Freelancing Science


June 2nd, 2016: with DAPPER Stats having just celebrated its first birthday, I took the leap and became a full-time freelance scientist.

While it was undoubtedly a #YOLO moment for my career, freelancing full-time had been an idea of mine since grad school and I had spent the previous year building DAPPER as a company to support myself. The leap would test that foundation and determine if it is possible for me to be a freelance data scientist.

Almost immediately upon telling folks of my new position, I tend to get asked “what is a freelance scientist?” This is an understandable question, as the idea of a “scientist” is usually tied to an employer like a university, non-profit organization, government agency, or corporation. But, just as it is possible to freelance other kinds of work, it is also possible to freelance science. It’s just not something that gets much coverage in terms of career options for folks, which is a shame, and something I intend to change. There is a lot of really great freelance science work available, and we need to educate scientists about all of their career opportunities.

In the most direct sense, freelancing means that I’m my own boss. I have set up DAPPER Stats as a legal entity so that I can get contracts for work (research, teaching, training) that bring money in to cover my salary, benefits, and other work costs (equipment, travel, training, etc.), all while being independent from the organizations I collaborate with. I’ll be exploring and explaining what freelancing science really means more in detail in future blog posts, but at the root, I’m a scientist who works collaboratively on projects yet independently from a management standpoint.

My drive to freelance comes from a combination of professional desires and personal needs. Although I started grad school with the intention of becoming a university professor, by the time I earned my PhD, I was no longer convinced that the academy was where I wanted to spend my career. I enjoyed the immensely intelligent colleagues and relatively welcoming environment, but found myself overworked and generally unhappy with furthering what I saw to be a broken academic model. I’ll most definitely be delving more into this topic in the future, but suffice it to say that by the time I finished graduate school, I was definitely keen to explore what career options existed for PhDs in ecology outside of academia.

Thankfully, I was able to leverage my research portfolio and connections to land a few job offers after grad school. Indeed, since receiving my PhD in 2013, I have taken two scientific positions: one at a non-profit research center in a zoo, the other at a private fisheries consulting company. Both provided really great research opportunities and coworkers, and I feel like could have been great career options for me, if I were a different person. However, being visibly queer and invisibly disabled, I have found it incredibly difficult to navigate STEM environments generally speaking, and those two jobs were no exceptions. Indeed, I ultimately left both of those positions for the same reason: I did not feel safe, supported, or productive.

It was while I was leaving that first position, with a very real fear that I might never find a positive and productive work environment, that I decided to start building out my capacity to freelance. I enjoyed working with my colleagues and was heavily invested in timely projects, so was looking for a means to continue collaborating, albeit independently managerially.

After buying a few business-savvy friends beers and picking their brains, I discovered that I could set up my own company pretty easily and start to contract independently in a way that would give me the capacity to be my own boss. It would be another year-plus before I took the leap to full-time freelance, but preparations had been made: DAPPER Stats had been born (as DAPPER, LLC, an S-Corp/LLC hybrid also known as an “LLC envelope”) and I was penning my first contracts.

Over the latter half of 2015 and the first half of 2016, I began to build out DAPPER, marketing myself as a research entity with specialized skills and flexible capacity. As someone who straddles biology and math, but has an eye towards applied sciences, there is a definite need for my skills in natural resource management, endangered species conservation, and other fields where data are brought to bear on questions of public interest. While there is a need for analysis and modeling, there is often not institutional support for full-time data scientists, and thus there is often work that can be contracted out. As someone interested in doing this work, it’s really just a matter of networking appropriately to find it. I am certainly in the process of understanding how best to network as a freelancer with agoraphobia and social anxiety, but so far things are going pretty well. Definitely stay tuned for more on this front, though.

Although I have been full-time freelancing for less than six months, I am already feeling the benefits. In conjunction with welcoming home my service dog Wallace, shifting to a full-time freelance position has allowed me to focus on my mental health and take the time to build a safe and productive work environment for myself. I cannot stress how important my mental health is to my ability to be a productive scientist, and I have definitely seen gains in my work capacity since June. I have a lot of trauma recovery work to do, and keeping my life as safe and calm as possible allows me to focus on healing and not just surviving.

At the same time that freelancing is easing certain anxieties, the stress of having to line up 100% of my salary and healthcare every month is really real and really scary, and something that I am just beginning to figure out how to manage. Ultimately, my success as a freelancer will depend on my ability to use that stress as a motivator to get work lined up and done. It’s like getting grants…but different.

While the final outcome of my freelance science experiment is still to be determined, I am incredibly excited about taking this major step and I hope to continue to share this journey with you all. So stay tuned!