When I’m teaching research methods to postgraduate students, I encourage them to be comfortable with uncertainty. After all, research is a quest to discover the unknown, so if you’re already certain about everything you’re probably not doing it right. But if you want to be an indie researcher, you need to be comfortable with a higher level of uncertainty than most.
Of course there is also much less certainty, these days, in conventional jobs. Short-term contracts, lack of tenure, funding cuts etc all serve to destabilise employment. But if you have a job with a contract, at least you know you’ll get a salary payment at the end of each month for as long as the contract lasts, and you know how much the payment will be. No indie researcher has that level of security, and many of us earn much less than our salaried counterparts.
In my culture we don’t discuss financial specifics very often. I think that’s unhelpful, so let’s subvert that taboo. Last year was a good year for me: I took home £22,000. That is enough for me. I can live, enjoy myself, and save on that level of income. This is partly because of my life choices: I don’t have children, I do have a partner who earns around the same as me, and we have paid off our mortgage. Also, my greatest luxury is time. I’m not interested in spending money on make-up, beauty treatments, jewellery, household goods, etc; shopping is low down my list of desirable leisure activities; I don’t have expensive hobbies, and I happily drive an old unfashionable car. But I love to buy myself time: time to write, time to see my family and my friends, time just to be me, living my life my way, free and in peace. That seems to me the greatest possible luxury.
Last year, though, was a very busy year. It needed to be as I’d taken home around half that for each of the previous three years. So I was glad to become involved in two contracts a year ago: the Big Lottery Fund’s research into building capabilities, and the Independent Commission on the future of third sector infrastructure. And I was zipping around the country all year: from Chelmsford to Wigan, London, Exeter, Sheffield, Bristol, and London again, Portsmouth, Tameside, and oh yes back to London, and so on and so forth. That ended with the launch of the NAVCA commission’s report at the House of Commons in January and, since then, life has been very quiet.
I do have one new contract, a local evaluation running from November of last year to spring 2016, but it doesn’t require a great deal of work. I’ve had a few enquiries, and been involved in a couple of tenders, even one interview, but nothing actually converted into real work. I’m good at using my down time and have been productive on the writing front as well as moving forward with some non-work projects like refurbishing my office. But I did start worrying about where the next contract was coming from, and preparing to make some financial cut-backs of my own.
Then last week I had one of those amazing days that come along every now and again in an indie researcher’s life. First, I heard that the interview I’d been involved in had been successful, and we’d won the contract. This was great news as it’s a sizeable piece of work, and means I’m now on break-even for the next year, so anything else that comes in is profit. It also means I can be certain of a £1,000 payment per month for the next 12 months. But it’s also a whole new world of uncertainty, as I had never worked with anyone from the lead firm, or anyone else on the research team, before we started work on the tender, so I have no idea how it will work out. Still, paid uncertainty is less uncertain than unpaid uncertainty. Then I received a commission from a university department I haven’t worked with before, who are making noises about developing an ongoing relationship, which is music to my ears. But, again, more uncertainty: it’s in Swansea, a city I don’t know, and I’ll be teaching postgraduate students of management which is not my area of expertise – though they need to learn how to do research, which is my area of expertise. And finally, I heard that I have secured my first international speaking engagement, giving a keynote at a conference in Calgary this autumn. The conference is already fully booked, with over 200 people from a range of public services including academia.
So essentially, in 24 hours, I swapped the uncertainty of wondering whether I would ever get any more work for the uncertainty of wondering whether I could actually do all the new work that had just landed in my lap. It felt very much like that top-of-the-rollercoaster moment, when your stomach begins to lurch just from looking at the drop, before you actually start the descent. But these new problems are great problems to have and, after 16 years as an indie researcher, I know how to ride this rollercoaster.