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How does one get started as an independent researcher?

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Someone brought up the question How does one get started as an Independent Researcher? on Quora. The responses so far are pretty informative but they mostly focus on answering the question “How does one get started as a researcher?”. If you’re just starting out in research, I highly recommend giving the responses a read. There are a few good tips around how one finds the questions in need of answering in a field.

If you’ve already been involved with research. Allow me to summarize and tell you the single most important thing to becoming an independent researcher…..Funding! This isn’t because experiments are inherently expensive*. It’s because as an indie researcher even if you are able to eliminate your research costs, you still have to pay for things like your rent, food and other personal expenses.

This isn’t a new problem, even in universities, salary is often the main expense.  Before we try and reinvent the wheel, lets look at how universities afford to pay their researchers.  Maybe those solutions work for indie researchers.  Rice University‘s revenue (pictured below) is a good snapshot of a typical research universities income stream.

Rice Revenues FY 2011
Rice Revenues FY 2011

So it looks like most revenue can be broken into 5 categories: Grants, Contracts,  Endowment, Tuition and Technology Transfer. The exact breakdown may differ depending on the university. MIT for example gains almost half of their revenue from Grants/contracts where as almost all of the University of Phoenixs revenue comes from tuition.

Grants 

Writing a successful grant is a difficult task. Even with the support and affiliation of a major university,  it’s never a sure thing.  Take away that affiliation and the pool of grants you qualify for shrinks, decreasing your chances even more.  A work around to this would be to convince a nonprofit to be your fiscal sponsor. If that’s not an option, there are still a number of granting agencies offering grants for individuals including indie fellowships that pay for research costs. They are few and far between but they are out there. I’m going to end this section with a guide to grantwriting because it’s an area I only have limited experience in and being honest very little desire to gain experience in.

Contracts

This is when research universities are hired by outside agencies or companies to perform some task.  If you have a Phd, you might be able to get a position within a consulting firm and fund your work by working part-time.   As an independent researcher without a doctorate this becomes more difficult but not impossible. There are a number of websites such as Science Exchange or Assay Depot that outsource lab tasks. I’d recommend only posting availability for tasks you can perform at no cost, as it’s unlikely you can compete with the university vendors on material cost. If you have programming skills, it becomes alot easier to find outsourced work from websites like topcoder, kaggle, gun.io,etc. If you dont have programming skills, go get them. Programming is more and more becoming integral in all fields of science. If you don’t learn to program you will be placing yourself at a handicap.

Endowment

Since the Indie Research equivalent to an endowment is already being rich enough to self fund, it’s not really a useful means of funding for most indie researchers. Though sponsorship from individuals might be. That is after all where universities got those endowments from in the first place.  If you dont know any 1%-ers, dont worry. Thankfully, with the arrival of crowdfunding apps like Kickstarter or Rockethub, you can raise a large amount of money from a number of small donations.  In fact last year scientists raised over 100 thousand dollars for their own research as part of the scifund challenge. There’s also a cool site called Gittip for recurring support of people who do awesome things.

Teaching

This is the bread and butter of most universities. Most professors salaries are derived from the tuition of their students.Using my Alma mater as a basis lets do some back of the envelope calculations. Taking one 3credit bio class at $800/credit is $2400. Multiply that by 30students in an intro class($72,000)to 10($24,000) in an upper leve and you realize how much money is in teaching. Now most people pay these prices because they believe a degree with a Universities name is worth it. I’ll save that discussion for a different post but suffice it to say an independent researcher has to entice students to pay for their class a different way.

If you are a good speaker and your research is interesting, getting 20 people to pay $10-$20 to listen to you talk for half and hour is doable. Just reach out to a nearby coworking space to see if they dont mind hosting and tell everyone and their mothers about it. If your research allows it holding workshops is also a viable means of funding.  5 people paying $300 for a 3day 4hr course is within reason. If you are able to sustain it that’s ~$2500 from just working 4hrs on saturdays. [Caution: teaching a workshop for the first time is no small feat, you cannot be over-prepared] You can also try teaching virtually through platforms like Skillshare or even by simply making Youtube videos.

Technology Transfer

Technology transfer refers to when a university turns some scientific discovery into something commercially viable. If you have an idea that is commercially viable you might be able to fund becoming an independent by seeking venture funding. There are plenty of resources on venture funding so I wont go into that. Instead,  I want to talk about kits. Depending on your research selling kits could be a good way to fund your research. To list just a few examples; PublicLab got kickstarted by offering mapping kits, Adafruit was seeded by selling the simple mintyBoost kit and the BackyardBrains crew funds themselves by selling their Spikerbox. Notice that all the examples I gave you the kits developed are tools the researchers use in their work.

How will Brightwork CoResearch make this less confusing?

Academic (and even industry) researchers have a community and support system that makes this funding hurdle a lot less daunting. Brightwork CoResearch is hoping (with your help) to build such a support system for Independent Researchers.

If you’ve managed to become a successful Independent Researcher, we want to hear from you. If only as proof for some one in your field that it’s do able.