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A crack in the wall: French scientists explore novel employment model beyond academia

Last year, French immunologist Amélie Bigorgne got the job she always wanted: a permanent staff scientist position at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM). But her academic future didn’t always look so bright. In 2014, after her first attempt at getting an INSERM position came to no avail, Bigorgne was confronted with a reality that many early-career scientists eventually come to face: Despite her passion, years of training, and personal sacrifices, she wouldn’t necessarily be able to secure a permanent position and stay in academia.

This realization plunged Bigorgne into a period of self-doubt and career searching that led her to co-launch a cooperative—a democratically run organization of independent member workers who share common resources and cooperate to reach similar professional goals—for researchers who can’t stay in academia, and those who don’t want to. The initiative, called COOPETIC-Recherche, aims to help scientists make a living as external consultants by providing a platform and infrastructure to support them as they sell their research skills and knowledge to academic and industry clients.

Science Careers talked to Bigorgne about her struggles before winning a permanent position and how COOPETIC-Recherche may now help other researchers in France land on their feet outside academia. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: You had more than a decade of research training in France and abroad when you started applying to INSERM. How did you feel about not making it the first time around?

A: It is very rare for people to get an INSERM position on their first try, and I was aware of the high likelihood of failure. But when it happened, for the first time I was personally confronted with the reality of the academic job market in France. Suddenly, the rejection—and the perception that I had little room left to maneuver—magnified my fears. French law caps postdocs at 6 years, and I had already started my fourth year when my application was turned down. Even though, at least in principle, I still had two more attempts ahead of me, I worried that soon I would have to either give up my dream of an academic research career or abandon my home country. I feared that my passion for research and all the expertise that I had gained over so many years of hard work might just go to waste, not only for me but also for French research.

It wasn’t something I felt like revolting against—I understood how the broader academic system meant that it wasn’t necessarily possible for me to get a permanent position—but I felt a lot of frustration and a deep lack of recognition. Deep down, I also started questioning myself and my abilities. And whenever I managed to convince myself of my academic worth, I felt as though I was running into a brick wall that just seemed insurmountable.

Rather than applying again right away, I decided to focus the remainder of my postdoc years on boosting my CV by publishing existing data and reactivating collaborations to generate new manuscripts. I also started considering career opportunities outside academia. But this proved unsettling after a while, as I had cast my net so wide and applied to so many different jobs that eventually I felt like I no longer knew what I could do, or what I wanted to do. My way out of this impasse was to see a career adviser, who over the course of 3 months helped me rediscover my skills and professional aspirations—both in and outside academia.

My next career step was to accept a 6-month position, which was then extended by an additional year, to establish a translational research laboratory for cancer immunotherapy at the Gustave Roussy Cancer Campus, a major nonprofit health care, research, and teaching institution in Paris. This was a little risky because it wasn’t really considered research experience within academic circles, and despite all my struggles, I was still planning to apply for a permanent position at INSERM. However, in addition to professional and personal satisfaction, my experience at Gustave Roussy gave me experience in team management and industry collaboration that I still find valuable today as an aspiring group leader. These activities also turned out to be a good complement to traditional academic undertakings, and I now work for them as a consultant 1 day a week.

Whenever I managed to convince myself of my academic worth, I felt as though I was running into a brick wall that just seemed insurmountable.

Q: How did the idea for COOPETIC-Recherche come about?

A: For years, I had been involved in promoting professional recognition for early-career researchers, raising awareness of alternative careers, and bridging the gap between academia and industry through grassroots associations in France and the United States. But the idea for COOPETIC-Recherche really emerged at a dinner party in the midst of my professional soul-searching. I met Anita Protopappas, who had founded a cooperative called COOPETIC for freelance information and communication technologies and media professionals. COOPETIC provides a common platform for them to sell their services to clients, and working through the cooperative gave them some of the benefits they would get from a more traditional employer, making it more appealing than working freelance. Together, we realized that this novel form of employment could also help researchers who are not willing or able to stay in academia make a living independently by selling their expertise as consulting services.

Q: How does COOPETIC-Recherche work?

A: One of its greatest novelties is that it offers researchers access to a professional status akin to “salaried entrepreneurs.” Researchers put together a portfolio of skills and services and find their own clients, and their income varies over the year depending on the jobs they secure. But, in contrast to the short-term contracts they had in academia and the professional instability that is inherent to freelance life, the cooperative gives researchers a permanent employment contract, which gives them continuous access to social security benefits and makes it much easier for them to get home mortgages from banks, among other advantages.

Another benefit of joining the cooperative, compared with going completely freelance, is that invoicing goes through COOPETIC-Recherche, which makes it easier for researchers to process payments and saves them time down the line. In addition, the cooperative offers a support infrastructure for all the other administrative, financial, and legal aspects associated with their professional activities and offers business training and coaching. In exchange, researchers contribute approximately 12% of their income to the cooperative. Ultimately, the cooperative can only function if its members support it financially and cooperate with each other.

To date, we have five full-time researchers and four who are expected to join in the coming months. They come from a broad range of fields, including immunology, neuroscience, energy physics, and the social sciences. They work with both academic and industry clients, which is another novelty in France, where the value of the Ph.D. degree is only starting to be recognized outside academia. Our researchers may offer a broad range of laboratory work or focus on specific technical tasks, such as high-performance liquid chromatography or statistical analysis. The cooperative itself doesn’t host any lab space, so researchers must either work in the client’s laboratory or get access to equipment and facilities elsewhere. They may also offer consulting services ranging from generating scientific hypotheses all the way through to writing papers and handling technology transfer.

All potential members go through an 18-month trial phase to test the viability of their activity, during which time they can claim unemployment benefits from the French government to support themselves as they become established entrepreneurs. As it happens, up to now all our researchers already had clients and funding when they came in.

Q: What have you gained personally from COOPETIC-Recherche?

A: Launching the cooperative offered a way for me to reclaim my skills and scientific expertise and put them to good use at a time when it looked as though academia may have no space for them. It also allowed me to develop an entrepreneurial spirit and creativity that I didn’t know were so important for me to explore until being forced to reconsider my career options. Seeing that this experience can now help other researchers bounce back from similar professional and personal struggles is very satisfying.

Q: What advice do you have for early-career researchers?

A: My advice for researchers who have doubts about their academic future or feel they are facing a brick wall is to try to keep an open mind and listen to themselves. It can be a real challenge to identify a new career, and then to envision yourself doing it. A good first step is to try to identify your values and aspirations so that you can then home in on types of work that could make you a happy and productive professional. You can seek help from a career consultant if necessary. It can also be helpful to ask your network to put you in touch with people who hold positions that you find attractive but know little about.

Then, for researchers who absolutely want an academic career or who are still trying to see whether it will work out for them, I attribute part of my success in finally getting an INSERM position to seeking feedback from my mentors and expanding my network after my first application. This helped me realize that, in addition to getting more publications and tightening my research focus, I needed to consider the broader strategy of the research organization and pursue a scientific area that matched its strategic priorities.

And finally, whether you would like to explore new professional directions or stay in academia, I would encourage you to expand your horizons early on by talking to people in other sectors. In hindsight, I am happy that the difficulties I encountered on my career path pushed me to go and experience professional activities beyond academia, and to find solutions that may now help others land back on their feet by regaining ownership of their career.