I have a bachelor degree in Computer Engineering. I worked as a Research Engineer in a Research Center. It was a fully paid Engineering position funded by European projects.

However, my contract ended, and because there are not any more projects available at the moment, I can't be re-contracted.

My question:

Is it possible for someone to work as a freelance researcher? I have an idea of a platform I would like to work on. The idea, I think, could easily even become a paper. Is it possible that I could continue to work in the research center without being paid, and try to perform some research of my own? Of course I could ask my supervisors about it, but the thing is, I don't know how to ask it.

What I was thinking was they could provide me tools like the computer, mobile devices and a working desk to develop my idea (things that I was provided while working there). In the end it would be something that the university could present, but I would get credit for it for my CV, and it could be especially helpful in getting a good candidate position next year, in a Masters program I am aiming for.

How could I present an idea like this to my supervisor? Is it something that actually happens?

Some notes in response to comments to clear things a bit: The problem is not that I need any kind of equipment to make my idea reality. At work I was provided a simple laptop and some mobile devices, that I can easily have access on my own, so nothing special there.

The reason why I would like to continue work there is as simple as that:

I want to propose an idea of a platform that I would like to create and according to my estimates would be 9-12 months of work. I could do that from my house or by going to work at the research center. However, I need my supervisor to draw public/scientific attention, make a paper with him out of it etc. I want to be able to write in my CV that the last 9-12 months I was working on a project at "that" research center in cooperation with "that" researcher and not that it was a "home" project that I developed.

I haven't made the proposition to my supervisor yet for the following reasons :

  1. I am afraid that my supervisor could simply use my idea with the engineers that still have a contract there.

  2. What I would like is to be the only one working on the project. Like a PhD thesis. I want to get credits of it. Not the research center. I want to get the credit as the main developer/author of this thing, and of course my supervisor be the one that would present it and his name next to mine. Is this even possible? I mean I don't want any other engineers sniffing their nose on it, I don't want my supervisor to demand things on the project. I am thinking of proposing a complete solution of exactly what I have in mind, let me work on it with my time, without any funding, but the supervisor be the one to present it and draw attention on it.

In the end all I am saying is to have this project on my CV to open some doors on the future and my supervisor being the mentor of this thing.

  • Possible duplicate: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/9611/… Commented Apr 29, 2013 at 13:43
  • 1
    How did your supervisor answer when you asked him? You did ask him, right?
    – JeffE
    Commented Apr 29, 2013 at 15:59
  • @ChrisGregg: though I see a difference between someone who doesn't want to enter a PhD program for which funding could be gotten and someone who needs to bridge the time before entering the master's program and wonders whether there is any possibility at all.
    – cbeleites
    Commented Apr 29, 2013 at 17:05
  • 7
    I wouldn't call it "freelancing". None of freelancers I know works for free. Commented Apr 29, 2013 at 18:15
  • 1
    @DaveClarke Sure, I know what does word mean. My point was that in the case of this question "freelancing" is not the right word (on the contrary, that question is about freelancing). This question is more like "how can I persuade a univ. to let me some resources even if I am not longer employed there". Commented Apr 30, 2013 at 10:21

6 Answers 6


Of course anyone can be an independent researcher. Just do it. But that's not what you're really asking. The question you're really asking is this:

How can I convince my former supervisor to let me continue using their equipment and resources after my current contract ends?

And the only reasonable answer that question is to turn in on its head. What's in it for them? How would they benefit from giving you an office and access to their equipment? Is the payoff for them worth more to them than the resources that you would expend? The fact that the project is good for you isn't enough.

There's an even more basic question: Do they have resources that they can give you access to? The equipment that you want access to may be tied to the specific project. They may not be able to give you access. But the only person that can answer that question is your former supervisor.

Some updates in response to the updated question:

However , i need my supervisor to draw public/scientific attention , make a paper with him out of it etc.

No, you don't. You can write and submit a paper yourself. You can publicize it yourself. You can ask your former supervisor to help you publicize it; if your supervisor was your advisor and not just your boss, they'll be happy to help you, because your success makes them look good.

I am afraid that he could simply use my idea with the engineers that still have a contract there.

You don't trust your supervisor. So don't work with him. Your mistrust is probably misplaced, but that's your call. To quote Howard Aiken: "Don't worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you'll have to ram them down people's throats."

of course my supervisor be the one that would present it and his name next to mine

Why "of course"? Just do it yourself.

i dont want my supervisor to demand things on the project.

No, that's not how it works. If you want your advisor to put his name on something, you must give him partial responsibility for that something. That's what coauthorship means.

