Being an entrepreneur
For my own account! And not just for the Hirsch Index of my supervisor…
An interview with Dr. Kerstin Seyfarth
My interview partner of today shares the fate of many young scientists: she works for a few months here, then only for a mere few weeks there, sometimes even for just a single day! Has the world of science gone mad, does she get completely screwed over with these balkanised repeat fixed-term contracts? And how does Dr. Kerstin Seyfarth react to her own situation? Well, as happy as people are when they are very satisfied with their professional activities. She is not a battered academic on the non-tenure-track from postdoc project to yet another postdoc project, but a freelancer who is offering her services through the portal www.naturwissenschaftliche-beratung.de (Email: email@example.com). Thus she is not even aiming for anything else but to work in different projects for different employers. Her strengths lie in the consultation of companies regarding hygiene issues, which can be tackled with microbiological techniques, particularly within the GMP (good manufacturing practice) environment.
Dr. Seyfarth, I didn´t know that there is an established freelancer market for your field of expertise?
That´s because there isn´t one, there was not a queue in front of my door straight away. It was new for many companies that these kinds of issues can be addressed with external staff- or that these topics would be relevant for them in the first place! The feedback was mostly positive and I got my first contacts.
How did you get to these contacts?
Some through cold calls. Trade fairs are also very interesting.
As visitor or with your own booth?
I would never go for my own booth. As freelancer I am practically a lone wolf, so it would not be handy at all. I rather take the freedom as visitor and actively search for the relevant contacts. Also, the companies, my customers, are there with their own booths and hardly ever send coworkers to the trade fair to shop around for the services of other companies.
How did you come up with the idea to work as freelancer, while up to that point most of these things were done by permanent staff within the companies themselves?
I was partially unemployed or on temporary contracts after my PhD until a personnel consultant brought up the idea. I always found the thought of working self-employed and tried it.
Just go for it? As your own boss?
Of course I started with quite some research about potential customers, I also wrote a business plan. But it was not “just go for it” to me, just doing something because you are acutely bored. I couldn´t accept failure easily, having to tell myself it simply didn´t work out. I think it boils down to the most important skill I brought from university: stamina.
What do you say about the financial risk to work self-employed? If you can´t get any customers you´re technically speaking still your own boss, but without any money!
It´s essentially the same risk that you also have when you´re on temporary contracts during the first years after university. I have the advantage of a lower risk to trip into the specialist-pitfall.
What do you mean exactly?
Well, I mean if you have worked too long on a highly specialised topic and thereby move yourself into a professional dead end street. With all of my different projects at hand I have to work myself into completely new topics all the time, the overview you get is enormous.
Who is giving the directions, you or the market?
It´s an explicit goal and enrichment of my professional path, that I can- and must- learn many different things. However, in case of a customer inquiry which is too far outside of my core competence, I would refer to a colleague from that field. It´s anyway extremely important to build up a professional network.
A purely hypothetical question: imagine, ten years from now, you just step down from a speaker´s desk. Thundering applause, the chancellor is handing you a bouquet of flowers, being visibly moved. What did you speak about?
What do you mean?
Well, if you manage to achieve something really great in a certain area or if you can carry away your audience so well when speaking about a specific topic- which would it be?
Biogas, that´s really got enormous potential.
So you could imagine to move your core expertise into quite different fields over time, away from the topics around hygiene? That´s what my strange question was boiling down to.
Yes, indeed. But it actually isn´t that far away, as I am closely following the topic alongside.
How did your environment react to your professional choice?
Most people can´t imagine it for themselves but find it great that I have the courage to try it.
And how do people react to you, being a young woman? You´re a pretty rare species on the freelancer market, right?
Indeed, most freelancing natural scientists seem to run away from their employer, most are fed up with their bosses. That starts to happen with 40 at the earliest, rather later. I am by far the youngest freelancer I know.
And as a woman? Do you get treated differently than you male colleagues?
I never realised that, but I wouldn´t welcome any form of discrimination, positive or negative.
Dr. Seyfarth, we wish you good luck on your alternative career path- or better: your own career path!
Do you want to learn more about the topic? You might be interested in our workshop Startup basics for scientists or our article The self-employed scientist.