Earning a living as an independent academic and author: here’s what I’ve learned in my first year

It’s just over one year since I stepped down from my full time professorship at the University of Northampton in order to work independently as a consulting scientist and author. It was a move precipitated by a number of factors, not least that after 25 years at that institution I needed some new challenges. I was starting to feel stale, jaded, and not a little burned out.

Since making the decision to leave the university (where I still hold a Visiting Professorship) Karin and I have down-sized our lives by selling our house, disposing of possessions that we didn’t need (though there’s still a lot in storage in the UK) and moving to Denmark, where we are renting a small apartment for the time being. Karin is Danish and, yes, both Brexit and the pandemic have played a role in our decision making.

A few people have asked me recently how I’m managing to earn a living as an independent academic so I thought I’d share with you my experiences so far. I’ve looked at my various sources of income over the past year and put them into four broad categories: Conservation, Research, Education and Writing. Then I worked out the proportion of my income that can be attributed to each area, keeping in mind that there’s overlap between them. This is the result:

Conservation-related activities accounted for the largest fraction, about 46% of my income. This includes direct advisory and consulting, on pollinator-related projects but also on wider, biodiversity-related topics. For example I worked with the Stanwick Lakes nature reserve in Northamptonshire, advising on how best to enhance and manage the site for pollinators.

It’s a site that I know very well but which was set up mainly because it’s important bird habitat. Seeing it from a pollinator’s perspective allowed me to make suggestions for improving the amount and timing of floral resources, opportunities for ground nesting bees, and so forth.

I’ve also been working with the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (Wallingford) on a biodiversity strategy for the European railway network which I’ll write more about later this year when the final report is published.

Also included in the Conservation category are the many, many talks (mainly online) that I’ve done for various natural history, gardening and beekeeping groups, plus training sessions that I’ve done with ecological consultancies, estates departments, and local government. There’s a list of those available on my training and public speaking page.

Research projects funded by UK and international agencies accounted for about 32% of my income. Some of these are projects that started when I was still employed at the University of Northampton and which are paying for my time (including completing the supervision of my remaining PhD students), others are new ones. You can find a list of present and past projects on this page of my website.

I am a partner on several funding applications that are in the process of being assessed and I’ll report back when we know if they have been successful.

As well as my own research I’m also reviewing grant applications for funding organisations, advising research groups and departments on their research strategies, and working with the Turkish Journal of Botany to promote the work it publishes to a wider international audience.

Education is the third, very broad category that includes things such as external examining (both taught and research degrees), assessing staff applications for promotion, and doing the occasional online lecture. It accounted for 11% of my income, less than I might have expected given that I’ve spent over 30 years teaching in higher education, educational consulting is quite a crowded field and unless you’re a high-profile specialist, it doesn’t pay well.

Writing accounted for about 11% of my income. As well as royalties from my book Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society, I earned money from writing for magazines such as BBC Gardeners’ World Magazine, New Scientist, British Wildlife, and Bees & Other Pollinators Quarterly.

In addition I’ve done some advisory work for publishers, including reviewing text and making suggestions for a forthcoming children’s book about bees and other pollinators, and some paid manuscript editing.

At the moment the balance of my work feels about right; I’ll never stop being a scientist so working on research projects is, and always will be, an important part of my life. I wish that it was possible to earn more from writing, but outside of the best-seller lists it’s difficult for authors to earn a decent living. However I’m working on my next book at the moment, as is Karin whose Essential Companion to Talking Therapy has been well received.

Working independently in this way, and putting together what amounts to a “portfolio career”, is not for everyone. It’s hard work and there are lots of uncertainties along the way, especially with regard to month-to-month consistency of one’s income. However a career as a university academic has prepared me for this in ways which I’m only just beginning to discover. Aside from the obvious subject expertise, familiarity with literature searching, and confidence when giving talks, the uncertainties associated with the high proportion of unsuccessful funding applications and navigating the (often contradictory) requirements of peer reviews has been extremely valuable experience. And of course I’ve established a large and diverse network of colleagues with whom I can collaborate and go to for advice. The diversity of paid work with which I’m engaged, plus the pro bono activities such as peer reviewing for journals, ensures that there’s never a dull day. I have absolutely no regrets about this latest step in my career!

If you’re interested in working with me or want to discuss any aspect of what I’ve written about, please do get in touch via my Contact page.

11 thoughts on “Earning a living as an independent academic and author: here’s what I’ve learned in my first year

  1. David Holland

    Out of interest why the pandemic make you move to Denmark? I don’t think the UK handled it that well but I was not aware that Denmark was so much better that moving there would be a good idea. BTW I liked your book “Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society” sadly I guess that field is never going to be a best seller.

    Reply
    1. jeffollerton Post author

      The pandemic made us reconsider our work/life priorities and I really didn’t want to teach my students online. Those were the main considerations.

      Glad you liked the book!

      Reply
  2. naturalistoncall

    I relished reading – and re-reading – Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society. Thanks for sharing the economics of your new pathway – I’m glad to hear that you’re enjoying the journey.

    Reply
    1. jeffollerton Post author

      Thanks Robert, glad that you enjoyed it. It’s a very new way of working for me and writing about it in this way helps me to figure out what it is that I’m doing, and why.

      Reply
      1. robertcday

        I suppose the question on everyone’s lips (the one that people are always too polite to ask) is: are you making as much money this way as you were before?

      2. jeffollerton Post author

        Ha ha – I did wonder if anyone would ask! So it’s a complicated question to answer. In absolute terms I am earning less, which commonly happens when going self-employed and, in effect, setting up a new business.

        But in relative terms we are better off financially because of the changes we made to our lifestyle. In addition, I work fewer hours, take proper lunch breaks, rarely work at the weekend, I’m much less stressed, much more present and in the moment (according to my wife) and much happier. And all of that is worth more than money!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s