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How to navigate freelancing after your PhD.

Freelancing is another career opportunity you could explore after your PhD. Being able to set up on your own can provide a different quality of life outside the 9-5, with significantly more flexibility on your working hours. This post breaks down how to get started with freelancing and what it consists of.

Freelancing is a term that’s used interchangeably with consultancy. Traditional consultancy is where you’re brought in to ‘consult’ on a particular task, over a fixed term basis. In today’s job market, large consultancy firms exist whereby they deliberately recruit and hire PhD students as they posses a very particular skillset – most noticeably, problem-solving, project management, critical thinking, and the ability to synthesise and interpret information. However, in this post we want to move away from the ‘consultancy firms’ and provide more insight into the opportunities where you set yourself up independently. To avoid confusion, we’ll refer to this as freelancing from here on out. As before, a freelancer is an independent labourer who earns an income on a per-job or per-task basis. By the nature of this work, it’s typically short-term and relatively ad-hoc. That’s not to say you can’t make a full-time living out of it, but it just means the overarching set up of the role is slightly different from your traditional 9-5.

In fact, that’s part of the allure for freelancing, the fact it isn’t structured like a regular 9-5. You have more freedom or flexibility to pick up and put down tasks as and when you want. For PhD’s this feels right at home, with academic work being quite flexible and fluid (at times). But how do you even get started with freelancing work? Getting into a freelancing position isn’t necessarily easy, but it’s not exactly difficult either. Like most things, it’s about creating and finding opportunities. Some organisations/companies/start-up businesses will post formal job ads for part-time, or fixed-term contracts. Others won’t specifically know what they’re looking for but be open to someone supporting them who is based externally to the organisation.

Before you begin applying/searching for a freelancing opportunity, it’s important to figure out what you’re going to be offering. In essence, you need to think about your personal brand and what it is you’re providing as a service. This can be tied to your expert knowledge of your PhD subject area, it could be a particular skill learnt alongside your PhD, or it could be a combination of the two. To really help make this more tangible for everyone, this might include; doing someone else’s data analysis, providing guidance on research methodology, sharing advice/knowledge about your PhD subject discipline (maybe to inform training content, marketing strategies, best practice within this field, etc), writing in some capacity, or perhaps doing something completely unrelated to your PhD like teaching a language, doing social media marketing, UX research, you name it – the sky is the limit. The key point is you identify what your skillset is, and how this can be used to support someone else in an ad-hoc nature.

Once you’ve identified your skillset the next bit comes with identifying opportunities. You may find these through job ads, posts on certain freelancing websites such as Upwork and Fiverr. Alternatively, you may reach out to people/organisations directly to see if you can spark their interest. The main focus/drive is to find your first client, and from there it is to scale in a sensible and healthy way that really capitalises on the benefits freelancing has to offer. Things like work-life balance, better pay, ability to be flexible and dynamic as how you see fit, and possibly outsourcing some work so you can engage with passive income!

But those long-term benefits materialise later and are a byproduct of an iterative process. In essence, you’ll learn how to tailor freelancing to your needs as you go. For now, the first step is securing the first client. It can take weeks or even months to land your first client, but once you have your first one underway you can begin learning. The first client is probably not going to set you free from the 9-5 forever, but what it will do is give you your first opportunity to make mistakes, learn from them, receive feedback and iterate your ‘business model’ more effectively. Similarly, finding your first client will give you more tangible ‘credibility’ or a ‘track record’ which makes it easier to open up conversations with new potential clients and possibly even receive referrals or recommendations.

5 star rating…

At some point in your freelancing journey, you’ll need to negotiate and define your price or your hourly/daily rate.  This is a tricky one, and it’s going to strictly depend on where you are within your freelancing journey and what you’re actually trying to get out of freelancing. At the beginning of your journey, it’s advised to maybe start slightly lower than what you think your actual market value is. Not because you’re inexperienced, but because this will help drive business and attract new leads. Alternatively, you can seek out opportunities based on their rate if they’re listed on an ad. This isn’t to say you’ll undercharge forever, but it will likely help build momentum and attract new clients. Once you’ve iterated through that a few times, you have too many clients, or an opportunity presents itself where you can negotiate your rate, you’re encouraged to increase it to an hourly/daily rate that is more reflective of your skillset.

The hard part with this is how do you decide on your ‘starting’ rate. You’re unlikely to have any sort of reference point to be able to work back from. The best thing to do is talk to your friends and people who also engage in freelance work. The more information you have will help you to get a ‘feel’ of what’s appropriate for the marketplace and the type of skills you’re offering. Another way to think about it is to think about what your hourly rate is in a 9-5 of a similar sector, as freelancing should pay an hourly rate that is roughly three times what you would get in a normal 9-5. It might sound quite high, but when you’re paid a freelancing salary, you must declare it and pay tax yourself – whereas usually this is handled by your employer.

Subsequently, this will impact your take home pay and so it’s something to consider. As the nature of a freelance job/deliverable is also ad-hoc, short-lived, and solves a more pressing business need, you’re entitled to charge a premium. Last but not least, when you factor in additional company perks that you may now have to pay for (e.g., healthcare packages, gym memberships, dental, childcare) you may also want to ‘include’ this in your hourly rate – or at least use it as a means to justify the rate.

The final thing to be aware of when deciding your hourly rate is that in the instance the person who’s paying you wants to take you on full time/hire you as a permanent employee, you want to be in the strongest position available to negotiate. If you’re getting paid a certain rate as a consultant, the general approach is to pay 1/3 of what you’re getting as a consultant (as discussed above). If you’re able to negotiate a reasonably high hourly rate whilst freelancing, you can justify a certain wage if you become permanent. It doesn’t make good business sense for you to give up your freelance work if you can be more profitable doing it! At this point you hold the cards as they’ll be doing their best to incentivise you!

Freelancing is a lot more dynamic than we realise, and it’s hard to provide a specific framework to excel in this line of work. The key thing is you just start and are open and receptive to feedback along the way. It’s quite likely that others in your social circle will have had experience freelancing and so it’s always good to get advice from them and reach out to those you trust. After all, if you don’t try it – you’ll always have your usual 9-5 and your PhD to fall back on.


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