Don’t Quit Your Day Job

Symposium magazine ran a piece this week on Ethan Perlstein, a “gentleman scientist” who went “rogue” after grad school by crowdfunding his next research project, “a meth lab for mice to find out where radioactive amphetamines accumulate in mouse brain cells.” Perlstein’s story is presented as an example of the Next Big Thing in academia: independent scholarship. In Perlstein’s words,

This trend is not going to stop. It has revolutionary moments, like all movements, but this train is out of the station.

As someone who’s managed to make a good living for the past two and a half years as an independent scholar—or freelance researcher or consultant or whatever the heck it is that I do—I want this to be true. Honestly, though, I think it’s still very, very hard to survive professionally without a regular paycheck and an institutional or corporate mooring, and the vast majority of people who try will fail.

Why? Let’s start with Perlstein’s story. His mouse meth-lab project raised about $25,000 on Kickstarter. Getting one $25K chunk of funding is great, but it’s hardly going to make your year. For that, you’re going to need to string together at least a few projects of that size or larger (remember, that funding also has to cover research expenses). Each of those projects will require a proposal or crowdfunding campaign, and those things take a lot of unpaid time to put together. Most projects won’t have a Breaking Bad hook like Perlstein’s did, and many attempts to inject that kind of playful tone and pop-cultural relevance into your marketing campaign will fall terribly flat.

I get the sense that lots of social scientists considering alternatives to academia see consulting as one way to fill the gaps between funded projects. In principle, that’s true. In practice, though, it’s a bad bet. In a follow-up to his unorthodox retirement announcement, Phil Schrodt had this to say about consulting:

I may have tossed out a dangerously attractive concept that will be even more attractive in six weeks when you are grading bluebooks. Two very important caveats:

  • I’ve already been doing this for about twenty-five years and have both networks, and at the moment four independent income streams.
  • I have demonstrated technical skills.

The first in particular takes quite a while—and no small amount of luck—to develop, and simply going out on your own early in a career—and I’m not really on my own, again, I’ve got long-established networks—is probably not advisable.

I think some people have this “Beltway bandit” image stuck in their heads, this idea that Washington is awash in money and they just need to find a way to tap into that without immersing themselves in it. They’re right that there’s a lot of money involved, but the great bulk of it is being channeled through a small number of big consulting firms and massive grants to major research institutions. It is not, I repeat not, being thrown at the academic equivalent of wandering minstrels. If you’re not at one of those big research institutions or under a consulting agreement with one of those big firms, it’s really, really hard to get on people’s radar. As someone who used to sit on the other side of this process, I can tell you that contracting rules and bureaucratic procedures makes it very hard to identify and take risks on hiring people who aren’t already known quantities. These facts should give pause to anyone new to his or her field imagining that there’s a bunch of ripe fruit out there just waiting to be plucked. Instead, as I put it in a conversation on Twitter a few days ago, I think the real model for social-science consulting looks more like this:

Step 1. ???? Step 2. Be a recognized expert. Step 3. Profit?

What’s more, social science isn’t pharmacology. With rare exceptions, there’s not a commercial payoff in sight. My hunch is that the pool of private dollars in search of social-science research to fund is very small, and most of what’s out there comes from philanthropy tied to social-justice issues like poverty and violence. As long as this pool doesn’t grow dramatically—and it’s not clear to me why it would at a time when philanthropic giving in general seems to have plateaued—then the more people who try, the more crowded the arena will become. So, even if the scale of independent social-science scholarship grows, the success rate for individual scholars will probably shrink as that happens. The whole Big Data thing seems like it might inject a lot more interest into the field, but I’ll bet most of the research that spawns is going to happen inside big corporations like Facebook and Twitter, which can afford to invest in basic research. Meanwhile, interest in making boutique data sets and funding new studies on things like hegemonic stability theory and the survival strategies of authoritarian regimes is probably going to hold fairly steady at the near-zero level it has now.

