April 4, 2011

On Being an Amateur Academic — Part 1

When I started this blog, I decided to add the description “amateur academic” after “professional software developer” in my "About Me". I thought it was a useful addition to explain not only the range of stuff that I intended to talk about, but also to explain my activities around the web for people who Google me and are trying to figure out why I’m posting somewhere about some pretty esoteric topics that are not obviously related to get-it-out-the-door software development.

What is an “amateur academic”?

Since the very concept of “amateur academic” will be unfamiliar to many, perhaps even oxymoronic, or maybe even quaint in a 19th-century English gentleman sort of way, I’ve always meant to explain what I mean by this description. More importantly, I also want to share my experience of the pros and cons of being an amateur academic with others of like persuasion. (I think there are more of us than you might think, especially among technically inclined people.)

The term itself is, I hope, a self-explanatory composition of the two individual words that make it up.

“Academic” means that I am interested in topics that most people consider esoteric, theoretical, and in the sole domain of professors. It means I spend a significant amount of my time reading books, papers and online materials related to these topics. Most of the latter are in fact the professional academic literature of those fields of study, and are produced by the professors and grad students we normally identify with the term “academic”.

“Amateur” is an even simpler term to explain in this context: it just means that I study these topics and materials only for fun rather than with the intention to also make a living at it.

Are you crazy?

Studying purely for fun is likely to make me seem off my rocker to lay people and professional academics alike, neither of whom may be able to imagine how such challenging material could be enjoyable to work through without the incentive of remuneration. (Graduate students, on the other hand, may relate to this more directly, though many of them may still be optimists who have hopes of cashing in on their knowledge some day.)

Whether I’m off my rocker or not, this is how I am, and I long ago accepted it and have been making life choices that make my proclivities possible. Aside from the existence of the internet, with its multitude of resources and public access to material and forums which used to be private and hidden, the most important ingredient to succeeding as an amateur academic is to be realistic about the pros and cons. For this reason, I will expand on these pros and cons for the next couple posts.

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