It's an eternal graduate-student dilemma: How do you earn enough money to live and still find time to do your academic work? Fellowships -- if you're lucky enough to have one -- often pay less than a living wage. Teaching extra classes may not be an option, and finding a part-time job that offers both flexible hours and decent wages is rare. Freelancing (or consulting) can be the answer to this time-versus-money dilemma. Not only does freelancing pay well and allow you to set your own hours, but it also offers some unique long-term benefits for academics.
Freelancing can be defined as almost any situation in which you work for a client, rather than an employer. It can be something as simple as a housesitting job or as complicated as setting up your own computer-consulting business.
For Ph.D.'s considering careers outside academe (what I like to call "postacademic" careers), freelancing is an excellent way to ease into job hunting. A few hours of freelancing a month can speed your search for a full-time job considerably. Not only will you make contacts, but you'll gain relevant skills and test your interests. While the analytical powers you developed as a graduate student are valuable in the postacademic world, employers such as management-consulting companies expect to see those abilities complemented with practical problem-solving skills. Also, it's easier to break into a new field as a freelancer than as a full-time employee since the employer's risk in hiring you is much lower.
Depending on your goals, you may choose to freelance in a field related to your academic work, or draw upon an entirely different set of skills. David Rosengarten, a former professor of theater history at Skidmore College, chose the latter path and turned a hobby into a new career. Rosengarten had become disillusioned with college teaching and wanted to become a food writer. Although he was a lifelong "foodie," he had no credentials as a food writer, and knew he would need to freelance in order to gain experience. He started his transition by teaching cooking classes at a local gourmet store and pitching stories to Gourmet magazine. After a year or two of freelancing, he quit Skidmore to work for Gourmet full time.
While Rosengarten's experience may sound glamorous and far-fetched, the same principles apply to anyone who wants to write for a living. You will need to build a portfolio of relevant clippings -- academic publications simply will not do -- and freelancing is the best way to get started. You can begin with small local papers and work your way up to bigger publications as you gain experience, or single out specialized magazines that cover your interests, as Rosengarten did.
Even Ph.D.'s who plan to seek academic jobs would be smart to consider freelance work. For example, as I discovered in my own work, people usually make faster progress on their dissertations when they have other interests to put their work in perspective. When your dissertation is not the be-all and end-all of your existence, it becomes more manageable. Also, given the state of the academic job market, it's wise to prepare for the possibility of working outside the academy, even if it's not your first choice. A Ph.D. plus a small amount of relevant experience can get you hired in the postacademic world, but many academics discover too late the importance of broadening their experience. The average graduate student takes a decade to complete his or her degree; don't wait until you have the degree in hand to get some outside experience.
Freelancing in the postacademic world may simply strengthen your determination to stay in academe, but you also might surprise yourself, as Shannon Mrksich did. A Ph.D. in chemistry, she began consulting for a law firm on biotechnology patent disputes at the urging of a friend, and discovered that the work was unexpectedly satisfying. "I'd never used that side of my brain before, and who knew I could write?" she said. Ultimately, Mrksich decided to leave the lab behind and join the law firm full time while attending law school at night. Even if she had stayed in academe, however, she would have benefited from her consulting experience. She developed her writing skills, gained corporate and legal experience, and renewed her self-confidence -- all of these elements would have served her well as a faculty member.
Naturally, freelancing has its downsides. Working for yourself requires entrepreneurial spirit and chutzpah. Selling your services may feel brazen and awkward in contrast to the more staid academic environment. And finding clients can be difficult and time-consuming; you can expect to spend more time looking for clients than actually working for them. But one steady client is enough to make the search worthwhile.
I've worked as a freelance writer both full time and part time, and I learned the ropes along the way. Here is a quick primer on starting your own freelance career:
What should I do first? Focus on a skill that you'd like to use, then look for a market. You could write for a newspaper, do historical research for a law firm, form a string quartet and play at weddings, help people decide which computer to buy, make and sell jewelry or crafts, etc. Some of the more basic opportunities include pet-sitting, dog-walking, housesitting, baby-sitting, catering, and housecleaning. Anything goes -- just choose something you love to do.
How do I find clients? Freelancers are almost always hired by word-of-mouth. Start by sending an e-mail message to everyone in your address book saying that you're hanging out your shingle as a freelancer and offering a few sentences summarizing your qualifications. Ask them to forward the message to everyone they can think of. Mention your freelancing to anyone who asks, "What do you do?" It's remarkable how well just spreading the word can work. Get some business cards (they're cheap -- usually $20 for 500) and hand them out or pin them up on bulletin boards around town.
How much should I charge? It's important to remember that a third of what you earn under self-employment goes directly to taxes. Take this figure into account, and don't be bashful about asking for fair pay. Also be sure to pay yourself according to what the market will bear, not what seems like enough to you. It's a common beginner mistake to underpay yourself for your labor. You can find out standard rates by asking others who do similar work or asking clients what they normally pay.
What you should know before you start:
Ask lots of questions upfront. Never assume that you know what the clients want. Think about what issues might occur along the way, and raise them now. For example, before I take a writing assignment, I ask about the audience, the context, the tone, and the goal of the piece. I also ask for samples of work they've liked in the past to make sure I understand what they want.
Get a contract in writing. Be firm about this. A contract prevents misunderstandings and protects both you and the client. It can be as informal as an e-mail message stating the work to be done, the deadlines, and the pay. Keep the contract in a safe place.
Keep good records. Track how many hours you work each day, take notes when you meet with clients, and record any extra out-of-pocket expenses. When you finish a project, put a copy in your portfolio to use in pitching to other clients.
Be dependable. If you experience unexpected problems or delays, tell the client immediately that you may not be able to deliver on time and suggest an alternative plan. People are much calmer when they have advance warning of a missed deadline; no one wants to hear bad news at the last minute.
Ultimately, all Ph.D.'s have the skills needed to become successful freelancers. Working for yourself requires the same self-direction and resourcefulness that academics demonstrate every day in their teaching and research. While marketing yourself may feel strange at first, freelancing can be a flexible and profitable way to gain experience that will complement and even strengthen your Ph.D.