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Freelancing science – today and tomorrow

05 Apr

In response to recent Neil’s comment and questions that repeat in emails, I’ve decided to describe in little more detail my status as a freelancing scientist. However keep in mind that I have no idea about such arrangement outside of Poland, so it is likely that some things may look different in other countries.

First of all, I need to explain my unemployment: I have a academic affiliation, but I’m not formally employed and I don’t get a salary, but I do get non-financial support and I am able to apply for grants, access free software and journals the institute is subscribing. I was told that’s similar to a tenure in US – you get your office and lab space, but little or no salary. But the difference would be that instead of applying for an independent position, you just take it :).

My income comes from grants and subcontracting other people projects. As a bioinformatician, I don’t have huge needs, so grants I applied for were pretty cheap compared to grants for experimental biology. However, it can take as long as half a year to a year to get an initial cash flow – it’s all about the time between a call and awarding the grant. Many times your degree doesn’t matter when applying for a grant, especially if you are not a principal investigator in the application. I still do not have a PhD degree, and while I hope to get one sometime this year (finally), I’m not pushing this that much.

Instead of carefully listing all good and bad sides of my freelancing status (or explaining reasons why I did such move) I will try to answer a question which I also hear often, which is: where is this heading?

In my probably skewed view of science to do things which are very novel and very cool one needs to be or a recognized genius, or a big shot in particular field. Otherwise, it’s hard to get enough money to fund one’s completely crazy projects. I’m neither a genius nor a big shot but I have bunch of ideas I consider cool and which I’d like to get funded. It looks like for that I need to step out of academic money-flow system, and apply for funding to people who are less conservative and who can take a risk of supporting non-established ideas (Deepak, thank you for the inspiration). And that’s the plan: leave academic (and competitive) funding system and shift to an outcome oriented one, similar in essence to a startup. And instead of waiting 15 years to get recognition in academia, I hope to get my stuff running within the next few years.

One can argue that it’s risky and one could achieve similar outcome following traditional academic career path within a similar time. Probably that’s true – all of the things I’ve just written are not really supported by long term evidence. But on the other hand, even if the whole idea doesn’t make sense at all, compared to my colleagues, I am having much more fun…

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23 Comments

Posted by on April 5, 2008 in Career

 

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23 responses to “Freelancing science – today and tomorrow

  1. nsaunders

    April 5, 2008 at 12:40

    That’s great! Thanks for sharing the story.

    If you haven’t read it, James Lovelock’s autobiography, “Homage to Gaia”, is a great account of how he became an independent freelance scientist. I found it to be an inspiring read (and also made me rather envious).

     
  2. Pawel Szczesny

    April 5, 2008 at 12:46

    Thanks Neil. No I haven’t read Lovelock’s autobiography, but that’s definitely my next book to read. How come I haven’t heard about it before?

     
  3. Paulo

    April 5, 2008 at 13:40

    Very nice Pawel. All the best in your endeavours.

    I have been mulling about a post about bioinformatics startups, but I have to do some research first. Maybe we can join forces and write about it, if you like.

     
  4. Deepak

    April 5, 2008 at 17:00

    Pawel

    All power to you. We are in a new era today. I was right in the thick of the bioinformatics startup boom in 2000, with lots of VC funding and what not. That era is gone, but we are in a new one, and people like you will be the trailblazers.

     
  5. Pawel Szczesny

    April 5, 2008 at 20:32

    Thank you Paulo and Deepak.

    Paulo, I’m always willing to help, especially on that topic, where I can learn what I shouldn’t do :).

    Deepak, the whole idea needs definitely more thought, but your comments mean for me that I’m approaching the right track. So far it’s only shy attempt to gamble the system, but every day brings new things to learn…

     
  6. ChemSpiderMan

    April 6, 2008 at 13:20

    Good for you! I did something similar recently…I was the Chief Science Officer for a commercial scientific software company and felt a need to go do something different in an area where I felt there was still a need and where I had a passion to contribute. It does NOT pay any bills…it costs more money to run it than is made..but consultancy does that. With ChemSpider (www.chemspider.com) we get to Build a Community for Chemists, feed our passion and hopefully, fame and support will follows.

