My one year of unpaid leave was supposed to last until the end of the academic year—June 30, 2015. But I really like my boss at that university, and I wanted him to have time adequate to hire my replacement. So as soon as I was sure I wouldn’t be returning to my position as a contingent writing instructor, I let him know. That was in mid-January.
What I did not expect: to have my university affiliation—and everything that affiliation entails—cut off within 24 hours. I thought I would have more time—six months, in fact—to transition away from my institution and, most important, to build a new professional identity. Instead, I had to do it in a day and a half.
I’m not complaining, not really. The life of the freelance academic is one I chose. I even wrote a manifesto about it. But during this rubber-meets-road moment, manifestos don’t help as much as hard work.
Plus, ever since I started graduate school, I’ve been a freeway flyer, adjuncting at multiple campuses during the same semester (sometimes in different cities). But I’ve always had at least one affiliation—at least one university credential. And being a part of an institution for over a decade gives you access to a lot of things that you don’t know you will miss until they’re suddenly gone.
Many of the challenges I’ve encountered during this sudden transition were surprising, and the solutions even more so. So I thought I’d share my adventures in suddenly starting over, in case they might help you in your journey from employed to self-employed, from academic to freelance academic.
The Easy Stuff
Technology. My institution had provided me with a laptop, which is really great. But then I had to turn it in with very little notice—like, hours. I had been planning for that eventuality, just not so soon. I know that other precarious academics living closer to the bone would have felt a sudden loss of technology more than I did. But ever since a public-records debacle occurred at my institution, I’ve been transitioning to my own gear for privacy reasons. I had all of my files backed up well, and so I handed over the laptop. You can find great prices on solid, used macs from Powermax.com, and move on.
Library access. OK losing this privilege totally sucked. I’m still working on replacing it. I have two journal articles in the editorial process for forthcoming publication. Losing my library access overnight meant that I can no longer check citations or update research. Here’s what I did: I immediately reached out to a wonderful librarian (are there any other kind?) at my former institution’s library and begged for her help. She reassured me that I could always come into the library and do research in person, using the databases there. I’m still reeling from her generosity. Of course I will no longer have offsite access to those databases, so in that way I’m kind of sunk.
My plea to all of you. Share your research on open-access databases or websites that you control. Most of the time you are allowed to do this. I have most of my research up on SSRN.com (the Social Science Research Network), except for one article that you can find on my personal website. You can, in fact, access all of my research via my personal website, too—but SSRN is indexed in Google Scholar. Posting your work on SSRN means that anyone like me, who does not have a library password, can use your research. Check out this post for more information on making your research open for all.
The Hard Stuff
A university affiliation has been a part of my identity and my job title since my mid-twenties. Losing it is the most amorphous of the challenges I’ve been facing, and, for a variety of reasons, the hardest one to deal with. That affiliation came up at least a dozen times in the first few days after I lost it. Immediately, I had to face the following tangible challenges:
- Changing my email signature. What in the world do I put there now?
- Changing my online bio on social websites like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Gravatar. Why, for the love of egg salad, are there so many of these to change?
- Throwing away a box full of business cards, and then having to design and order new ones. What’s my logo? What’s my job title? Who am I? Why am I here? (Note: Vistaprint is far cheaper than Moo for business cards, but you do have to be savvier with your design skills to end up with a good-looking card. I ordered a few from both sites and ended up going with Vistaprint for my big order.)
- Updating my personal website and online CV to show my new status as a self-employed person. That’s something I hadn’t been prepared to do yet. I didn’t really have a title, or a business name, or even a job/business description. Clearly, this updating thing is going to be an evolving process.
- Incorporating my business and creating a retirement account. I now have an S-Corp in the state of where I live, and an individual 401(k) plan through that corporation. I rolled my former institution’s retirement account into my new company’s i401(k) Y’all, this took a lot of work, and it’s still not done yet. Remember: I thought I would have more time.
Those were just the tangible challenges.
Then came the intangibles: I have books that I’ve signed contracts to write, so now I have to email my editors and tell them I’m no longer employed by a university. I am afraid to write these emails: Will my editors be disappointed? Will they kill my contracts? (Maybe I’ll just send a link to this column.)
Obviously, I also need to come up with a new job title that makes sense to other people. Then, I have talks that I’m scheduled to give at conferences in the spring—four, in fact. All of those conference name tags and programs are going to state my old institution. I’m not looking forward to those awkward conversations. I need to prep an explanation, a description, an identity.
Suddenly losing an identity: That’s the heart of the matter, isn’t it. (You’re welcome.)
And lastly there are the intangibles that no one will be able see coming. For example, how much will a loss of affiliation hurt my job prospects in the near future? If I had had time to ramp up my freelance work, to cultivate relationships and clients, would I have had an easier time transitioning from affiliated academic to unaffiliated freelance academic? At this point, I can only guess.