Doing research on the side while working a full-time job

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and associated economic decline, I wasn’t able to get a research position for after my PhD. I’ll be starting as a patent examiner in August. My preference would have been to work in a research position for 5 to 15 years before retiring early and then doing whatever research I want to. While I will continue looking for research positions, given the current state of the economy, I recognize I might be in this job for years.

Consequently, I’m looking for best practices if one wants to conduct research on the side while working at a full time job. Several people at this forum are probably in a similar position and can offer advice based on their experience.

Here’s an outline of my current plan:

The most important thing may be to scale back my research goals. My time now is fairly limited, so I’m planning on having only two projects until next year. (Might be a good idea to limit your number of active projects anyway!)

Once I’m able to, I’ll switch to the “4/10 plan”, a work schedule that has four 10-hour days per week. I find that I work best if I dedicate an entire day to a particular task. This will allow me to dedicate 1-3 days per week to research rather than 1-2.

The USPTO actually offers a fair amount of time off (26 days of my choice per year for new employees, plus 10 federal holidays). I’m planning to use this time to attend conferences, visit collaborators, and otherwise do research. Overall, in combination with the 4/10 work schedule, I’ll have 180 days without work per year (vs. 128 if I work a conventional 5 day/week schedule).

I’m planning my schedule to save as much time as possible. E.g., I’ve long been a fan of commuting by bike as a way to get exercise in an otherwise unproductive time. By using parallelism, batching, and planning one could save a fair amount of time in the long run.

I’m at an age where many people start having kids. I’ve decided to forgo this as I can’t justify the time expenses.

Above I wrote about plans in terms of time management, but I suspect that managing my motivation is going to be similarly important. A major concern of mine is that working 40 hours a week is going to tire me out and make me not feel like doing research. I’m not sure exactly how to handle this aside from giving myself adequate rest.

Any advice or experiences are welcome.

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All the best… :slight_smile:

Great topic @btrettel, I’m glad you’ve started a discussion on this.

I should start by saying that I don’t think the community has really developed a set of best practices yet - despite independent research dating back to antiquity everybody’s approach seems to be different and there seem to be various successful models. The key question has always been how to earn an income while doing independent research as most salary grants require university affiliation. Your choice of doing research on the side of another job seems to be the most common and reliable option these days, but I’ve also seen people getting funding from philanthropy (from either crowdfunding or private individuals), venture investment, project grants and consulting (IGDORE is currently in the process of starting up our research consultancy).

A few comments on the personal situation described:

  • Patent examining seems like a good full-time job to have in parallel to research (and of course, you are in good company),
  • If you are planning to continue applying for mainstream University positions or fellowships then I’d advise focusing your initial research at easy ways of getting onto publications as a middle author, probably by assisting other researchers with parts of their projects (if you have any unpublished thesis chapters/experiments you should also publish those). One or two middle author publications/year should keep your applications competitive for the next few years, and although a career break is usually viewed negatively on academic applications I expect there will be greater acceptance of this during the post-COVID recovery,
  • Even if you end up in a situation where you are no longer focusing on getting papers to support applications, I’d recommend continuing to maintain some collaborations with University researchers. I think this is important for keeping your research standards on par with mainstream academia,
  • Depending on your work style, you could consider working a few hours on research a few evenings a week rather than trying to concentrate all your research onto a couple of days (perhaps on days you know your day job will be light). See here for a description of this strategy by somebody I regard as having done very productive research while also holding down a job,
  • Planning to regularly work 7 full days sounds like a recipe for burn out. Take some time off each week!
  • Do you like going to conferences and visiting collaborators? Travelling costs time and money. Since moving to Brazil I’ve found that I can effectively collaborate remotely via email and skype. The in-person serendipitous connections of conferences are lost, but I’ve also made valuable connections through being active in the right forums, slack/facebook groups, etc. If a group doesn’t exist that fits you interest you can always make one. (I think that the Ronin Institute is also experimenting with virtual water cooler session for their researchers),
  • In terms of motivation, remember that the benefit of being an independent researcher is that you can focus on the parts of research you like and/or think are important, rather than what is required for career advancement as a University employee. If you don’t like doing peer reviews then decline them. If you just want to get your work published then submit directly to specialist journals rather than chasing impact factor. However, I would suggest setting clear goals for what you want to achieve with your research, otherwise, it’s easy to lose focus.
  • Do literature or computational based work rather than experimental research if possible. It generally seems impractical to buy and maintain research equipment as an independent researcher. If you do need to do experimental work then this is the ideal case for collaboration.
  • Outsourcing can be a good idea for some tasks even if you have to pay for this yourself. I’ve hired technical proof-readers on Upwork recently and it’s saved me days of time (although my spelling and grammar is terrible, so others may not get as much mileage). I’d never have considered doing this while working as a postdoc.

