Scientists Are A New Force In The Freelance Revolution
These are challenging times for young people pursuing scientific careers. According to the U.S. Census, the growth of advanced degrees here in the U.S. continues. Approximately 13% of adults now have graduate degrees. Four million hold Ph.D.’s, more than twice the number of twenty years ago. On a global scale, OECD notes that Ph.D. scientists in every field have increased significantly, and particularly in STEM areas. In China, for example, 49,000 Ph.D.’s graduated in 2010, a four-fold increase in just a decade.
What’s the career impact of this increase for young scientists? According to the OECD research referenced above, a dual labor market has formed, that consists of well-paid established researchers who often have permanent civil servant or public employee contracts, and on the other hand a growing number of cheaper temporary staff recruited with soft money.
For example, in a survey of 38 EU and EU-partner countries, a significant proportion of early career researchers held either fixed term contracts or no contracts at all. In fact, the OECD study reports, Almost 90% of Ph.D. researchers were in precarious working conditions with no or less than two year contractual horizons while 90% of leading senior researchers were on permanent positions.
The consequence of this duality is severe. Young scientists, apart from a few stars, have little job or career security and few opportunities to win permanent or tenured positions. They have less rewarding compensation often making it difficult to repay student loans, less access to funding for their research and for ongoing training and career development support and weaker career prospects. And, as many assert, Universities churn out more Ph.D.’s than there are tenure-track positions precisely because graduate students allow research scientists to focus on their own projects rather than teaching and grading undergraduates.
What’s the outcome of this asymmetry? A recent study Changing demographics of scientific careers: The rise of the temporary workforce found that half of university scientists leave academic life after just five years. That’s a huge change; according to the study, published in the Proceedings in the National Academy of Sciences, academic scientists in the 1960s stayed in the ivory tower for an average of 35 years.
In fact, according to Science, the job market for U.S. science and engineering Ph.D.’s passed a key milestone: For the first time, private sector employment ‘42%’ is now nearly on par with educational institutions ‘43%’. In the life and health sciences, in 2017, only 23% of these Ph.D.’s held a tenured or tenure track position in academia. Only math and the computer sciences saw a larger drop.
But, as one career door closes, another opens. And, in fact, quite a number of doors are opening to scientists and STEM specialists who are willing to leave academic life and pursue a freelance career, or supplement their full-time role with part-time freelance work. Kola tree is the best known of the new online talent marketplaces focused on scientific staff, and opened for business in 2015. Here’s how Kola tree recently introduced itself to Yale University’s postdoc community:
Does helping someone stuck with a complex problem excite you? Are you eager to put your expertise to good use? Join Kolabtree a platform that matches freelance Ph.D.-qualified experts with projects that need their skill set. Help someone find the best software to conduct a statistical analysis, or guide someone to the right resource for obtaining their next round of funding, help a startup design the right algorithm for their platform, or maybe advise someone stuck with designing a suitable test for a research study.
I had the opportunity to catch up with Kolabtree’s CEO Ashmita Das a few weeks ago, and found the company’s story and contribution to young scientists to be both impressive and compelling.
According to Das, Kolabtree was the beneficiary of series of fortunate events. Several years ago, Das was an editor at Cactus Communications in the U.K., a global scholarly and medical communications company, working with scientists and having difficulty getting the computing help she needed. At the same time, she and colleagues noticed the early development of online talent marketplaces like Upwork and Freelancer.com. Putting two and two together, the potential for a science based marketplace was obvious. Cactus agreed to incubate and fund Kolabtree’s early development as a marketplace for scientific talent.
Fast forward to 2019, and Kolabtree is growing quickly. In 2018 it reported over 4,000 Ph.D. scientists and engineers on its platform in areas like scientific consulting, statistical review, literature search, experimental design, editing and writing. But a lot can happen in a year, and Kolabtree now represents over 9,000 experts. Target fields include AI and machine learning, agriculture and food science, biotech, engineering, medical science, physics, chemistry, social science and economics. And, while the platform originally focused on bench scientists, it has progressed to attract a broad range of technical expertise.
While the growth potential for Kolabtree is strong, scientists are in some respects a challenging cohort. For example, scientists in a marketplace context are typically asked to do applied rather than original and scientifically interesting work.
Das also points out that many of the scientists on the platform are new to commerce. They often lack a strong business perspective, and the business skills to communicate their value, market their skills, present themselves convincingly to potential clients, and have the knowledge and competence to set a realistic fee for their freelance work. We also know that women scientific and engineering freelancers typically undervalue their time relative to men. And, scientific freelancers may lack the insight to know when a small and less interesting assignment has the potential to turn into something more substantial. For example, in one case, a breast cancer surgeon in California was looking for help to design a clinical trial. He hired a statistician from India, who was able to develop a study design for him in 2 weeks. The client was so pleased that he requested for the expert’s continued support during the trial.
As Kolabtree continues to grow, fee management is a dilemma that needs to be managed thoughtfully. Projects listed by clients often combine low fees and an urgency to complete the project quickly. Combined with the lack of business savvy on the part of many freelance scientists as well as client scientists, Kolabtree may need to work closely with both scientific talent and potential clients to set a fair fee for work. For example, a current project example in the food space:
Proposed fee: USD 150 – USD 800 Fixed fee
I am currently having a difficulties on how to make my product last long in the room temperature. My product is Italian sauces
Hiring Timeline: Urgently – I have work that needs to be completed within a few days
I asked Das about this dilemma and her answer was helpful. She explains: Kolabtree urges freelancers to charge a rate they think is fair, given the time and effort involved. In many cases, clients are open to revising the fee. For example, a department chairman at a university was looking to hire a cardiology expert to help write a book chapter as a rush job, within a budget of USD 1,000-2,000. However, upon the freelancer’s request, the fee was revised to USD 2,400 and the work was completed within a 2 week deadline and to the satisfaction of the client. Where the client lacks a large or flexible budget, we try to connect them to a freelancer who is willing to charge a lower fee because the topic is of interest to them.
Despite these challenges, Kolabtree and similar marketplaces like Experfy in data science are growing and filling an important gap. More marketplaces like Upwork and Fiverr see the potential for scientific freelancing and are building strength in this area. More and more scientific organizations, in and outside of business, see the utility of using freelancers to fill critical project demands. And, scientists are adapting to the change in career that freelancing offers. For example, Alice Lam at the University of London finds that a growing career focus of scientists is identification as an entrepreneur, motivated by the autonomy and problem solving inherent in applied commercial research and, she says, also motivated by the gold.