Clinical Researcher—December 2017 (Volume 31, Issue 6)
Many of us who are now self-employed look back on our 50+ hours a week corporate jobs and wonder how we ever did it—not because we didn’t enjoy our full-time careers, but because our employment is so drastically different now. With the help of recruiters, we build our clientele, choose our projects, and are 100% responsible for our financial growth. Everything we do—and every decision we make—is self-directed. We are the boss.
Four years ago, I switched from my corporate job to the consulting world in order to refocus my priorities and spend more time with family. While sometimes it can be difficult and a bit lonely being the “boss,” at the moment my only employee is me, so I’m fairly motivated to keep this going. That said, there are several important things I’ve learned since becoming my own boss (see Table 1 for some of the resources that helped me along the way).
In the world of clinical research, we LOVE our acronyms. The most appropriate acronym when thinking about self-employment would have to be BOSS (Built on Self Success).
Being your own boss can be a bit scary at first, but going freelance or starting your own consulting business is absolutely worth it if you’re ready to commit. It can be a life in which you live on your own terms, while having the freedom to choose how you spend your time and the projects on which you work. You will get as much out of your work as you are willing to put into it.
“To-Do” Lists are a Must
One thing I remind myself of constantly is that procrastination thrives on distraction. I work best with a to-do list, and create one at least once a week; during my busier times, I write out one every day. Without it, I feel unfocused.
Before I started creating a to-do list, I would often get sucked into scrolling through Facebook updates or tidying up the house without realizing how much of my morning had been wasted. To-do lists can be written by hand or maintained in your smartphone.
For her book “To-Do List,” author Sasha Cagen surveyed more than 200 people about their list-making habits. She reported that most people (83%) still prefer the tactile experience of writing their lists with pen and paper. The visceral pleasure of crossing things off cannot be underestimated, and people often feel more accountable when a list is in their own handwriting.1 Whatever your preference, create a list.
Take a Break
It doesn’t matter when you do it, but on your home office days, schedule a break. No one can be “on” 100% of the time.
I always set a time to take my dogs for a short walk. Not only does it give me time away from the computer, it also gives me time to think about something other than my work. I will put on my headphones, turn on a favorite podcast, and take my pups on a stroll.
Physical movement keeps us from becoming mentally stagnant. We are not designed to sit around all day. As difficult as being sedentary is on our bodies, it’s also no help for our productivity. Getting up for a few minutes to get the blood flowing is a necessary piece of the work day.2
Create a Home Office You Want to Work In
When you work from home, you need to create a functional home office. Feel free to browse Pinterest for inspiration, while keeping in mind that those offices that look amazing may not be set up to accommodate a 40+ hour work week.
In addition to having an area that is functional, it is essential that it is ergonomically fitting. The top of your computer screen should be at eye level or a little below. This way, as you scan down the screen, your eye lids will naturally close a bit and moisten, which reduces eye fatigue. Position your keyboard so your forearms are parallel to the floor, and adjust your chair so your feet rest firmly on something—the floor or a footrest (if you’re short like me).
Splurge on an office chair that makes you want to put in the hours. If you’re the kind of person who still has paper files, instead of a filing cabinet, try wall storage featuring magazine racks or children’s library–style display shelves.3
Build Your Network
This is probably the most important piece if you are considering venturing out on your own. Networking is critical to my BOSS career, because no one else is building it for me. While I had a few contacts in the consulting world before I decided to join it, a few contacts won’t get you very far.
Online professional networking with platforms like LinkedIn will help you broaden your circle. You will need to build and enhance your profile, market yourself, and reach out to make those all-important connections.
Also consider adding a ProFinder badge in LinkedIn; this is a service that matches contractors with project managers or recruiters seeking help. Contractors can display a ProFinder badge on their profiles to show prospective clients their skills, expertise, and recommendations.4
Your network should include recruiters, others working in your current role, and those working in a role that you aspire to have someday. I take the time to connect with many recruiters, from staffing agency recruiters to human resource contacts at companies that are doing things that I feel passionate about (rare disease, stem cell research, immune-oncology, gene therapy, etc.).
Another great way to connect and grow your network is through professional organizations. ACRP, for example, has multiple opportunities to connect through its local chapters, interest groups, or via its large member directory.
Attending an industry conference that brings together other clinical research professionals is also a great way to connect. Another suggestion is to keep in touch with the great sites you have worked with over the years. Remember those clinical research coordinators (CRCs) and principal investigators (PIs) that you had wished you could “clone”? Stay connected with them. I still keep in touch with several CRCs with whom I worked 10 or more years ago, because not only did I truly enjoy working with them, but they can also serve as priceless references.