[I ended up writing rather more comments on your situation than I expected and have to go, but I’ll probably add some reflections on my own experiences as a consultant and independent researcher later.]

I’m really interested to hear from any other forum users who also have experience as independent researchers. If we get a few interesting responses we could even put together a 10 Simple Rules for Independent Research style article :smiley:


Thanks for your thoughts, particularly on my personal situation. I’ve been busy preparing for my new job and PhD defense so I haven’t had a good opportunity to reply until now. I’ve thought about your thoughts on and off since you posted. If you have the time to write more on your own experiences, I’m interested.

The comment by Peter Hurford is the sort of information I’m looking for. I agree with him that I need a certain amount of time to get started. But I doubt that I’d be able to do deep work at night after working my day job; that day is spent. So I think it would be better to reduce the number of days that I do paid work. Today I started thinking about working three 13 hour 20 minute days per week. I started looking into the research on alternative work schedules. To my surprise, it doesn’t seem that working a “concentrated” schedule has negative effects (the total hours per week is kept constant), though I’m not confident about the quality of the studies.

Still, perhaps I can categorize tasks into shallow vs. deep and do the shallow tasks on weekdays? If I only have about 2 hours, I can’t get much done unless it’s something shallow like transcribing data from the literature (which is so shallow that I can do it while watching TV, etc., though I worry I introduce errors doing that).

I am concerned about overworking myself. I don’t intend to work 7 days a week. I find much of my research energizing, but not all. So I’m planning a fair amount of rest time to balance all the work. The amount needed and type of rest, however, is not clear for me at present.

With respect to publication to help get a traditional position, if needed I can get 3 more papers from my dissertation. I also have several incomplete projects, at least one of which can be completed without too much trouble. (The vast majority of these are single author papers.) I’m not too worried about publication if I want to get a research position, but I think this is worth thinking about.

You’re right that travel is expensive. I’m planning at most one conference a year at this point, maybe zero now that I think more about it. I’m mostly ignored by others at conferences, but I find them useful to meet people. It’s not clear to me what could replace conferences for me aside from contacting researchers individually. The few online groups on fluid dynamics focus almost exclusively on education rather than research. Perhaps if I started my own this situation could change? In response to COVID, I’ve been thinking about contacting a professional organization I’m a member of about organizing a virtual seminar series, but I haven’t done that yet.

My research so far has been theoretical and computational, using primarily data from the literature. But I am realizing that I can do some limited experiments, if I keep the costs down. I consider myself an expert on scale modeling, which can cut costs by a lot. I also find that simple methods often are sufficient. In January, I built an experimental setup intended for my PhD research for about $500 (of my own money). My advisor was unimpressed with the experimental method and recommended some fancy setup with a laser. But my setup is actually far more precise than what’s in the literature and easier/faster to operate. Some laser-based technique would be more precise, but it’s precision that I don’t need. (We both decided against putting the existing data in my dissertation, as I intend to collect a lot more before publication.)

It also helped a lot that I did a fairly comprehensive literature survey, so I knew that the experiments I did weren’t duplicating much already done. Aside from some basic replication to make sure that my setup and/or the literature are consistent, I’d prefer to focus my experimental efforts on getting actually new data.

If the cost of conducting an experiment on my own is below travel costs, then visiting an experimental collaborator can be avoided. I hadn’t thought about this until just now. I had been planning to visit a colleague to conduct some experiments in the future, but I’m going to see how expensive it would be to do those experiments on my own now.

Anyhow, it’s getting late for me so I too must go. If anyone else has thoughts on this, I’d appreciate hearing them! I’d also be interested in identifying successful independent researchers who simultaneously worked full-time jobs, like Peter Hurford.

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@btrettel: thanks for this. very inspiring to read it. i’m rooting for you. :slight_smile:

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