Fiona Meade

Self-employed freelance scientist/researcher.

A geologist with three years research staff experience at the University of Uppsala, Sweden.

This story comes from our What do research staff do next? project, investigating the careers of research staff who moved from research posts to other occupations and employment sectors. You can use these stories to better understand how these researchers transition, what careers they have and their reflections on the transition process and current career paths

Fiona Meade

Research staff experience

I have a somewhat unusual research staff experience, in that for most of the time I was simultaneously employed in a university teaching role in another country.

My research focus was regional geological studies in the North Atlantic area.

After finishing my PhD at Trinity College Dublin (2004–08), I got a contract position as a University Teacher at the University of Glasgow, Scotland. For two years I taught geology full time while keeping in touch with my PhD supervisor, who had moved to the University of Uppsala. Though my post was 100% teaching, we continued to work on papers and grant applications.

In 2010 we wrote a successful grant application, which included a one-year postdoctoral position. At the same time I was offered a one-year extension to my teaching contract. I managed to negotiate running both contracts concurrently – making it a two-year role – 50:50 between the two institutions; based in Glasgow but making regular research trips to visit my colleagues in Sweden.

I left Glasgow in 2012 and continued working as a researcher for the Centre for Experimental Mineralogy, Petrology and Geochemistry (CEMPEG) at the Department of Earth Sciences, Uppsala University until summer 2013.

Fulfilling my research and teaching roles was complicated by a dual career issue: my partner of 11 years is also a geologist and works in the oil industry.

While I enjoyed my teaching position, I found it difficult to maintain an acceptable work-life balance. Due to large class sizes, marking and preparation extended well beyond a ‘regular’ working week. This was considered normal among my colleagues and was the time commitment expected of me too.

This was compounded by the two-body problem, commuting at the weekends to see my partner, who lived in Aberdeen. This encouraged me to leave the University of Glasgow to finally live with him after nine years of long-distance commuting (variously, Dublin–Aberdeen, Glasgow–Houston, Glasgow–Aberdeen). While my career was progressing, I felt my personal life was being held back.

In a further effort to resolve the two-body problem, I negotiated with the group heads in Uppsala to work remotely, based in a home office in Aberdeen, once again visiting Uppsala regularly to meet with colleagues.

My work for Uppsala University involved a complicated tax arrangement: I had to declare my earnings in the UK where I was resident, but still pay some tax in Sweden where my employer was located. Such administrative issues were very time consuming for both me and the university, and it was clear the arrangement would be unsustainable in the long term.

As my university work comprised short-term contracts and minimal security, I decided, later in 2013, to become self-employed – the continued poor job security was balanced out by the opportunity to work under my own terms. This allows me to base myself in Aberdeen and work part time. I’m currently on maternity leave, having had a baby girl in summer 2014.

Transition to self-employment

I began the transition by working remotely as a postdoctoral researcher, gaining the trust of my colleagues as a dependable independent worker. This gave me valuable experience working outside the regular structure of a university department and research group. As I was living in the UK and being paid from Sweden, I had to learn how to file my own tax returns and familiarised myself with the tax system, which stands to me now when running my own accounts.

Gaining an acceptable work-life balance was key for me. If working as a self-employed researcher turned out to be impossible I considered leaving research completely to become a school teacher, or to work in industry. Since I intentionally restricted myself geographically, future options in academia would be limited.

As a self-employed researcher, the uncertainty of academic funding is an obvious challenge as it controls the availability of projects for me to freelance on, but on the other hand I now have the opportunity to tender for projects outside academia.

I have an excellent relationship with the Uppsala group head, Prof. Valentin Troll, who had been very accommodating of my personal situation. My transition to self-employed researcher would not have been possible without his cooperation and support. Indeed my first freelance consultancy job was from CEMPEG.

Current job

So I continue to work as an academic researcher, just no longer within the structure of a university. I bill for my time, working on research projects ‘on demand’. Unlike a postdoctoral researcher, who is often working towards very strict grant/research deliverables, I tend to have a broader remit, which includes co-ordinating grant applications and outreach work as well as basic research. I have also broadened the services I offer, based on skills honed in academia, to include illustration, proofreading and tutoring, opening up my potential client base.

Though very early days, I particularly enjoy the flexibility of my work, and work part time, normally about 50%. I find I have become much more productive in this time and much happier, a combination of a more complete home life and the ability to put work aside for another day if, for example, I have writer’s block.

The only downside is that as I work from a home office, I do not see my collaborators and clients on a regular basis and I sometimes miss the daily social interaction with colleagues at the workplace. However, I find that regular Skype, email and phone conversations do help to fill this gap.

In my experience, university research positions still inevitably require extra teaching and administrative responsibilities, and while I miss teaching, it also means that my work is now completely uninterrupted, increasing my productivity significantly.

Competencies old and new

As writing and research are the main tasks I typically complete day to day, I am using the same skills I developed while working at a university. However, I have had to develop a strong sense of discipline as working from home has strong potential for distraction. Keeping a clear routine has helped. I begin work once my partner leaves for work, and finish when he comes home. It gives me a defined work day despite not having a commute.

I have had to learn new business skills to take care of my accounts and tax affairs. Becoming self-employed is a very straightforward process in the UK, though there are various levels of complexity depending on your VAT status, whether you are employing people and the type of company you have. I currently operate at the most basic, sole-trader level, which reduces my paperwork significantly.

Reflecting on my career path

I feel that as a PhD student I wasn’t really aware of the lack of job security or the cutthroat nature of academia. I sometimes wonder what things would be like had I followed a more industry-inclined career path. However I have no regrets, considering the places I travelled to during my research career (e.g. Iceland, Faroe Islands, USA, Canada) and the experiences I have had. I would not be in the position to work so flexibly without the experience gained in my past roles and the support and encouragement of my colleagues and collaborators. I get to do the science I love, but work in a flexible capacity that enables a very fulfilling home life. I hope to continue to work in this way, diversify my services, and gain more clients, while still enjoying my daughter’s early years to the fullest.

Suggestions and advice

Don’t be afraid to ask for more flexible working arrangements. I was able to run a teaching contract and a research contract concurrently at 50% each to extend my work period at the University of Glasgow, and while working for Uppsala University I successfully arranged to work remotely.