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…