End of freelancing as scientist (for now)

09 Dec
The patchwork landscape of Masuria
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Almost a year ago I wrote a post about officially becoming “freelance scientist”. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but taking over the world from a small flat in the middle of nowhere in Poland sounded like a good idea. And it definitely was a good idea, however not in a way I thought it would be. Today I am hoping that all things will go fine and I’ll be employed since February in a calm academic environment.

What I aimed for?

My plan was to become freelance scientist – to be able to thrive financially and intelectually without relying on gaming grant systems. I had hoped to secure support from private sources, form a virtual institute and live happily in the middle of nowhere while still having an impact on the world’s science, possibly all under “open research” badge.

What didn’t work?

Side comment: if you read excellent piece by Hugh MacLeod entitled “How to be creative”, you shouldn’t find the issues below surprising :).

The main reason I started to look for a job already some weeks ago was that freelancing as a scientist turned out to be unsustainable financially. And don’t get me wrong – money wasn’t an issue, as long as I was willing to put all my time into other’s people projects. All. My. Time. Booking some time to work on my own ideas meant burning savings at a quick rate. But I had to work on my own ideas. I didn’t feel like I’m learning very much, because I worked on things I was already quite good at. Intellectual stretching was not that big.

Because of the issue above, I’ve put together far less work than I aimed to. I have lots of posts, manuscripts and presentations which I didn’t have time to finish. I was too busy doing freelance work, finishing the projects I had promised to do, inventing new projects and hiding under a bed worrying about where this is all going.

Working in the middle of nowhere was a plain mistake. It sounds nice, but f2f networking (“showing up”) is far more important than I’ve thought. Working in Poland is an issue on its own (no matter if you’re a freelancing or an academic scientist); working outside of any major city makes it even worse.

Partially connected to the former issue was the fact that I tried to do all things alone. Wrong. Very wrong. Things like virtual institute will not work, unless there’s a team. Period.

And finally, I didn’t give myself enough time to make the whole system work. It turned out that I had no idea about so many things influencing money-flow in the system, that it’s not surprising at all that it didn’t click in so short (12 months) time.

What worked?

One of two biggest advantages of this crazy 12 months was that it was a great learning experience. When I look at my older colleagues working in academic environment, I’m pretty sure they don’t experience “felling like an idiot” moments all that often. Such moments happen quite frequently in grad school, but seem to become rarer the further science career advances. On a contrary, I had such moments all the time in the last year. I was experimenting with blog posts, stupid ideas, unbalanced opinions and I was scared as hell each time. And I have learnt much more than I would do playing safe. Have you watched Ken Robinson’s talk at TED? He put a beatiful phrase – “prepared to be wrong”. Keep that in mind.

People were second most important factor here. I was amazed by a number of people that have helped me along the way. Lots of them have encouraged me, pointed to useful resources or invested significant amount of time into answering my silly questions. Many times I was blown away by the help I had not expected. Biogang/Life Scientists community rules.

Frequently quoted phrase from Bill Hooker’s essay, “I’ve never had an idea that couldn’t be improved by sharing it with as many people as possible — and I don’t think anyone else has, either.”, turned out to be absolutely true. Each time I presented my ideas, people were interacting with them, not judging them. I was given suggestions I would not come up with by myself, even if it was clear that we’re not going to do business together.

What now?

The job I hope to land next year is going to address the things I’ve written about above. I hope to have some financial stability and necessary time to advance my plans. It will also provide a support for such events like “Startup weekend in science”, which I plan to invite you all later next year.

The main goal is still valid and I don’t give up on it. I’ve found (or rather the other way round) a real-life example, ProTech Institute from Lithuania, which means that it can be done – it’s just a little harder if you’re a (still,  but not for long) PhD student.

So it’s end of freelancing for now. Lessons learned. Back to real-life™ again :).

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Posted by on December 9, 2008 in Career, Comments


14 responses to “End of freelancing as scientist (for now)

  1. Nir

    December 9, 2008 at 19:55

    Sorry to hear that,
    Your dream was shared by many.
    Best of luck with your new work,
    and may you quickly return to the virtual life…

  2. Pawel Szczesny

    December 9, 2008 at 20:21

    Nir, thanks a lot. I’m actually quite happy with a current solution, because it means I’m back on track where things are moving forward.

