The Rise of the Freelance Researcher Economy

The Rise of the Freelance Researcher Economy
by NotedSource

The Rise of the Freelance Economy in Research 

Freelance workers, once confined to certain job functions, are a large and continually growing part of the U.S. and global economies. In fact, in 2023, 38% of the U.S. workforce performed freelance work in some capacity, representing an all-time high according to the Upwork Freelance Forward survey. Upwork also reported: “Freelancers contributed $1.27 trillion to the U.S. economy in annualfreelance worker earnings in 2023. This was a 78% increase from the estimated $715 billion to the economy in 2014, the first year of the study.” This increase is notable and such growth is only likely to continue, given that 52% of Gen Z professionals and 44% of Millennial professionals performed freelance work in 2023. But the shift in the freelance economy is not just about growth: it’s about who is freelancing, and what services they’re providing. 

What else is changing in the freelance market?

Today’s freelancers span skill levels, fields, cost, and services offered. For instance, what traditional appealed to small and medium sized businesses – outsourced, specialized labor – is now being leveraged by enterprise-level businesses including Microsoft, Unilever, PWC, and Johnson & Johnson

And rather than only finding early- and mid-career talent in the freelance world, it’s now more common to find freelancers at the executive level offering director and leadership experience. This includes fractional CTOs and CMOs, as well as other leaders with decades of experience who can bring strategic support to organizations. 

It’s also easier to find freelancers today in almost any niche area of expertise that you can imagine– including research and scientific fields. 

The Shift Towards Freelancing in Research and Scientific Fields

There is an increasing demand in scientific organizations for freelance support today, and in other types of organizations for niche research expertise. According to Upwork, data science and analytics is one of the fastest growing demands in the freelance market, and COVID-19 caused a spike in demand for freelance medical writers.  It’s easy to see why these specialized areas are growing: freelance workers bring a lot to the table, according to Amy Kauffman, VP of marketing for job app Let’s Tango

“Freelancers bring agility, diverse skill sets, and fresh perspectives to companies, fostering innovation and adaptability…In today's dynamic business landscape, the ability to tap into freelance talent allows organizations to scale efficiently and access specialized expertise when needed...I've witnessed firsthand the transformative impact freelancers have on projects and overall business success. Embracing freelancers isn't just a trend; it's a strategic imperative for companies aiming to thrive in the modern economy.”

The benefits are clear: hiring freelancers, especially ones in specialized fields, means having access to the expertise and niche knowledge needed for key project needs, without relying on generalists or trying to build an in-house staff for every foreseeable need. 

scientist expert researcher freelance researcher in a pink lab coat standing at a lab table doing science researchWho are Today’s Freelance Researchers and Scientists?

With a nationwide oversupply of Ph.D.s and a struggling Ph.D. job market, as well as notably low pay for adjunct professors at many universities, more and more academics and Ph.D.-holding researchers are turning outside of academia to earn extra money. Among the many side-hustles, working with corporations and large companies outside of academia can be a great option. 

While the traditional career path for a Ph.D. is in the academic world, for the first time in 2019, the private sector employed nearly as many Ph.D.s as educational institutions. Even for those experts who don’t want to fully leave academia or abandon their research pursuits, private sector employment is becoming more popular. These experts are offering consulting services, or signing on to work on collaborative research projects with in-house research & development teams. 

So if your company is looking to hire freelance researchers or scientists today, you might very well end up with a Ph.D. holding expert in the field. 

What to keep in mind when hiring freelance researchers

When your organization is considering hiring freelance researchers, scientists, or other niche experts, there are a few things to keep in mind. 

First, and likely most important for you company, it’s key that you properly vet the freelancers you’re offering work to. Make sure that the researcher’s background, experiences, and references all check out, and look into their research and publications if possible. Not only does ensure that you’re getting a freelance worker who has the knowledge and expertise your team needs, but background checks also helps make sure that you can successfully safeguard your intellectual property.

 With that in mind, it’s also important that your team sets up the right processes to hire freelancers. From contracts to NDAs, you’ll probably need help from your legal department (unless you leverage an all-inclusive platform like NotedSource to do the work for you). Plus, universities often have a lot of red tape to navigate when building academic partnerships, so it can be useful to have a partner who knows their way around academic requirements.

It’s also important to balance your need for specialized expertise with the need to fill long-termteam of researchers doing work at a table with their laptops skills gaps on your team. If you’re sourcing for a one-time project that you need a biochemistry expert to support on, freelance researchers are probably for you. If you have a monthly recurring need for a biochemistry expert, it’s possible you’ll want to look into hiring a Ph.D. holder full-time. 

The Future of Freelancing in Research and Science

Freelance research professionals and scientists aren’t going anywhere. By some estimates, there will be 86.5 million freelancers, representing 50.9% of the total U.S. workforce, by 2027. Enterprise companies will continue to leverage freelance talent, especially as the demand for remote work pushes companies to turn to temporary and contract workers. 

With the continued growth of the freelance economy in research, there’s no doubt that niche experts, Ph.D. holders, academic researchers, and scientists will have a strong role to play in the future of innovation at companies across industries. Learn more about leveraging freelance workers at your company.