And that’s just the field-specific stuff. Contrary to the optimistic line we get from Thomas Friedman and others about the rise of the à la carte, go-it-alone economy, there are still huge structural impediments to self-employment. I’m thinking in particular of the exorbitant costs of health care and child care. Without access to cheaper and better versions of these, freelancing is going to continue to be very tough sledding. Most of us still get health insurance through our employers. If your spouse works for an organization that offers good benefits, great. If not, tough luck. You can buy your own on the private market, and Obamacare is gradually making that more affordable than it used to be, but it’s still a huge expense. If you or anyone in your family has a costly pre-existing condition, the monthly fees for private insurance can become breathtaking. I speak from experience on this one. This is a huge barrier to entry, and all the WiFi hot spots and smart phones and blogs in the world won’t bring it down.

I’m now knee-deep in my own one-family experiment with freelancing, and I occasionally wonder how and why it’s worked for me so far. My answer always starts with the point Phil Schrodt made about the value of already being a known quantity with professional ties to people with money to spend. I started this spell of my career after a ten-year stint with a big consulting firm that connected me to lots of great scholars and sharp people in several U.S. government agencies. If I had tried to do something like this right out of grad school, I’m virtually certain I would have failed fast. I like to think that my careerist turn to social media and blogging have made a big difference, but that’s probably not true. Sure, I’ve landed some paid freelance jobs through those channels, but the vast majority of my income in the past two years has come from work that came to me through the connections I made and the reputation I developed in my old salaried job.

At least as important, I’m lucky for the accident of my and my wife’s birth into families with money. Without that cushion, I don’t know that I would have taken the risk of foregoing a paycheck in the first place, and I probably couldn’t have gotten through the couple of dry patches I’ve hit in the past 31 months.

Even with that safety net, one of the downsides of working this way is the constant anxiety that the music can stop at any time.  In spite of all the advantages I’ve been handed, I constantly feel like I’m just one or two missed opportunities from a deeply negative cash flow and a frantic hunt for any salaried job with benefits that will have me.

So Perlstein’s Kickstarter project is great and all, but let me tell you another story. I recently heard from an old colleague at a small consulting firm, a place I worked soon after grad school, that the firm had gone bankrupt late last year after something like a 25-year run. Now this former colleague—a person with terrific technical and managerial skills, many years of experience, and lots of connections—was struggling to find some way to earn money. When we spoke on the phone, the anxiety in this person’s voice was palpable.

You didn’t ask for my advice, but here it is. Until we make big advances on affordable health and child care that isn’t tied to an employer, or unless you’re independently wealthy, this former colleague, and not Perlstein’s crowdfunded mouse meth lab, is the image you should keep in mind as you consider whether or not to give independent social-science scholarship a go.

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18 Comments

  1. bashir

     /  August 6, 2013

    I like that you call it “gentleman scientist”. Points towards an issue that Ethan seems to avoid in discussions about the potential of this path for other scientists. Personal financial circumstances are going to loom large in how risky people are willing to be with their paycheck. This is no minor detail. At all.

    Reply
  2. Oral Hazard

     /  August 6, 2013

    A la carte economy (n.):
    1. Notion advanced by wicked famous NY Times columnist and self-mythologizer Thomas Friedman;
    2. Humbug; crapola; urban legend; elitist pablum; dystopian wishful thinking

    Syn. Piltdown man; Bigfoot; waking up in bathtub filled with ice without your kidneys; streets flowing with milk and honey; American middle class

    Reply
  3. Thanks for blogging about the Symposium piece, Jay!

    You know the image in my head? It’s pretty scary. I call it The Tenure Games. It’s a riveting tale of hypercompetition, meritocracy qualified by tribalism, and an academic hiring Ponzi scheme that’s resulting in an excess of scientific human capital. Oh, and the average age at which life scientist reach independence, ie, get their first R01 grant, is now 43.

