Freelance scientist and Kolabtree consultant Natasha Beeton writes about her experience working as a freelance science writer in the gig economy, after a decade of working as a molecular biologist.
Why would a scientist, who studied so long and hard to get their PhD, leave their position in
academia or industry to go freelance? That would seem to negate many of our fundamental beliefs
regarding what a scientist “does”! There is, however, a growing trend in scientists joining the ranks
of self-employed professionals, leading to the rise of the freelance scientist. Some of this exodus is forced by a lack of tenure. Some of it is forced by the constant pressure to publish and compete for funds, possibly even outside scientists’ real fields of interest, simply to keep the money rolling in and the bills paid. Unfortunately, the realities of a career in science often conflict with the kind of passion and enquiring mind that draws people to science in the first place.
Of course, many other factors can also play a role. I had long yearned to do work that gave me
complete freedom – freedom to determine my hours, who I worked for, the types of projects I
worked on, and from where I worked. When the term “digital nomad” first appeared, I became
hooked on the concept of earning money anywhere, any time. Ironically though, after almost a
decade of working as a molecular biologist, it was the birth of my son that finally gave me the
courage to trade in my lab coat for a laptop. I needed more flexibility, more time, less traveling away
from home. I knew if I thought about it too much I would never take the jump. So, my New Year’s
resolution for 2018 was to simply hand in my resignation on the first working day. And that I did.
Since then, I’ve come to realize there are many ways a qualified scientist can earn a living, despite
not being tied to a particular institution. One of these I had already explored to earn some extra
income – scientific editing. I have always loved to work with words, so this was a natural option.
Scientific editing is currently the backbone of my monthly income as there is a steady flow of work.
This involves assisting scientists with polishing their manuscripts before submission to scientific
journals. I currently work as a freelance editor for two global scientific editing companies.
However, it is my other two income streams that I enjoy the most: scientific writing and consulting.
After handing in my resignation I happily stumbled onto Kolabtree, a collaborative, global science
platform. People can post projects they need expert scientific assistance with, and experts can pitch
and bid for projects they’re keen to work on. Since registering on the platform in February, I’ve been
fortunate enough to consult on projects involving, for example, research project scoping, white
paper writing, and statistical analysis. My clients have included other independent contractors,
academics, government institutions, and contract research organizations. Kolabtree has also proven a gateway for exploring my big passion, writing, as it has provided me with several opportunities to grow my portfolio and client base.
There is also scope for local consulting work, and I am currently receiving a retainer for assisting one
of my previous employers with R&D. I feel that I have barely scratched the surface though, as there
are many avenues I have yet to investigate for consulting and writing. From what I’ve seen, there are
a wealth of gigs out there where a scientist’s experience and skills are appreciated. If you are willing to work hard, pay attention to detail and delivery, and can communicate well, freelancing can work for you. Scientists are typically quite driven people, so self-motivation is generally not an issue!
My daily routine is fairly normal. I check emails for new project postings and I follow up on those I’m
interested in. I send out any necessary communications so that I can clear my head. I then grab a cup
of something hot and get cracking with whichever project is on top of my priority list. In the afternoons I go for a run or take my son for a walk. I sometimes get started quite late, but I then work until late in the evening after my little one goes to bed. And no, I don’t usually work in my pajamas, but I do love having the kitchen down the hall. When cash flow allows, I relish the freedom of taking an “off day”, either to recharge, catch up on chores, or spend special time with my son. I am inspired by the wide variety of projects I work on and by never knowing what each week will bring. The projects are usually interesting, have a quick turnaround, and I can tell I’m making a tangible contribution. There is profound satisfaction in doing a good job with clear outputs and immediate monetary reward.
There are of course downsides to being a freelance scientist. People don’t always know how to deal
with you as the concept of a freelance/independent scientist is still foreign, and you have to
convince them that you are indeed legitimate! You no longer have the power of a specific institution
or company behind your name. You have to work hard to build your own brand. The other
challenges are common to all forms of freelancing. There have been times where I’ve had a lot of money in the pipeline but little in the bank. In fact, this way of earning requires new ways of thinking about and managing money. You have to be willing to keep good financial records and manage your own retirement funds, taxes, and health/income insurances. When you fall sick or need a holiday,
you don’t have the luxury of paid leave – you soldier on or work hard to earn it in advance. You have
to force yourself to make time for non-paid work, the type of work that hones and expands your skill
set and keeps you up to date in your fields of interest.
I don’t have it all worked out yet. Despite being my own boss, I’m still not properly balancing all
aspects of my life. Crucially though, I now have much more freedom to figure it all out.
Looking to become a freelance scientist? Register as a Kolabtree expert and work on projects to make a real-world impact.