Today’s post is by a PhD student who learned an important lesson about setting boundaries as a contractor with an employer.
University: University of Illinois
Department: Mechanical Engineering
1) What was your side or temporary job?
PCB circuit board design for a small local company. Designed and tested a small electronic device. Then I sent out for a PCB to be made, and I personally assembled and QA checked the devices. Finally, I provided product support for when the prototype devices were field tested.
2) How much did you earn?
$25/hr, ~0-12 hrs a month, sporadic hours typically on weekends.
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3) How did you balance your job with your graduate work?
This work began as I was getting near to finishing up my graduate work, but before a timetable had been set for my preliminary exams. I made clear that my education was my first priority with limited number of hours/week, that at times I would be unavailable due to school, and that during school hours (regular work hours where I had a TA/RA position) I was generally unavailable. There were no cases where my education was hindered by the side job, since it always had priority. However, the limited availability for working on the side job did cause some friction. These are very restrictive conditions for an employer, and do not work well with time sensitive work such as providing product support.
Make a clear boundary between when you are working at school vs working on the side job. Likewise, though I used my apartment to do work for my side job, I chose to maintain boundaries by never meeting my employer at my apartment, instead booking meeting rooms or choosing a public place. While the limited hours worked well for the research and development phase, some issues arose in product field testing. When the company was testing devices while I was at school, they occasionally had issues that required immediate responses. This is difficult to do while maintaining separation between graduate and side jobs, and would be better served by a full time employee.
Despite the limited involvement of my advisor, his friendly relationship to the CEO of the company meant that it was possible at times for a conflict of interest to arise. Ideas from the CEO could make it to my advisor who would then want independent (but ultimately related) work for graduate research. This did not occur for me, but did for a lab-mate who was also working in a similar capacity.
4) Did your job complement your graduate work or advance your career?
There was no direct correlation to my graduate work. However, it added real-world project experience in a related field. Although the money was nice, I was mainly pursuing it because I was interested in the project and because I wanted the experience. Most importantly, as the primary engineer on the device I learned the value in extensive QA of the design and assembly.
5) How did you get started with your job?
The position started through a one-time introduction by my advisor. His involvement in the project was limited to the introduction to avoid a serious conflict of interest.
6) Is there anything else you would like to share about your experience?
Ultimately what my employer wanted was a full time professional, but for the cost of an undergraduate intern. While a professional engineer could probably have completed this project quickly compared to the average intern, the cost was considered too much. I possessed a masters degree even at the start of the work, but in mechanical engineering instead of electrical engineering. I requested to be paid at a discount to the going rate for an experienced electrical engineer due to my inexperience, but was unwilling to accept undergraduate intern level pay. As mentioned above, I was interested in the experience more than the extra money. In some instances, I refused work different aspects of the project because I was unqualified for it, suggesting he find a more qualified person.
Finally, make clear at the start what the scope of your work is and whether you are acting as an employee or contractor. Get it in writing, along with what your compensation will be. As an employee, you are working under the direction of your boss to fulfill work needed by the company. As a contractor, you negotiate what services you are providing before doing the work, leading to well defined deliverables. I would suggest acting as a contractor if possible, though in my case I ended up acting as an employee due to my inexperience; I was unsure as to how to appropriately estimate the extent of the work required and I didn’t want to seriously underestimate number of hours needed.