Contract work in the public or private sectors

I'm a great believer in luck and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it. Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)

Can you make the grade as an independent life science consultant?


I have included this section for two reasons: 1. For the possible interest of anyone thinking of going independent as a consultant or launching a life science start-up. 2. As a potential source of information to life scientists in academia or industry.

There are three sections: Public sector contracts; private sector contracts & private enterprise. Previously employed in a biotech company, when the same was put up for sale, I made the choice to go independent (i.e. self-employed). A number of others in the same company decided to found a start-up business. That was also a tough decision, but it has paid off in many cases and should certainly be considered. Capitalising on your experience and contacts is essential whichever route is taken after leaving employment.

Certainly the life sciences are a good choice for independent enterprise, but, because of this, competition is growing strongly. I have included a few ideas on this website which my readers are free to adopt or adapt!

I'll finish this introductory page with an amusing (and anonymised!) anecdote: I attended a lecture by the CEO/founder of a start-up biotech business some years back. The speaker told us he had seen a good retail opportunity for a particular class of high value and sought-after biochemicals then available from separate sources at considerable cost. He wrote what was essentially a begging letter to a number of these different suppliers for samples of their product, for 'research purposes'.

His start-up, as it was by then, beautifully repackaged much smaller aliquots of the different biochemicals he had been generously given and then resold them collectively in kit form with details about their use. After fixed costs, the profits underpinned his start-up which then went on to develop its own product sales and contract services in house. At least, that was his story to his packed audience of post-graduate and post-doctoral scientists. One of these commented: "I work long hours in the lab and just about make ends meet". The student asked the question that probably as many of the audience were thinking: "What's it like to be rich?" Something my readers will have to determine for themselves!

Interested in a self-employed life sciences career as a consultant?

I designed a website for my old employer: MRC National Institute for Medical Research. When I presented this in a talk at NIMR old colleagues and others still working there gathered round and wanted to know how I could support myself in the Life Sciences field as an independent. My answer then was that it wasn't easy; my answer now in the information era would be it's not so difficult but you do have to change from being a specialist to reinventing yourself as a generalist. Apart from earning my living, there was a kind of excitement and relief after working so intensely for so long on one narrow area of science, to be able to make real contributions ( and learn) across a wide diversity of basic and applied life science. I found this easily as challenging and fulfilling as fundamental research. Here are some suggestions for anyone serious about going it alone or just merely curious.

  • Working for the public sector
    • Tendering for advertised work ( but you will need to meet ISO standards now). I tendered to produce quarterly reports on public sector life science initiatives: LINK Biotech and Biotech materials. To save (considerable) overheads I taught myself to do high spec. desktop publishing and website design. These proved to be invaluable skills.
    • Informal approaches as a consultant to public sector institutions. I created the first website for NIMR
  • Working for the private sector
    • This has many more opportunities. Leaving employment either in the public or private sectors you will be trading on your knowledge and experience. For me that meant gaining contracts with bioscience instrumentation businesses
    • Nowadays Linked In and Facebook are the go-to places to promote yourself and pick up this kind of work
    • The majority of my private sector contract work was helping biotech instrument companies penetrate their market by sourcing test materials, writing application notes, speaking on their behalf at workshops and conferences and publishing promotional articles
  • Working in private enterprise
    • You may have an idea that would found a start-up. If so, go for it. But after listening to a United States presenter speak at one of the UK public sector initiatives (the Teaching Company Scheme) a very good point was made. In the UK it appeared that start-ups were often founded with too few initial members. In the US a typical start-up business has around 5 people. There is marketing and finance issues to be actively managed in addition to working on product and process.
    • I decided to organise workshops meetings and conferences. This enabled many valuable scientific contacts and opportunities for attending firms to recruit! My income from this kind of activity came from arranging simultaneous trade exhibitions.
  • Other opportunities. . .
    • I'm certain that there are many more opportunities than I have listed above!