Image: Seven Samurai (1954), by Akira Kurosawa
So you’re ready to embark on a career — or a side career — as a freelance academic. Great. Here’s your first challenge: How do you decide what to do? That’s easy enough to answer, right? Just do what you love, and it will all work out? Er, not quite.
I’m not here to burst any bubbles. I’m not here to say, "It’s uphill both ways, whippersnapper.” (I detest those people.) But anyone who knows me knows that I’m super practical. That’s what you’ll find here today — some practicality to mix into your planning.
You have been doing lots of planning, right? If not, don’t panic. The following three points will get you started on your new career as a freelance academic.
The “gig” economy can be tough. So I lied a little. I am going to talk about how things are uphill — to a degree — for freelancers. I’ll keep this section short so I don’t sound like I’m telling you to get off my lawn, but basically it goes like this: Businesses have cut back on full-time employees and replaced them with independent contractors who receive paychecks but no benefits. Those “1099” employees — i.e., freelancers — save the businesses money. That sounds a lot like the adjunctification of the academy if you think about it.
A lot of workers have had no choice but to turn to freelancing. They’ve lost their jobs, and the only way to keep working in their fields is to sell their services to various companies — often the same companies these people used to work for as W-2 employees. As independent contractors, they often make less money than they used to as full timers, and of course have little or no job security.
Not only do freelancers have to purchase their own health insurance, they have to hustle for every job, and sometimes they get stiffed by their clients. According to Fast Company, citing a survey by the Freelancer’s Union (check them out), half of freelancers reported getting cheated by a client in 2014. Furthermore, the "average amount lost was $6,390. For the average respondent, that amount represented 13 percent of their annual income.” The problem is, freelancers have a hard time collecting that lost money. W-2 employees wouldn’t have such a hard time: "If this were to happen to a full-time employee, they would be entitled to file a wage-theft complaint with the Department of Labor.” The Freelancer’s Union is working on a campaign to get bills passed at the state level to protect against freelance wage theft.
Freelancing also requires you to think about money in a vastly different way. You will probably need to pay yourself a steady paycheck, for example, even though some months you’ll make less money than other months. You will probably consider incorporating or forming an LLC. These are important decisions, ones you never needed to think about when you worked for a university or a company. You need to think about them now.
Freelancing can be lonely. I always wondered why people would fork over good money to share a workspace with other freelancers when they already pay for places — called houses or apartments—where they could do their work.
Then I figured it out. Freelancers may have different motivations for going to “coworking shops,” but a primary reason is for the company. I see it when I visit coworking spaces. The freelancers bounce ideas off of each other. They say hi to each other. They know that someone else knows they’re alive. It’s a good feeling to know that someone else knows—and cares—that you’re alive. When you leave a full-time job to freelance, you lose colleagues. Now, some of you are likely thinking: “Awesome. My colleagues were terrible.” But the thing is, you probably had one or two whom you liked. Even the most misanthropic person needs other people to steal ideas from.
But what if you can’t afford to pay for a coworking shop? If it’s people you need, you can of course work in those places called libraries or coffee shops at no (or minimal) charge, but you are unlikely to find many colleagues there who do what you do.
Here’s the solution I figured out, quite by accident. I created a network of colleagues, hand-picking people whom I love to bounce ideas off of. But we connect using technology. The people whom I’ve gathered (and am still gathering) as my colleagues live all over the world. We organize regular monthly videochat meetings. We talk about our career challenges. We figure out how to solve problems we’re facing. We take notes. I usually walk away with ideas for new articles. They walk away with what they need. In fact, before we say goodbye, we ask each other: “Did you get what you need?” And we always schedule the next meeting before hanging up.
Everyone needs colleagues. But if you are a freelancer, you get to create your own circle of colleagues, which is much, much better.
There’s plenty of work you will not love to do as a freelancer. I hate invoicing. I hate balancing my books. (Oh man, ugh.) I hate collecting from clients in arrears. I hate filing taxes. I hate proofreading. Whenever I’m doing any of those things, because I am me, I complain a lot. My husband gets fed up and yells, “At least you’re not grading!”
True. He listened to me moan about grading for 11 years as I taught college writing, sometimes four sections a semester across multiple campuses. Nothing snaps me back to reality faster than that particular reminder.
That stuff we don’t like to do — whether we’re reporting to someone else or ourselves — that’s called “life.” But at least as a freelancer, I really do get to do what I love. Some of the time. My estimate is that I spend a third of my professional life actually doing the work that I love — writing — and the rest doing tasks that support the work that I love.
And if you think about it, that ratio makes total sense. How many emails with editors do I have to draft before I get a pitch just right? How many invoices do I have to send before a client finally pays me? How many proposals do I have to revise before the client accepts the project — if the client accepts it at all?
You just have to accept this one truth: Even if you are lucky enough that “what you love” is a thing that people will pay you money to do, most of the time you will not actually be doing that thing. And that’s OK. I’ve been freelancing full-time for a few years now, and it took me this long to realize that the invoicing, the quoting, the book-balancing are all, in their own way, great work. Because they’re my work.
Thinking of becoming a Freelance Academic? Join our Flexible Academics group to share transition strategies and talk about the challenges of being self-employed.