Working as a freelance scientist

12th December 2018

Natasha Beeton-Kempen, freelancer for online platform for freelance scientists Kolabtree, explains what it’s like to work as a freelance scientific writer and editor

Why would a scientist, who studied so long and hard to get their PhD, leave their position in academia or industry to go freelance? That would seem to negate many of our fundamental beliefs regarding what a scientist “does”! Here, Natasha Beeton-Kempen explains what it’s like to work as a freelance scientific writer and editor. 

I had long yearned to do work that gave me complete freedom – freedom to determine my hours, who I worked for, the types of projects I worked on and where I worked from. After almost a decade of working as a molecular biologist, it was the birth of my son that finally gave me the courage to trade in my lab coat for a laptop. I needed more flexibility, more time and less travelling away from home. So, my New Year’s resolution for 2018 was to simply hand in my resignation on the first working day. And that I did.

Since then, I’ve come to realise there are many ways a qualified scientist can earn a living, despite not being tied to a particular institution. One of these I had already explored to earn some extra income – scientific editing. I have always loved to work with words, so this was a natural option. Scientific editing is currently the backbone of my monthly income as there is a steady flow of work. This involves assisting scientists with polishing their manuscripts before submission to scientific journals. 

However, it is my other two income streams that I enjoy the most: scientific writing and consulting. After handing in my resignation, I happily stumbled onto Kolabtree. People can post projects they need expert scientific assistance with and experts can pitch and bid for projects they’re keen to work on. Since registering on the platform, I’ve been fortunate enough to consult on projects involving research project scoping, white paper writing and statistical analysis. My clients have included independent contractors, academics, government institutions and contract research organisations. 

There is also scope for local consulting work and I am currently receiving a retainer for assisting one of my previous employers with R&D. From what I’ve seen, there are a wealth of gigs out there where a scientist’s experience and skills are appreciated. If you are willing to work hard, pay attention to detail and delivery and can communicate well, freelancing can work for you. 

My daily routine is fairly normal. I check emails for new project postings and follow up on those I’m interested in. I then grab a cup of something hot and get cracking with whichever project is on top of my priority list. In the afternoons I go for a run or take my son for a walk. I sometimes get started quite late, but I then work until late in the evening after my little one goes to bed. And no, I don’t usually work in my pajamas, but I do love having the kitchen down the hall. When cash flow allows, I relish the freedom of taking an “off day”, either to recharge, catch up on chores, or spend special time with my son. I am inspired by the wide variety of projects I work on and by never knowing what each week will bring. 

There are, of course, downsides to being a freelance scientist. People don’t always know how to deal with you as the concept of a freelance scientist is still foreign and you have to convince them that you are legitimate. There have been times when I’ve had a lot of money in the pipeline but little in the bank. You have to be willing to keep good financial records and manage your own retirement funds, taxes, and health/income insurances. 

I don’t have it all worked out yet. Despite being my own boss, I’m still not properly balancing all aspects of my life. Crucially though, I now have much more freedom to figure it all out. 




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