    I wasn’t strolling the grounds of my family estate on a pheasant hunt when the idea to go indie came to me in a musket flash. Like others of the postdocalypse generation, I’m reacting and adapting to a crumbling system. And don’t just take my word for it. Here’s what senior profs with decades of perspective who are willing to call a spade a spade are saying: http://elife.elifesciences.org/content/2/e00642

    Yes, going indie/freelancer/startup has risks. When did academics as a whole become so personally risk averse? I find it ironic, actually, because most scientists tend to be quite daring in their research. I hate to fall on the “academics are socially awkward and reserved” meme because there are so many counterexamples, so that can’t be the explanation.

    And, yes, the risk becomes easier to stomach if you have savings, but people also go into debt to fund their dreams, bootstrap with a few clients, etc. Granted many of them fail, but then some get right back up and try again. Is that Nature or Nurture? I dunno, but there is indisputable variation from person to person.

    I understand that the risk calculus involves more than just dollar amounts, and I understand that academic trainees are underpaid for over a decade, a debilitating opportunity cost that exacerbates personal risk. Kids, a mortgage, enfeebled parents, etc., conspire against entrepreneurial risk-taking every day. Circumstances shape the most important parts of our lives, like how many find their soul mates. Do I wish Life were less stochastic? Yes, absolutely.

    I’m not pretending that every academic will be able to transition to indie status, but there are no arguments that the “brilliant grantsmith” monoculture of academia (http://www.brittle-star.com/blog/2013/06/meta-analysis-of-im-leaving-research-blog-posts/) is on its last legs. I’m doing my part to restore polyculture.

    @Bashir: Even though I’m self-funding “Aim 1,” I’m not a Rockefeller. So the plan has always been to transition to sustainable funding sources.

    Reply
  4. Rex Brynen

     /  August 6, 2013

    Good post, Jay, highlighting both the possibilities and the very stark challenges of being a non-university, freelance social scientist.

    While I do a great deal of work as a consultant (between 10 and 40% of my income per year is from outside sources), I’m quite happy with my decision to keep my primary foot in the university environment. There are several reasons for this. First, I love teaching. Second, I prefer financial certainty to living from contract-to-contract. I also like being able to say no to potential contracts (because I don’t like the project, or the purposes it might be put to)–a luxury I only have because my primary paycheck is a regular university one. Despite Ethan’s comments and blog link above, I’m hard-pressed to see anything wrong with either the grant environment or scholarly collaboration in my field: it is relatively easy to find external support for interesting well-crafted research projects, and fellow scholars are almost invariably generous with time and advice (even when it has no benefit). University campuses are also full of interesting colleagues and students and a great place to work.

    Rather than setting university/private as a binary opposition, however, we probably need to pay more attention to the potential middle ground in between. While there are times when juggling university and consulting is a zero-sum game (do I work on this contract for fee X, or write another journal article with annual university salary increment effect Y?), there are many more times when one enriches the other. A significant portion of my scholarly publication has been on issues that I have also worked on as a consultant (notably foreign aid and refugee issues), and I frankly doubt that I could teach about peace operations and post-conflict transitions very well at all if I hadn’t worked those issues in government. The two networks–policy/consultancy and university academic–tend to complement each other too.

    Certainly, newbie scholars are well advised to jump through the requisite academic hoops on the road to tenure. In the longer term, however, there is a great deal that can be obtained by pursuing a hybrid route.

    Reply
  5. bashir

     /  August 7, 2013

    This is all basically like taking an independent unpaid internship. Delay income for the possibility of later furthering your career. Think about how much ink has been spilled on the issues of unpaid internships. The arguments seem essentially the same.