At times, a sponsor company may be looking for someone who is great at creating strong relationships with their sites, or at handling difficult people or situations. A former CRC or PI who can speak specifically about your relationship skills could be very valuable. This in turn could bring you the additional business you are in search of.
Lastly, never burn bridges. While it may be tempting to tell your boss off in some dramatic fashion, aim for a professional and graceful exit. Your former coworkers and employer could be some of your best advocates down the road.
As a consultant, it is very important to keep tabs on your financial wellness. You will be responsible for taking taxes out of your income, so always set aside 30% of whatever you make—just lock it up in a separate savings account, if that helps.
Many of the consultants I know are comfortable with using QuickBooks Self-Employed, but I personally work with a local CPA in my area, and pay my taxes on a quarterly basis. Another thing you will no longer have as a consultant is a 401(k), so I recommend setting up a IRA and depositing regular amounts into it every month.
Remember that expensive laptop your previous employer provided when you started working there? The monthly allowance you had for cell phone and internet charges? As a self-employed consultant, you have to pay for everything you decide you need—it comes out of your pocket, not someone else’s budget.
As a fulltime employee of a contract research organization, study site, or pharmaceutical company, you probably have a nice benefits package. As a consultant, unless you are married and can be added to your spouse’s benefits, the monthly cost of basic health insurance can be as high as $800 for an individual in good health.
Another thing to keep in mind is your plan for vacation savings. As a consultant, there is no paid vacation time. Because income as a consultant can be variable, I have always paid myself a set income each week, and anything extra goes into a savings account. That savings account is where I maintain extra funds that will go toward vacations or other luxuries.
Make a Work Schedule
Imagine what your work day might look like if there was no routine—no rules, nothing expected of you, no set hours. I know what you’re thinking—“Whoo-hoo!”—but in reality, it would be completely chaotic. Nothing would ever get done, people would be upset, and things would fall apart.
I have adopted a fairly set work schedule with log-on and log-off times. As a consultant, you are responsible for setting and sticking to your working hours. I used to start the day at varying times, but failing to establish my hours and getting caught up on work in the evenings had a negative impact on my personal relationships.
A day without a plan can sort of end up going nowhere. Sticking to your schedule means getting things done; it’s an outline for the day, and all you need to do is follow it.
Lessons Learned from Being Your Own Boss
You Will Face Challenges That You May Not Have Expected
If you are like me—someone who went from full-time employment with a mid-sized organization to working with mostly tiny pharmaceutical or biotech companies—then you will probably be able to relate to this section. Many small companies have an incredible compound that they want to develop, but they lack the infrastructure to support everyone working toward this shared goal. They don’t have information technology departments to help you if their home grown, virtual desktop electronic data capture system won’t load on your business laptop. They may not have the kinds of standard operating procedures you are used to, or are creating them as they go.
Such companies will often lack even the most essential forms and templates you would expect in a clinical research environment. Initially, this felt very odd for me; I craved the structure and “rules” that I had while working with larger companies. While there are times when I still desire that structure, I have found that sharing my past experiences can help the sponsor put some structure in place.
I have enjoyed creating my own tools and templates to do my job, and appreciate the support and freedom to do it. While rules can be very valuable, it has also been refreshing to be able to “think outside the box” as a consultant supporting a small company.
You Get to Do Work That You Enjoy
Richard Branson reminds us that “some 80% of your life is spent working.”5 As a consultant, you get to decide what projects you accept. Find yourself a “niche” area—something you are passionate about. For me, this has been projects in oncology and rare diseases; I find them challenging and interesting, but my desire to contribute to those suffering or who have family members suffering with cancer or a rare disease also pushes me along and keeps me inspired.
Ultimately, work-life happiness comes from doing meaningful things. We all want to work for a worthy purpose or cause and know that our work is actually making a difference. Working for yourself will allow you to define what’s meaningful to you.
You Know More Than You Think
Believing in yourself and your vision of success is also one of the most important steps in the entire process of going solo. Part of believing in yourself means recognizing that you have everything it takes to plant the seed of self-employment. Don’t get hung up on all the stuff you don’t know.
Working toward a professional certification in clinical research is one piece that will help assure your potential clients that you are committed to and competent in the field. Once you have done that, focus on making your dream a reality by doing everything with what you DO know.
