8 Ways to Know if You’re Cut Out to be a Freelance Academic
Going (academically) rogue – are you ready to risk it?
Image: Paul Townsend
So you’re thinking of packing up your bat and ball and going home.
You’ve had enough of the pressure to publish or perish. Of rampant managerialism and mindless metrics. Of barely having the time to tie your shoelaces – hence the slip-on brogues – let alone to shepherd students through their most formative years.
There’s got to be a better way to contribute to the sum total of knowledge in the world without sacrificing yourself in the process.
But there’s a big but: saying adieu to the academy isn’t going to be easy.
Think of all those years of study and research to make a name for yourself in your niche. Are you going to lose the reputation you’ve work so hard to build up?
Then there are the colleagues and collaborations you’re leaving behind. Are you leaving them in the lurch?
And of course, there are mouths to feed. Can you really be an indy scholar and not starve?
Luckily for you, I’ve prepared this handy guide to help you decide whether going rogue is right for you.
1. You’ve had it up to here with where the whole system is headed. You’re sick of coping with cutbacks, done with the dodgy incentives, over playing the grants game. The commodification of teaching and impossible research targets are crushing your soul. Maybe you’ve got the urge to stick it to the (metrics) man, or you’ve simply been bitten by the Slow Academia bug.
Whether it’s a political conviction – the urge to resist Neoliberal U – or a personal one – wanting to reclaim control over what you spend your time on – you’re ready to split up with the system.
2. You’re a self-starter. If you need a kick up the bum to get things done, do not – repeat, DO NOT – give up your day job. Being a solo scholar is strictly for the self-propelled. There are no performance appraisals, no tenure track targets, no students to see.
It works for me because I am exceptionally skilled at setting self-imposed deadlines and convincing myself on pain of death that they are in fact actual deadlines. A high degree of self-delusion is a plus here.
3. Here it is, the elephant in the room. Unless you’re independently wealthy with money to burn, you’re going to have to make a living somehow. More than a living, since you’ll be stumping up for not only … you know, life, but also your own conference trips.
That means finding a way to make your research pay – say, by doing it on commission – or having some other sort of skill to sell. I earn my crust by running a translation and editing business on the side. Or is it the research on the side? Sometimes it’s hard to tell.
4. Someone’s got your back. If you’ve got designs on being a proper grown-up person (a homeowner, perhaps, or a parent) then – I’m just going to come right out and say it – it helps to have a stable earner by your side. The capacity to cope with fluctuating funds is what makes freelancing a luxury and a privilege.
Oh, and it helps a lot if you live in a sensible country. That probably means not America. Sorry. I live in the Netherlands, where I don’t need to worry about the costs of healthcare, a pension or college for my kids.
5. You’ve got a track record. I suppose you could start out as a total newbie, but it would suck. It’s much easier to up sticks and leave if you’re already established in your field.
People who know you and your work don’t give two hoots who’s funding it. And your collaborators can’t see your pyjama bottoms below the webcam.
I can’t stress this enough: you could be holed up in a shack somewhere sponsored by a well-to-do crackpot from outer space, as long as you’re actively publishing and presenting quality work.
6. You have a thick skin. Personally I miss being able to swan around saying Oh me? I’m at Cambridge. Prestige: gone.
Fortunately, that mildly misplaced sense of pride is the only thing that goes out the window with your institutional affiliation.
I do know someone who left the affiliation field blank when registering for a training workshop, and had to spend the entire week with the word UNEMPLOYED leaping off her name badge. But most conferences and journals make the institutional affiliation optional.
And to those worried about journal access, two words: Sci-Hub. Or is that one word?
7. You’re a bit of a hermit anyway. I for one prefer to go as long as possible without interacting with the other human beings.
Sure, there are ways to get out and about – if you must, gather a freelance community around you to work together in libraries, cafes or even a co-working space.
But working from home at least some of the time is part of the deal, so think long and hard about this if you need people around to hear you scream.
8. You’ve got your elevator pitch ready. People you’ve just met are going to ask you what you do. And people who knew you in your former, affiliated life, are going to ask you questions like ‘So, do you miss academia?’
You’re going to need to be able to explain that you’re still in academia. You’re just no longer chained to a desk in the department like a miserable metrics monkey.
So prep your story, and be ready to Own It. Tell it right, and by the time you’re done with the raised-eyebrow crowd they won’t be sceptical. They’ll be jealous.