Advice

The Search for Stability as a Freelance Academic

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September 13, 2017

W hen I started the Freelance Academic series three years ago, I was a Ph.D. on leave from my contingent faculty job — trying to figure out how to find a fulfilling career in a higher-education system that did not value my work. The solution, I ultimately decided, was to value myself and create work that I liked.

Skip forward from October 2014 to now, and I’ve left academe, started my freelancing business, and created a relatively stable life for myself doing work that I (usually) enjoy. But the key word in that sentence is "stable." Too many Ph.D.s-turned-freelancers have trouble finding stability, especially now that more and more work is outsourced from full-time positions into what has been dubbed "the gig economy." Those of us living that way know it can give your nerves a drubbing. So with this, my final column for the Freelance Academic series, I leave you with my advice for how to find stability in your postacademic freelance career.

Put safeties in place. The news cycle has been exhausting lately for all of us. Every day, it seems, there’s a new horrifying thing. As someone who is paid to write about those horrifying things, I’m beginning to hate this slice of my freelance work. It’s hard to write in-depth coverage of an event when, 24 hours later, your account will be out of date. And when I try to write a story that keeps up with the news cycle, it’s exhausting. Everything else I’m working on (not to mention my private life) must be put on hold to write it. As Stacia L. Brown tweeted about freelance writing: After a while, there’s "nothing fun about it except the byline."

And that’s just my freelance journalism work. There’s also the rest of my career that I cobble together through freelance consulting, editing, and more. I never know how much money will come in each month, and when I’ll strike it big — relatively speaking. Basically, working as a freelancer can be exhausting because it can feel like you’re always on a roller-coaster. The freedom and flexibility are huge pluses, but the sheer unpredictability of it can wear you out.

I’ve learned how to put safeties in place to create a more stable (there’s that s-word again) life as a freelancer. That’s not just about bringing in a consistent income. It’s also about generating consistent work and creating a community I can count on. Those three things — consistent money, work, and community — are the three legs of the table I’m building my freelance career on now. Whether you are an academic thinking about starting a side business, or you are leaving higher education entirely, here are some things to consider about each of those legs.

Stable, consistent money. It is a truism of freelancing that getting paid is hard. Our clients sit on our money. As the journalist and author Rachel Vorona Cote tweeted, "Truly, full-time freelancing would be a more feasible living if we could depend on being paid in a timely manner — even within 30 days." Just because you’ve done the work doesn’t mean that you’ll have your money. So it is your job to ensure that you have money and aren’t, therefore, at the mercy of clients who can’t pay you on time.

I've learned how to put safeties in place to create a more stable life as a freelancer. That's not just about bringing in a consistent income. It's also about generating consistent work and creating a community I can count on.
Here’s a small trick I learned from my friend, finance writer, and former freelancer, Claire McGuire. It was some of the best freelancing advice I’ve ever received: Pay yourself a paycheck each month. Keep the amount consistent and within your means. Pay yourself even if you don’t need the check in a particular month.

This trick requires having two accounts — one that your income from clients goes into (like a savings account) and one that is for everyday living expenses (a checking account). Or you can open a business checking account for your income, and use a personal checking account for your personal life. Whatever system you choose, write yourself a paycheck each month. And that amount is the same every month, and always well within your means.

When I was first getting started as a freelancer, my monthly paycheck amount was low. That’s because what I had in the bank was low, and I didn’t know what to expect in the future. I had no financial cushion. Now that I’ve been doing this for a while, the monthly paycheck amount has grown. I can look at what I have in the bank and project forward, and I give myself a steady paycheck.

Honestly, a steady paycheck, no matter how small, is something that every freelancer dreams of — or at least this freelancer does. Get off the income roller-coaster as quickly as you can.

Stable, consistent work. This is the hobgoblin of all freelancers. A caveat: None of the following ideas are perfect — mostly they apply to someone like me who is a writer and editor. But hopefully the concepts will work for you in whatever self-employment you are pursuing.

When I first started freelance writing, I got some good advice from a writer friend: Once you’ve pitched an idea and written for a magazine, she said, you pitch a series next. In other words, take the one stand-alone piece of work and turn it into predictable, consistent work. I did that twice at the beginning of my freelance career and had my first steady clients. The lesson I learned there: Whenever I write for a magazine, and the editors seem to like what I’ve produced, I pitch a continuing column on the subject. Often they say no, but sometimes they say yes. Sometimes they just buy the sample pitches I suggest, or they keep me on tap as a go-to person for a certain beat. But those things are good outcomes, too.

To look at this in a bigger-picture fashion, the idea here is to standardize the services you offer — whether they are editing services, technical skills you learned in graduate school, or some independent skill you pursued on your own. What I mean is: Don’t just do piecemeal work for piecemeal clients. You don’t want to be cold-pitching all the time, because that requires doing two tasks: building trust with a new client and selling your services. Finding a way to turn the initial job into a continuing source of paid work cuts out the first task and lets you skip straight to the second.

Two final notes about the work flow:

  • First, if you do successful work for clients, ask them for two things: a testimonial (have them email it to you) and referrals.
  • Second, always have a clean, up-to-date résumé ready as a safety net. Sometimes you need to bow out of freelancing for a while, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Stable, consistent community. I knew of course that freelance work meant going it alone, but I was nonetheless surprised by just how lonely this sort of work can be. I spend so much of my time alone — even more than was the case in graduate school or when I was teaching. I’m fortunate, however. I stumbled, very much by accident, into a virtual and long-distance community of like-minded freelancers.

While I found my community of freelancer colleagues by accident, maintaining those relationships is something I do quite deliberately. I try to schedule Skype and phone chats after I meet people via social media, and work hard not to let the connections lapse. I keep a calendar and ensure that I stay in touch with my fellow freelancers regularly. Indeed, I call them "colleagues," because that is what they are. Although I don’t go to work at an office or a department, they are colleagues with whom I share my career failures and successes and upon whom I depend for support. I look out for them, and they look out for me. The stability of that community is the heart of my freelancing career.

Three years after starting on this path, I’ve managed to create a career I can (mostly) count on, which, in the grand scheme of things, is all I could wish for. I wish the same for you as you mull life as a freelance academic.

Katie Rose Guest Pryal is a novelist, journalist, and freelance academic and a former clinical associate professor of law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She teaches creative writing part-time in Duke University’s continuing-studies program.