Report: Scientists Enjoy Gig Economy Flexibility, International Work

Of scientists who work as freelancers, 79 percent say they work independently by choice, and 73 percent say they turn to the gig economy to have the ability to work across geographical boundaries, according to a new study that includes a University of Michigan researcher.
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Scientists who work as freelancers say they enjoy the freedom to work across countries. // Stock photo

Of scientists who work as freelancers, 79 percent say they work independently by choice, and 73 percent say they turn to the gig economy to have the ability to work across geographical boundaries, according to a new study that includes a University of Michigan researcher.

“Understanding the Work of Independent Scientists” was released by Kolabtree in London. Researchers included U-M’s Susan Ashford, Brianna Caza at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Erin Reid at McMaster University, and Steven Granger at the University of Calgary.

The study is aimed at exploring how science-based gig workers experience their work, the challenges they face, and the extent to which their working lives are characterized by positive and negative work perceptions. The team released the preliminary results.

A total of 542 independent scientists took the survey. Respondents had been working independently for an average of 4.5 years.

The respondents, 49 percent of which had earned doctoral degrees, worked in industries including pharmaceuticals, food science, medical science, biology, and psychology. Respondents were from around the world, with 41 percent working in North America and 22.5 percent working in Europe.

Along with having the freedom to work across geographical boundaries, scientists cited flexibility and control as major benefits of independent work. More than 90 percent said that flexibility is highly important, and 85 percent said they want to choose the projects they work on. More than 50 percent of respondents took up freelance work only in their area of specialization, and 42 percent said their independent work was a mix of gigs both inside and outside of their specialization.

About 56 percent of respondents said they are optimistic about the future of the science gig economy. About 27 percent said they planned to make the switch from a traditional career to full-time freelance work, 12.3 percent did not, and 21 percent were unsure if they would make the switch.

“The findings from the survey shows that scientists are actively looking for freelance opportunities where they can contribute their skills and expertise,” says Ashmita Das, CEO and co-founder of Kolabtree. “The fact that scientists value flexibility, freedom, and the ability to have control over what projects they take up is of great benefit to businesses looking to collaborate with experts across geographical boundaries.”

About 35 percent of respondents reported earning less than $20,000 per year, 16 percent reported earning between $20,000 and $34,999, 37 percent reported earning between $35,000 and $100,000, and 8 percent reported earning more than $100,000.

About 17 percent of respondents said they earned more in their freelance work than they had previously in a traditional role, 12 percent said they earned about the same, and 39 percent earned less than they did in a traditional role.

Income and location, however, did not seem to impact reported level of thriving. Respondents who reported earning less than $20,000 per year reported almost the exact same level of thriving (emotional stability, high levels of energy) as those making more than $150,000 per year. For those living outside the U.S., United Kingdom, and Canada, scientists reported higher levels of thriving than those inside these countries despite the majority earning a smaller income.

The most prevalent challenges independent scientists reported facing were a lack of career security, financial unpredictability, and intellectual loneliness. The extent of positive or negative experiences were shaped by individual levels of cognitive flexibility and tolerance for ambiguity. This suggests that developing these individual-level attributes is important for independent workers’ ability to handle the stressors of independent work.

The research group is continuing to study the challenges that independent scientists face, the factors that impact their experiences, and responses to the challenges. Subsequent results will also explore the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on remote and independent working for scientists and researchers.

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