What’s a freelance academic?
Back in December, I was interviewed on Radio 5 Live about my opposition to Syrian air strikes. The interviewer clearly had doubts about my politics but also about my job, evident when she introduced me in a sceptical tone as “Heather Mendick, who describes herself on Twitter as a freelance academic”. The idea of working as a freelance academic is unfamiliar, even to many university-based academics. The most common question I get asked by them is “What do you do?” In this blog I answer that question.
What I do: paid work
There are the four main pieces of paid work that I’ve done or am scheduled to do in my first year freelancing. I’ve carried out evaluations of Brunel University’s Scholarship Programmes and their Professional Mentoring Programme. Both of these programmes are targeted at Widening Participation students, those who are under-represented in higher education, and so the evaluations were funded by Brunel’s Widening Participation Office. Alongside this, I’ve been continuing to supervise two doctoral students and proofreading their theses. I love supervising but find proofreading slow and challenging. Still, given my understanding of their work, it’s better for me to muddle through than to use online proofreading services. I’ve also been doing research consultancy at the British Science Association, a charity which aims to create “a world where science is at the heart of society and culture”. I helped them map the Science Communication field and we’re now developing methods to evaluate how far they’re work is enabling more people to actively engage with science Finally, over the summer, I’m going to be working on data analysis and writing for a science and technology education project funded by the Swedish Research Council and led by Anna Danielsson. I’ve also taken on some smaller pieces of work, including research support and external examining, and I make a little money through the ALCS and PLR who distribute fees to authors when their writing is copied or their books borrowed from libraries.
For much of this work, I charge consultancy rates. I generally set these at £450 per day (25% less than my last university charged for my time). However, for two substantial pieces work which gave me financial security and opportunities to publish, I reduced this to £350 per day. Proofreading pays less and some work, like external examining, comes with a set take-it-or-leave-it fee, and I negotiate this on a case-by-case basis but never taking on anything where the effective hourly rate is below £10.
What I do: unpaid work
As with all freelancers, a substantial amount of what I do is unpaid. I have to update my academia webpage, complete my tax return, pursue work that I don’t end up getting, and so on. The absence of a regular income, led me to rethink what I’m willing to do for free. I rarely review articles and remain on only one editorial board for a lovely Open Access journal, the International Journal of Gender, Science and Technology. With a few exceptions, I only do talks and seminars if I’m paid for them.
There are three main projects that I have chosen to work on for free. Towards the end of 2015, I set up the Alternative Academia Network with Laura Harvey. This aims to provide people with a space to explore alternatives to mainstream higher education. I joined the executive of the British Society for Research into Learning Mathematics before going freelance. I considered resigning when my circumstances changed. But the executive is a lovely group of people, my role only takes a few days each term, and through it I support an organisation that has supported me in the past, so I’ve stuck with it. The biggest chunk of unpaid work I do is for CelebYouth: writing blogs like this, sharing responsibility for the Twitter and Facebook and working on a book with Kim, Laura and Aisha. I do this because I have gained and continue to gain immensely from our collaboration.
How it’s going so far
There are lots of advantages to being freelance. I left my last university after complaining about bullying. Yet, even without this push, universities are becoming increasingly difficult places and life is less stressful outside of them. I have control over what I do, from what time I get up in the morning to what work I take on (although this latter freedom is partly dependent on my financial situation at any given time). This suits me as does the way being freelance enables me to try new things.
There are also downsides. It feels more precarious than having a ‘proper job’ although, given the way employment is changing, I’m not sure it is. To guard against this precariousness I have one year’s income saved so that if I have a few dry months, there’s no immediate panic. Living cheaply also helps. And I know that, while I don’t want to do private maths tuition or mark exam scripts, there will always be demand for these if I run out of other options.
After the first couple of months, I haven’t struggled to find work this year (I’m not trying to be full time). There’s even been a few interesting projects that I haven’t applied for because I don’t have enough time. I got this work by sending my CV to about 30 contacts, and generally broadcasting my freelance status. Many thoughtful people have sent work opportunities my way, only some of which worked out but all of which gave me hope that freelancing was viable and not some desperate stopgap between university posts. I miss having colleagues and teaching undergraduates but not enough to consider going back yet.
Tags: academia, consultancy, freelance, research
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I think it’s an incredibly bold step you have taken. But the issues you experienced in your previous role sound awful. I can imagine that with your talents and originality you will make a huge success of it. The freedoms you will capitalize on, I have no doubt, but being business minded might be something that will take some time to get used to. If I see any work for you here, I will be sure to send it your way. I am looking for a way to get you a paid seminar.
Thanks, Steve, it was partly by accident that I ended up freelance – I applied for three jobs but didn’t get any of them! But after the difficult time I had, it was probably good that I didn’t go straight into another university setting. Bullying seems to be rife in academia right now.
I do very similar work, though I call myself an independent researcher – perhaps because I’ve never been a non-freelance academic. Though I’ve been an indie researcher since 1999, and I’ve only been doing altac work since 2008. I relate to a lot of what you write, and in particular I agree that self-employment, if done carefully (as you clearly do), is not more precarious than employment these days. Wishing you luck!
Thanks, Helen. My most precarious period was four years when I was on a series of one year contracts that never got renewed until the last minute and after lots of emails and phonecalls from me chasing. I was offered a permanent contract after I’d got another job!
I’ve found your blogs helpful especially the one you wrote on self publishing.