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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