I have a math-related PhD but currently work as a software developer. One day, when I retire from software development, is it possible to "join" a local university's math/cs department as an independent scholar? All I need is a PhD student desk and access to the libraries. I can fund my own travel & overhead fees. Has this ever been done before? I just don't want to move around for a job and face the immense pressure of publish or perish.

  • 47
    What would the university get out of this? You're not teaching or performing service for them, you're taking space and library access, and they're putting themselves at risk for anything unsavory you may do personally or professionally. What's in it for them?
    – iayork
    Commented Sep 20, 2017 at 16:51
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    One possibility to consider if all else fails is to take an introductory course each semester in something you're marginally interested in and which will not take up much of your time. Depending on the university, this might allow you access to pay-walled journals and things like Mathematical Reviews, which are pretty much essential for math research. continued Commented Sep 20, 2017 at 18:48
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    I don't understand your question. If you've "joined" a university department, how are you "independent"? Commented Sep 20, 2017 at 21:09
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    @iayork If he published quality research, then obviously the university's reputation would improve.
    – Некто
    Commented Sep 20, 2017 at 21:28
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    @ShuhengZheng If you can afford your own travel and overhead fees, why not just style a room in your house/apartment into a nice cozy library with a "PhD office" feel to it?
    – TylerH
    Commented Sep 21, 2017 at 13:33

10 Answers 10


If you know someone at the university, you can discuss getting an adjunct appointment, which is probably the closest thing to what you're looking for.

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    Better yet if you offer to teach at least one class a semester. Intro to something or other.
    – Raydot
    Commented Sep 20, 2017 at 17:59

Is this US or another country? In US it can be typical to have adjunct faculty position which is similar to what you describe. (No pay, but 'connected' to the department and perhaps spending occasional time in the department. However, an adjunct position in principle means that the outside person can use up resources (from space to the university library resources to computing resources), and these resources are not cheap. If the adjunct is actually spending occasional time collaborating with an experimental group, there could be quite real liability issues if they accidentally screw up or are negligent.

So, typically the adjunct position is a formal position that is put up as an agreement and is reviewed every few years. It would be set up because the adjunct faculty appears to provides some useful experience/expertise that was expected to trickle out to faculty or students because of their closer than normal relationship with the department. Sometimes it might just be an outside researcher who talks regularly to a particular research group or faculty member and so they wish to formalize that arrangement. Perhaps the adjunct is someone who the department wants to keep on tap to occasionally teach a particular sub-specialty course.

Many departments value an 'industrial' contact being tied into department formally via an adjunct position. But, it does still come down to the department believing there is some benefit to its students or faculty before setting up an adjunct position.

Basically, make some collegial professional connections with people in the department and then ask them.

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    Adjuncts typically get paid (not much, but paid nonetheless).
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Sep 20, 2017 at 18:59
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    In the US adjunct facult positions are, in my experience, teaching positions that are poorly remunerated and with very little power in terms of faculty governance and representation. However, affiliate faculty positions are often easy to obtain if you have a relationship with one or more faculty in a department, and entail no pay, no teaching responsibility, but access to things like library and computing resources, and an expectation that you may lead a colloquium or attend seminars or meetings.
    – Alexis
    Commented Sep 20, 2017 at 20:46
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    @JonCuster Not necessarily. I know a number of people who are unpaid adjuncts (for a number of different reasons)
    – Fomite
    Commented Sep 20, 2017 at 20:52
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    @Alexis, the use term "adjunct faculty" varies by school (and probably even within schools by department). Some schools use "affiliate faculty" as synonym for "adjunct". I have 2 adjunct appointments so that I can serve on graduate faculty and more easily collaborate with faculty (I am unpaid for either appointment). Another synonym for this type of appointment is courtesy adjunct faculty. To add further confusion, sometimes adjunct appointments carry rank (e.g,. associate, assistant, full professor). Commented Sep 20, 2017 at 21:35
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    @RichardErickson We use both "affiliate" and "adjunct" to make things more complex, and the scope of both is left to the determination of the department - confusion reigns.
    – Fomite
    Commented Sep 21, 2017 at 0:33

You're probably looking for an “Honorary Research Fellow” position. These exist in the UK, Australia & New Zealand, Canada, Hong Kong, and I suspect some parts of Europe. (I'm fairly sure this is a feature of academic institutes in most Commonwealth countries or ones that based their university sector on the UK model and the european model.[citation needed/speculation])

Here's the page for the policy surrounding these types of appointments from two Australian institutes. UOW and UWA.

From my experience, knowing the Honorary Fellows from my institute, these appointments are not made in isolation. You usually need to have some form of collaborative relationship, be it research or teaching, with the department or research group of interest beforehand.

You can probably get the gist of the appointment from sections 5-7 in the UOW document, i.e. roles, responsibilities, what the role actually means, how they're appointed.

I think the key points are (from the UWA document):

"Honorary" included in the title means:

  • no remuneration of any kind will be made by the University

  • appointments which include persons employed by other bodies who are not necessarily on leave from that employer during the course of the honorary appointment.

  • appointments will normally be for periods from a minimum of one month up to > three years.

  • appointments are renewable subject to the continuing contribution of the appointee, on the recommendation of the Head and the approval of the Dean (or equivalent).

Usually to, the appointment required the individual to have a higher degree, PhD or equivalent clinical experience for medical fields or other performance based fields. From the UOW document:

An honorary academic appointment is offered to a person with a distinguished career whose academic and/or professional qualifications, experience and expertise will complement the teaching and learning, research, research related commercialisation and entrepreneurship and other scholarly related activities of the University through contributions, mutually beneficial association and collaboration.


