Picture the following scenario: X finished his PhD. X is also quite rich and can support himself (as well as his research) independently.

What do you think about this:

Would X's time after the PhD be well spent if he would just work 'independently'? Would this make things more difficult for him if he ever wanted to move back to an institution?

Is it in a way, in this particular scenario, not actually a very good idea, to focus solely on research and not bother with teaching and all the administrative stuff? Wouldn't he be more productive? What would hold him back?

Note: I am assuming that X is in the Humanities, that is, he does not require a lab or anything & has access to a academic library / or has his own etc.

  • Call me naive, but If I were that rich I'd search for a part-time position and then use the money to travel around the world! ;-) Sep 21, 2017 at 19:05
  • 1
    It could be more difficult to advance upwards after such an adventure maybe. But there do exist other positions, for example "research engineers" who seem to get to help professors do cool technical research related stuff in research groups. But also, maybe the academic life is not for you if you already feel that way. Sep 21, 2017 at 19:18

3 Answers 3


In academia, he might have

  • more exposure to interesting ideas (especially cross-field pollination),
  • better access to students and colleagues to exchange and refine ideas with,
  • as well as external pressure to be productive (which might be a good thing.)

While administrative work has never inspired me to have an interesting idea, teaching and mentoring students certainly has.

It all depends on the context he's able to set up for himself as an independent researcher. If he works better in isolation, maybe he'd be better off. If he can afford to hire other researchers and create an interesting intellectual environment, that might help.

  • I did not want to write it into the question, but say he has not been able to find TT after his PhD. Would working independently then be a viable option (provided X is rich) and could X get 'back' into the university system afterwards, or does it look rather bad and is frowned upon? Mar 29, 2016 at 17:20
  • @Chris see academia.stackexchange.com/questions/40725/…
    – ff524
    Mar 29, 2016 at 17:21

If this person wants to move to an institution later, having a strong research record (since he didn't have other duties, research expectations might be high) is important and, depending on the school, some teaching experience would be valued. (This is more important if the person is out as an independent for many years.)

In addition to the issue ff524 mentions, being independent may be counter-productive for some people. I have had no teaching/administrative duties at different points in time, and the lack of structure can make fit harder to be consistently productive at research. In addition, you can start to feel a bit isolated without a good academic community to be a part of. Personally, I think the ideal teaching load for research for me would be one course per semester most semesters, and then occasionally 0/semester for long trips etc.

I know a couple successful research mathematicians who do not have research positions, but they do have some sort of affiliations (one I think with no requirements, but can teach classes if he wants). I would say if you don't need the salary, something like this would be ideal, and you could teach a little, with minimal service requirements.

  • this is very interesting. regarding your last point, how are these positions called / how does one become affiliated in this sense? Mar 30, 2016 at 3:47
  • @ChrisDoyle I think the department will just make up a name for the position like some kind of adjunct or "research professor." I suppose the thing to do would be to contact departments (chair or faculty who would be interested in you) to see if it would be possible to arrange such an affiliation. Certainly one can get part-time adjunct/lecturer positions this way.
    – Kimball
    Mar 30, 2016 at 5:11

Yes, definitely. If he has set a clear course and has a vision. In academia he will be dragged down / have to split his focus between many duties not related to research :

  1. Administration.
  2. Teaching - many who are employed at universities have teaching as part of their duty. Almost everyone except self-funded post-docs have some teaching duties.
  3. Representation - representing his group for example.
  4. Acquiring grants.
  5. Supervising MSc and PhD students.

All of these eat away some time, energy and focus each.

  • 3. and 5. can be fruitful and bring new ideas.
    – anderstood
    Sep 21, 2017 at 19:06
  • So can walking around randomly, visiting new places, learning new things and talking to new people. All which can also be done outside of academia, whenever there is a lack of inspiration or motivation. Sep 21, 2017 at 19:08

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