The mad life of an independent scholar

As my tagline reads, I am a librarian by early day, a scholar by late day, and an ardent reader by nights.

I currently work as a cataloguer in the University Library of Ghent better known under its nickname the “Boekentoren” (‘Booktower’). Way back in the summer of 2008 I started working as a project cataloguer to work on the Google Books Library Project. Shortly after I began to work in the library as a full-time cataloguer at the Cataloguing and Acquisitions Department of the Booktower. Commuting and working accounts for about 11 hours of my day. I come home and then de-clutter my brain from a stressful day by reading or crashing on the couch. Voraciously reading isn’t, and, even back then, wasn’t enough to keep my mind pumping. So, I went in pursuit of learning by taking various courses and attending seminars and conferences alike on for example Old Norse literature and manuscript studies. And yet, I still didn’t feel quite satisfied.


In the spring of 2009, however, two colleagues suggested to me to submit a proposal for a PhD-project as an independent scholar to the Arts and Humanities Faculty Board. Isn’t that the ultimate goal of a lifelong learner? Our Golden Fleece? Our Holy Grail? To boldly go where no (wo)man has gone before … ? Or, in true Old Norse style, … to die bravely and end up feasting in Valhalla (“Valhöll” — ‘the hall of the slain’)?

Honestly, at that time I had little faith in getting the faculty’s approval. I didn’t tick all the boxes. Still, I was surrounded by people who believed in my project and above all in me. So, I handed in my project-proposal. What I lacked in self-confidence I made up for in having a well thought out backup plan. If the Faculty Board would turn down my project, I would at least have a new challenge to keep the creative juices in my brain flowing. I always wanted to play an instrument and now was the perfect time to start. I went to the local school of music to get information on cello class for adults. A couple of days before I intended to sign up for cello class, I received a mail from the Faculty Board saying that my project received a “green light.”

Ready, set, write! Not quite. While my core group of supporters from day one all agreed that “it goes without saying that they gave you the green light”, I was having a slight panic attack — “Full-time job! When? What? How? … .” I drew a deep breath and jumped in feet first. Ghent university just set up a new system of Doctoral Schools and offered a wide range of courses. The very first course I took was more or less a compulsory course (even though we were not obliged to take it) entitled “A plan for all seasons”. There I sat surrounded by all the other budding scholars who started on their PhD-project in 2009. We were shown graphs of the rather low percentage of PhD-scholars who follow through  on their project. The presentation continued with slides on what were generally the reasons for scholars to stop and give up. Among them were the age of the PhD-scholar, a lack of sufficient time, a decline in motivation, insufficient funding or sudden loss of funds, starting a family combined with gender-issues. The speaker decided that it was time to play a little game called “And then there were none” to (de)motivate us. The odds were overwhelmingly not in my favour. The first and most likely aspiring scholars to throw in the towel are independent scholars, because they are usually older, no funding, a day-time job, a family, and most of all are not part of a department at the University … . When the speaker asked if there were any independent scholars, yours truly was the only one to raise her hand. “Oh, there is one.” (She said sounding very surprised.) Every one in the room turned their heads and was eyeing me.

That moment. That very moment symbolizes quite well how it feels to be an independent scholar. You are an oddity, you don’t belong and, most of all, you feel isolated. You are a PhD-student at the University. If you successively defend your thesis, the University and your department gets further and new funding. And yet, as an independent scholar you are isolated from funding streams and have to get by without financial support from the University. You need a job to pay for your own project. You self-fund. Even though there is such a thing as the Doctoral Schools, you still have to find your own way through the administrative minefield, having very little time for research as it is. My weekends and my summer holidays are full with attending conferences, taking courses and writing reports. The first two years I worked full-time at the library. The next two years I decided to work 4 days a week. And since September 2014 I have started to work halftime. For over a year and a half now I have suffered from health problems, which have prolonged the time that I need to finish up my thesis.

And yet … being an independent scholar isn’t all that bad either. I am not tied to the university structures nor to the pressures put on young scholars by the funding agencies. I have more freedom to research and publish when I can. A free choice in the subject of your thesis. More freedom is the key. Independence. I highly value the network that I have established over the years. When you are ‘outside of academia’ the support and friendship offered by the many people I have gotten to know have been invaluable in keeping my head above the water. I could not have done this and can not do this without that network nor without my family and friends. Hopefully, they all know how much I appreciate their support and help.

Thank You Word Cloud

And … you have to be a little bit mad to be an independent scholar.


8 thoughts on “The mad life of an independent scholar

  1. Great post! Reminds me of Virginia Woolf’s quote:

    “Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”

    Liked by 1 person

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