What does a freelance academic do?

Heather Mendick shares her experience of escaping the constraints of the university

February 26, 2016
Woman working at a desk in a home office

Back in December, I was interviewed on BBC Radio 5 Live about my opposition to Syrian air strikes. The interviewer clearly had doubts about my politics but also about my job, evident when she introduced me in a sceptical tone as “Heather Mendick, who describes herself on Twitter as a freelance academic”. The idea of working as a freelance academic is unfamiliar, even to many university-based academics. The most common question I get asked by them is: “what do you do?” In this blog, I answer that question.

What I do: paid work

There are the four main pieces of paid work that I’ve done or am scheduled to do in my first year freelancing. I’ve carried out evaluations of Brunel University London’s scholarship programmes and its professional mentoring programme. Both these programmes are targeted at widening participation students, those who are under-represented in higher education, and so the evaluations were funded by Brunel’s widening participation office. Alongside this, I’ve been continuing to supervise two doctoral students and proofreading their theses. I love supervising, but find proofreading slow and challenging. Still, given my understanding of their work, it’s better for me to muddle through than to use online proofreading services. I’ve also been doing research consultancy at the British Science Association, a charity that aims to create “a world where science is at the heart of society and culture”.  I helped them map the science communication field and we’re now developing methods to evaluate how far their work is enabling more people to actively engage with science. Finally, over the summer, I’m going to be working on data analysis and writing for a science and technology education project funded by the Swedish Research Council and led by Anna Danielsson. I’ve also taken on some smaller pieces of work, including research support and external examining, and I make a little money through the ALCS and PLR, which distribute fees to authors when their writing is copied or their books borrowed from libraries.

For much of this work, I charge consultancy rates. I generally set these at £450 a day (25 per cent less than my last university charged for my time). However, for two substantial pieces of work that gave me financial security and opportunities to publish, I reduced this to £350 a day. Proofreading pays less and some work, like external examining, comes with a set take-it-or-leave-it fee, and I negotiate this on a case-by-case basis, but never taking on anything where the effective hourly rate is below £10.

What I do: unpaid work

As with all freelancers, a substantial amount of what I do is unpaid. I have to update my Academia.edu webpage, complete my tax return, pursue work that I don’t end up getting, and so on. The absence of a regular income led me to rethink what I’m willing to do for free. I rarely review articles and remain on only one editorial board for a lovely open access journal, the International Journal of Gender, Science and Technology. With a few exceptions, I do talks and seminars only if I’m paid for them.

There are three main projects that I have chosen to work on for free. Towards the end of 2015, I set up the Alternative Academia Network with Laura Harvey. This aims to provide people with a space to explore alternatives to mainstream higher education. I joined the executive of the British Society for Research into Learning Mathematics before going freelance. I considered resigning when my circumstances changed. But the executive is a lovely group of people, my role takes only a few days each term, and through it I support an organisation that has supported me in the past, so I’ve stuck with it. The biggest chunk of unpaid work I do is for CelebYouth [a research project exploring young people’s classed and gendered aspirations]: writing blogs like this, sharing responsibility for looking after Twitter and Facebook and working on a book with Kim, Laura and Aisha. I do this because I have gained and continue to gain immensely from our collaboration.

How it’s going so far

There are lots of advantages to being freelance. I left my last university after complaining about bullying. Yet even without this push, universities are becoming increasingly difficult places and life is less stressful outside them. I have control over what I do, from what time I get up in the morning to what work I take on (although this latter freedom is partly dependent on my financial situation at any given time). This suits me, as does the way being freelance enables me to try new things.

There are also downsides. It feels more precarious than having a “proper job” – although, given the way employment is changing, I’m not sure it is. To guard against this precariousness, I have one year’s income saved so that, if I have a few dry months, there’s no immediate panic. Living cheaply also helps. And I know that, while I don’t want to do private maths tuition or mark exam scripts, there will always be demand for these if I run out of other options.

After the first couple of months, I haven’t struggled to find work this year (I’m not trying to be full-time). There have even been a few interesting projects that I haven’t applied for because I don’t have enough time. I got this work by sending my CV to about 30 contacts, and generally broadcasting my freelance status. Many thoughtful people have sent work opportunities my way, only some of which worked out but all of which gave me hope that freelancing was viable and not some desperate stopgap between university posts. I miss having colleagues and teaching undergraduates, but not enough to consider going back yet.

Heather Mendick is a freelance academic and former reader in the School of Sport and Education at Brunel University London. This post first appeared on the CelebYouth.org website.

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