April 4, 2011

On Being an Amateur Academic — Part 3

The Pros of Being an Amateur Academic

While I’ve already pointed out that there are some real problems and downsides to being an amateur academic, there are some distinct bonuses over being one of the professionals. I will discuss the three most important ones, in my opinion.

Free to Wander
There was a time when I was seriously considering going to grad school and becoming a professional academic. The biggest difficulty I had, other than how to support myself if I took that route, was choosing a focus for my studies.
My interests have always been wide-ranging, and in order to be taken seriously for graduate studies, I would have had to focus down to a tiny sliver of one conventionally defined discipline out of all the ones that seemed interesting.
To make this worse, in practice what you have to do is find an advisor who will tell you what to do, preferably quite closely aligned to their interests. (More on that later.)
Ignoring the fact that you can get caught in a dead-end area of focus that is on the verge of going out of fashion, from the point of view of sheer intellectual curiosity you need to accept that, for many years at least, you will have to stick to something pretty close to your chosen topic if you want to have any hope of finishing your degree and getting a job. (Two huge and separate hurdles.)
Once a professional academic has established their career, they can and do branch out, but you have to be able to stay devoted to one thing for longer than I can manage.
To give you an idea of the range of interests I’ve been free to explore, mentioning only fields that I have spent a non-trivial amount of time studying over the last ten years (the time it can take to finish a PhD and get an appointment), and including only topics I think I could have a sensible discussion with a pro about at, say, an intellectual dinner party, or in an online forum: computer science (programming language theory, type theory, finite model theory; mathematical logic), mathematics (foundations of mathematics, category theory, abstract algebra, model theory, proof theory), linguistics (syntax, phonology, sociolinguistics, historical, computational), ancient languages (Classical Greek, Classical Arabic, Classical Chinese), music (Middle Eastern music theory), as well as various topics in history, philosophy, political science, and the arts.
This is an impossibly diverse list by most academic standards, and to be honest I’m not sure how or if I’ve managed to grasp all these, except that I tend to go through periods of weeks or months focused on one or two them, and over time I revisit old topics to refresh my memory and learn the next increment.
How well do I know these areas? Some of them well enough that I think I could probably write a decent paper in the field, given the time. Many of them well enough to deliver a coherent introductory lecture, mostly from memory with some notes. None of them do I know as well as I’d like (or as well as true specialist), but again, that is one of the trade-offs I’ve made for breadth versus depth, which I’m only free to do as an amateur academic.

No Pressure or Competition
Professional academia can be a ruthlessly competitive arena. There are many more graduates than positions. Everyone in your field is trying to stake out their intellectual turf and achievements, and unless you come from money, most people starting out are strapped for cash.
To be able to succeed in this environment you need to be able to produce quality papers in some profusion and also work the circuit to develop contacts with and the favourable opinion of those in a position to advance your career.
To be honest, competitiveness is present in any professional environment, but the advantage to being, say, a starting programmer, is that you can make an acceptable living right of the gates, and, so long as you aren’t too obviously lousy, you can manage to build an okay career without being a star (except perhaps only in your own mind).
No matter how well you understand something or what great idea you have, writing a good paper that is not vulnerable to being shot down in flames within five minutes by a rival is a surprisingly difficult thing to do. Technical fields can be especially hard, since marshalling all the details so that they are both correct and convincing can be a monumental juggling task. People who can regularly pull it off are in my opinion under-lauded rock stars. (I won’t mention any names here, lest I start to gush and bore the last remaining reader to tears. ;-) )
This is a huge advantage of being an amateur academic: I only ever have to convince myself that I understand something (still rather challenging sometimes), rather than proving it to the world, and thus risk potentially making an ass of myself in the process (I still get to do that on the internet, so all is not lost. ;-)).

True Intellectual Freedom
The last benefit of being an amateur academic I want to discuss is also the only one that I think is a benefit to the world at large, not just for the amateurs themselves. It is the main reason that I would encourage someone to take this path for a reason that is other than just “to thine own self be true”.
As an amateur academic I’m not beholden to anyone for my learning or position in the academic world. I don’t know the players personally, nor have any tribal allegiance to one school of thought or another. If, after studying an area for some time, I decide that “the emperor has no clothes”, I don’t stand to lose any professional standing by abandoning the field. I risk nothing in breaking ranks from prevailing trends or fashions or taking on a heretical position that I sincerely hold.
As an amateur, I long ago realized that if I had any chance of making an original contribution to one of my fields of interest, it was going to be because I was freer to cross-pollinate disciplines that are normally considered distinct, or by calling BS on a field-wide group-think stemming from professional allegiances and lineages.
All disciplines (especially as they grow more specialized and esoteric) need more outsiders to take an interest in them, even if they dissent with their prevailing positions, and even if some of us who dissent are cranks.
For a professional academic, intellectual inquiry inevitably must be tinged with realpolitik, but an amateur academic is free to engage in a genuine dialectic of ideas, in the tradition of Socrates.
In any field of endeavour, to advance in skill and knowledge it is helpful to have good opponents, ideally people who share your values and interests, but with different methods and perspectives.
I think that the amateur academic is well suited to this role, and I hope that others will embrace it, and make a contribution to the intellectual health of our society, as I have tried to do in my own humble and questionably effective way.


  1. I don't really have anything intellectual to add beside an expression of general empathy. I'm in the somewhat radical position where I've more or less resigned from my day-job to both work and study in an unconstrained way. Of course there are certain practical concerns with this approach too ;)

  2. Being a contractor can help with this: you sometimes have more control of your hours and during breaks between gigs you can devote yourself to study. Not for everybody, though.

  3. That's pretty much what I'm doing. Just wrapping up my first one now :)