Freelance or Short Term contracts: Researching for a Private Company

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by Dr Catherine Armstrong

Scholars who have done postgraduate work are considered by many to be experts in their field. This ‘expert status’ can lead to a career outside of academia, perhaps undertaking research for companies or government institutions. These jobs are usually offered as short-term contracts, the time limit being determined by the length and nature of the project you will be working on.

Sometimes you can do this sort of work from home or in your spare time while doing other jobs. On other occasions, your employer will want you to be in their office working closely with their team and you will be expected to be present on a full time basis. Whatever the format of the role, there are some important things to consider when carrying out research projects like this.

1. Accuracy

As with any research project, whether it’s a small task or an entire PhD, accuracy and consistency are everything. There is nothing that will annoy your employers more than discovering that your results are inaccurate. It will be difficult for them because they will have to decide whether to discard your results completely, thus wasting the money that they have spent hiring you, or to employ someone else to re-do the project. In either scenario, your reputation will have been damaged and you are unlikely to get a good reference from that company in the future.

To prevent inaccuracies, the best method is to be an efficient time manager. Allow yourself plenty of time at the end of a project to review it for yourself. Hurriedly finishing a project until the midnight before the submission date is unprofessional and can easily lead to mistakes.

2. Keeping to the brief

One common complaint that those working outside universities have about academics is that they can allow the focus of their work to go off the main point and explore whatever most interests them. There is no problem with doing that in your own time, but when you are working on someone else’s project and they are paying your wages you must stick to the task.

If your employers have asked you to take a particular methodological or theoretical approach, one that you are uncomfortable with or disagree with, it is perfectly acceptable to voice your concerns but you must realise that your employer’s decision is final. Even if the project’s aims and methods are not being undertaken the way you would have done it, stick to what you have been told to do. Otherwise your employers will not feel that the contract has been successfully fulfilled.

3. Keeping to the schedule

Realistically, there are scholars at postgraduate level and beyond who find it very difficult to meet their deadlines. In many areas of scholarly life some flexibility is built in to the system. However, when working for commercial companies or the public sector outside universities, deadlines can sometimes be more rigid because other people’s work schedules depend on your completion of the task on time. So, if you have been asked to deliver the data or the report on a certain date, take that date as fixed and not negotiable.

If you are unable to meet this deadline without having a good reason, your reputation will suffer. Keeping your employers waiting will annoy them and it makes you look unprofessional because it seems as though you cannot plan your schedule and allocate your workload effectively.

4. Accepting criticism

Just like an artist who has been asked to fulfill a specific commission you have to accept the mantra that your employer is always right! You might feel that you know more about the field than the person employing you to complete the project. But remember that you are working for them and, although offering your ideas is acceptable, you must do what they ask you to do.

If your employer asks you to alter something on a report that you have submitted, you shouldn’t take it as a personal insult. Your project will usually play a very specific role in the work life of a number of other people and you need to be flexible and adaptable. If they ask you to make changes then you must be willing to do that.

The working relationship in research contracts of this nature can often be very fruitful and mutually beneficial for both parties. Following these simple tips will help you to ensure that you complete your project successfully and get more work in the future. 


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