Uber, But For Scientists

The gig economy isn’t just for graphic designers and Uber drivers. Some scientists are forsaking academia—and not always by choice.

woman scientist sitting at desk with microscope and laptop
Credit: Shutterstock

Todd Weber was midway through his Ph.D. program in bioenergetics and exercise science, working on cell cultures and chipping away at mechanistic metabolism studies, when he had two thoughts: “What am I doing? What’s the point of this? I don’t even know what my direction is anymore.” And then, “I need to finish this, but ultimately I want to go back and start a gym with my buddy.”

In the end, Weber did complete his Ph.D. program, and then some—he’s a registered dietician and has a master’s in kinesiology and exercise science as well. But he was growing antsy. And he couldn’t shake this idea of a gym that he’d hatched in college with a friend.

“I really wanted to do something more applied, something I can see the fruits of my labor, something that’s going to happen right away,” he says.

Related Segment

When Science Takes The Freelance Route

Meanwhile, Kate Lyden had a decision to make. She had just earned her doctorate in kinesiology, and she found herself torn over what to pursue next: teaching at a university or conducting studies on human health with tools like wearable sensors and FitBits for a private company.

“I was 100 percent torn,” she says. “I was very interested in leaving academia, but that being said, it would’ve been easier for me to stay…and safer.”

Weber and Lyden both chose not to follow the traditional path of research and university work. Instead, they joined over 53 million Americans—that’s about one in three workers or more than the population of Florida, New York, and Ohio combined—who earn their income from a gig that’s not the usual 9-to-5. Weber’s plans for the gym eventually fizzled out, but he opened his own nutrition consulting company. Lyden still works in research and does consulting work for academics, clinicians, healthcare providers, and private companies that are making the kinds of tools that she works with in her research.

More advanced degrees, fewer jobs.

But working as a freelance scientist rather than, for example, a freelance writer or designer, comes with a set of personal and professional challenges, some of which are linked to those advances degrees that scientists earn—and often pay for.

An advanced degree is no longer an automatic ticket to financial and career success. Universities are producing a glut of Ph.D.s, but the job market is isn’t keeping up. Between 1957 and 2016, the number of Ph.D.s awarded in science and engineering grew by 500%. But those newly minted doctors faced one of the worst job markets of past 15 years. And just under half of Ph.D. recipients completed their studies with some amount of debt—with an average load of over $23,000.

Lyden escaped her studies with a relatively small amount of loans (she took time off to work between her various schooling stints), but Weber wasn’t so lucky.

“What really wrecked me financially is becoming a registered dietician,” he says. “It’s really a flaw in the field, having a student work an [unpaid, full-time] internship without then being paid.”

One gig that’s common for people with advanced degrees of all sorts? Adjunct teaching. At one point last year, Weber held adjunct positions at three universities. And while adjunct faculty still have the obligations of attending meetings and mentoring students, they don’t receive the salaries or benefits of full-time staff. Lyden forks over hefty sums to buy her own individual health insurance. Before Weber married his wife, he was on Medicaid.

“I felt very embarrassed that here I had a Ph.D., M.S., and R.D. and had to be on Medicaid because I wasn’t making enough money,” he writes in an email. He realized that the industry wouldn’t “flock” to those who have earned Ph.D.s. “I didn’t stop and realize that you could be super highly educated and still be in the gig economy,” he says. “That was kind of a revelation to me.”  

While the financial payoff of these adjunct positions is minimal, they do come with one benefit: they keep the scientists connected to colleagues in their field.

“Financially, it certainly doesn’t do anything,” says Lyden. “In terms of staying involved and engaged in the academic science, that’s where I see the benefit. As a freelancer, you do lonely work, you’re an individual person. You don’t always feel like you’re doing team science, and so it kind of gives me that outlet to continue to work with other people once in a while.”

Has lab coat, will travel.

Loneliness isn’t the only challenge that comes from solo work in the science gig economy. Applying for grants without a university affiliation can be tough. Certain branches of science—like data science—lend themselves to freelance work more readily than, for example, studying wildlife. And then, there’s the issue of collaboration, which carries extra weight in STEM fields. Scientists typically are able to build lasting relationships during their Ph.D.s and post-docs with their supervisors, but watercooler talk with peers isn’t quite the same when you’re the only person in the room, and instead of a watercooler you’re standing around your home office.

And for those who choose to venture out of the realm of research? “There is no template to it,” says Weber. “In academia, there’s a certain process and set of steps. And then when you’re outside of academia, there aren’t readily available mentors in how to navigate it.”

[How we almost missed one of the largest volcanic eruptions of the century.]

And for people like Lyden who are making a go of being an independent researcher, another personal challenge emerges: “I will admit that one of the harder things is that [it’s] this academically-competitive field where you want to have new discoveries in that field that you’re in. And as a freelancer, you personally don’t get that opportunity. You’re more supplying support to somebody else who’s doing that. Personally, that’s difficult.”

Alternative routes.

But freelancers are still finding ways to fill that void. For example, the Ronin Institute for Independent Scholarship offers meet-ups and online discussions for people working in the field (the Institute is named for the Japanese samurais who broke the code of feudal Japan and refused to commit suicide when their masters died). And the website Kolabtree, which pairs freelance scientists with employers, boasted over 3,000 members as of October of last year.

“I feel very lucky that I’ve been able to do this, and I’m almost shocked at how easy it was for me to do this for this past year of my life,” says Lyden. “And I know that not everybody has that same experience, but I think you could interview me next year and I could give you a very different interview, which is the reality of being a freelancer.”

But not even the traditional path of a scientist is immune to some of the issues freelancers encounter. “To be fair,” Lyden says, “you could interview an academic researcher who has funding this year and not next year and it would be the same sort of scenario.”

Scientists probe for possibilities. They examine every facet of a conundrum, and conduct experiment after experiment. If one technique doesn’t stick, they try another. Now, they’re applying that method to a career path.

“People don’t really know what to do with you,” says Weber. “They say, ‘How do we define you? What do you do? Oh, you’re a registered dietician. So that means that you work in a community setting with programs like [Women, Infants, and Children] or public health, or you work in a clinical setting.’ So you’re put in a box. And I think, ‘No, I’m not really any of those. I’m all of those and none of those at the same time.’”

In short, he’s a freelance scientist.

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About Johanna Mayer

Johanna Mayer is a podcast producer and hosted Science Diction from Science Friday. When she’s not working, she’s probably baking a fruit pie. Cherry’s her specialty, but she whips up a mean rhubarb streusel as well.

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