It’s one of those things academics don’t like to talk about so here I am breaking the news. As a PhD student or early career researcher you are probably used to having all the resources you need at your disposal. All it takes is a quick trip to the library or, increasingly, a few mouse clicks in the comfort of your own home. And off you go.
That is, if you have a university affiliation. And for most early career researchers that’s no longer a given. If you’re between contracts – and who hasn’t been in that situation at some point? – you may find yourself in academic limbo. With papers to write and research to do but no access to the databases and journals you need to do it with.
Although I’m an independent scholar by choice, the first time this happened to me it came as a nasty shock. The loss of an affiliation affects your sense of academic status, can cause unproductive but persistent worries about the value of your work, and makes the day-to-day reality of research significantly more difficult. I wondered how I was supposed to carry on with the projects I’d already committed to, let alone consider new ones, without access to source material. It felt like I was trying to change a light bulb with both arms tied behind my back.
But here I am a few years later, still writing and editing and publishing, so I must be doing something right. I’m sharing some of my finds for everyone’s benefit and enjoyment, hoping they will be as useful for others as they have been for me.
- Ask your alma mater
Some universities are happy to give alumni access to resources after their formal affiliation ends, under specific conditions. Most of them don’t advertise this, so finding out whether yours offers this option will require some probing, and every university has different rules and regulations in place. Do make sure you understand what you’re signing up for. Some universities advertise so-called research fellowships, which require budding academics to participate in research seminars and the like in return for the privilege of accessing the library. Nice as this may sound, these fellowships are usually unpaid, and in a time of ever-increasing precarity they strike me as a tad unethical. Besides, there are better options. Read on.
- Academic libraries
Most academic libraries offer paid annual membership or day passes. While these don’t usually include full access to journals and databases for non-affiliated members, you do get access to physical books and some archives, as well as an excellent space to work in. The British Library is famous for its services to the wider academic community – and rightly so – but smaller local university libraries also hold a wealth of information you can access cheaply, and sometimes for free.
- Other libraries
Don’t think your local library only offers tacky crime novels and Mills & Boone paperbacks. The larger ones may also be home to surprisingly decent academic collections. But the real gem is the Access to Research programme, which offers access to over fifteen million journal articles. You don’t need anything to access them apart from a library card. I’m loving it. One more reason to fight the budget cuts that have affected libraries in recent year (that is, if you needed another reason in the first place).
Open access is, of course, a phenomenon we all know about. But even the pay walls of services like JStor are less impenetrable than they may appear to be at first sight. JStor has an individual membership option that allows you to read up to six articles per month online, for free. Not much, I grant you that, but enough to access that one article you can’t find anywhere else.
Independent scholarship can be hard work. You have to think about how to access the texts you need, money is always a restricting factor, and the academic community can be unsupportive of those preferring a non-traditional academic career. Some subjects lend themselves more easily to independent scholarship than others – anything involving labs, fieldwork or expensive equipment is virtually impossible to do without financial backing and institutional support.
But if you’re a humanities scholar, like yours truly, it can actually be beneficial to step outside the confines of academia and be forced to find your own ways to work. I might do another post soon on the outreach I’ve recently started to get involved in, the creative practice I’ve been playing with, and how to juggle it all with a full-time non-academic job. For now, the main message is that the loss of your affiliation doesn’t have to mean the end of your research activity, as long as you’re willing to explore new and unusual roads to information.