me?

I find they are. And if you are financially independent, probably even more so. I do have trouble to convince some academics that if they want my services, they should actually pay me.

I'm a reasonably competent mathematician but would probably be ineligible for many sources of funding,

Funding tends to think of employee researchers (or students) mostly - at least for the research part of a project. That's why I have that academic side job right now - a project grant where we figured that it would have been too much administrative hassle to try and get the existing funding released so they could hire me as consultat - so instead I'm employee with highly non-standard contract...

(Being SME industry is a funding category as well, though - but being an SME that provides research instead of getting research input is again outside the box)

couldn't offer a big name

(neither can I)

or any return visits,

I try to drop by colleagues whenever the occasion allows that.

and would be less motivated to get joint work published in the best possible journal.

I wouldn't say less motivated - it doesn't have the same prioritypressure as before.

For me also: if it is unpaid, then it has to wait until there's time for it. But most of my academic colleagues understand that - after all few of them would continue to work with the same priority if their institute didn't pay them.

However if a professor with permanent position comes along and thinks they can get significant amounts of free consulting and data analysis because they mention a co-authorship on some possible future "paper" I usually answer by sending an offer for a consulting contract which includes a paragraph stating that authorship for possible publications is decided strictly according to the DFG authorship rules (or COPE - doesn't matter, the rules are the same).
That's another interesting finding: some academics seem to think that the usual authorship rules don't apply. to me - presumably because I'm outside academia now (I had collaborations with them before - this is new).

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