Saturday, August 20, 2011

Calling all Ronin

So, last week I posted about my plans to start my own non-profit research institute, to be called the Ronin Institute. Interestingly, I got a handful of notes from people inquiring -- with various levels of facetiousness -- about joining up. That matches up with my experience of talking to people in person about this plan, where a significant fraction of people ask to join up in a semi-joking sort of way.

In fact, one of my long-term goals for this venture is to create an organization that can help to connect and support scholars who, by choice or by chance, do not have an affiliation with a university or other research institute. Originally, I had viewed that as something that I would start building in a couple of years, after getting the basic place established. However, it seems that even the semi-joking responses point to a genuine desire by a lot of people for something.

I'm not sure exactly what that something is, but I have a couple of guesses.

[I go on here at some length about my guesses, but at the end of the post, I get to the point. If something like the Ronin Institute seems even vaguely appealing to you, send me an e-mail at, and let me know what is appealing and why. If you were to join the Ronin Institute, what would you hope to get from the affiliation?]

The thing about academia is that it requires a certain level of competence at / interest in a variety of activities. I think that most people who go to grad school do it with the idea that their life is career to be about scholarship and research. They usually know that, for most jobs, they will also be expected to teach, which is a plus for some people and a minus for others. These are certainly two of the most important things you do as an academic, but many professors will tell you that this is not what takes up the bulk of their time. Successful academics tend to spend a large fraction of time worrying about raising funding, through grants or donations. In the sciences, being a successful academic also requires being a competent manager, since most science is done in laboratories that include graduate students, postdocs, and technicians. And finally, for all academics, you have to be able to navigate the politics and bureaucracy of the university (national laboratory, pharmaceutical company, think tank, etc.).

I think it's that last bit that is most surprising to people: the fact that your career depends so heavily on your ability to deal with deans and provosts, and to negotiate the (often quite poisonous) interpersonal dynamics of your department. I've known several people who are absolutely brilliant, but who have been marginalized in academia owing to their inability to play the politics game. I'm not talking here about the bullies or budding psychopaths who need to get flushed out. I'm talking about people who are kind, honest, and principled, but perhaps fail to recognize that, as they say, discretion is the better part of of valor. So they get crosswise with someone higher up in the academic power structure.

My other guess is that people are frustrated by the constraints of the academic treadmill. I think there are two aspects of this. The first is geographical. The fact is, if you are really committed to pursuing a traditional academic career, you have to go to where the job is. This is hard not only on two-career families, but on anyone with other geographical constraints on where they live. Maybe you have children and are divorced, or maybe you have a chronic illness and need the support of family, or maybe you just really love where you live.

The other constraint of the academic treadmill is temporal. This has been much written about, so I won't belabor it here, but it is well known that a gap in your trajectory (due to, e.g., illness or having a kid) can derail your career in a way that can be difficult to recover from. Academic life is also constraining in that it tends to be an all-consuming job. Many academics feel that they don't have time for outside interests. A few are good at cordoning off and protecting their personal time, but the fact is, it is rare to see university professors who have the time to coach their kid's soccer team.

Now, there are certain realms of science (like high-energy physics or virology) that really require the infrastructure provided by a university (or university equivalent). However, there are many domains where an individual scholar can still make significant contributions. I'm thinking of most fields in the arts and humanities, as well as theoretical or mathematical work in any of the sciences. Even in those aspects of science that incorporate an experimental or field component, there is a lot that an independent researcher can do, particularly if they have collaborators who are at a university.

Basically, one of the things that I would like the Ronin Institute to be able to do is help all of those people who want to engage in research, but who are not in the standard academic track. What I need to know from you is this: what would you need? Send me e-mail at with your thoughts.

Keep in mind, I am not sitting on a big pot of money, and will not, at any time in the near future, be in a position to provide support in the form of funding. The sort of thing that the Ronin Institute could potentially provide would be more along the lines of an institutional address (for e-mail or for running grants through), and perhaps a community of like-minded independent scholars. What I would like to get is a sense -- in as much detail as you can muster -- of where you're coming from, where you want to get to, and what specific things you think might help that a community of Ronin could provide. Also, if the Ronin Institute were to acquire a modest amount of funding in the future, what would be most helpful to you as an independent scholar (e.g., funds to pay page charges for publications, funds to pay for IRB review of proposed research, funds to pay travel to scientific meetings, etc.).

In case you're wondering, "Does this apply to me?" let me give you some guidelines. Here is who should write in:

  • Academics who have left their university positions (by choice or not), but want to continue with their work.
  • Academics who are fed up with the university politics/bureaucracy, and are interested in investigating an alternative model for research.
  • Aspiring academics who have taken a hiatus in their training (by choice or not), and are trying to figure out how to return.
  • Aspiring academics who are looking at the academic job market and despairing, and want to think about alternative paths.
  • People who love research and scholarship, but who, because of personal constraints (or personal preference) can't commit to the full-time academic lifestyle.
  • People who are happily living as full-time academics, but want to connect with independent scholars.
  • People who are happily living as full-time academics, and have thoughts about what they would find most lacking if they were to leave the university.
Also, if you know of anyone who might benefit from something like this, or might have ideas or suggestions, please forward this post to them.

Once I have a sense of what people are looking for, I'll try to find the intersection of that with the set of things that I believe to be tractable in the short to medium-term future.

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