Katie Rose Guest Pryal

Novelist and Essayist at Chronicle Vitae

A Manifesto for the Freelance Academic

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Image: Seven Samurai (1954), by Akira Kurosawa

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In the new, corporate model of higher education, academics of all stripes, but most commonly those in contingent positions, find themselves pushed to the margins—of their departments, of their very institutions. If you’re lucky enough to have a contingent full-time position, you often still feel like an outsider. If you are an adjunct, then you almost certainly do. And even if you have a tenured or tenure-track position, if you aren’t a lifeboater with your head in an unmentionable place, then you can probably see that the system you are part of is unsustainable. Its future is rocky. You might worry that you’ll need to relocate some day—and what will you do then, when there aren’t any tenured jobs to be found?

Welcome to the new world of The Freelance Academic. I am writing about that world in a new series for Vitae that begins with this column. As scholars and teachers, we work in overstressed conditions with inadequate resources, many of us hoping that somehow—someday—the academic world will right itself again. But the academic world is not going to right itself again. It’s changing, and it’s not going to change back. To survive, we have to change, too.

So here’s my opening salvo—a five-point Freelance Manifesto. Its purpose is to help contingent professors (and all professors who are feeling woefully disempowered by their university employment) take some power back. As a non-tenure-track associate professor of law, I first put together this list to help myself make work decisions in the new academic paradigm. I felt like I’d lost my navigational points, so I created new ones. Figuring out how to make the right decisions has been a team effort in the #altac, #postac, and #adjunct communities on Twitter, and elsewhere online, including here on Vitae. I give them all a very large nod here.

Some of the following five points will apply to you and some won’t. But, nevertheless, it is time to shift our thinking.

1. Get paid for your work.

Stop researching, writing, and editing for free. Get paid for your hard work. You deserve it. I know getting started as a paid freelancer can be intimidating. Mulling over the plusses and minuses can help you make better decisions, as Kelly J. Baker (@kelly_j_baker) noted in her column on shifting her career to freelance writing. Take good advice, but please, do not listen to people who tell you that you flat out that you can’t do it.

I’ll tackle getting paid in future columns in this series as well. But the takeaway of the getting-paid point is this: You are worth it. And when you are an adjunct, a couple hundred bucks for a short piece in your area of expertise means groceries for your family for the month.

There is one exception to the get-paid rule: Love. If you truly love something, you can do it for free. But now and again you are required to reread Rebecca Schuman (@pankisseskafka) on the “calling” of academia, so you don’t get snookered by the “love” thing. For more in a similar vein, here’s Jacqui Shine (@DearSplenda) on love & academia, and William Pannapacker (@pannapacker) on love and graduate school. We academics have been told for so long that money sullies the life of the mind. I call malarkey.

2. Live in a place you love with the people you love.

Academia teaches you to move away from the people and places you love in order to be successful. You have to be willing to move anywhere to find any job, otherwise you aren’t dedicated enough.

That, too, is malarkey. Living that way is the opposite of living as a human being. If you have the choice, live with your family in a place where you enjoy living. Don’t let anyone tell you that you are copping out by choosing your humanity over your academic credentials. Plenty has been written on the topic of location (check out number six on this list) and loved ones.

In a similar vein, as was recently addressed in a Vitae series on academic motherhood, if you want to have children, have children—create new small people to love. And if you know someone struggling with infertility, here’s a lesson from post-academic Elizabeth Keenan (@badcoverversion) on how to broach that subject with sensitivity.

3. Stop applying to academic jobs.

This one might seem a little crazy, so bear with me.

The job market is too expensive—temporally, emotionally, and financially. The chances of the perfect job being right around the corner are slim to none. You’re a freelancer now. So use the time and money you will save by not applying for jobs to start freelancing. Take a course on how to pitch ideas to writer’s markets that pay, like the great (inexpensive) one I took through The Thinking Writer. It paid for itself within a week after I sold a story that I had workshopped during the course. (I made a great network of freelancing friends through that course. And no, it was not a rip-off.)

I know it’s hard to let go of the dream of landing the perfect academic job. You might hear a story from a friend who knows someone whose cousin’s mailman’s niece finally landed a tenure-track position that was just right for her. You hear this story and think, Just one more round of applications, and that will be me!

It won’t be you. I’m so sorry. You sound like someone who buys lottery tickets. Stop buying lottery tickets. For emotional help with backing away from the job market, you can read Kelly J. Baker’s column that is directly on point. (Yes, Kelly writes a lot of great stuff for Vitae. She’s really doing a good job transitioning to freelancing.)

4. Remember that you are not alone.

Turning your academic knowledge and skills into cash is, itself, a skill. But there are people out there who can help you—Jennifer Polk (@fromPhDtoLife) jumps immediately to mind, as does howtoleaveacademia.com and Beyond the Tenure Track. And, from what I’ve encountered on #postac, #altac, and #adjunct social media, we all believe in each other. The most amazing thing of all is how much they all want to help you. It’s kind of miraculous. There will, of course, be jerks—the naysayers who will tell you that what you want to do is too hard or even impossible. Oh, jeez, please do ignore them.

5. When you find yourself being lured back to your department for a temporary gig, remember: They’re never going to let you in the club.

Stop hoping that the department where you are contingent is suddenly going to recognize that you are awesome (despite the fact that you are, indeed, awesome). So long as you hold out that glimmer of hope, they hold all the power. You will keep taking on more assignments, hoping that someone will tap you with a magic wand and make you a special fairy, too.

Step back and embrace freelancing. Now you hold the power. You no longer have only one path to success—the path through traditional academic streams. Now you have a universe of paths.

I don’t live in the clouds. I know that most of us are struggling with money. I just got up off of the couch where I was lying in a fear-ball, wondering how my family is going to survive now without my paycheck and benefits since I just took unpaid leave from what can only be described as an undesirable work environment. It’s really hard not to look back.

That’s why I wrote this piece. I needed a mantra, a manifesto. Now we can share it.

Future columns in this series will look at how to start treating your university as a client; how to create a network of other freelance academics; how to juggle freelancing and teaching (and everything else); and more. I’ll interview academic coaches and prominent folks in the #postac and #altac communities, and suggest ways to start networking (which begins with this article.) And I would love to hear from any of you who have a freelance academic story to share. (Use the #freelanceacademic tag on Twitter to join the conversation.)

Bon courage.

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