science life

The freelance postdoc experiment

We are all well aware of how difficult is to get a permanent position in academia. The employers are very cautious as the tenured position comes with a very strong contractual stability and in some country with immortality (as civil service status). The postdocs work longer and longer hours to face the increasing competition. Academia needs more and more advanced skills that can only be acquired with years of experience but it refrains from rewarding it with a permanent job. An interesting alternative is that of the academic freelancer as proposed by Katie Rose Guest Pryal here, as a mean to alleviate the intense and extenuating life of a postdoc or not-tenured academic.

We have already started such an experiment, as I have hired a recently graduate and unemployed colleague to perform some theoretical calculations that we need for our experiments. The difference with respect to a normal collaboration is that this time I am paying him by the hour and he is performing the work choosing his time and without being based in London, just coming for a meetings to discuss the results. All the other discussions are done by Skype, email and probably soon in Slack.

In this way we can reward skills and actual hours of work, and potentially we can resolve personal issues such as family relocation etc… Would this work also for experimental work? It is hard to tell, but I could imagine having a setup in my house and performing experiments on demand as a freelancer does. Shared facilities similar to maker and hacker space could also make lab space and equipment more accessible.

Sooner or later we will have to invent a new way to develop science, a research 2.0, and it may start by embracing new concept such as remote and freelance work.

A new lab to encourage creativity

Creativity is often neglected in academic curricula, mainly because nobody really knows how to teach it. I believe in the “messy play” approach.

I often try to retrace the steps that led to conceiving our scientific experiments and I usually reach the conclusion that it happened when thinking about something else, during periods of intellectual stimulation, often triggered by busy research activity.
As an experimentalist I believe that you need to be making and doing, fiddle in the lab, ask yourself simple questions and link concepts together before you can have that great idea. Creativity escapes traditional frontal teaching (and teacher-centred teaching), instead it requires dirty hands and individual (student-centred) effort.

With this idea in mind Matthew Howard and I have founded the Wheatstone Innovation Lab, a space for students to experiment, research unsupervised and train their creativity. Named after Charles Wheatstone, the legendary scientist working in King’s College London (in the same lab!) it is designed to promote disruptive thinking. Think about it as the garage where Steve Job and Steve Wozniak invented the first Mac or the shed where Marie Curie discovered radioactivity.

We have been fortunate to be supported by the faculty of natural and mathematical sciences of King’s College London and in particular by Mike and Rosie who strongly believed in this idea, and now we are preparing the first activities: makehatons, researchatons, hackatons!

If you are in King’s check it out here!