Mar 29, 2019 | Respect
According to common opinion, former researchers tend to function really well as entrepreneurs, for a few major reasons. Firstly, researchers are used to uncertainly which is an inherent part of research life: you are a constant subject to other people’s judgment (namely, to editors, reviewers and all types of committees that might have some power over you), you are in constant competition for the same pool of governmental money, your contracts are rather short and often, you are pushed to relocate into a different part of the world – which can, in the worst case, cause that you are never about to settle and just enjoy life. Secondly, researchers typically do not have micromanaging bosses controlling their every move, and they need to plan their time and manage tasks all by themselves. Thirdly, researchers need to grow along with their research field and need to constantly learn, update their current state of knowledge and polish their craft in order to stay on top of things. If you are not familiar with the recent literature in your field, you will simply fail at producing novel research and get yourself out of the game. Also, as a researcher you need to be a little of a visionary: you need to look ahead into what comes next and try to predict general trends in your field. Last but not least, research is all about troubleshooting: you need to take it into account that you will make multiple attempts before you become any successful in what you are trying to do, and a constant feeling of failure is a downside you need to embrace.
Obviously, all these qualities come about useful in entrepreneurship. However, there is one useful quality missing in academia – which turned out to be very painful to me when I went a little bit more into the entrepreneurial direction. Namely, in academia, no one teaches us how to value our time. Especially at early career stages, the salary is standardized and does not depend on how productive you are or on how many hours you spend working on your projects. All the extracurricular activities taken up over the working hours such as organizing events, giving talks or attending conferences, are treated as a part of the general research lifestyle and are not additionally paid. For more, you are expected to dedicate a part of your time for charity activities such as anonymous reviews of research papers of your peers – something that highly engages you intellectually and consumes your time yet is not paid and you will never be able to put this on your CV. In other words, life in academia is a bit like living in a monastery: you get the same plate on your table every day and you are expected to dedicate your soul to the cause, regardless of how big portion of your waking time this research life takes. Preferably, all your waking time.
All this also implies that as an academic, you are completely unaware of how to negotiate terms on the projects you participate in. The assumption is that you should be happy that you even participate at all, especially if some well known senior researchers are also involved because ‘you are doing this for your CV’. At best, you are allowed to negotiate where on the author list your name will eventually appear – and nothing else. If you are trying to explain that you are only willing to dedicate, say, 10 hours of your time to the project, people will look at you just as you were a very shallow and egoistic person. Also, if you nag people who do not answer your emails in time, and try to explain that chronic delays in communication disturb your own working schedule, people usually react with annoyance instead of trying to work on making the dialogue between the two of you more fluent. Even in the Netherlands where people generally value their free time, academia still seems to follow its own rules, and there is very little mutual understanding. So, what is the consequence of this treatment once you happen to leave academia for a while?
We are all good bargaining items. ‘How much am I willing to pay for this bike? It is comfortable but old and scratched, so I will pay 60EUR for it, but this is my dead end and I will not add a penny to that’. ‘This beer costs 3.50EUR in this bar, but the same brand of beer is only 2.50EUR the next door. Why are we still sitting here?’. Yes, all of us know what the good and the bad deal are about. How about evaluating our time then? I can tell you: once I started delving into the free market, I found myself quite helpless about that. What is an hour of my time actually worth it? As a PhD candidate, you are paid maybe 20 EUR gross, and given that you often work for 60-70 hours per week instead of 36 hours as your contract says, in fact, your payment is more in the range of 10 EUR per hour instead. How to then cross this mental barrier associated with being underpaid labor for so many years and ask for 50-100 EUR per hour of consultancy or for an hour of public speaking? Also, pricing different activities are not trivial: there is a difference in price per hour between public lectures, workshops, and coaching sessions: the closer the contact with the audience, the more valuable your time becomes and the more you should claim for it. Or, let us take even more complex problem: let us assume that you are joining a commercial project which happens to be a blockchain project. You are given the following possibilities: you can be paid per hour in cash right now, you can be paid more per hour in tokens associated with this project (which do not have any market value just yet), you can be given shares in the associated company or you can be given some portion of the pool of tokens (which, again, do not have any market value yet). Since this is a new project in a really crazy market, you cannot objectively evaluate the probability that the project will work out – even if the team is credible and has high integrity. Which option would you choose? These are types of dilemmas I need to face on a daily basis right now, and I can tell that every case is equally difficult for me. Some portion of this difficulty comes from the fact that academic life never taught me how much my labor is really worth on the free market, and I need to test it all by trial and error now.
But, even though the prices of figuring out my market value is a bit of a hardship, I already see some positive consequences of this process on my life in general. Time is the only asset you can never redeem. Therefore, you cannot fully respect yourself without respecting your time. Academia, unfortunately, does not teach you that very basic skill – rather the opposite, it tries to convince you that preserving your time is selfish. I feel that I like myself and my own life much more ever since I learned that my contribution can be really valuable to someone and that value has a price tag.