I am thinking of proposing to him a complete solution of exactly what i have in mind , let me work on it with my time , without any fundings , but he ll be the one to present it and draw attention on it.

In other words, you want to do all the fun stuff, using your supervisor's resources, and leave the hard work of writing and presenting to your supervisor, but not allow them any actual input, and then claim credit for yourself.

That's just not going to happen. If you want something from someone else — working space, laptops, Internet connection, help with writing and presentation, anything — you have to offer them something in return. Either offer to make your supervisor a full partner, including veto power, or you do the work yourself, including all the writing and presentation, with your own equipment, on your own time.

Having the project on your CV will open more doors if you do it without your supervisor.


JeffE's answer is absolutely correct and excellent. I want to say more about what you can do.

In your question,

i dont want my supervisor to demand things on the project.


my supervisor being the mentor of this thing.

contradict to each other.

You want a mentor and you don't want him demand things. Why would somebody spend time and resources for you without knowing what you're doing? How would he know your platform idea is really good and workable without you presenting the idea to him first?

You need to make a choice between the two options.


If you want him to be the mentor, present your platform idea to him. He and you can work together to decide what to do next. You want to do something like a PhD thesis. Do you realize that every PhD student have to go through admission procedure (you need to be admitted) and most PhD students have to pass qualified exams (you need to be qualified) before doing thesis?


If you don't want him demand things on the project, you work on your platform idea on your own. Go all the way by yourself. All you need are tools like the computer, mobile devices and a working desk. You should be able to afford to them. At the end, write a paper, put it on arXiv. Once you have the arXiv version, go to your former supervisor. You two can work out how to present it.


I cannot see any reason why you could not be a freelancer as such. Since researchers are usually employed by an academic institution or a (even one person) company and you could have your own company if you will, there obviously is no problem from that perspective.

There is obviously a big question regarding how you sustain your life. Are you planning on doing this in your spare time? In any case, supposing financing for living is not a problem I would turn the focus on affiliation. If you want to publish the material/product at some point, having an affiliation would greatly help. You mention talking to your former advisor and that is probably a good idea if you think you have a good connection there.

Before contacting a person/organization to which you would like to be affiliated, you should try to work up a good plan for your project so that there is a clear path for what you will do, where you want to arrive and also provide an analysis of how your work fits in with other work. This is essentially a project plan as you would expect from a doctoral or masters candidate. Having such a text and preliminary work/results would make the project easy (easier?) to assess and hence provide your target person/organization with a good foundation to build your project.

I have to add that I have not heard of anyone doing this but if someone came to me with an well-founded idea and told me they needed an affiliation, I would seriously consider it. If that person needed office space and resources it may be a little trickier since in my case, no office space comes free, and so there would be a financing problem. This would vary hugely between organizations and persons so I cannot say what could be expected. You do of course need to provide any requests for support in the form of office space, computer/computing facility etc clearly. How such "demands" would affect your success would have to be evaluated against how interesting the project is to the organization/person. In the case of an academic advisor, I think how closely the idea ties in with existing work affects your chances. If it is completely off the beaten track of the person, I deem chances smaller.


About doing Research (without being payed)

  • Whereever I have worked so far, we'd have gladly let an office table for a good student who wanted to stay. (Computer may be more difficult, in many places students prefer to bring their laptops which are better than the university computers).
    Actually, where I'm now we try to keep the good students with small paid jobs between their research practica / theses, because it is a lot of effort to train a student. Of course, noone wants to keep a bad student. But wanting to go on with research has a strong positive correlation with being a good student.
    => talk with your supervisor about possibilities.

  • Just BTW: I was lucky enough to experience workplaces where the supervisors considered it unethical to let people work without payment.

  • Another issue is insurance. As long as you sit just somewhere with a computer, things are usually fine. However, without a proper contract (work or research practicum), you usually cannot work in any kind of lab.

  • Depending on the kind of work you propose, there may be possibilities to get some funding (if it is programming rather than scientific, maybe GSoC would be worth trying). Talk to your supervisor. Search the internet.

About Freelancing

You need to check the freelancing rules in your country. You mentioned only that you were previously "funded by european projects". Maybe someone can tell you more if we know your country.

  • A first step towards successful freelancing could be attending start-up business lectures/courses at your university/local vocational school/IHK (though as a freelancer you'd want to avoid joining them). My university offered such lecture series in the evening, so people could attend regardless of their studies/job.

  • Find out whether/how much jobbing/business your university allows (you don't want to loose the possibility to enter the master courses)

  • Find out what formal rules you have to follow: e.g.

