New project: ‘Better Births’

28685498_1643387792416171_7936420635030299683_nI’m working on an exciting new project called ‘Better Births’ which aims to improve maternity services in England. I’m one of fifteen mums in north-central London who have been recruited to find out what women and families need and want from antenatal, birth, and postnatal care.

I’m working as part of the Haringey team and we need to talk to a range of people in the local community to gather their views and suggestions. We’ve been trained in participatory action research methods in order to engage with parents in a dynamic and interactive way and to hear their voice, stories, and opinions more directly.

So far, it’s been a fascinating project to be involved in. The group of fifteen mums alone are an inspiring and powerful group of women to be working alongside. We all have such diverse and different backgrounds, vary in age and ethnicity, speak multiple languages, and have children of all ages. The one thing we all have in common is that we gave birth in one of the hospitals covered in the north-central London Better Births remit. Hearing their birth stories and journey into motherhood has been a fascinating and eye-opening experience in itself.

Out in the field, it’s been just as fascinating. It’s been a privilege to hear parents talk about one of the most life-transforming moments of their life. It’s also very hard to hear about traumatic experiences, when events didn’t go to plan, or when mums have been discriminated against or mistreated in some way. But it’s good to know this is exactly what the research aims to address and that the data we gather will help tackle these issues.

The project is a perfect match of my research background, interest in motherhood, and keenness to engage with the local community. It’s great to be working on a project where the commissioners are eager to hear the data and feedback (almost in real time) and want to implement change, which will ultimately have a positive impact on one of the most memorable moments in a person’s life. It’s a refreshing contrast to the constraints of academia where the research takes years to be printed, is behind an expensive paywall, that nobody reads or engages with. I look forward to seeing how the next few months unfold and where the project goes.

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Resources on transitioning from academic life to freelancing

transition

As I make the break with academic life, I’ve found it really helpful to read other people’s experiences to inform my own choices and actions. Here is a list of blogs, articles, and other useful information on making the career transition.

Post-Academia

Freelancing

 

This list will be continually added to. If you’ve found any resources particularly useful, please leave a link in the comments box below and I’ll add it to the list.

 

Six lessons I’ve learned since going freelance

freelancers_coverIt’s been a month since I decided to change track in my working life and try out the freelance gig. It’s been an emotional roller-coaster of a month and I’ve been on a steep learning curve. I have no regrets about taking the plunge, but I’ve certainly got a more realistic outlook on the freelance existence.

To help anyone else wanting to embark on this scary but ultimately fulfilling journey, I’m sharing what I’ve learned in this short period of time:

  1. Embrace the hustle

To make it as a freelancer, you need to put yourself out there constantly. Work isn’t going to fall on your lap; you need to seek it out. This involves telling everyone you know that you’re now a freelancer and available for work, relying heavily on any contacts and networks you have from previous employment, and being prepared to shamelessly promote yourself at any (appropriate) opportunity. The last one is pretty tough if you’re not naturally that way inclined but marketing yourself is essential in the freelancing world.

2. Say “yes” to everything

Unfortunately it seems as though 90 per cent of job offers/projects/promises fall through. I had one amazing week of job offer after job offer but stupidly turned many of them down because all the dates and deadlines clashed. Little did I know that the offers I had said “yes” to were dependent on non-existent funding/unreliable people letting you down/jobs that probably didn’t exist in the first place/friends trying to be helpful but didn’t know what they were talking about. As time progresses I’ll get more discerning of what will actually go ahead but in the meantime it’s safer to say yes to everything, wait to see if they ever come to fruition, then turn jobs down if the need ever arises.

3. Build your online presence/brand

Update all your online profiles – LinkedIn, Twitter, academia.edu, personal website etc. to reflect your new freelance status. Create an identity that clearly conveys the services and expertise you offer and display contact details prominently.

4. Make a plan

So much of freelancing is uncertain so it helps to plan ahead. Make sure you have funds to fall back on. List and contact any potential clients, then keep contacting them to remain on their radar. Decide early on whether you’re prepared to do any work for free. Sign up to a course or develop any skills you might need. Reach out to other freelancers in your field or community. Be super organised – I’m currently writing grant applications to fund my next book project so keeping a calendar of deadlines and timing work responsibilities is vital.

5. Broaden your (perceived) repertoire and skillset

When you’re starting out, the chances are there aren’t going to be great paying jobs that exactly fit your particular interest area/expertise. It’s therefore helpful to broaden what you think your knowledge area and skill base is. I was offered a one day research job for a think tank and turned it down as the topic area seemed far removed from my knowledge base so I a) felt I wasn’t qualified and b) thought it would take much longer than a day to complete. This was a big mistake for two reasons. Reason 1 – they weren’t seeking my knowledge but rather my research skills to write a literature review. In addition, I’m more qualified than I think I am so shouldn’t have succumbed to self-doubt regarding the research topic. Reason 2 – you should say “yes” to everything (see above point), as you never know if it’s actually going to amount to anything. If it does, it’s likely to lead to more work. If it doesn’t, at least you looked keen and they’ll keep you on their books.

