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After reading The nightmare of being an independent researcher, Applying for research funding as an independent researcher? and On getting reviews for research work as independent learners and reflecting on many a post PhD academic who, for whatever reason, are not able to get a foot in the door in academia after they complete their work.

I have seen this go both ways - the post-PhD after a while just gives up and gets any job they can, or they go down the path of independent research (usually, as in my case, while working full time).

From experience, this independent research is following on from the PhD topic, still in collaboration with others and at least one established academic, but it is the kind of situation where experiments are performed on the weekends in the backyard, using equipment borrowed or made, and more often than not, all self-funded. Papers still get published and conferences attended (where possible).

What my question is, what strategies are there to maintain motivation in independent research?

Additionally, how well recognised are independent researchers?

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    Just to clarify, you're talking about experimental research as opposed to (say) research in mathematics ? The challenges are quite different. – Suresh Dec 26 '13 at 18:17
  • @Suresh yes, I am referring to experimental sciences (Physics). – user7130 Dec 27 '13 at 5:33
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By an "independent researcher", do you mean that you are not associated to an institution, or that you have become independent from your advisor?

The first case, I am not certain what to say; it really seems that if you are not associated to an institution, you have to deal with a lot of stuff; prejudice from more traditional academics (if he is good enough to be doing research, why is he not associated to an institution? Hence, his research must be terrible), difficulty in accessing published materials (although this is becoming easier and easier, where many recently published papers are in public domain one way or another), etc.

In this case, I suggest that you have at least a few very close academic contacts who are well-respected. These people should be able to explain your situation (about why you are not following a more traditional route) and become your champion. They can also occasionally get you the research papers that you cannot access otherwise, and should you decide to return to school, they will vouch for you by writing you letters, etc. They can also invite you to give talks, participate in conferences, and in general make sure that you are not forgotten in academia.

I think staying in academia as an outsider is much harder if you cannot find people like this, and in all the cases that I have seen, these people sooner or later leave academia. So you need to plan ahead -- if you are still in school, cultivate these relationships. If you have already left, start by getting back in touch with your advisor and close friends who may still be in academia.

In the second case, I think everyone feels some nervousness (and hopefully some excitement) from becoming independent. I think the most crucial thing is to make sure that you have some low-hanging fruits as well as the ones that are just outside your reach as your research projects. Keep yourself busy, and you will find that you have become a pretty good researcher during your time as a graduate student!

  • Yes, as mentioned in my initial question, collaboration with at least one established academic is needed – user7130 Dec 27 '13 at 5:34
  • Hi @Scrooge, not getting the point of your comment. But anyway, I'm not talking about just collaboration. It should be a closer contact than that; you need a friendship, because otherwise the collaborator probably would not care about what others thought of you in academia. I personally would not want to do any research with an independent academic that I don't know well -- too much to risk, and not much to be gained is my honest opinion. As you yourself seem to be worrying about, independent researchers are usually not well-recognized at all. So don't aim for a collaboration; aim for a friend – user10269 Dec 27 '13 at 5:43
  • Yes, I have several friends in academia, including my PhD advisors. According to a few other independent researchers that I know, this is not always necessary. – user7130 Dec 27 '13 at 6:04
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    @Scrooge OK. I am not (and do not plan to be) an independent researcher, so your friends may know better. My experiences from the other side always have been that the independent researchers who are taken seriously are the ones with many friends within academia; the friends will vouch for their personal circumstances that forced them to leave academia (it wasn't because they couldn't find a job; they just had this other issue, etc), and their competence as researchers. Good to hear some other perspectives, though. – user10269 Dec 27 '13 at 6:16

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