Katie Rose Guest Pryal

Novelist and Essayist at Chronicle Vitae

The University Is Just Another Client

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Image: Seven Samurai (1954), by Akira Kurosawa

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Many times over the past few months, I've had some form of a conversation I'm about to describe with nontenure-track (NTT) colleagues—and even some tenure-track (TT) ones.

I know I’m going to sound like I'm preaching with the fervor of the converted. But I’m not converted: I'm simply more aware now of university power dynamics (bless my former naïve heart) and how to use them, and I want my friends to share that awareness.

(Note: When I use “NTT,” I’m referring to all contingent employees of a university, including adjuncts, staff members in faculty-like roles (i.e., #altac roles), and contingent instructors in full-time positions. Those different groups have different concerns. But for the purposes of this piece, I hope that all of them can derive usefulness from the ideas I’m about to share.)

The Conversation

Here's a typical situation. I'm having coffee with a friend early on a Tuesday morning. She has been searching high and low for ways to break through the contingent ceiling. She is teaching on a nonrenewable contract at an institution and wants to find a way to encourage "them" to hire her on a more permanent basis when her contract expires.

With that goal in mind, she's taken on more service work, she's teaching an extra course (for no extra pay), and she's letting more students into the classes she already teaches—hoping that someone in a position of authority will recognize the awesome work she's doing. I was stunned by how much extra work she was describing. Since I tend toward bossiness, I consciously forced myself to just ask questions (and no, not leading questions), to get a full sense of what she was doing.

Finally, I asked, "Why are you doing all of this extra work?"

And finally, she said something like, “I really want them to keep me on after my contract ends.”

And there it was. The contingent faculty equivalent of writing a piece on spec. Except what my friend described isn't like an article you write in your free time. She was talking about her whole career.

As a contingent faculty member, you work your whole career on spec. Every class you teach, every grant you write, every article you publish—they’re all on spec, because you have no job security to back you up if a project doesn’t pan out. You work and work, hoping some person in authority will give you: (a) more money, (b) more job security, (c) more job respect, or some combination of (a), (b), and (c).

Spoiler alert: It doesn't work. As those of us who've been at this for a while know, giving administrators your work for free does not inspire them to reward you. More often it backfires and inspires administrators to turn your previously volunteered work into new job requirements. Suddenly what you did as a favor becomes a rigid job expectation.

Fortunately, I have a solution. It begins with a shift of mindset—from that of employee to that of freelancer. As a freelancer, your institution is just one of your many clients. That means you need to spend your extra time and energy on projects that earn you money and respect outside of one particular institution.

NTTs as Freelancers—But with Many Clients

You know who works on spec a lot? Freelancers. But they (usually) know how to do it while preserving their time, finances, and mental health.

NTTs are the freelancers of academia, and we need to start acting like it. Look at it this way: Your university has basically already said that you are a freelancer. You are already working job to job. That’s what a year-to-year contract means. Or in the case of my friend, NTT means a terminal contract: She took a job with a client, and when that job ends, so does the client relationship.


But if that is the case, then your institution will just be one of your many clients. Freelancers don’t make a living hoping one client will keep hiring them over and over. They hustle and find other clients, too. We NTTs need to do the same. (And if you are a tenure-track professor reading this, and you have noticed that higher education might not be able to sustain you either, then I’m also talking to you. I firmly believe that it’s time for all of us in higher ed to diversify.) So instead of giving away your work for free, hoping for a reward that will likely never come—embrace the freelancer ethos.

Whenever I suggest that this client-based strategy should be applied to academia, however, I get pushback. For many people, this strategy seems disloyal to the institution somehow—like you're cheating on your significant other. But you can only be loyal to a company that is loyal to you. And if you are NTT faculty, your institution is rarely going to be loyal to you.

In order to make time for yourself, you'll need to dial back the "adjunct heroics," as Rebecca Schuman puts it. This is the advice that I would give my friend: Decline unpaid service work that won't be rewarded anyway. Keep office hours to the bare-bones requirement. Set limits on your letters of recommendations for students. And deflect all the guilt that others will probably lay on you—guilt from faculty, from students, and even from yourself.

OK I’m Ready to Be a Freelance Academic—Now What?

You’ve adjusted your mindset. You’re ready. Your institution is Client A. But it’s time to look around for other clients, too. Who else is there? That might seem like the hard part, so bear with me for a minute.

First of all, this series of columns will be covering all sorts of ways to carve out a career as a Freelance Academic. So check back here regularly. There are also other great columns and resources on Vitae on just these topics. Browse around: They’re easy to find.

Here are some other small ways to get started now.

  • Think about which of your skills are marketable. Sit down and write a list of every possible skill that you have. This is not the time to be humble. You might not know who to market your skills to, or how, but that’s OK. You can start learning those things. You’re an academic. You know how to research.
  • Transform your CV into a résumé—or various résumés for different types of work you might be interested in doing. I just did this myself. It was—and I’m not kidding—so much fun. I used Rachel Leventhal-Weiner’s article on résumé writing for academics for guidance. Most important, at least for your mental health, recognize that you are not alone. Others are on the same path as you.
  • If you try to make your skills list and your résumé and have trouble—a totally understandable problem given how graduate programs are structured these days—hire a postacademic coach to help you figure out what you're good at that can earn you money. I'd start with Jennifer Polk and her blog, From Ph.D. to Life, where she’s also written about her transition from academic to coach. You can read more about hiring an academic mentor in this great article by Kerry Ann Rockquemore.
  • Find a freelance community to join. There are plenty out there. I subscribe to a newsletter called, unsurprisingly, "The Freelancer." And join the Freelancers Union to learn more about the practical side of freelance life. For example, it has group health insurance.

Remember that moving into the mindset of a Freelance Academic does not mean that you give up your job teaching on a campus. It just means that you approach your relationship with your institution differently. You no longer belong to them: They belong to you. Once that shift happens—and you’ll know when it does—there’s nothing more empowering.

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