The advantages of being freelance

Sian Lawson extols the virtues of independence from the academy

March 14, 2013

Source: Patrick Welham

I once came as close as a British academic can get to tenure. I had an endowed senior lectureship, was head of my own research group and had an established network of collaborators and postgraduates working with me. For a lot of people who are struggling to get academic positions, this is the holy grail - but I gave it all up, despite wanting to keep a career in a scientific field.

A few years ago this move would probably have been described with melodramatic clichés (“I did the unthinkable…”): the idea of a freelance scientist was literally a joke. Put the term into YouTube and you get comedian Julian Barrett announcing “I’m a freelance scientist” to much hilarity to underpin the avant-garde nature of a vodka advert, making it clear to advertising standards that the claims being made were too ludicrous to be seen as false advertising. But academia is a changing profession and as it morphs and buckles under current pressures, we’re a growing presence.

So why did I leave? It wasn’t that I didn’t like my job; I just didn’t like the direction it was taking. How do you progress blue-sky research while taking the incremental steps necessary to fund it? How do you teach large numbers of students whose capacity for self-directed learning has been undermined by our attempts to keep them student-survey satisfied, as befits their new-found status as fee-paying “clients”?

These days I still lecture and research, but without the administrative burden. At 5pm, or simply when it is sunny, I turn off the computer, ride the horses and walk the dog. I am well paid and have a great lifestyle. I realise, however, that if this trend continues and too many academics follow suit, the consequences for higher education will not be positive. In that sense, I appreciate that it is a rather selfish decision - you guys continue to hold the fort, I’ll pop in and out as a guest lecturer for exorbitant fees, or as a consultant on your hard-earned grant. I will even name your university on my papers - after all, it is offering me journal access, and I have so much time to write - and so much to write about - that I can accept private funding and undercut full economic costing by a factor of 10.

Of course, I am obliged to provide my own canteen, coffee room, research facilities and insurance, but you know, I bake.

I am part of a large network made up not just of other scientists but also other freelance scientists: there are a lot of us and we look after our own. And I am embarrassed to say that more of my collaborations have started online than ever did from knowing the people working in the same building.

Not everyone’s research can be so easily converted to independence, and I have always had an interest in scientific and other writing that I’m currently indulging, which helps. But the transition has certainly been no harder than taking on a new lectureship, when you often have to argue your case for anything more than a desktop and a pen while simultaneously writing a wad of new courses.

Maybe I am not a “real” academic any more. I don’t know - and I’m not sure it matters. I am probably not eligible for the majority of research funding, but I don’t have any interest in applying for it. Endless rounds of grant applications never really formed part of the attraction for me, and if you are reading Times Higher Education, you don’t need me to tell you where academic funding is headed.

It is clear that many academics are following a similar path. We are not yet at the stage where the last academic to leave the university needs to turn out the lights, but we have certainly reached the point where we should acknowledge the cultural changes resulting from the current funding climate.

When I set out as a freelance scientist, I assumed that I would struggle for credibility. Perhaps in the eyes of some academics I do, but I don’t feel it. My funding income is better than ever, my publication rate has gone up, and I get a lot of invitations to lecture or write expert opinion. Esteem indicators such as external examiner positions, committee memberships and grant review requests come just as plentifully as before, and I still do them (apparently the habit of working for free takes a little longer to break). Anyway, must dash - my coffee is ready.

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