     
  7. Chris Lasher

    April 7, 2008 at 03:42

    Awesome, thanks for sharing, Pawel! As the saying goes, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.” Good ideas and good research can come from anywhere, perhaps more now than ever before, and it’s good that you recognize this.

     
  8. Dan

    April 7, 2008 at 08:29

    Wow, somebody in an almost analagous position to me.

    Whilst I’m not technically freelancing (I am employed by an institution), I’m not tied into the typical academic rat race. I’m also a bioinformatician, and the salaries, computers, software costs (minimal ;)) come from being costed into other peoples grants, and recouping money through work for billable projects (largely traditional db projects for clinicians). Our raison d’etre is to support biological research, and sit somewhere between the biologists and the bioinformatics research groups – a translational service if you like ;)

    Apart from the fact I don’t have to do great rounds of grant applications myself, and was lucky enough to get a couple of years ‘startup’ funding – the real boon of this job is that I maybe have 10 to 15 very different projects ongoing, rather than 1. This keeps my interest in things very much alive – having a bad day with someone’s microarray data? Go and do the things on the ‘neuroinformatics’ list instead.

    I don’t think this way of working is necessarily easier than a straight 3 year position in a research group, but it’s working for me right now – and I hope it works for you too.

     
  9. Pawel Szczesny

    April 7, 2008 at 16:09

    Antony, Chris, Dan, thank you for your comments.

    As Chris pointed out, there are many ways to get one’s research funded. If I can do it my way, it would be great, but I’m already quite happy with a freedom of not being glued to a place and avoiding all work-related duties. My feeling is that my current status is just a beginning, because there’s a lot of choices (real startup, non-profit, consulting) that I wouldn’t even think about while climbing academic ladder.

     
  10. Ntino Krampis

    April 8, 2008 at 05:01

    Plus as a tenured professor, year by year you get further away from doing the actual technical stuff, and ending up going from meeting to meeting and performing politics. Yes you might be doing some brainstorming, but you have other people implementing your ideas (because you go to meetings all the time?)…. There’s no such pleasure of applying detailed knowledge of a tool (programming language, operating system etc) to the solution of a problem. However much stuff you hack, you always want to learn more and go deeper in a tech-tool that interests you (that’s in response to those who’d say as you get older, you’d enjoy doing politics because you get burned out by coding).

    As a final comment, it seems to me that technically oriented people in bioinformatics would rather loose by staying in academia, cause the ones to whom the lights shine upon are those who get out and talk “big ideas” (tenured, abstract, high-level-management-type thinking academics?),,,, and the ones behind the scenes implementing the actual stuff never get recognized fully.

     
  11. nsaunders

    April 8, 2008 at 05:59

    As a final comment, it seems to me that technically oriented people in bioinformatics would rather loose by staying in academia

    Oh, don’t get me started on that. No, no I’m not even going there…

     
  12. Kay at Suicyte

    April 8, 2008 at 10:19

    Pawel,
    I really hope that you are going to be successful! I think that the chances of your approach strongly depend on the country you are working in. In Germany (my current country of residence) I am afraid that this approach would not be viable. For once, there are formal hurdles (no grants without a position secured throughout the grant period, probably no grants without a PhD. In addition, there will always be the scepticism by grant agencies and reviewer “why this person has chosen a non-traditional career path”. The explanation usually seen as the most likely one is that the person has failed in the usual acadmic world and has to resort to a non-traditional approach. I don”t think that this explanation applies to you, but people will always assume this at first – it is going to be an uphill battle.
    As far as I can tell, the only way of working as a ‘freelancing scientist” hereabouts would be as some kind of consultant. However, this would immediately make you a ‘for-profit’ entity, and you will be amazed what tools and services you are no longer allowed to use. I work in the biotech industry myself and had several painful experiences in what amount of money some (academic) people are charging for the permission to use their web servers.

