Life as a Contractor

For the last 18 months or so, I was been employed in a contract position at a non-profit research institute in the Research Triangle Park of North Carolina. From word of mouth and from the employment data I have seen, I am not alone in being in such a temporary position. I thought it might be interesting to describe the similarities and differences from (for example) my last job which was a full-time permanent position. While mine may be somewhat different to others (being as it is at a non-profit), I hope it will give some insight into the world of the contractor.

Having said that, broadly speaking it is very much the same as my old job: I work in a laboratory, running reactions and a lot of the main differences from my last job are in the way those respective entities do business rather than due to my relative status. My old job was all about what the customer wanted in an efficient drug discovery project and my current work is more like basic research and in any case is funded by a grant and run by my boss, the P.I. on that grant. I have less meetings, but that is more a reflection of the fact that our project team is him and me and so formal meetings are not really a necessary part of the weekly agenda.

The main difference is that I am paid hourly now, not just on salary. So hours count. And if I am not at work, I don’t get paid. I am free enough to work a flexible schedule but at the end of the week, I get paid for the hours I work. Well, up to 40 hours anyway – overtime is an option that has to be agreed in advance. My usual approach is to work a little over 40 hours just to make sure I am over the mark, then fill in a time sheet to 40 hours. The overall pay is about the same and depends partly of circumstances, experience and the like as usual. My impression is that it evens out.

The benefits are another big difference. My benefits are not from the institute directly, they are arranged and offered by the agency. They are not in business to offer long vacations and comprehensive insurance plans. During my initial period of employment I had no paid time off at all. Having been there a while, I get a small amount (much less than I had as a permanent employee), plus the major holidays. So, yes, I worked the Friday after Thanksgiving (note the previous comment about hours). Insurance coverage is better than none, but isn’t as good as it was. It isn’t terrible by any means though large medical costs will quickly max out the coverage. I think the term I am looking for here is ‘enough to get by’. Not a long term solution and I dread what would happen if I (or one of my family) got seriously ill or injured. This is part of the problem of having a basic need (health coverage) linked to something that is not necessarily permanent (employer) and the issues with it are particularly acute when you know the job you have is temporary.

There are some little perks for the permanent employees that I can’t get. There is a fitness center on campus and employees can get in, but I can’t. I have heard tell there are some hoops you can jump through to get a pass to get it, but I haven’t been able to figure them out yet. This is minor stuff and doesn’t really affect me much.

Broadly, doing medicinal chemistry or whatever is going to be pretty similar no matter how you come to be employed there, but it is in the perks and especially the benefits that a contractor feels different. I’d add stability, but in some ways knowing that your contract is up in 6 months is greater certainty than some of the permanent employees I have met have.

I’d welcome any comments, especially from other contractors that have their own take on the subject.

This entry was posted in career.

10 comments on “Life as a Contractor

  1. Stephen says:

    I’m curious if the contract research organization you’re speaking of is RTI Int’l? I am an academic postdoc in Hawaii right now and I am interested in potentially working for RTI in the near future. I have never worked for a contract research organization before and I would be very interested in speaking with you if you also work at RTI. Please send me an email at Thanks.

  2. Eric says:

    My experience as a contract employee has been somewhat different from your own. I work in an analytical lab for a large corporation in the Midwest.

    I agree that the benefits for contract workers (insurance, vacation time etc.) are significantly less substantial than those given to full time salaried employees. Unlike your experience, the pay is significantly different: contract employees make roughly 50-75% what a full time employee makes although the responsibilities are somewhat different.

    Another difference is that the contract I am on (and all other contractors at my company are too) is “at will” meaning my position could be terminated at any point and that I could walk away at any point with no penalty. This instability is obviously discouraging and my company I have already had to find another job within my company after a project I was working on had its funding cut and all contract employees were let go (full time employees were allowed to stay on the project.)

    I do know of other companies that have to-hire contracts where after a short trial period (3-6 months), they company either hires you on as a salaried employee or lets you go altogether.

  3. David Perrey says:

    Thanks for the comment, Eric.

    I didn’t mention “at will” employment, as that is pretty much standard where I am for full time and contractors alike. Though a contractor can be even more easily let go, without need for nuisances like severance pay. Not that employers are obliged to give that either – though most give at least something.

  4. Wow that was odd. I just wrote an very long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t appear. Grrrr… well I’m
    not writing all that over again. Anyways, just wanted to say fantastic blog!

  5. marie says:

    I started a new gig as a contractor, and have seen that it is worse than your experience. Contractors aren’t treated with as much respect, nor do my coworkers really give a crap about me. My boss is based in another state, I am paid below market rate, no one is eager to train me in the company’s proprietary systems, and i’m finding it very difficult to get plugged into what’s going on as I’m not on employee based email lists.

  6. […] now back to blogging and a comment on my 2011 post about Life as a Contractor, which was about my own experience here. That of course is datum – the singular of data. A […]

  7. I couldn’t refrain from commenting. Well written!

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