Beyond academia [audio]


Welcome to my very first audio blog post:

Here I talk about why I chose to put my career at risk by leaving traditional academia and set up my own research institute (IGDORE). The following topics are brought up: briefly on my personal background before entering university at 27; entering academia with a working class background; independent / freelancing researchers, new academia, and location independence for academics.

Prefer to read rather than listen? The full manuscript is available below.

The recordings were made in Indonesia in March 2019 for a podcast, but due to copyright issues concerning the music by Peck and Åhl Persson I instead chose to publish the recording here. We did however need to cut out parts of the recording that had been made specifically for that podcast. As a consequence, the recording had to be partly supplemented with new recordings. These different recordings didn’t work well together which we tried to hide with some background music. The result is not great but I want to give a big and warm thank you to my dear friend Johan Rudolfsson for his patience in trying to create something listenable. Please instead turn to the manuscript below if you find the recording too sentimental/tiresome with all the background music.

Music in the blog post:
Blow of Fate (Paul Werner)
Home (cover by Charlie Peck & André Åhl Persson; original song by Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros)

More on the recording of Home by Charlie Peck & André Åhl Persson: video (YouTube) and audio (Spotify). A warm thank you to Charlie and André for the permission to include this track.


My father passed away on a Saturday in May, 2006. His heart and lungs stopped working due to alcohol-induced brain damage from periodically very heavy drinking through 30 years. My father died alone in a hospital in a foreign country after having spent over a year on the run from an imagined persecution by the social services in our home country. He died the day after his 57th birthday. That was the first time ever I hadn’t called him on his birthday.

My name is Rebecca Willén. In this audio blog post will I explain why I chose to put my career at risk by leaving traditional academia and set up my own research institute.

What is important for you in life? What makes you get out of the bed in the morning? For many, many years I couldn’t find an answer to that question. I didn’t want to get out of bed and often I didn’t. I stayed home in my Swedish apartment, with locked doors and closed curtains, spent my time smoking cigarettes and looking for ways to either get high or hurt myself. In the evenings, when it had started to get dark outside, I crawled along the floors to each window to switch on three lamps I had there. The light from these lamps minimized the risk that my shadow would be possible to see from outside through the closed curtains and closed blinds. I didn’t leave the flat to buy food. As long as I had cigarettes and something to overdose or get me high, I stayed indoors. Sometimes for several days without food.

There was a dark and hungry hole in my chest. I was convinced it would kill me if I didn’t constantly get rid of it by any means.

Anxiety does indeed kill people, but not the way I had imagined it. After having spent 3 years in pointless counselling, twice a week, my therapist suddenly asked me what I thought would happen if I didn’t remove the anxiety. My answer was without hesitation: I will die. She looked at me silently for a second, with a resolute expression. “How?” she asked. My answer again was quick and without hesitation: “I will explode.” “Hmmm”, she replied, “okay… have you ever heard of people going around and just… you know… blowing up by themselves?”

That session ended in me screaming and yelling that she didn’t believe me and didn’t take me seriously. Like so many other sessions before and after that. But during the days that followed, somehow I just couldn’t shrug it off, this new worldview she had introduced to me by her question. Do people just blow up by themselves from anxiety? I had never heard of it and it didn’t really seem in line with how the human body works. We don’t self-explode. I was 23 years and I had just realised that the truth I’d been living with my whole life might not actually be true: the anxiety cannot kill me. 23 years old I then had to ask myself a completely new and overwhelmingly terrifying question: What does happen if I allow the anxiety to stay?

My father didn’t survive himself. But I did. The reason I didn’t call him that day, on his 57th birthday, was that I tried to care for myself. I knew that he would be drunk. I knew that the conversation would end up in tears and destroy several days for me. I was working as a projectionist at an art house cinema and it was the first time in my life I had a healthy social network and a work I loved. I considered making that phone call, from the cinema, between films, but I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t strong enough yet. So I didn’t. And as painful as it is, that was still the right choice at that time.

I was 27 years when I for the first time set foot in a university building. It was in September 2007, a bit over a year after my father had passed and about 3-4 years after I had ended my substance abuse and stopped hurting myself. Coming from a working class background, I had always considered university to be something beyond me. Better than me. It didn’t help that I have about 5 years less education from high school and college [the mandatory school years] than my Swedish peers. I was so broken throughout the mandatory school years that I simply never followed it through. But due to a combination of mere luck and teachers with big hearts impressed by my capacity and potential, I accidentally entered university anyway. And I left it with a PhD.

To me it was a great honor to be a university student. To be allowed onboard the flagship of knowledge and truth. I wasn’t sure I would make it, that I had what it took to study at university, but I was so grateful to be there and I was determined to do my best. I went there every day, on every single lesson, hiding on the back row taking notes. It turned out I would get the highest grade on everything I did. (That had for sure not been the case during the mandatory school years so this was a completely new situation for me.) The first time it happened, I was a bit confused and I turned to the lecturer and asked if it is always that easy to get the highest grade. He gave me a weird look before replying that much fewer students than usual had passed that particular exam.

