At first sight there may seem to be no parallels at all between a role as a university contract researcher and being self-employed. But I see many similarities that may particularly interest contract researchers and PhD students. Let’s take a look.
1. Both roles need you to identify a niche area, one where you can carve out a reputation for yourself and not have too much competition. It also needs to be something that there is a demand for because you are going to need someone to pay you to either do the research or to undertake assignments.
2. Both need you to have a plan. For a contract researcher this can mean different things. It might effectively be a personal career plan – maybe something you have developed with your mentor. It might include experience you need to gain or objectives you need to meet. Such as a number of high quality papers or funding from prestigious sources. Or it might mean a plan for your current research project – including research deliverables, activities leading to impact and a budget. If you are setting up a business, you will be well advised to write a business plan including objectives and a financial plan.
3. For both it will be a good idea to have a mentor – someone who has been there before and who can provide advice. As a contract researcher this is likely to be a senior academic in your discipline. As a self-employed person you may choose an experienced business person in your sector or a business coach. In both cases a mentor or coach can help to accelerate your progress.
4. Both require you to make decisions. As a contract researcher, the amount of autonomy you have is likely to vary according to the culture of your university and department. It may also vary according to your discipline. For example, scientists often work in large groups and the head of the group may be responsible for major decisions. But if you are the principal investigator on a project you will have more authority to make decisions. If you are self-employed, you will be responsible for all decisions.
5. There is a good deal of information gathering to be undertaken in both roles. As a contract researcher, you need to keep up to date with developments in your research field. As someone who is self-employed you need to keep up to speed with developments in your sector, understand the potential impact of any changes in expectations of government bodies and be aware of new businesses in the area of your company.
6. For both occupations you need to write. As a contract researcher, writing often follows information gathering and includes writing grants, papers and books. You may tweet and write blog posts too. When self-employed you need to write proposals and reports for clients. You also need to write promotional materials, which may include web pages and blog posts.
7. In both situations you need to apply for contracts. This means grants when you are a contract researcher and a written bid is likely to be the main way of doing this. Verbal communication is likely to be more important in business, at least in the early stages, or in situations where the potential client has not been referred to you. But at some stage you will need to write down what you propose to do and include deliverables and costs.
8. Networking is important in both roles. As a contract researcher you will network with others in your research area at conferences and seminars as well as via the web and social media. When self-employed you will network face-to-face at a range of business events you select. You may also make short presentations about your company at such events.
9. Whether a contract researcher or self-employed you will need to be persistent and not give up. As a contract researcher you will know only too well that far more grants get rejected than funded. Business is not too different. You will be making several approaches to potential clients for every contract secured.
10. But, you also need to be flexible. You need to evolve your plan to take account of changes or developments in your research area or business sector. For example, an economic downturn is likely to affect your ability to win grants or contracts whether you are a contract researcher or self-employed.
Of course, there are also some differences between being a contract researcher and being self-employed.
1. The most obvious is the absence of an automatic monthly pay cheque if you are self-employed. Clearly it is important to plan how to manage your finances before giving up your day job. Business loans from banks are one possibility. You will need to undertake to meet the expectations of any organisation providing a loan.
2. The other is that when you are employed as a researcher, you need to meet the expectations of your university. These may include requesting annual leave, annual reviews with your line manager or supervisor and attending certain meetings.
3. If working from home, a further difference when self-employed is the absence of work colleagues to talk to and bounce ideas off at coffee and lunch. You need to finds ways to maintain this type of interaction. This might mean meeting up with other self-employed people or former colleagues.
In summary, I believe that experience as a contract researcher can be very helpful when going self-employed.
This post follows my previous post First Class Postdoctoral Career Opportunities can embrace Different Sectors and Roles.
Jenny Ames was employed on a range of fixed-term contracts (1 month-3 years) as a postdoctoral research fellow from 1982-6 and a one-year fixed-term lecturer from 1986-1987. She was on a rolling contract as a lecturer from 1987-1995. From 1995-2017 she was employed on a succession of open-ended contracts as reader, professor and senior manager across five universities in different parts of the UK. Since 2017 she has been Director of Jenny Ames Consulting Ltd.