Freelancing Whilst Doing a PhD: The Bad Bits

Back in April I posted about the good bits of freelancing whilst doing a PhD; I’d had a difficult week freelance-wise and wanted to remind myself why I was doing it. It’s now 7 months later and I’m starting to reduce the amount of freelance work I’m doing. I’m not enjoying it as much as I did before, and I’m starting to be much more picky with clients; I have a few clients I’ve worked with for a long time, and I’m reluctant to take further clients on at the moment. I figured this would be a good time to post about the downsides of freelancing whilst doing a PhD. If you’re thinking of working some freelance projects into your schedule it’s important to know that it isn’t always a great experience, so I hope this injects a bit of reality into things, and makes PhD students think carefully about whether to say yes to additional projects.

Ultimately, you don’t have full control over the work you do. I love science, and I love writing, but there are definitely bits of science that I do not enjoy writing about. I’m doing a PhD and my research interests are aligned with my project, and various topics linked to it – if I’m asked to write about anything related to physics or tech, I’m likely to be doing that purely because it’s a task I’m being paid for. This is the main reason why I’m reducing the amount of freelance work that I do now; the work I want to do, I’m already being paid for, freelance projects just aren’t getting me excited like they used to.

Clients can be a total nightmare. I say this is the most respectful way possible, but some clients just make me want to stop freelance work for good. Currently, I don’t have any of those clients – I’ve stopped working on those accounts over the past 7 months because I found myself spending more time chasing them for payment/clarification of project briefs etc than I did actually doing the work required. I’ve stopped chasing clients who haven’t got resources to me in time for me to meet the deadline; if I don’t have the resources, I don’t do the work. It’s pretty simple, and I wish I’d started doing that earlier, but I think it takes time (and confidence) for you to let things go like that. I’m now much more strict with myself when it comes to the way I deal with clients, and how much effort I’m willing to put in – of course, if a client is communicative then I will be too, but there’s no point in me spending time sending multiple emails if they’re not getting any response.

Holidays aren’t really a thing. Every week for the last 6 months I’ve researched, written, and submitted 2 Word documents to one of my clients. I actually really enjoy working on this project, but it’s every week – and it’s not something I can do ahead of time because it’s dependent on what’s happened in that week specifically. That means that when I take a week away from the PhD, I still end up working in some sort of routine. When I went to South Africa for the Global Evidence Summit (posts here and here if you missed them) a few months ago, I ended up working extra hard in the few weeks before, so that I could make sure that I didn’t need to keep up with freelance content whilst I was away.

Really, I’m falling out of love with the process of freelancing, and I think that’s largely because I’m coming to the end of my PhD, and I’m much more focussed on building a career now. In an ideal world I don’t want to be picking up freelance projects to keep me going, I want to work in research full time after the PhD – that realisation means that I’m not seeing longevity in freelance work anymore, and I’m much happier working on projects that are linked to my PhD in some way. I think I’ll continue freelancing with the limited number of clients that I have, but I doubt I’ll be taking on any further clients – I say that, but it’s all dependent on what happens job-wise after the PhD ends. I guess it’s just a case of watch this space! I’ve had a really good run with freelancing, I’ve worked with some brilliant clients on some super interesting projects, I just feel like it’s time to put my own research interests first now.

Have you thought about freelancing whilst doing your own research? If you have any questions please let me know and I’ll be happy to answer them (if I can!).

Freelancing Whilst Doing a PhD: The Good Bits

Outside of PhD life, I work as a freelance copywriter – yep, full-time PhD plus some-of-the-time writer. This week has probably been my most difficult yet, freelance-wise that is. I had to put my big-girl pants on and tell a client I wasn’t working with them anymore because they were messing me around with deadlines and not replying to emails. I really didn’t like doing it; I still feel like I’m about 12 years old and I’m reluctant to look like a kid stomping her feet because she didn’t get her own way. ANYWAY. Usually I love freelancing, so I thought I’d give a run down of the good bits of freelance life, what you get from it and why it’s a valuable thing to do even whilst trying to get a PhD – both to give some information to anyone looking at starting to freelance, and to remind me why I love what I do again. Of course, the bad bits of freelancing deserve their very own blog post, so stay tuned for that in a few weeks!

£££. Let’s just get this one out of the way early one – additional money is always helpful when you’re on a PhD stipend. I’ve mentioned previously that I love to travel, and any extra pennies come in handy for that. Linked to that is the process of putting a price on your work; at first it’s really weird, and it can feel awkward. It’s important to remember that your time is valuable, you’re spending time and effort on whatever project you’re working on, and you should be rewarded for that fairly.

Building skills. I was freelancing for a year whilst finishing my undergraduate degree and I thought my organisational skills were pretty good; I was also juggling a structured part-time job too. Turns out it’s not a patch on juggling everything that comes with a full-time PhD and freelancing! That said, it’s a good sort of hectic. I find I get more done if I have more to do – I work best to a deadline, so everything goes on one to-do list and it all gets done eventually. As well as being Queen of Organisation I’ve also had to develop the skill of invoicing, chasing invoices when they’re not paid on time (more often than not), and crafting the perfect ‘I’m pissed off because you haven’t done something you said you were going to so can you please do it now’ email. All good skills – the perfectly crafted stroppy but polite email has served me well when trying to get PhD related stuff moving too, though I should note I’ve only needed that when contacting people for approvals etc, no one that’s in my research group! Freelancing also forces you to write when you don’t feel like writing. Throughout the course of a PhD it’s important to keep writing, writing is the way that we as scientists communicate information, so waiting to write until you ‘feel’ like writing isn’t always possible. Getting used to  consistent stream of writing-related deadlines (sometimes 3 or 4 a week) means PhD-related writing suddenly comes more naturally.

Learning. Before PhD life I was based in a wet-science lab – doing what people think of as ‘proper’ science, in a laboratory and everything. My project now is office-based (I have a guest post coming up on Soph Talks Science about that later this month so head on over there to see how office-life differs), but that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in what’s going on inside the labs around me, or even across industries that are loosely linked to my PhD work. For example – a few of my clients are based in recruitment (staffing type recruitment, not participant recruitment which is what my research focusses on), and their techniques may be useful for participant recruitment in some way. Another client I work with are involved with routinely collected data – an area that could have direct implications on the way we recruit participants to trials. So it’s all useful, it’s extra knowledge that I wouldn’t have if I wasn’t doing it – and I think that will definitely strengthen my own research.

Have you thought about freelancing whilst doing your own research? If you have any questions please let me know and I’ll be happy to answer them (if I can!).