There are two kinds of people in the world: people who think the world can be divided into two kinds of people, and those who don’t. However, I rather like the metaphor of “foxes” versus “hedgehogs.” It was coined by the ancient Greek playwright Archilochus, but it’s famous thanks to an essay by Isaiah Berlin.
Basically, hedgehogs are said to like organizing around a single overarching idea, and foxes like employing lots of diverse strategies and viewpoints. Academia used to have both personality types, but I think it’s becoming more hedgehog-centric right now. Industry, on the other hand, has places for both, and fox-like characteristics are actually pretty handy because you can respond quickly to changes.
Even if you’re basically a hedgehog – and a lot of scientists are, because an absolute, laser-like focus on your research program is a great help in doing things like earning a doctorate – there is one foxy strategy that I highly recommend. You need a side hustle.
In her recent book Body of Work, Pamela Slim describes a side hustle as a second income stream, unrelated to your main job. It should be something you enjoy and are good at, but it’s not a hobby. It’s a second job that can be picked up and put down at will. I think the “paid” part is important, because taking on paid work gives you a perspective that volunteering, or doing hobby work never could. If you have to face deadlines and customer expectations, you will be much more realistic about what the work actually entails, and how much you can do. It will also drive you to learn the things you need to know to be successful.
As Slim says, the side hustle is an excellent way to explore alternate work that may be the nucleus of a new career. I think that even if it isn’t, it can enrich your main career, and it is also an excellent preventative for the sort of crippling existential dread that can come with tight funding and poor job prospects.
As it happens, I started working a side hustle ten years ago, long before I heard of the concept. I had developed an interest in formal knowledge structure, which is also what XHTML and XML code is. So, I began learning how to write standards-compliant Web code. It was very useful for my scientific career. I became my professional society’s Webmaster, and also began giving talks at conferences on information curation and, on the other hand, I also started designing Websites for commercial customers in my spare time.
This turned out to be handy back in my soft-money days when my lab hit a funding dry spell, but the important part was that it taught me that I actually enjoyed the business world and that I was seriously into coming up with solutions for other people’s problems. Which is pretty much my entire job description as a builder of scientific instruments.
A word of caution, though: if you are accepting outside employment in addition to your main job, you must follow your institution’s regulations for doing so. At my old institute, I had to file formal paperwork asking for permission, and could not take any jobs until it was granted. I also had to agree not to do any commercial work on site, and there were some clients who were off-limits for me due to conflict-of-interest problems.
If you’re considering bioinstrumentation, which I hope you are if you’re reading my blog, there are several openings for this kind of career exploration. If you are the writer-type, you might consider offering to freelance as a technical writer for a small or medium-sized scientific device business. They may not have someone on staff who is both a good writer and who really understands benchwork, so your skillset can be quite valuable. It will also make you think much more carefully about how instruments work and how they can go wrong, which is an excellent first step into the business.
If you have some ideas for small gadgets and have been using vector graphic programs like Adobe Illustrator or Corel Draw to make figures for your papers, you have most of the skills you need to start creating small pieces of labware. You will need to train yourself to use a CAD program, but programs such as SketchUp or TinkerCAD are inexpensive to try, and are reasonably intuitive if you are used to vector drawings.
Once you have drawn your new piece of benchtop gear, you can have it printed for you by a 3D printing service. Just upload your CAD file, select your desired material (several kinds of plastic, ceramic, metal, etc.), and you’re good. It’s remarkably inexpensive, and some contract printers like Shapeways, will even help you sell prints of your design. If things go really well, you could even raise money through Kickstarter to tool up for larger scale production.
I have a strong programming bent, so I was pulled into the industry another way–embedded computing. My Web work had led me to learn a lot of PHP code, which is structurally very similar to the code used to program Arduinos and other microcontrollers. These programming environments are very user-friendly. So, if you have an idea for a new electronic controller or sensing device, and you like the idea of coding and of messing around with soldering irons, you might start trying to design open-source electronics for scientists.
If you wanted to make it a business, selling kits of components and instructions would be a nice way to start. If you became somewhat successful at it, a device company might bring you in as a consultant, if not a full-time employee.
Whatever you decide to do, do it seriously. A side hustle is not random dabbling. You should be serious about trying to get better at it. If you don’t, it cannot truly enrich your scientific work, and it cannot teach you what you need to know about a potential new career. It should not be your “Plan B” – if you’re doing it right, it will be a lively and integral part of your Plan A. Don’t sell the work short. Treat it as the deeply challenging endeavor it really should be.