Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Free to Do What I Want: Opinion

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Free to Do What I Want: Opinion

Article excerpt

As a freelance scientist, Sian Lawson works when she wants, without all the admin: how many of her peers will join her?

I once came as close as a British academic can get to tenure. I had an endowed senior lectureship, was head of my own research group and had an established network of collaborators and postgraduates working with me. For a lot of people who are struggling to get academic positions, this is the holy grail - but I gave it all up, despite wanting to keep a career in a scientific field.

A few years ago this move would probably have been described with melodramatic cliches ("I did the unthinkable ..."): the idea of a freelance scientist was literally a joke. Put the term into YouTube and you get comedian Julian Barrett announcing "I'm a freelance scientist" to much hilarity to underpin the avant-garde nature of a vodka advert, making it clear to advertising standards that the claims being made were too ludicrous to be seen as false advertising. But academia is a changing profession and as it morphs and buckles under current pressures, we're a growing presence.

So why did I leave? It wasn't that I didn't like my job; I just didn't like the direction it was taking. How do you progress blue-sky research while taking the incremental steps necessary to fund it? How do you teach large numbers of students whose capacity for self-directed learning has been undermined by our attempts to keep them student-survey satisfied, as befits their new-found status as fee-paying "clients"?

These days I still lecture and research, but without the administrative burden. At 5pm, or simply when it is sunny, I turn off the computer, ride the horses and walk the dog. I am well paid and have a great lifestyle. I realise, however, that if this trend continues and too many academics follow suit, the consequences for higher education will not be positive. In that sense, I appreciate that it is a rather selfish decision - you guys continue to hold the fort, I'll pop in and out as a guest lecturer for exorbitant fees, or as a consultant on your hard-earned grant. I will even name your university on my papers - after all, it is offering me journal access, and I have so much time to write - and so much to write about - that I can accept private funding and undercut full economic costing by a factor of 10. …

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