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Science Matters: Free Agency

What leads individuals to pursue a career in freelancing? What do they find most appealing about free-agent work in the scientific industry? In order to better understand the positives of contract scientific employment, Rich Pennock interviewed four former and current freelance scientists.

by Rich Pennock
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A Positive Career Choice

During the past few years, there has been a steady increase in the number of self-employed “free agents” in the United States. According to a survey conducted by Kelly Services, Inc., a workforce staffing solutions company, 26 percent of the nation’s working population is freelancing, up from 19 percent a few years ago.

While company downsizing leads many individuals to consider freelancing, others have worked as freelancers for most of their lives, despite having never been laid off from an organization. So, what leads individuals to pursue a career in freelancing? What do they find most appealing about free-agent work in the scientific industry? In order to better understand the positives of contract scientific employment, I interviewed four former and current freelance scientists.

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Each freelance employee found project work through Kelly Scientific Resources (KSR), a specialty service of Kelly Services, which has provided staffing and placement services for science professionals since 1995.

Summer Watterson, a molecular biologist from Cleveland, has worked with KSR in the past to find short-term contract positions. Amanda Michaelis, a recent college graduate from Lees Summit, Missouri, has begun her scientific career as a lab technician, an assignment she obtained with the help of a KSR recruiter.

Karen Demby, a current resident of Las Vegas, has typically worked in the pharmaceutical industry and has used KSR to find freelance work in the past, while Clare Gerstein, of Libertyville, Illinois, is currently working in the biotechnology and medical device industries.

Rich Pennock:  First, what led you to pursue a career as a free agent—a freelance worker with or without the support of a temporary staffing agency? Is this a planned career track or one that you “stumbled” upon?

Summer Watterson: This is a career track that I chose because I was interested in pursuing a position with a certain company. The company worked only with staffing firms at the time. Because of that first experience, I was willing to freelance again.

Amanda Michaelis:  I had just graduated from college and was looking for lab employment, with no particular field in mind. I was willing to pursue positions on my own, but I greatly appreciated the help that a staffing agency provided.

Karen Demby: While I have always preferred having a full-time, salaried position, Kelly Scientific Resources helped me find contract assignments with well-respected companies, which at times led to direct employment after my contract assignments were completed.

Clare Gerstein: After graduating with a B.S. from the University of Iowa, I desired a position in a lab on a temporary basis in order to have the greatest flexibility for my eventual return to the Chicago area. After arriving back home, I worked on a contract basis at a major pharmaceutical company before finding full-time employment as a general lab aide at a major academic research center.

At first I was pleased with this turn of events, thinking that a direct position was the best choice for me. With time, though, I found myself dissatisfied with the breadth and scope of my work. Working through staffing firms such as KSR has afforded me the chance to explore different fields and environments, diversifying my skill set and broadening my ability to contribute to the design and optimization of experimental planning.

Rich Pennock: What are some typical roles that you have had as a KSR contract employee?

Summer Watterson: My roles were primarily in laboratory-based bench work. One was temporary for only a predetermined amount of time and the other was temp-to-hire.

Amanda Michaelis: I have had only one— as a lab technician. My job duties include running samples through a number of instruments that test for fuel, viscosity, metals, and water. Some computer work and data entry were also required.

Karen Demby: My roles with KSR were all laboratory and pharmaceutical based. I have a B.S. in microbiology and I am passionate about either working in the laboratory or performing research. When I lived in California, pharmaceutical companies were plentiful and the opportunities were excellent. While living there, I worked as a process development scientist and a production associate with KSR.

Clare Gerstein: I have had just one assignment through KSR, as a research associate in an exploratory group with a major biotechnology and medical device company. It has proven to be such a successful match that the assignment has been extended twice and will likely continue for some time.

Rich Pennock: What are the benefits of a freelance career?

Summer Watterson: I think the best reason to freelance is that you have the ability to check out different career tracks. It is great to freelance when you are in a transition period with your career. It can really help give you direction. If you find work that you love, you can continue to pursue those types of positions. Meanwhile, if you find work that you never want to do again, just fulfill your contract and move on.

Amanda Michaelis: Freelancing provides some freedom to explore many career options. For example, if one place is not suitable for you, staffing firms may be able to find another position that might fit better. This kind of work definitely has the potential to offer individuals both variety and experience in different types of career fields.

Karen Demby: Generally, benefits of freelance work is higher pay.

Clare Gerstein: Most freelancers have more flexibility than typical full-time employees have. This flexibility is particularly good for people who are entering or returning to the workforce, or who are interested in working part-time or on a project basis. Contract work also creates an opportunity for employees to provide specific skills or services to various companies around the country and the world.

Rich Pennock: Finally, how do you view the future of free-agent work?

Summer Watterson: I will definitely do free-agent work again during the next transitional phase of my life. Free-agent work is especially useful when you are moving, searching for a short-term position, or looking for new or different types of work opportunities in your life.

Amanda Michaelis: I think it has serious potential, especially for new graduates. With contract work, both well-experienced and inexperienced employees alike have freedom to explore many opportunities in the work force. Contract work also helps new employees ease into the career world. Through contract work, recent graduates have a mediator to help guide them through the unsure and new “real world” experiences such as interviews, resumes, and company policies.

Karen Demby: I think people will continue to look for help from staffing firms such as KSR as the economy continuously shifts. The opportunities that KSR provides can be the edge that people need in order to begin employment with different companies.

Clare Gerstein: I think that, for many people, freelance work can make a lot of sense, especially during transitional phases of life, when people desire a high degree of flexibility.

Free agency has positively impacted the lives and careers of scientists during the past few decades. As individuals continuously pursue new career interests, they may want to consider freelance work. Free agents not only have opportunities to work with some of the most well-known organizations in the world, but they are also able to expand their skill sets in order to become more marketable as they pursue future careers. Now, more than ever before, it seems that free agency will help many scientists obtain success well into the future.

Rich Pennock is vice president of Kelly Services, Inc., a world leader in workforce management services and human resources solutions. For more information, visit www.kellyservices. com. Rich can also be followed on Twitter at