April 4, 2011

On Being an Amateur Academic — Part 2

The Cons of Being an Amateur Academic

There certainly are some drawbacks to being an amateur academic (as there are with any undertaking). I will discuss the three I think are the most important.

Takes Lots of Time with No Obvious Payoff
This is the most obvious problem with being an amateur academic. Keeping up with one field (let alone several as I do) requires a big time commitment that is hard to juggle with an unrelated (or distantly related) full-time job. To be fair, professional academics have this problem too, in the sense that they typically also have to teach courses, grade papers and assignments, serve in administrative positions and committees, write grant proposals, and a whole bunch of other tasks that don’t relate directly to their research interests in order to make their living. They probably still get a bit more time to do it during work hours and they also can get paid sabbaticals to be able to devote full time to a particular project.
Aside from the time and energy costs of full-time professional employment, the biggest challenge for the amateur in this regard may be explaining to friends and family why you spend so much time on something that doesn’t provide any remuneration or social standing. Most people will just think you are strange. (My family and friends are mostly pretty tolerant about this, but then again not all of them know how much time I spend on this stuff, and they have independent reasons to think I'm strange. ;-) )

Not Taken Seriously
In some of the fields I’m interested in (notably mathematics and linguistics) there are many honest-to-goodness cranks out there. You know, the kind that are trying to prove how some aspect of the field is related to alien visitations, or who have some pet racial or political theory they want to promote.
Especially in such fields, but also in most other academic fields, not having graduate and publication credentials in that field is a real handicap to being taken seriously, especially if you have modestly controversial opinions about some important topic.
On internet forums, it is easy to fall afoul of the academic-purity police and look like a crank. (I’ve noticed that this is particularly true if you post while sleep deprived ;-) ) By contrast, I could name some well-known academics with credentials left and right who I would argue are certifiable tinfoil-hats, but who routinely get a free pass from other posters because of their apparent standing.
If as an as an amateur academic you take it in your head to get published in respectable academic journals, good luck to you. Aside from the fact that you would be competing at a disadvantage with worthy graduate students and post-docs who desperately need to get published for professional advancement, and who have the more established sponsors to put in a good word for them, the easiest cut off for a time-strapped editor is to reject you based on lack of credentials and sponsors.
You can rail against the injustice of this, but many of the cranks take this approach too, so I wouldn’t recommend it.
Better to accept this limitation and, if you really want to make a contribution to a field, don’t worry about credit, but involve yourself in online communities of interest where you can explain your ideas. If someone steals them and advances their career with them, so much the better; you shouldn’t go into amateur academia for glory any more than for money.
I would also recommend being respectful of those with the credentials. They have given their blood, sweat and tears to their discipline, and have had to jump through hoops that an amateur academic hasn’t had to, so they are likely to know what they are talking about in some meaningful way, even if you disagree with them. This can be tricky, since nobody likes to be disagreed with by a nobody, and without credentials, that's how you look to them, at least initially. (You may want to try flattery as an opening gambit. ;-))

Lack of an Intellectual Community
Professional academics have colleagues, rivals, advisors, conferences, and other means to form communities of shared interest in the same field. The amateur academic must resort to regaling bored but tolerant spouses and friends with their latest fascination.
Personally, I think this is the greatest hardship of being an amateur academic, since it is a passion for learning that drives you to be one, and any passion wants to be shared.
The internet helps with this, since there are all kinds of blogs, mailing lists and other forums that can be used to connect the like-minded, but my own experience is mixed here. It is hard to find a community that is at exactly the right level for whatever state of mastery you have reached, and in many forums people with less knowledge resent the explanations they get of how they are off-base, no matter how gently presented, and people with more knowledge, or more credentials often resent hearing from the “peanut gallery” about their specialty (see the previous section).
The amateur academic can be a lonely fellow. (But hey, you wouldn’t spend so much time in solo study if you couldn’t handle being alone, now, would you?)


  1. The greatest challenge for me I think is getting material at the right level of difficulty and explained in the context of my interests.

    Since there's no real roadmap or guidance on how to consume information on the internet I often find that I can't seem to make certain connections without spending an inordinate amount of time reading about other related topics.

  2. @Rehno: I think that in some ways high school and undergraduate education does us a disservice by making it seem as though all knowledge has a pre-set curriculum.

    To become an academic (amateur or professional), the ability to research (which basically means being able to find what you are looking for ;-)) is essential.

    Personally, I often find that the easiest way to get started in a field is to find a recommended and widely used textbook at the appropriate level (undergraduate, graduate, etc.) and start there. Good textbooks generally contextualize the history and relevance of the material, provide good key literature references, and typically are easier to read than papers. They also tend to provide exercises to test your understanding.

    Wikipedia, whatever faults it has, often lists common reference works in a field, and can be a good starting place as well.

    As with any skill, I think you get better at finding good info the more you do it. Finding the material can be half the fun. ;-)

  3. Thanks for the tips! Yes, I must admit that it is often my patience that is at fault. I remain optimistic that this might improve with age ;)

    It also often seems that I have two modes: curiosity-driven vs goal-directed, where the first is the path to aimless enlightenment and the second is the path to blind productivity :P

    Occasionally I do think that the isolation of working alone sets you back though. I have entertained the thought that "if only someone had hinted at this 6 months ago during one of my rants I might have spent my time very differently!". (I.e. Difference between the internet and a real person is that the person will sometimes answer the question that you didn't think to ask). Online discussions can help with this but I find that I'm more inclined to spend time face-to-face since textual back-and-forth can be tedious!


  4. Online discussions can help with this but I find that I'm more inclined to spend time face-to-face since textual back-and-forth can be tedious!

    This is definitely an advantage of the professional academic community: having peers you can discuss things with in the department, at conferences, etc., as well as advisors.

  5. I certainly agree that peers or supervisors can help with this. But as an "academic" (Phd-student) who likes to combine topics that aren't often combined, I tend to discuss it more with 1 or 2 good friends who are interested in general intellectual discussions (even though they initially had practically no knowledge on the topic).