I became a research assistant in psychology during my first year at university, and I came to finish 4 years of studies within 3 years. The empirical works I planned and conducted for my bachelor- and master theses were both published in international peer reviewed journals. I became an ad hoc reviewer for international journals during my first month as a PhD student.

In 2016, directly after finishing my PhD, I launched my own research institute: Institute for Globally Distributed Open Research and Education. IGDORE. That is obviously an amazingly insane thing to do. This podcast is aimed at researchers and graduate students so I will not elaborate on why you don’t just create your own academic institute, or more specifically why you absolutely not – under zero circumstances – do it as a freshly baked doctor. But for those few listeners out there who may not be academics or have not yet learned the academic system: imagine a 6 year old kid coming down the stairs with a packed bag saying that she is ready to move from home. You would laugh and call it cute, right? Well, starting your own research institute directly after finishing your doctorate is pretty much like that. But without the cuteness.

So why am I doing this? Why am I risking my reputation and career this way?

The answer is that I have experienced darkness. And I got myself out of there. Neither good or bad career choices really compare to that. I love my work. I love science. I love truth seeking. And I will always be able to engage in all that unless my brain is severely damaged. Being laughed at, ignored or maybe even defamed–none of that can ever hurt my ability to do science. And none of it can put me back into that dark place again.

Several people have reached out and asked how one go about to start a research institute. Well, I personally have very grand visions for IGDORE, but the basics of a research institute is very easy to setup: you need (1) a researcher, (2) a research project, and (3) you need a name for the research institute. And that’s it. There are loads of scientists out there having their own one-person research companies or several colleagues together having a research company. This is more common in some disciplines than others. Some are for profit, others are not; that’s less interesting because that’s really just about individual preferences.

Conducting science outside of traditional academia was in the beginning of science the only way to conduct science. People did it at home, in their own workshops, before they went to work, after the kids had went to bed, they locked themselves into a room in their house to focus or took long walks. They built their own laboratories in their own homes. Marie Curie had radioactive samples as nightlight by her bed. Charles Darwin didn’t want to get married because he would have less time alone to think. Science used to be a work for those who truly loved it and who therefore found a way to engage in it. Out of pure curiosity. Out of pure enthusiasm to learn more about the world. They pursued their work from wherever they were. And so can we.

We are scientists and we don’t need a university to do our work. We may need certain equipment, we may need money, that’s true, but none of that requires a university. None of it requires a functional body as long as you can communicate and have others assisting you in your work. The probably one and only prerequisite for scientific work is a well-functional brain. And for many of us, that brain will function even better outside of traditional academia. Outside of those four university walls and other walls and ceilings setup by traditional academia, such as paywalls and glass ceilings.

If you are a researcher, setting up a research institute or other type of research organisation is easy and can be done in less than a day. A few days more if you want it to be incorporated as a legal entity in Europe. (Please note that incorporation in developing countries may not always be as straightforward.)

Where in the world do you want to be? With your family in the country house out in the middle of nowhere? With a friend and colleague hiking the Swedish mountains? In the Alps skiing to and from work? On a home-built sailing boat cruising the seas between undecided harbors? In tropical waters learning to dive and surf? In your motorhome exploring the continent one location at the time?

This is all possible. You can do all of that, and still work as a researcher. Still get your income from your academic work. The most basic equipment needed by scientists today is a computer and internet access. This equipment is not expensive. Do you need a place to host your grants? No problem, there are several location independent grant hosting possibilities around the world, including IGDORE.

The belief that we as scientists cannot thrive outside of traditional academia is not only false, it is misleading. Traditional academia is a bubble that so many people on the inside are working hard to maintain. You can’t see the bubble clearly from within, but once you have got out, you will look back and wonder how it was ever possible to not see it. To not see how suffocating it is. To not see how counter-productive this academic bubble is to science and society.

My daughter’s father and I are not a couple. We haven’t been since 2013. He is a software developer running his own company, and he is thereby location independent. He can work from anywhere in the world with his computer and internet access. So can I, a researcher in metascience and psychology and the founding director of a research institute. And so can all researchers affiliated with IGDORE. Location independence makes the lives so much easier for a family like mine that is not living together as a nuclear family. The geographical negotiations are not restricted to one city or a few neighborhoods due to one of the parent’s work. None of us have to take a break from work, change employer or spend time without our child in order to allow the co-parent a rare opportunity on a different location. In our family, the negotiations are instead about how long time to spend on a certain location. We definitely do not agree – we are after all each others’ exes and there are many good reasons for that – but life is less restricted for all of us when it is possible to reside in both Europe and Asia, without any of us being away from our child.

Location independence enables people to be where ever they want to or need to be. It enables them to be home. I think this is the main way forward for academia and I strongly urge you to not settle with less. We are living in a time where there are so many possibilities. Traditional academia is way behind here, but a new academia is rising and you can be part of it. You can be an active scientist AND have a work environment of your own choice. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

I want to end this episode with a few words that have helped me a lot through the years and that I keep returning to for comfort and peace. It can be expressed as a prayer or just simply as a wish, depending on your own preferences.

Please grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

My name is Rebecca Willén. Thank you warmly for listening to this audio blog post.

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