    • do you need to get a particular tax number?
    • what information needs to be written on your business communication/invoices (e.g. said tax number)?
    • tons of other things to be aware of
  • E.g. in Germany unless you have private health insurance you want to be careful that your health insurance doesn't put you into the full-time freelancer category: this comes with a minimum fee that corresponds to a gross wage of about 1900 €/month!
    As student, you want either to stay in the student (lowest & fixed fee) or in the PhD student category (lower minimum fee).

  • In Germany, if you want to be a freelancer and work exclusively for your university, you'd better learn about Scheinselbständigkeit and how to convince the social insurance that this is not the case with you. Best way to do that is being able to point to another customer.
    This is another point why your supervisor may not want to enter such a business relation with you: if that suspicion comes up, not only you but also he'll have a lot of trouble.

  • Many German universities have a very bad reputation wrt. paying late.
    I can attest to that from experience, and I also know some closeby resaurant who'd not allow university to pay by bill - normal companies could, but university had to pay in cash for exactly this reason.


Your research contract ended, and there is no option for renewal. You want to work on a project which is your idea, but you need some technical and human resources from your position to realize the idea. You want to self-motivate your work, which is not related to an idea of the institution or your advisor, but you then want him to author a paper with you?

What you really need to do, I think, is nail down exactly what this is that you are building, and decide what you want to get out of it. In academia, the standard deliverable is a paper or conference discussion, but in freelance, you are typically trying to build a specific working product for a customer.

If you want to build this product, and think it has value for other customers or users, then go right ahead. It sounds like, though the institution would be helpful, you can do it on your own. If that's the case, and you believe you have a novel, valuable product, then you have no time to waste: pack up your desk, open your home office, and get coding. Maybe you start an open source project, maybe you sell a proprietary application. By being out of the institution, you make sure that you have complete control of your invention, in case it takes off.

I guess what I'm asking is, if you have a great idea, is an academic paper really the best place you can put it? Of course, academic researchers have to publish their work: it attracts funding and attention to their work, and allows their ideas to spread. If you're not an academic researcher, though, why publish (in a journal)? Microsoft doesn't publish their findings, they publish software on disks. CocaCola doesn't publish their secret formula, they bottle it and sell it.

Coming out of undergraduate, I can see why you feel pressure to publish. Published papers seems to be a litmus test for a researcher's efficacy. Do you think, however, that your having started an open source project or software company will look bad on your future job or grad school applications? Of course it won't.

The other thing that you'll get from being straight from undergrad, is the idea that you will be able to write a publication quality paper, one that your advisor will be comfortable with his name on, without any external support. Mentoring a paper is not simply a side job or friendly favor from your advisor. Even if your advisor did agree to mentor you on your paper, do you think his supervisor would want the institution's time, name, and resources going to something which does not have the institution's approval or funding?

If you are still feeling that you'd like to go for an academic publication, then by all means, do so. Many, many students decide they'd like to work on full-time research after undergraduate. What do they do? They go to grad school, where a research mentor advises them on a publication, which sounds exactly like what you're looking for. If you already have an area of research and a project in mind, you can set yourself apart from many other applicants. Look for schools or institutions with closely related research, contact the researchers and see if they have spots!


Consider applying to do a research master's degree at that university! Many universities will accept any master student if they don't require funding or secure their own. And they'll provide a desk. 9-12 months is the effort typically required for a master's thesis (assuming you meant full-time). As a master student you can usually do your work at a university research center. And you'll have to take a few courses that you basically choose yourself.

So, just apply for a master's, and start working on your platform (and your thesis book) right away. I'm sure while you develop, you'll soon figure out that there are things you want to learn more about. So you take courses or directed studies on these topics along the way (your supervisory committee needs to approve these). And bang 20 months later you might defend and walk out with a degree. Being in a formal master's program also gives you lots of handy support such as: having a supervisory committee that gives feedback on your project every couple weeks, your supervisor that is regularly available for questions, fellow students you can co-operate with, access to university counsel for help with writing your platform's terms of use, the journal access provided by the university library, access to presentation and writing training, and many more.

And if you end up disliking the process or the courses or whatever, finish your platform, publish it, and quit the program.

If that option is financially viable depends a lot on the circumstances. Like are you studying in your home state? Does the university charge tuition? 1k or 50k? Do you qualify for financial aid? Are you willing to TA? Can you secure your own funding? Seriously, figure out if there is a software foundation that might give you a grant! Who knows, you might find a fund that will pay your student living expenses.

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