Freelancing and Entrepreneurship
Beyond the Professoriate, 5/7/16
To answer those of you who mentioned in the survey that you wanted to know whether there’s life outside academia, here’s my answer: yes. Resoundingly, confidently: yes. A very good life, in fact.
I left academia in 2014 after 15 years teaching literature and first-year writing. I had a lot to say about adjuncting and why I left. I knew I’d never go back to academia, so I wanted to speak for myself and the other adjuncts who couldn’t be as blunt or critical. I’d been an adjunct too long to ever be anything but an adjunct, and I was done with the dead-endedness and false hope. For anyone still in academia and searching for full-time jobs, be careful about adjuncting or stringing together post-docs or visiting positions: often, the longer you do these, the less hireable you are for full-time positions. Academia typically doesn’t reward experience for those in precarious positions. Don’t expect it to reward all those years you’ve taught or publications you’ve done.
Professionally and personally, it’s been a productive two years for me. The biggest change I’ve seen since switching careers is that I’m rewarded for my growing experience as a freelance editor and consultant—both financially (in terms of what I can charge my clients) and professionally (in terms of the respect and appreciation I get from them). Some other refreshing changes I’ve experienced in the private sector are:
- Attitudes toward collaboration;
- More room to negotiate pay and other working conditions;
- A healthier attitude toward self-care and taking breaks;
- Shorter (much shorter) résumés and cover letters;
- Less emphasis on academic credentials or where one went to school;
- Much less siloing into specific disciplines;
- More emphasis on clear, direct, and purposeful writing.
I draw on my skills as a researcher, writer, and teacher all the time—sometimes in unexpected ways. My teaching experience has helped me on some developmental editing projects for graduate students: we worked through several versions of a thesis or article. I’ve also been chosen to edit some business, religious history, and government documents specifically because I was an educated non-specialist, and the clients wanted an objective look at the writing. If, like I did when I left, you’re trying to establish yourself as a freelance editor, remember that “editing” entails different kinds of work (not just correcting grammar) and that your current academic interests might influence but won’t necessarily determine your worth as a freelancer.
I’ll talk about three main areas that will help you get started (or learn more about) freelancing as an alt-ac or post-ac: transitioning, connecting, and working.
- Before searching and applying for jobs, self-reflect on your skills as a researcher and teacher. If, like me, you’ve taught a lot of writing in your courses, then you have experience reading, commenting on, and developing others’ work—sometimes hundreds or thousands of pages of it. The specific research you’ve done shows more generally that you can plan, study, synthesize, and present different kinds of information to an informed audience. Your teaching in your discipline shows that you can communicate information to a “fresh” or uninformed audience. The trick is to distill what you can do and transfer from your academic training into a new profession.
- Find clear and concrete language to articulate these skills—that is, don’t write or speak like an academic in your cover letters and interviews. Hiring managers and others will likely find it offputting, to say the least. Defy the stereotype of the stuffy, awkward, and self-important academic; don’t reinforce it.
- Expect to draw on different aspects of your teaching and research experience. You might never write or talk about the specific thing you’ve written articles and papers on, but you’ll definitely use those researching, writing, revising, and presentation skills.
- Have a positive career change story, as Jennifer Polk, Chris Humphrey, and others have said. In an interview, you’ll be asked in some way why you’re leaving an academic career. Your answer should be honest but constructive. I was asked this a few times, and I kept things positive: I told the interviewers that I’d always been a strong editor, and I wanted to use my skills in a field with more career potential than academia was offering me. I then pivoted to the transferable skills I’d gained as a professor and researcher. Try to keep this part concise and direct, and then pivot back to the job you’re being interviewed for.
- There are times and places—such as Twitter or private conversations—for the more real, no-holds-barred version of why you’re leaving academia. This can be very fulfilling and cathartic, as many of us can attest.
- Don’t worry about the haters or others still in academia. If they don’t respect or support your career decisions, they’re not worth your professional time. Some—especially those who haven’t had been on the job hunt for many years—might not be able to wrap their heads around you leaving what, to them, is a “calling.” A mentor who shuts you out because you’ve left the profession is no mentor you need in your life. To speak bluntly, this is their problem, not yours. They’ll come around or they won’t, and some might always be a little awkward around you. Always do what works best for you.
- If you’re on Twitter, use it regularly. If you’re not, get on Twitter follow folks like Jennifer, Maren, and my fellow panelists and me, and begin expanding your digital identity. When you’re there, learn to both listen and self-promote. Follow useful hashtags (#WithAPhD, #Postac, #Freelancing, #FreelanceLife), and don’t be afraid to share your story or availability as a freelancer. I’ve gotten a few jobs and many connections from Twitter.
- While you’re tweeting, learn from people like us, as well as others you meet in person or online. Typically, the post-ac and alt-ac communities are very open and engaging. Want to know something? Ask.