     
  13. Pawel Szczesny

    April 8, 2008 at 10:39

    Kay, Ntino, thanks for comments.

    Kay, I’m pretty aware of limits one is facing as a consultant (I started to research the topic after reading your blog posts). That’s why academic affiliation is something I’m not willing to give away just like that – it makes enourmous difference in everyday scientific work. Concerning the grant agencies in Germany, it’s probably the same everywhere – that’s why I opt so strongly for non-academic funding, where these things like degree and such doesn’t matter that much.
    BTW, I realized that I’m typing this only 250km from your location (I’m doing my PhD in Germany, remotely of course, and till the end of the week I’m writing a paper with my supervisor in here ).

    Ntino, I think it really depends on the area and one’s interests. While in general being a big shot means not enough time for coding stuff by yourself, I know few cases where a head of department/institute hides for few hours a week to play with his old fortran code…

     
  14. Liza Loop

    October 15, 2008 at 20:46

    I’m so glad to find this blog. Some of us don’t fit either the corporate or the academic model but we’re still good scientists – maybe better than those who have cut off our corners to stuff ourselves into round holes…

    My new little company is addressing one problem freelance scientists have in the US. High speed internet connectivity is very hard to come by outside of institutions. So, my partner, David Gjerdrum, and I have created Fiber High, an incubator that has a direct fiber connection to the Pacific optical fiber network.

    In our space, you can grab a cubicle, plug in your computer and get to work. Fiber High provides 40 Mbps internet on your desk, a new kitchenette with refrigerator, microwave, coffee maker and dishwasher; a comfortable lounge area and shared conference room, all bundled with the base rent of $450 per month for an 8 x 8 furnished space. We also have an on-site collocation facility and VoIP telephone as well as IT support available at very reasonable prices.

    Because we’re so small, we don’t need fancy air conditioning or a massive electrical service so we were able to set up in a low rent former furniture repair shop. We’re much “greener” than other places because of our lower energy requirements and devotion to reusing items whenever possible. For example, local failing businesses gave us their used cubicles just for hauling them away. David knows computer networking from the ground up so we were able to do all of the wiring and set up the collocation site ourselves. We haunt the computer “junk” stores for old server boxes we can upgrade and put back into service. All this means we can offer a landing spot to freelancers for about one tenth the cost of executive suites or fancier incubators.

    We’d like to see the Fiber High model replicated all over the world. What do you think? Is this needed? In the US? Elsewhere? If you reply on this blog, send me a personal link too because I don’t get here very often. Otherwise, here’s how to reach me:

    Liza Loop, Fiber High, LLC
    989 Commercial St., Palo Alto, CA, 94303 USA
    650 964 5623 (messages), 650 619 1099 (direct)
    liza@fiberhigh.com
    http://www.fiberhigh.com

     
  15. Richard Haigh

    December 20, 2008 at 21:50

    I find your story inspirational. I would love the independence and risks of working for myself. I currently work in applied physics/engineering in academia, even though my work is industrially funded, and I bring significant funding into the institution I still find that there is a lot of administrative interferance to my working day. Some of this administrmania can be quite pernisous. Presumably your independence would go some way to isolating you from this?

     
  16. Barney

    April 1, 2010 at 13:41

    Do you know if there is any company that offers free lancing work for bench based scientists? As on terms of working on projects in an ad-hoc way. The scientist would be self employed and would dedicate set times to projects each month. The company paying for the scientist would only pay per hour and expenses. Costs less than an agency and less than full time employees. Obviously bench based scientists would have to utilise their area of experience but do you think there is space in the Market for this kind of approach to work?

     
 
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