NRN Blog: On Being An Independent Researcher

Kirsty Sedgman

Kirsty Sedgman

We resume our blog series, this time with a contribution from Kirsty Sedgman. Kirsty is a theatre lecturer and early-career researcher. She writes on theatre audiences and cultural value, and founded and chairs the Performing Audience Research Network. Visit her website at www.kirstysedgman.com.

Oh no. It’s the first day of TaPRA and the session chair has asked us to introduce ourselves. Glancing at name badges, I’m pretty sure that everyone else is affiliated with a university. In fact, one person belongs to two. We go around the room. University of Exeter, Birmingham, Warwick, Kent… Finally it’s my turn. ‘Kirsty Sedgman,’ I say. ‘Independent.’

So often I have to bite back the urge to apologise for this, to stamp on the feeling I should justify my status. Here are some of my excuses. I graduated with my PhD last summer; the following month I had a baby; my rolling teaching contract wasn’t renewed. But actually, the reality is rather more complicated. Firstly, I’m no longer in a position to make the two-hour round trip for a one-hour seminar, as I did last year. Secondly, I can’t justify dragging my family across the country for another non-permanent post. And thirdly, it’s not so easy to commit to being in one place at the same time each week, because I’m travelling all over the UK as a consultant researcher. I’m very fortunate, in that people actually want to pay me to do my research. It’s just that they tend to work in industry rather than within university departments.

This is not a blog post about balancing research and family, though I may write about this at another time. This is about what it means to conduct academic research outside academia. As an audience researcher, I study how theatre practitioners seek to relate to individuals and communities, and how people themselves respond to this activity. This was the core of my PhD research, as well as a number of other studies I’ve conducted since for a range of publications. Following Helen Freshwater’s tremendously influential Theatre & Audience book (2009, Palgrave Macmillan), I’m interested in finding out more about how different audience members articulate the value of theatrical events. And, luckily for me, so are the cultural industries. I’m now working with a range of partners from Bloodaxe Books to the Arts Council of Wales, talking to people about what they get out of cultural experiences. As well as delivering reports to clients, I’m able to take interesting findings and bring them into my academic outputs. And importantly, without all the extra work that comes with a teaching post, I have more time now to do what I love – to write.

There’s not the space here to explain the kinds of questions my research sets out to ask, or to detail the methods I use to ask them. In any case, I’ve already begun to address these issues in the recent special issue on Theatre Audiences I co-edited with Matthew Reason, which you can read here, as well as in my forthcoming book on National Theatre Wales. What I do want to do in this post, though, is to address the progressively fraying barrier between academia and the rest of the world. We all acknowledge that scholarly careers are not as easy as they once were to come by, and even contracted researchers often find themselves needing to dedicate their own time and money to their projects. In this respect, my situation is really not so different to everyone else’s; I too must find ways of working my ‘passion projects’ around the more mundane parts of the job. And with things like the brilliant ‘Access to Research’ scheme, run by my local library, which offers free online access to hundreds of journals, the gap that separates my resources from those available to others is narrowing all the time.

But what I miss most about being part of a theatre department is the legitimacy it brings. It’s hard to feel scholarly when your email address doesn’t end in ‘ac.uk’. But it has nonetheless felt important to bite the bullet: to change my Academia.edu status rather than hiding beneath the comforting cover of ‘alumni’, and to resist using my previous department as my current affiliation when I attend conferences.

Because this is my research, after all. I design and lead my own studies, organise my own public indemnity cover, build and host my own websites. I’m proud of my work. And while I’d love to return to higher-ed teaching one day, I think there’s something genuinely unhelpful about the idea that you have to work in academia to be academic. That’s why brilliant resources like the Society for Theatre Research, TaPRA, SCUDD, and Academia.edu are so important – because they help those of us following different paths to feel part of the conversation.

So why am I writing this post now, when doing so feels uncomfortably like sticking my head above the parapet? Because I remember my own sense of panic, last year, watching the end of my PhD approach – when failing to secure another post immediately felt like falling off a cliff and risking never climbing back up. But here I am, one year on, still researching, still writing, still attending conferences. An independent scholar. Owning it.

If you, like Kirsty, want to share your stories of post-PhD life, whether as an independent scholar or otherwise, get in contact with Emer and Kate at nrn@str.org.uk. You’d be seeing your story on these pages too in no time!

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