You Actually HAVE a Boss
You may technically be your own boss, but not really. Your clients are truly your boss—they rely on you, and you rely on them. In this industry, the health of your business is your boss, and that health is driven by continued work. You can’t miss commitments and still be successful. Your word is your most powerful asset.
Before Starting, Have a Purpose
Have Clarity on Your “Why”
Your “why” will be the gravity that keeps you grounded when you want to quit. When you first begin your journey, you will want to have a clear picture of where you are going and WHY you want to get there. Your WHY is what motivates you.
For me, my primary WHY was my family. In my former job situation, I returned to work (and travel) when my daughter was five weeks old and when my son was 10 weeks old. Each time, it was heart wrenching; there were many “firsts” in their lives that I missed. While I cannot turn back time, when things got really rough in 2013, I knew that I could change my current circumstances by going solo.
Make a Vision Board
At the risk of sounding like a New Age guru, making a vision board works. Spread out the design of your ideal life in pictures and notes and objects on a big board, and be specific.
- What do you want to accomplish by being self-employed?
- How much money do you want to make?
- Do you want to buy a new house or car?
- What vacations will you take?
- Why is this important?
Whatever the answers are, place them on the vision board. You will want to keep your goals in front of you at all times. I have my vision board beside my computer monitor in my home office. It has photos of places I want to visit with my family, goals I want to accomplish, and phrases that remind me of my “why,” such as “attain harmony,” “learn and travel,” “walk your truth,” and “focus on now.”
There’s a story described in Napoleon Hill’s book “Think and Grow Rich” that tells you how it is to be the captain of your own ship, the BOSS. It represents one of the main resources you’ll need on your path to achievement—a burning desire to succeed.
A long while ago, a great warrior faced a situation which made it necessary for him to make a decision which insured his success on the battlefield. He was about to send his armies against a powerful foe, whose men outnumbered his own. He loaded his soldiers into boats, sailed to the enemy’s country, unloaded soldiers and equipment, then gave the order to burn the ships that had carried them. Addressing his men before the first battle, he said, “You see the boats going up in smoke. That means that we cannot leave these shores alive unless we win! We now have no choice—we win—or we perish!” They won.6
Being a full-time employee of an established company is like going to battle, but not burning your ships before the battle. You remind yourself that you have something secure, and although you may wish to achieve more than what can be accomplished at that company, you keep coming back to that idea of stability and security. There is peace of mind knowing how much money you will make at the end of the month. Although this desire for stability is understandable, often this route will also crush your dreams. That being said, not everyone is built to be self-employed.
Consulting can offer you incredible experiences, but it also asks for a significant investment of your time and energy along with the willingness to accept potential instability. A key point to keep in mind when you are an independent consultant is that flexibility is not only a requirement for yoga. Consulting can be a great way to gain experience with different sponsor companies, but it also means that you have to constantly adapt and be as flexible as possible with your time and work style in order to meet their needs.
Remember to dust off your “elevator pitch,” because consulting calls for the art of making connections—not only in terms of the work, but perhaps more importantly, with people. Developing solid networks, is crucial. So, if you feel that you can be a team player (even if you are not “technically” part of the employee team), if you are willing to work hard on building and fostering relationships, if you have or are willing to work hard on self-discipline, and if you know your “why,” then maybe it’s time to give consulting a try.
- Cagen S. 2007. To-do list: from buying milk to finding a soul mate, what our lists reveal about us. New York: Simon & Schuster.
- Bartlotta K. 2015. 5 science backed ways taking a break boosts our productivity. Huffington Post. www.huffingtonpost.com/kate-bartolotta/5-science-backed-ways-taking-a-break-boosts-our-productivity_b_8548292.html
- Vanderkam L. 2013. Fast Company. 10 quick tips to create a home office you’ll actually want to work in. https://www.fastcompany.com/3023303/10-quick-tips-to-bring-your-home-office-to-another-level
- Zantal-Weiner A. 2017. Hubspot. 29 LinkedIn tips for professional networking, business & marketing. https://blog.hubspot.com/blog/tabid/6307/bid/23454/the-ultimate-cheat-sheet-for-mastering-linkedin.aspx
- Soos I. 2015. A 6-sentence story perfectly sums up what it’s like to be your own boss. Business Insider. www.businessinsider.com/what-its-like-to-be-your-own-boss-2016-6
- Hill N. 1937. Think and grow rich. Chicago: The Ralston Society.
Nicole Tesar (firstname.lastname@example.org) is owner and director of clinical operations with Harmony Clinical Consulting Corporation in Avon, Ohio.