- Use your network to find freelance gigs or other kinds of employment. The more that people know what you’re doing, the more likely you are to get gigs through word-of-mouth. You can be as public or as private as you’re comfortable being, but let people know about your new career path. I regularly tell clients to email colleagues, professors, mentors, and peers in their field to update them on a potential career change: some might be willing to help or steer you some business to begin boosting your résumé. I’ve gotten several editing jobs this way, simply because my academic colleagues needed manuscripts or articles edited.
- Talk to people in the industries you’re eyeing for jobs. Whenever possible, get some informational interviews with friends or their colleagues to learn about the field. Ask your circle if they know anyone and could set up something. Informational interviews can be very useful to (1) teach you some things about the industry and (2) give an experienced professional the chance to speak frankly to you about your strengths and weaknesses in breaking in.
- I had an informational interview with a long-time acquisitions editor at a scholarly press. He spoke bluntly about the current state of academic publishing, the ins and outs of the job, and how I might succeed and struggle as an editor. He said things he wouldn’t (or couldn’t) say in a formal interview, which was helpful for both of us.
- Get several sets of eyes on your résumé or cover letter, preferably from at least one person with hiring experience. Use your network. Remember, also, that non-academic cover letters are typically short and direct: you’ll talk more fully about your experience, qualifications, and other things in an interview. This will be refreshing, too: résumés are not exhaustive lists of publications and teaching like CVs are.
- You don’t necessarily have to sever all academic ties if you go post-ac. Although I’m now only involved in academic publishing as an editor, some alt- and post-acs continue to research and present as independent scholars. Be aware, though, that time spent doing unpaid scholarly research and writing might be time not spent making connections or money as a freelancer. With very few exceptions, I won’t writing anything for publication unless I’m paid for the work. Your time has value; budget it accordingly.
- Remember that you don’t have to wait until you’re either hired full time or finally leave academia to start freelancing. Start ASAP. If a non-academic career seems both increasingly likely and increasingly desirable, make some transitions now. Instead of working on another article or book review that you hope will make you more marketable for a professorship, spend the time boosting your freelancing credentials, or even taking on a handful of small projects to get you started.
- Remember, though, to be patient and understand that your career change might need some baby steps before you’re full time. Every individual freelancing project you do now becomes another line of experience on your résumé.
- Be careful about overdoing the freelance gigs, especially lower-paying ones. Think of this as the equivalent of stringing together several contingent teaching positions: lots of work for little pay. Don’t undervalue yourself, and don’t be afraid to renegotiate—or even turn down—a low-paying gig.
- Regarding salary negotiation: academia has trained us to just accept the pay we’re offered for a course or whatever; you don’t always have to do that outside academia. It’s a fine art, though, so talk to people who’ve done it successfully. Your time and experience are valuable.
- If you’ll be freelancing, make sure you have policies, and get your clients to accept them before you do any work. The high points your policies should cover are:
- how much and when you’ll be paid (try to get a portion up front);
- the turnaround time you’ll need to finish a project;
- the client’s responsibilities for getting you materials on time—as well as any late or rush charges if they don’t;
- the quality of work you require to write, edit, or proofread (that is, clients must send you clean work that’s ready for you—not a messy or incomplete version);
- the number of versions or drafts you’ll look at before charging more money;
- this one’s important: exactly what work your fee covers (so you can avoid clients adding tasks piecemeal—and expecting the extra work to be free).
- Don’t be afraid to tell clients that that you won’t start or continue the work until they meet your standards. Before I start a project, I email the clients with the project scope so (1) they can see and acknowledge it and (2) it’s in writing in case there’s confusion about something down the road.
- Figure out how you work best, and budget your projects accordingly. Having a lot of different projects at once might seem like a fine or lucrative idea, but you might not be able to do your best work if you’re spread too thinly.
- Ask your current clients to act as references. Always offer new (or potential) clients the chance to talk with recent ones, so they can see how qualified and efficient you are. Referrals are big for freelancers, especially in the early stages.
Remember: there’s a good life waiting for you outside academia.
Someone else asked in the survey about how to extinguish the inner struggle or disappointment of not becoming a professor. To this, I’d tell you to look at what’s still happening to higher ed in America and Canada: increasing adjunctification, assaults on tenure and academic freedom, neoliberal and corporate “rebranding” <shudder> of education, increasing austerity measures, legislative interference, and corruption. If your only academic future is adjuncting or a series of post-docs or VAPs in a broken system, you’re doing yourself a favor by leaving.
As a freelancer, entrepreneur, or something else in a non-academic setting, you’ll be in a field with more growth potential, emotional healthiness, and room for negotiation. You’ll also be rewarded for your experience, which will be a refreshing change in the new life you’ll certainly have outside academia.