Carving Out Another Path
Scientific freelancing and self-employment
The scope of graduate, postdoctoral, and institutional training in the hard sciences is confined to few career possibilities. During my PhD, I thought myself a maverick for cross-listing even a single course in the business school, and taking personal time to attend events and conferences in the biotech and healthcare sectors. At the time, many of my contemporaries and I viewed such opportunities with a grass-is-greener mentality. However, I have since realized the perspectives gained from such events and conferences are useful to supplement, not replace, my true interests in discovering and building new works and ideas. For those who wish to stay technical, but operate outside both academia and narrow industry research roles, this article illuminates alternative means of such work through freelancing and self-employment.
Consulting, freelancing, and self-employment are often used interchangeably, so added clarification will be helpful for the rest of the article (note these terms may be used or viewed differently by others). A distinction is made between individual consultants and Consulting (capital C) (e.g. McKinsey or Boston Consulting Group), which is not discussed here. Rather, consulting may refer to a technical or non-technical “consult”, or a project involving technical works and deliverables. Projects are typically tied to one entity over long periods of time, likely structured as 6 or 12-month contracts. On the other hand, freelancing “gigs” may include technical analyses, writing, perspectives, or other forms of creation, with minimal attachment to any one project, person, or company. Jobs may vary from work performed in an afternoon, through contracts over weeks or months. Freelancing and self-employment are closest by definition herein, whereby a freelancer is self-employed, but may operate without a business entity, while self-employeds often incorporate as an LLC or Corporation.
There is no manual nor single approach for how to set up and maintain a freelance operation or consulting business. Nonetheless, either path requires cultivating a network, strengthening relationships, and sustaining (paying) projects. The alumni network from my graduate school provided a base for both contacts and projects. Starting out, early projects included both contracts through other companies (as a subcontractor), and directly with academic researchers who did not have the staff or expertise in particular skills or research topics. Collaborative projects with institutions may not be sufficient to financially sustain a business, but establishment, credibility, and demonstrable success on such projects are important currencies for those just beginning. In particular, I find projects in academia enhance credibility, and those in industry boost establishment for those looking to ultimately stay outside of academia. In addition, demonstrating value on private sector projects helps gain additional work on your own. More expansive and lucrative opportunities live in ecosystems rich with companies, conferences, and even informal scientific meetings, namely Silicon Valley and Boston. While much of the work itself can be performed anywhere, tech or biotech clusters contain strong network effects. As a result, I moved to Boston at the beginning of my journey into self-employment, and empirically, have found co-location a powerful force to build professional relationships.
These heuristics for obtaining work and building networks do not apply as strongly to freelancing, in which case rules of thumb from other creatives should be considered. These recommendations include establishing a business entity and developing work samples accessible through a website or explicitly shared with a professional network. For those coming from an academic setting, independent works are a stronger signal of competence and establishment than a resume detailing theses and publications. A similar case to produce such works can be made for those coming from the private sector, given it is unlikely prior work can be shared. These recommendations do imply time and monetary costs, however are continually easier and cheaper to execute than before. I would not recommend spending a significant amount of time on creating elaborate work samples or an immaculate website, as even the basic website and minimal samples I created were used sparingly. These items serve mainly as the minimum viable product (of yourself), as ultimately websites and work samples are not the ones finding customers and gigs.
Pros, cons, and lessons learned
Self-employment and scientific consulting have their perks. One perk includes broadened occupational exposures, perhaps from networking at conferences or events. In biotech, these occupations may include research directors or technology scouts at larger companies, or to biotech or other “deep tech” investors. I find such encounters to be underappreciated. For instance, there are few other means to witness what it may be like to scope emerging technologies at a large biotech or venture capital fund without working there.
Another benefit is optionality. Maintaining work requires maintaining scope of who is out there and what are the pain points across the scientific ecosystem. If the self-employment path is not a long term option, then this imperative to scope may lead to clarification on what problems are particularly interesting to work on or which people to work with. Another underappreciated point is that unlike the academic and biotech R&D paths, the status of self-employment is readily reversible. The likelihood of changing course otherwise is much lower given the time and effort to lay the foundation of the steps either up towards professorship or up in larger biotech or pharmaceutical companies. To the extent knowledge workers have skills valued by the market, working gigs and building networks can buy time to find which skills are most valued, or skills that can be retooled to meet a more highly-valued demand. For those keen on entrepreneurship, another benefit is skipping credentials. MBA programs cannot faithfully replicate the process of understanding the technical and business challenges in the tech or biotech industries, like one could achieve through direct and bespoke interaction within the industry. Case studies are not equivalent to listening to customers, and to how new technologies or particular expertise could address their needs.
Nonetheless, any path has drawbacks. Particularly if starting from graduate school or post-doctoral research, outsiderness and legitimacy are large hurdles. networks from a strong graduate or postdoctoral program help, however, credibility follows from both the work you have done and your customer base. These hurdles are even higher as a freelancer or consultant operating independently, and I would recommend individuals to either enter business with a colleague or recruit an advisor from industry (these steps may also lead to less awkward conversations at networking events, I have found). Without active planning and development, an independent may be left without models, mentors, or directors to learn from. Fortunately, geographic hubs contain rich entrepreneurial ecosystems with programs for mentorship or business development. Particularly for freelancing, there is a fine line between attaining independence and finding footing. Many of us may carry idealized notions of the creatives, who work less, control schedules, and work from anywhere. However, the work itself, let alone obtaining and sustaining work, is not easy. Traction from early projects is imperative, and the first projects are typically the lowest pay. Everyone should seriously reflect on their own situation and consider risk appetite, finances, and well-being, as reaching a critical mass of work takes considerable time and effort. One cannot forget in choosing this path, one needs to sell.
“Look around. If you don’t see any salespeople, you’re the salesperson” — Zero to One
Particularly for those coming from academic institutions, sales may seem antithetical to idealized purity of research and education. Even so, selling anything, whether it be yourself or your work, serves well in work and life.
The under-considered and contrarian
Among the possible paths of academia, industry research, Consulting, venture capital, government (research or regulatory), and self-employment, the latter is the optimum of safety and freedom on intellectual pursuits. Outstanding research directions from prior work, or new ideas unable to be explored under the prior environment, may be doors cracked open in an independent work situation. Great advancements often come from tinkerers and inventors, although this title has gone out of style in today’s world of cross-disciplinary research and hyper-specialization. Nonetheless, independent innovation has advantages, including ownership if successful, or a lack of beholdeness if not, whether to publishing expectations in academia or to returns on investment in industry or venture capital. Academia is a suitable environment to de-risk existing technologies or research projects in their infancy. Otherwise, the inventive incentive for trainees and researchers is extremely low, and one should consider other means to de-risk ideas. Additionally, for those with an entrepreneurial itch, exploratory research directions which couple technical traction with sound business logic is one means to begin the journey.
At the time of this writing, SARS-CoV-2 remains highly consequential to work environments and career planning, and subsequently requires an addendum. On one hand, the forced experiment of remote work proves more can be done anywhere than previously thought. Conversely, I now believe there is no true replacement for both an ecosystem of biotechnology, to network and prospect projects, and the increased efficacy of work under physical co-location. As I look back on the beginning phases of my journey into self-employment, starting from a move to Boston, my best guess is a similar “leap” in 2020, without relocating, would be extremely challenging. Nonetheless, I hope the tradeoffs and experiences outlined here are still informative for any new and creative means to self-employment that may arise in these times.