Melanie Nelson – Independent Contractor/Consultant and Author

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Name: Melanie Nelson
Job: Independent Contractor/Consultant and Author

I am not someone who dreamed of doing research from a very early age. To be honest, I didn’t really know about “research scientist” as a job option until I was in college. My childhood career ambitions ranged from carpenter to country-western singer to doctor before eventually settling on anthropologist, albeit with a very fuzzy idea of what “anthropologist” actually meant.

I didn’t end up becoming an anthropologist. I really liked my high school chemistry class, and so when asked to list potential majors on college applications I put chemistry and anthropology and assumed I’d sort it out in college. I did, without ever taking an actual anthropology class. The first class in that major conflicted with organic chemistry, so I was forced to decide between them in my second year of college. In the end, I majored in biological chemistry and then went to graduate school, thereby postponing any further career decisions for another couple of years.

I enjoyed research in graduate school, but I also re-discovered a love for organizing information. I say “re-discovered” because I spent an entire summer when I was about 12 organizing information about ancient Irish history. I had detailed timelines, summaries of important historical figures, and annotated maps. In graduate school, I had detailed structure comparisons, summaries of important proteins, and annotated sequence alignments. It was all in support of my thesis project, which I really liked. But as the end of graduate school loomed closer, I realized that I enjoyed the informatics work more than I enjoyed research, and so I started looking for jobs in what was then a new and poorly defined field called “bioinformatics.”

My career in bioinformatics was always a bit idiosyncratic. I never did the sequence analysis and algorithm development that came to define the field. I started saying I worked in “scientific informatics” to clarify that I was more interested in designing databases and developing data analysis tools than in writing the latest and greatest sequence analysis algorithm.

I built a successful career in industry, bouncing between jobs with “scientist” in their title and more IT-centric positions. After about five years, I started managing projects and was promoted into “line management”- i.e., I had a team reporting to me. I fought the transition to manager for awhile, but eventually realized that not only was I good at management, but both project management and line management were roles in which I could make a bigger difference than I was making in a more hands-on technical role. Time passed, and before I knew it I had been a manager for 10 years. I had become passionate about management and read articles and books about it more frequently than I read scientific papers.

However, I was working in an industry that doesn’t generally value management skills all that much, and my specific area of scientific/technical focus made it unlikely that I would ever advance to a more senior management position. I might be an effective middle manager, but I suspected I would go no further. This realization was accompanied by a growing recognition that the seemingly scattered interests of my childhood were a more accurate reflection of my personality than the narrow focus of my career. I am someone who likes to have a lot of different projects going, and who likes to be constantly learning about new fields. My career was not feeding those needs, so I was trying to feed them with side projects and hobbies. I started writing children’s books. I wrote a short ebook about personal productivity.

I wasn’t unhappy, but it was getting ever harder to ignore the feeling that this wasn’t the right career path for me. Eventually, I found the courage to quit my full time job and set out on my own as an independent contractor and consultant. I specialize in scientific informatics and project management. This is my main career focus, but the increased flexibility that comes with being a contractor/consultant has also given me the freedom to explore other interests, including writing. I have more time to work on my children’s books, and I also write about management and related topics on my blog and for Chronicle Vitae.

I also decided to do something with the knowledge I gained in 10 years as a hiring manager in industry and wrote Navigating the Path to Industry, a short book with job search advice for academics interested in a career in industry. I enjoyed the process of publishing that book so much that I decided to start my own micropress to publish other people’s writing, too. I will focus on short books (the length of a novella or less), and have my first two books under contract.

This new path is not without difficulties. My income is much less reliable than it was as a full time employee. I have to work to find contracts- in some ways, I am constantly job hunting. There is no guarantee that this will last, but I am truly enjoying it while it does. I haven’t felt this happy with my work in a long time, so I am motivated to do what I need to do to make it last. I would never have predicted this career path for myself when I was in graduate school, let alone when I was in college. Luckily, I have been able to listen to my inner voice about what I want to be doing, and adjust course along the way. No doubt, there will be more course adjustments in the future. That doesn’t seem quite so scary anymore.

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