Feb 19, 2019 | Real choices, fake choices

Isn’t that Murphy’s law? I am getting the impression that the whole rest of the world is consequently trying to prevent me from finishing my thesis. All of a sudden, since I started wrapping up my last chapter, research journals noticed my existence and started flooding me with papers for a peer review. All of a sudden, many people started poking me to get involved in some initiatives, from some research collaboration to co-creating commercial projects. All of a sudden, I get invited to speak at events. So many devils speaking into your ear at a time… 

Coming back to the existential crisis I am going through right now, at some point I realized that the decision on whether or not to stay in academia – or in other words, whether to do research or focus on commercial projects instead – is not the real choice I need to make right now. In fact, the real choice is: how much am I willing to risk? Let me explain. 

There are multiple models of labor. When you think about it, at first sight, the choice you have at the end of your PhD is one of the following three scenarios: (1) taking a Postdoc in your field and staying in academia, (2) taking a job in a related field but outside academia, (3) starting your own company. But in fact, all these three scenarios mean betting on just one project, or on one revenue stream. In most cases, taking a Postdoc means that you become a manager of your own Postdoc project (plus some auxiliary tasks such as supervising students). This project might work out or not, as this is the nature of all research projects. Academia is very competitive, and if your main research project molded for two or three years does not work out, it might effectively block your career for good. Taking your first job outside academia usually means taking a punt and risking that your new workplace is what you actually imagined and that you live well with your new boss who might have completely different expectations from your previous employers. Then, in case your expectations do not match the reality, your job can easily become a hell. Lastly, the vast majority of startups fail, so if you are going in that direction, you need to be prepared to become a serial failure before you ever develop financial safety. Which might never happen, after all. To sum up, whichever of these three scenarios you choose, you are taking a massive personal risk. 

Well, why am I giving this catastrophic yet true picture of the traditional employment in here? This is because, at some point, I realized that there is an alternative to all the above; you can learn how to manage risk and diversify your professional activities in a way that you will always stay on the side of personal freedom and financial safety. Namely, you can determine your personal strengths and find a number of projects in which you can contribute as a team member or an advisory board, as you represent skills that are complementary to the current team members. For instance, if you are a good technical writer, you can find a project in which the team has already developed a product and now needs to write documentation for this product. Then, you can make an arrangement that you will receive a small share of the whole project. If you are a researcher, this could mean playing the role of a minor collaborator in multiple research projects and receiving a minor co-authorship at each one of these projects. If you are an entrepreneurial person, this means getting involved in multiple advisory boards and becoming a small shareholder in each one of these projects. 

This approach is beneficial for a few reasons. Firstly, it makes your life more diverse and allows you to meet multiple people representing multiple environments, rather than sticking to one and the same small team for years. Secondly, it reduces stress. Some projects will not work for independent reasons, and holding small shares in many projects means that you can allow yourself for failure from time to time as other, more successful projects will keep you afloat. Thirdly, since you are involved in multiple projects, you have many more opportunities to observe what actually happens behind the scenes, which actions are important and pay off in the long run and which steps turn out to be a spurious effort instead, what can go wrong, how to choose the right people to work with… With time, you are naturally becoming a truly valuable contributor. Since you are learning about other people’s mistakes in the process, you will also be much more successful in case you eventually take a decision to lead your own initiative one day. Lastly, this is a good solution in case you do not want to feel exposed; as a leader of a company or an organization, you will always remain a sort of a public figure, while as a leader’s whisper you are still in the center of events yet almost non-noticeable – so that you can lead a peaceful life and keep your privacy.

For some reason, most people do not consider this career path; some of them never really thought of such an opportunity, while some other people are simply afraid of multitasking or extensive networking. Yet, this path can be a truly fulfilling one, especially if you are a type of a person who is not a control freak, and who enjoys the idea of being a support to other people and watching them and their projects grow. Is this a way for me? Time to find out. 

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