Later on down the line, when I have more experience and a strong client base, I’ll become more specialised and picky about jobs. But at the moment I’m finding it’s good to be open-minded as income can come from unexpected sources. For instance, my main freelance job this month has been marking student dissertations. I never would have thought to seek out this kind of work but it turns out to be well paid and surprisingly enjoyable.

6. Negotiate your day rate

This is a really tricky one for the new freelancer and deserves it’s own blog post (which I’ll do at a later date). When someone approaches you with a job and pay offer, it’s not a fixed deal. My freelancer friend taught me that you need to extract a clear brief from the client, calculate how long you think it will take, and then give a quote (especially if it’s higher than they offered at the outset). They’ll either respond with a direct yes or no, or try and enter into negotiations. It’s likely they have a bigger budget than they’re letting on, but if they don’t, it’s up to you whether it’s worth a low payment. Taking the job will probably open more freelance doors but you don’t want to get struck in the trap of being on a low rate with them forever. Deciding what to charge as your day rate in the first place can be a minefield but luckily I have friends who are freelancers and although they’re in different fields, I was able to discern what the general pay bracket is for freelancers in London and set a competitive day rate accordingly.

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So, how am I doing after a month? Life seems much more manageable and balanced. I love being in control of my own schedule and being able to meet the odd friend or see my family during the day. I’m not making bucket loads of money but have reached my minimum target amount for the month. Despite the challenges, freelancing is proving to be worthwhile and rewarding.

Becoming a freelancer

hockney-splash

‘A Bigger Splash’ (1967) David Hockney

I’ve taken the plunge and decided to go freelance. It’s been a tough decision as I really enjoy so much of academic life – teaching, writing and publishing, a stimulating environment, wonderful students, inspiring colleagues and so on – but unfortunately the terrible working conditions of university employment outweigh any of these positives.

The discontent surrounding the current state and future direction of higher education is well reported – see here, here and here for summaries. I’ve been disillusioned for some time but found it too difficult to walk away after the years I’ve invested into an academic career.

The turning point was when I found myself yet again moaning about the flagrant exploitation and under-paid nature of my job to a friend over dinner. Instead of listening to me complain he asked: “What do you want your life to look like?” I started muttering something about really enjoying teaching, so doing something along those lines or maybe perhaps being a journalist. “No” he interrupted, “not what job would you like to do, what do you want your life to look like?”

This was a novel way of thinking about my work situation – all those unpaid hours in the evenings and over weekends was certainly not how I wanted my life to be. The politics in the department and brazen nepotism was an unhealthy and unpleasant environment to work in. The pressure to publish and demands of the REF meant scholarly freedom was curtailed and university life actually quashed rather than cultivated intellectual curiosity and exploration. I had a lightbulb moment and realised that this was not the life I wanted to lead, nor the habitat I would ever thrive in.

So what did I want my life to look like? I wanted a work-life balance. I wanted to write whatever I liked and publish articles that weren’t locked behind a paywall. I wanted to be in control of my time and have genuine autonomy. These realisations, coupled with more adjunct teaching misery, led to my decision to go freelance.

I’m not naive. I know how tough freelancing is and the challenges and uncertainties of self-employment. I had in fact taught a whole MA module on precarious labour (‘Creatives’: Working in the Cultural Industries) this past academic year. But I needed to get out of what was an increasingly toxic environment and try and make it on my own. I’ve done some odd writing and research freelance jobs over the past two years since I’ve finished my PhD, so it’s not entirely new to me and I’ve built up some contacts. Plus, my partner is self-employed so I’ve witnessed firsthand the trials and tribulations of being a freelancer. I’m therefore not doing into this totally blind.

To summarise, the reasons I’m embarking on a freelance career are:

  • To have more control over the way I spend my time
  • To have flexibility in how and where I work (whether at home/abroad/part-time/with a family)
  • To escape the restrictive and what I feel to be unethical working conditions of academia
  • To follow my creative impulses and work on the professional and personal projects I want to – away from the pressures of the REF and citation metrics
  • To write for a wider, popular audience

I’ll be documenting how this exciting new endeavour develops and will blog about these topics in more detail over the coming months. I also plan to provide useful information for other writers/researchers/post-academics who are making the transition to freelance work.

Articles and websites that I’ve found helpful so far include:

Freelancing is both an exciting and daunting enterprise as there’s so much uncertainty but I’m already glad I’ve taken the plunge. As the ancient Roman philosopher Seneca said: “It’s not because things are difficult that we dare not venture. It’s because we dare not venture that they are difficult.”