    Maybe it was too early for me to try such step (or in career or in times), I didn’t prepare well enough or the place was wrong. Probably a little bit of all. Best news is that the lesson is learned and shared – so others know a bit more how does it work and what to expect.

    I will continue blogging, although for some time there will be no “freelancing” posts :).

  3. Tancred

    December 9, 2008 at 22:29

    Hi Pawel
    Sorry to hear things did not work out. I hope the new job will be all you are hoping for. (from my perspective, if you want a job with security and a lot of free time to pursue your own interests, try working in a purely biological institute (as one of two bioinformaticians)). There is ample opportunity for cooperation, lots of nice discussions and you still end up with lots of time to pursue your own stuff) (but maybe that just an effect of my sometimes slightly caustic nature 🙂
    keep on blogging, it was fun and educational to read your posts (and it saved me banging my head against a wall quite a few times).

  4. darked

    December 9, 2008 at 23:07

    Pawel, you lasted as a freelancer long enough to plant this idea fairly wide. What does not kill you… etc.

    I think in 2005 in San Diego I bumped into a guy doing bioinformatics consultancy. Despite fairly Good Times (as compared to 2008) and probably more biotech firms in a biking distance than in whole Poland, PhD, he was at the time looking for a stable position.

    Not that freelancing bioinformatics is doomed. It is just harder than pure programing due to smaller market and projects coming mostly from non-profits (I would think).

    Anyway, Good Luck, and thanks for the fight!

    PS: keep on posting

  5. Chris Lasher

    December 10, 2008 at 02:59

    Sounds like you made a wise decision, Pawel. Please don’t lose that pioneering spirit.

  6. Deepak

    December 10, 2008 at 03:11


    Almost feels like some of us have been on this journey with you, albeit without having to feel the frustration. I have a feeling this is not the last we’ve heard of this experiment in some form or another

    Good luck. Can’t wait to see what you end up doing next year.

  7. Pedro Beltrao

    December 10, 2008 at 04:37

    We can keep that virtual institute idea in mind for the future .. we never know. One of these days there might be enough resources from all this dispersed community to pull it off.

  8. nsaunders

    December 10, 2008 at 07:53

    It was a great experiment that most people would not even dare to attempt – be proud of it on that score alone.

    It’s obviously very difficult to be an independent scientist outside of “the system”, but I still have hope for the idea. If I were trying, I would probably start from inside, in a position that didn’t take a lot of my time (and just payed the bills), a school IT officer, for example and try to do consulting.

  9. Pawel Szczesny

    December 10, 2008 at 08:35

    Thank you all for the comments.

    Now it’s clear that I shouldn’t violate MacLeod’s principle no. 7 (“Keep a day job”) :). But still I have a feeling that it doesn’t mean there’s no other way – I just haven’t figured it out yet. “Freelance scientist” meme seems to spread fairly well (Superstruct game site writes about “open source scientists” which sounds quite similar to what I’ve tried), so I’m also sure we will see such attempts again.

    I hope to try few other things next year, maybe not so crazy like this project, but still kind of unusual. Let’s see what comes out of them 🙂

  10. Harold Jarche

    December 10, 2008 at 14:32

    Good luck Paweł. As a fellow freelancer, I know how difficult it can be but I’m sure that you will find success though your passion and hard work.

    Thanks for the inspiration 🙂

  11. Daniel Jurczak

    December 11, 2008 at 13:49

    Sorry to hear Pawel. Good luck in the upcoming endeavor, anyway 🙂

  12. Morgan Langille

    December 12, 2008 at 19:54

    Great post! I really liked your comments on the fact that you felt like an idiot all the time due to the fact that you were not “playing it safe”. When I think back to my personal times of feeling like an idiot it was indeed when I was learning the most!

    Maybe this will make me feel better the next time I happen to embarrass my self! 🙂

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