Andrew Thaler

CEO at Blackbeard Biologic

My Two Years as a ‘Rogue Scientist’

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Image: Shaun of the Dead (2004)

“So why did you decide to leave science?”

The first time someone asked me The Question, I had no idea how to respond. There I was, giving an invited talk at a major research institute about my fieldwork. I was about as deep into the bowels of science as you can get, and yet, to some, my lack of university affiliation meant I wasn’t part of the club.

By the 10th time I was asked The Question, I had my answer polished and ready: “I didn’t leave science, I am a postdoctoral fellow of ‘rogue science’ at the cutting edge of an emergent movement of independent researchers.”

Sure, it was cutesy and trite, but it struck the right chord. The truth is that, no matter how many times you get asked why you “left science,” it’s demoralizing. There’s no way around the fact that whoever is doing the asking is declaring that you are no longer considered part of the scientific community.

At some point, however, I discovered that The Question could also be liberating. No matter what path you take through the postdocalyptic wilderness -- unless it’s the traditional academic route -- there will always be a subset of senior professors whose definition of science will be too narrow to include you. You don’t, and can’t, fit their mold, and nothing you do will make your work “science” in their eyes. Once you realize that, you can stop struggling to fit someone else’s ideal of what a scientist is, and cut your own path.

It’s going to take a while to find your footing of course.

Going rogue -- that is, pursuing science without an academic safety net-- is not an easy thing to do. It took me almost two years to create something that’s just marginally sustainable. You may have to wait tables, sling coffee, head back to the lumberyard, or -- gasp! -- write copy for an NGO (the latter of which triggered my first experience with The Question). I wouldn’t have made it through the first six months if I hadn’t found a group of other scientists, environmentalists, and conservation professionals going through the same experience. You can find like-minded supporters through listservs and meetups or, if it comes to it, start your own group.

One of the greatest challenges facing a rogue scientist is lack of access -- in particular, access to the scientific literature. Without that access, it’s nearly impossible to continue building scientific currency in the form of peer-reviewed publications and conference presentations. Nothing will will turn a young scientist into an advocate for open-access faster than going rogue and losing all your institutional journal subscriptions. It can be a crushing blow, cutting off not only your ability to research new topics but also your lifeline to state-of-the-art scholarship.

The fallout from losing that access should not be underestimated. There are workarounds -- such as emailing someone who can share access with you -- but they are not ideal (and, in some cases, may also be illegal). Camping out in a university library may grant you temporary access, but only so long as the institution lets you stay there.

Barring pursuit of a full-time job in academia, I see two reasonable (and legal) solutions to the access problem:

  • You could teach a few courses as an adjunct, gaining access to university resources while your contract is in effect, but adjuncting is unreliable and unpredictable work.
  • A better option is to establish an unpaid position at a university. Titles vary but are often some flavor of “visiting” or “guest” scientist -- positions I like to refer to as “academic adjacent.” Typically those unpaid positions allow you to compete for grants that require an institutional affiliation and provide you with the credentials necessary to participate at conferences and professional societies. You might also find yourself with access to lab space, an invaluable resource for continuing to make progress on your own research -- provided you’ve been able to pull in grants, which I only began to do near the end of my second year of wandering through the postdoc wilderness.

There’s a catch to either approach, and it’s a delicate one. Rogue scientists need to make money, and these positions may help you maintain your credentials and advance your career, but they won’t keep you fed. For that, you need contract work (part-time or full-time employment) elsewhere.

You may run into trouble, however, if you bring your contract work to campus. Depending on how your temporary university position is structured, you may not be permitted to use campus resources for any contract work, especially if you find yourself consulting for NGOs or political groups and are affiliated with a public university. Read through the university's guidelines, make sure you understand all the terms of your unpaid position, and, when in doubt, leave your contract work at home.

I generally try to keep the self-employed consultant aspect of my persona as separate as possible from the “academic adjacent” part of my career.

These are strategies that have worked well for me specifically, and for other colleagues more generally, but if there’s any one overarching theme of the “Rogue Scientists Guide to Surviving the Postdocalypse,” it’s that the academy is in flux. There is no single perfect route forward. We all have to carve our own paths through the wilderness. The most important thing to remember is that you are not alone.

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