The gig economy and STEM work

The impact of the gig economy is pervasive, including technical and scientific work. A recent publication in Nature highlighted some of the impacts that those graduating with Ph.D.’s face seeking jobs and their role in the emerging independent freelance workforce. The growth of this kind of work is in part a consequence of the continuing dilemma that faces those who pursue a research career thinking they’ll enter the academy as academic researchers, but finding the doors of the academy narrow if not largely closed.

Here’s a summary of that Nature news article.

Article Citation: “Flexible working: Science in the gig economy”
Roberta Kwok, Nature 550, 419–421 (19 October 2017) doi:10.1038/nj7676-419a
Published online 18 October 2017

The article highlighted a number of different people in different roles with respect to the scientific gig economy.  The two below are relatively recent Ph.D.

Caline Koh-Tan: The freelance science consultant

Freelance scientist, Singapore.

PhD in cardiovascular genetics at the University of Glasgow, UK. 1st postdoc cardiovascular research; 2nd postdoc veterinary sciences


  • academic-proofreading projects
  • advice on methods, tests and anything involved with running a lab
  • contracted to write guide to understanding chemotherapy for patients
  • freelance genomics consultant to startups

“I also put data mining and biostatistical-analysis skills on my profile. But about half of the job invitations so far have been from students looking for someone to do their class assignments. I will not accept those jobs.”

Rate: US$30 an hour, but flexible

Cecile Menard: The part-time freelancer

Independent land-surface modeller; research associate, University of Edinburgh, UK; and member of a small virtual research organization for freelance scientists.

You can register as a freelancer for tax purposes online (

Observation: Stressful for those needing/wanting steady income

Issue:having access to research instrumentation & computational resources e.g., supercomputers. This can be managed by building, leveraging professional networks.

Working three days a week on a project to reduce uncertainties in snow models,. Complements that with two days a week for freelance work.

Part-time job now considered a “safety net”…..

Take aways:

  1. research careers have been affected by ‘projectification’
  2. online-economy practices are spreading into conventional employment.
  3. routine research tasks are being outsourced -e.g., categorization; database clean up; data set construction, validation; data wrangling/scripting
  4. in parts of the UK, Europe and Scandinavia 1 person in 40 is getting more than half of their income from online crowd-work platforms
  5. In the US 16% of the workforce us engaged in the gig economy (gig work plus independent contractors, freelancers, on-call workers, temporary-help agency workers or people who are contracted out in their main job) up from 10% ten years ago (Lawrence Katz, Harvard, Alan Krueger, Princeton, economists)

Bottom line: We need new institutions to provide workers’ compensation or unemployment insurance, with independent workers paying into a fund that they could draw from in down times.  This is a call for entrepreneurs to invent the social benefit structures needed for the 21st century economy

About longpd

I'm a senior scholar at Georgetown University, in CNDLS, a technologist and lapsed evolutionary biologist with an incandescent passion for new modes of seeing and learning.
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