31 Oct 2006

thoughts on freelancing and research

it is probably an open secret amongst friends that i am currently doing some freelancing.

i've done a couple of one-shot consulting jobs here and there for the last couple of years, some from way back during the dot-com boom doing, you guessed it, web design and web programming. recently i've been doing some very interesting programming work.

a lot of people see success as working in a big corporation, because of the illusion that you will progress or that there is stability. but if you think about it, big corporations are probably the worst places you want to work at if there is a recession. they only see head count as just numbers on a piece of paper.

i have got to say, i have been royally tempted by some huge corporations, just on the basis that it will provide stability and a way to meet some interesting and smart people. but the other option is freelancing, which in some ways is very similar to research.

freelancing and research is quite similar.

you are your own boss, except that you have to answer to your clients. for freelancing, that is the people who pay you, for research, that is the grant committee, the paper reviewers, your head of departments.

you choose your projects. for freelancing, you work on projects that take your fancy, of course unless you are going broke, then you'll take on any ASP or VB or PHP job you can get your hands on. if you're in research, you choose the projects that you want to do, but then if your publication list (or grant money) is getting a bit thin, then you apply for whatever is the hot topic of the day and attempt to get some grants (what is sustainable computing?)

you work independently. for freelancing, it means you can work at home, or if you're freelancing for a medium-largish corporation, you may have to work at their offices. it means you have to be quite flexible and solve a wide range of problems from technical work, to managing your finances, career management, etc. it ends up that you have to know a little bit about everything, and i think that is exactly what i like to do. for research, unless you're working at a particle collider at CERN, you'll probably rarely work with more than 10 people at one time, even if they all sit next to you in the same office.

you have to forge your own relationships. for freelancing, this means hopping from one job to another as opportunities come up. most opportunities come from word of mouth, which seems to be quite common in the UK, although i'm not sure whether it is the same elsewhere. for research, you're constantly seeking out people at conferences (by attending or publishing them) and making people notice you. then you have to do work for free and organise conferences, review papers and do all the this charitable leg work just to get your name out there.

so what are the differences between research and freelancing?

in research, you answer to a bunch of stakeholders that have diverse goals, some may want to get recognition, some want to get publications, some want to pad their CV, some just find the work interesting and want to contribute to the field. the fact that there is no common motivation means it gets very complex very quickly.

in freelancing, you answer to who ever is giving you money. there are good clients and bad clients. good clients give you the freedom to explore the best solution for them, bad clients will try to get you to do something their way without understanding from your stand point it is a bad idea. but the loyalties are very clear, and at the end of the day you do get (hopefully) some money for your work.

in research, if you work hard towards tenure, you won't have to worry about employment for the rest of your life, that is what i call real stability -- of course, unless the university closes down or ..

in freelancing, you're always worrying about the when the current job ends and whether you'll find some work in the next month. but i think that mixes it up quite a bit.

personally, i've been lucky to have tried all parts of the pie, working full time for a big corp, working for a small start up, working part-time, working at a university, doing research. i think i've tried a good spectrum of what the working modes there are, but the one i really haven't tried is working for myself.

what is the best (for me)?

i think everyone is different. some people prefer research because they get paid to answer their own interesting questions, like how can we save the world.

i don't claim to be as righteous and selfless as those people, i just want to seek out ways to have fun at work. whether it is getting paid with my favourite programming language, or working on things you'll probably never get a chance to work on again or be part of a project that you can see will actually see some tangible results.

when it comes down to the crunch, it is not about the money, at least not for now. i don't care that my friends are earning 10x more than me, have larger houses than me, have cars that cost 100x more than my bike, etc. the most important thing is that i am spending my time doing something that is interesting and working with people who i look up to.

maybe down the road, i'll follow in my parent's footsteps and become an entrepreneur, start my own company(ies). maybe when i have some more responsibility like a family to feed, or parents to take care of, then i will choose stability.

but the fact i am in my 20s and i still have the opportunity to take risks and find out what there is in the world. maybe doing a phd was a mistake, but the fact is that the lessons learnt there i will never have understood if i was anywhere else. never would i have learnt how many phd's it would take to clean a coffee machine!

ultimately, what is more important, a piece of paper that says you can call yourself doctor and 4 lines on your resume that account for 4 years of your life, or finding out for real what you're good at and what you're not, and recognising the fact that you are not invincible?

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