Visiting and honorary academics must have appropriate tertiary qualifications (usually a higher degree) and/or significant experience and expertise in a profession, industry government or the arts.


I've seen a number of comments and answers about Adjunct positions. In Australia at least these are paid and essentially always teaching positions.

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    +1. This is exactly the kind of position I hold at the University of Lancaster. It was offered to me after I had been collaborating with a number of people there for multiple years. So, in particular, you don't even need to be based in the UK (I live in Germany and work in Switzerland). Commented Sep 21, 2017 at 11:51
  • @StephanKolassa I didn't know about the ability to work/live in a different country to your honorary appointment. That's good to know! Commented Oct 25, 2017 at 5:19

I've seen a few arrangements like this in mathematics (US) without being privy to the details. The position title was usually something like "Visiting Scholar," but it was created especially for that individual, and in all cases I know of, it lasted at most a few years.

These "positions" were created because someone influential wanted that person around for some reason. And they were always at wealthy private schools--state schools don't generally have spare resources for random people. So it's possible, but not something to count on.

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    I can verify that this does happen. Additionally if you don't really need an office, the rest is a lot easier for the university to grant -- space is limited, but library / seminar access is "free" if they actually do want you around. Commented Sep 22, 2017 at 15:26

In the Netherlands' CWI (national institute for Math and Computer Science), there's an arrangement called a "facilities agreement", in which you get essentially just access to the facilities (building, office space with a PC, computer system access) with no salary. While it's probably rare for someone to have this other than past a contract as an employee, it's not impossible if you convince the head of a relevant research group. This doesn't have anything to do with your being super-important, super-rich or super-anything.

I assume this kind of arrangement exists elsewhere (and other answers suggest it does, in some way or another)


Keep in mind that you don't actually need an official connection to a university to contribute meaningfully to academia. Consider the experience of theoretical physicist Julian Barbour. Lee Smolin briefly profiled Barbour in his book The Trouble with Physics. Barbour's papers have been published in mainstream peer-reviewed journals, and he and his collaborators are respected throughout their fields for their solid work.

From the link above:

Since completion of my PhD in 1968, I have worked outside an academic environment, though I have collaborated with several researchers in academia. The picture above shows me at my home in north Oxfordshire, England. Much of the work with my collaborators has been done there.


I attend university in California, an undergraduate in the Mechanical Engineering department, and know several who are employed as "Lecturers": they teach 1-2 courses, and that's pretty much it. They get their own office, all the resources, and the two I know are involved in companies on the side, moreso than the university. They aren't professors, but get much (if not all) of the benefits.

Landing a role like that sounds great, and if you don't want to lecture: I had one class that was entirely online except for the midterms/finals, which were done by the TAs. The professor even took a two-week vacation to Europe mid-quarter! Due to your background, you could definitely work with that.

Such a position would allow you to be an "independent scholar" in exchange for relatively minimal contribution to the institution.


Depends on the work you aim to do and your previous track record, of course. You should get in contact with a research group leader and see what is possible. Independent people do sometimes work as visiting scholars, and they can be amazingly capable. Academia should be open to possibilities like that.

Of course, you need to find a host in your field of interest. I should add, in case you are accepted, the university will have to appear as your affiliation in publications of interest (also software publication, where applicable).


If you really want to do this I suggest that you look at what sort of research people are doing at the university you have in mind that might interest you. If it does interest you and you are prepared to work at it then you might just possibly be able to get involved. If (a big IF) that worked out then it might be possible to get some sort of visiting position afterwards, but it would not be guaranteed.

I think you should ask yourself a question..

'Do I really want to do programming or research?'

If you want to do programming then that is great and you should put you best effort into that

If you want to do research then you might want to look out for post-doc positions in your area or something related, but that would probably mean relocating unless you are lucky. The most post-doc positions are fixed term and to make a career out of research you probably have to do teaching as well plus do all the other stuff etc. etc.

hope things work out

  • Postdocs are often restricted to someone who received their PHD less than N years ago, where N is around 5. Someone who has been in another career for many years may not be eligible. Commented Sep 20, 2017 at 22:02
  • @NateEldredge - I was not aware of this - in fact where I work that would not be allowed to be put in a job description - it would be illegal... and we recently hired an excellent post-doc who has been in a different career for more than 5 years.... .... it is not clear from the question how much time has passed..... ....BUT your point is a good one
    – tom
    Commented Sep 20, 2017 at 22:47
  • Could you provide some more information about where this is? Because I have seen such clauses on postdoc positions in both USA and most European countries. Commented Sep 21, 2017 at 7:08
  • @TobiasKildetoft It is in europe. - but there is a difference between applying for a particular fellowship and applying for a job that is advertised - for a fellowship there can be strict rules, for example, that you must be within so many years of your PhD or something like this. -- But for jobs it woudl be discriminatory to not allow anyone to apply. - Does this difference make sense?
    – tom
    Commented Sep 21, 2017 at 12:44
  • I see the difference, but I have seen such requirements also in regular job postings. I am not sure you are correct that it counts as discrimination, just like it would not be discrimination to ask for a PhD or some amount of experience. What does count is usually pretty specifically defined. Commented Sep 21, 2017 at 14:30

You might want to look into an interesting book on how independent scholars can associate themselves with universities - or not - and still provide valuable research. The book is "The Independent Scholar's Handbook", a paperback published in June, 1982 by Ronald Gross.

  • Universities have changed a lot in the past 35 years. Are you certain that the information in this book is still relevant? Commented Sep 23, 2017 at 17:13

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