Katie Rose Guest Pryal

Novelist and Essayist at Chronicle Vitae

Thriving as a Freelance Academic

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Image: Seven Samurai (1954), by Akira Kurosawa

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It’s all well and good for me to write manifestos about being a freelance academic and to suggest a new mind-set to view your institution as just a client. What might sound simple is actually quite complicated. Plus, it doesn’t exactly butter one’s bread.

How can we take these theoretical ideas I’ve been spouting and put them into practice? As I now know, it’s not enough to simply survive after losing your institutional affiliation. How can we thrive?

For answers, I reached out to three freelance academics who are doing just that. Heidi Giusto, Greer McPhaden, and Jennifer Polk are all postacademics who have successfully transitioned into freelance work. Their stories can help you, directly or indirectly, succeed as freelance academics. Heidi, Greer, and Jennifer are from different places (Durham, N.C.; New York; and Toronto). They have had different training and different paths through the academy. But they share a common quality: They’ve all made their way as self-employed freelancers and entrepreneurs.

I posed the same three questions to each of them: What was the hardest thing for you when you transitioned out of the academy? What’s the most important gift you’ve given yourself? What advice do you have for new freelance academics? Here’s what they had to say.

Freelance Academic No. 1: Heidi Scott Giusto

Degree: Ph.D. in history
Former life: Graduate student, writing center tutor at a large university
Currently: Consultant, writer, editor, and owner of Career Path Writing Solutions
Website: www.careerpathwritingsolutions.com

What was the hardest thing for you when you transitioned out of the academy?

Heidi writes, “My immediate transition was not that difficult because I had been preparing for quite some time.” But, she notes: “As my business has grown — I’m approaching the two-year mark for running Career Path Writing Solutions — I’ve become aware of my lack of formal business training.” In retrospect, she says, “If I could do it all over again, I would have researched whether I could have taken some business courses while I was [at my former institution].”

What has been the most important gift you’ve given yourself as you’ve made your way as a freelancer?

Choosing a fulfilling career was Heidi’s gift to herself. She enjoys "feeling like I’m making a difference in people’s lives in a direct way. Because I help with a variety of high-stakes documents ranging from résumés, cover letters, and LinkedIn profiles, to graduate school personal statements to website content to college applications, I get to help people at various, key moments of their lives.” Heidi’s words show how much she loves what she does: "To ease a person’s anxiety level and burden when undergoing such stressful moments is gratifying. My job is very fulfilling."

What advice do you have for new freelance academics?

"First, take time to brainstorm and determine your niche,” she said. “I recommend choosing a field or area you already enjoy.” Second, “start getting experience and building your network outside of academia sooner rather than later. It takes a while to build a strong referral network, but once that takes shape, business snowballs.” Third, and on a related note, “Don’t let fear paralyze you. People self-impose limitations that lead to inaction because they fear failure, so don’t let any insecurities weigh you down.” In sum: Believe in yourself.

Freelance Academic No. 2: Greer McPhaden

Degree: M.B.A.
Former life: Director of research operations at a university medical center
Currently: Consultant, writer, and owner at 272 Words
Website: www.272Words.net

What was the hardest thing for you when you transitioned out of the academy?

Not having anyone to talk to about her choice to leave academia and start a business was the hardest thing, Greer said. “Academics and even academic administrators aren't entrepreneurs,” she told me. “Provided you've chosen the right field of study, [academia is] not a risky path. Risk makes people uncomfortable.” Many of her colleagues found it hard to relate to her risky choice to leave the academy. But she understood why: “Just deciding to start a company ... is a very risky thing when you have a whole academic path in front of you. It's hard for people to be supportive of your made-up job when you've had a steady job at a top university for over a decade.”

What has been the most important gift you’ve given yourself as you’ve made your way as a freelancer?

Becoming a freelance entrepreneur in the first place — “realizing that I'm okay with this” — was her greatest gift to herself. "I didn't know I was this person,” she said. “I like order, and I assumed that meant I needed to know where I'm going to be, and what I'm going to be doing, 12 months from now.” And yet, she writes, “it's been over 18 months and I'm still alive. I live in my same apartment. I'm not living on ramen noodles. And most people think I look more relaxed. It took about a year to come to this conclusion, but now that I have, I'm going with it.”

What advice do you have for new freelance academics?

Like Heidi, Greer is very clear with her advice: "Get a coach, a mastermind group, or a meet-up group. If you are the only person in your head every day, you will go crazy.” She learned first-hand from her own experience of feeling isolated: “You — and most of the people you know — only know one way of living and working. You will compare everything to that” — to academia. Instead, "you need someone who will cheer you on and tell you that what you are going through is normal."

Freelance Academic No. 3: Jennifer Polk

Degree: Ph.D. in history
Former life: Graduate student, frustrated freelance researcher, and virtual assistant
Currently: Coach, speaker, consultant, and owner at From Ph.D. to Life
Website: FromPhDtoLife.com

What was the hardest thing for you when you transitioned out of the academy?

Jennifer felt “very alone” when she first left the academy. “Everyone I knew who shared my educational background was either working as a professor or trying hard to do so.” She adds, “Even my freelance clients were convinced I'd end up a professor.” And she didn’t feel like she had anyone to turn to for help: “No one had any other ideas for me, not really.” So she hired someone to help her and reached out to others: “It was only after I hired a career coach and started to do informational interviews with fellow Ph.D.’s who'd moved on to other careers — and then getting on Twitter and seeking out people with my same interests and concerns — that I felt better able to take positive steps forward." (You can also read Jennifer’s piece in Vitae about transitioning from academia into coaching.)

What has been the most important gift you’ve given yourself as you’ve made your way as a freelancer?

“Patience,” Jennifer writes. Although she says she has to stay on the lookout for “complacency,” Jennifer notes that “patience more often is about giving myself the time and space and compassion to follow my own path, whatever it is.”

What advice do you have for new freelance academics?

First, Jennifer urges us to consider identity a malleable thing: “Your degree or research area or award-winning syllabi are not who you are. Who you are isn't tied to any one job that you do, such as working as a professor.” She deliberately used the phrase “working as” rather than "being a” professor — because "language matters.” Second, Jennifer writes, "If you're feeling uncertain or unmoored as I once did (and still do on occasion!), connect with your roots. … that is, your priorities, goals, values, and character strengths — and then act in accordance with them.”

All three of these freelance academics took different paths and now do very different work. But their stories share common threads, and common advice: Find your community. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Figure out what you’re good at and what you love, and then do it. Believe in yourself.

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