    Reply
  6. I agree the challenges faced by social scientists, when trying to freelance full time, are large and real. On the positive side, though, it is worth mentioning that demand for their services need not come from government agencies only. Political and security risk consulting is a big market serving medium and large multinational corporations as well, pretty much in all sectors. This market does require specialist social scientists’ skills, often in the shape of country or regional expertise, or expertise in business-relevant risk areas (from terrorism to regulatory instability, to mention just a couple). On the supply side, this industry is dominated by a few large, specialist consultancies, next to a plethora of small and very small ones. These consultancies do rely on external contributors from time to time to help produce their work, many of those contributors have social science backgrounds and some are full-time freelancers. Moreover, new ways are emerging, leveraging the internet and concepts akin to the “collaborative economy”, to help genuine specialists, who may lack their own client network, to get discovered and provide consulting work to corporate clients in a more direct and transparent way. Such new methods are yet untested in the field of political risk consulting, and are not going to solve all the very real difficulties of freelancing, but will hopefully help to some degree. I am personally involved in setting up one such tool and preliminary indications from clients and experts are encouraging.

    Reply
    • Thanks for adding this perspective, Carlo. It’s good to hear of other changes afoot that could expand the possibilities for people trying to make a run at it.

      Reply
  7. Throwing my hat in the ring here, the game from a bioscience standpoint and a social science standpoint are pretty different. If you want to do bioscience research, you can go into academia and join the personality cult, try for Big Pharma and probably become a human high-throughput machine, do this crowdfunding thing, or you can be a one person startup (that’s what I do).

    If you’re a startup, yes, you have to engage legal advice and patent your work. You also have options for balancing salary and benefit needs with equity, and it’s very natural to build potential for future investment as you go. It just becomes part of the process. The other thing is that if you initially start out with a very useful product in mind, then the odds of becoming a self-sustaining venture increase, with the potential for revenue to fund future research, both for its own sake and for future product development.

    The other thing is that just because you patent doesn’t mean you don’t publish your work. You absolutely can; you just have to get the sequence right (i.e., patent first, publish later). @Rex has a great point re. collaboration. I have some very legitimate reasons to despise academia, but my feelings aside, I also recognize that there are some great people there, powerhouses who would turn out excellent work in any environment, and how awesome would it be to spread the startup love to people on the grad student or even undergrad level beyond, say, Robert Langer’s lab? Like, hey, I need someone to work on this experiment, here’s a thesis project you will be able to publish, and also, come learn how to do things other than be a professor. Everyone wins. I get my work done for cheap, whoever the prof is maybe gets a little more friendly towards indie scientists if for no other reason than money, and the student has a thesis as well as a new perspective on careers in science, which they may share with their friends, who knows who has some great ideas, and the ball starts to really roll.

    I’m all about starting a revolution, but insidious change from the inside out where you demonstrate an alternative where everyone wins is usually most effective. Also, @Ethan, would you please consider dropping the whole “gentleman scientist” thing? Invoking a period in history when women and ethnic minorities were considered to be of subhuman intelligence is fairly socially charged. I understand why you used that terminology, but if your ultimate goal is democratizing science and doing an end run around an archaic hierarchy, that isn’t the most effective way to encourage inclusivity.

    Reply
    • @Miriam For the record I call myself a mission-driven indie scientist.

      I agree that we don’t just want a leisure class engaging in curiosity-driven science. And we shouldn’t set an age limit or ceiling. We are ready for open collaborative science on a global scale, with participation from professionally trained scientists and self-taught scientist and everything in between.

      We are past Peak Academia, but that doesn’t mean the downslide will be rapid.

      Reply
  8. Why has this never come out during the Obamacare debate? I myself have toyed with the idea of freelancing, and concluded that if I weren’t Canadian (and planning on moving back there) it could never happen. It seems that the “diversity” of the economic ecosystem could greatly benefit from access to healthcare not being tied to having a (sufficiently large) employer.

    Reply
    • I think it came up, but I agree that it was grossly under-emphasized. It’s an important counterpoint to the argument that state-subsidized and even state-managed health insurance is anti-market. It wouldn’t destroy commerce, it would enable it, just like state production of other fundamental public goods (policing, infrastructure, adjudication) does.

      Reply
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