Becoming a freelancer


‘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.”