I Want to Break Free!


Dear CareerDoctor,I read your column on promoting science and have taken the first steps away from academic research towards building a career in the public understanding of science as a freelancer. I've got some potential jobs lined up, but I've got a few questions about freelancing.Asking to get paid: What is the best way to approach this? Some of the work I've got organized pays my accommodation and travel and that's fine, but I don't know what kind of price to put on my time.Business cards: Any tips for what kind of things to put on them, to make them memorable? I'm trying to come up with a logo for myself.When do you take your holidays? One very appealing thing about freelancing (at first) is the idea that you can take holidays when you like. But knowing the kind of person I am, and that you have to work really hard in the beginning, I would need to make sure I took time off so I don't burn out. Any tips about this kind of thing?I know freelancing is all about networking, and I really enjoy this part of it. I love talking to people and seeing what we can do. I'm just so amazed that I had this vague idea of what I wanted to do and that the more people I have spoken to, the more I've found out there actually is a place for doing this kind of thing.Thanks!Mel.

Dear Mel,

I hope your letter is an inspiration to others--you've come a long way in just a few months and I'm sure that your success is down to a lot of hard work. Working as a freelancer has a lot of benefits, but you will need support, both in the early days and once you become established.

If you haven't already done so, I'd strongly recommend that you get in touch with your local Business Link office (or Small Business Gateway in Scotland or Business Connect Wales) and find out if they offer any specialised training, grants, or advice. My local office runs a free short course on setting up as a freelancer, offers £500 towards a computer for start-ups, and has specialist advisers who can demystify things like tax, marketing, insurance, and (if your work really takes off) employing other staff. If you are under 30 you might also want to contact LiveWire or the Prince's Trust--both are well respected and well resourced organisations with excellent track records for supporting new businesses. For advice specific to freelancers, there is a good article on the Freelance Centre site.

Read all about Natasha Martineau's experience of setting up as a freelance science communicator in our Scientists in Public Relations feature.

Whichever agency or organisation you approach, you will probably be encouraged to write a business plan. This isn't essential for the type of work you are pursuing, but it will probably be a useful exercise that will help you to identify potential markets and have a clearer idea of what you need to earn in order to make it worthwhile.

Pricing yourself as a freelancer is very difficult, especially if, as in your case, you haven't worked in a paid post in this field. You will need to do a little bit of market research to find out what someone doing your job full time would expect to earn--lurking about on the Psci-com e-mail list could be a good strategy, as a lot of job ads for science communicators are circulated here. For the sake of argument let's say £20,000 a year. There is a rather nifty little formula for translating a salary into consultancy fees which I shall share with you. Multiply the salary by 1.25 (to cover some of the things you are sacrificing by not being someone's employee such as sick pay and pension), then multiply it by 3 (to take into account the time spent generating and preparing work which won't be covered in your "daily rate"). Finally you need to divide the rather impressive figure in front of you by 232 which I am reliably informed is the number of working days in the year. For a salary of £20,000 that suggests you charge £323 per day. This might seem a lot of money for one day's work, but remember that the formula is designed to account for your preparation and the time freelancers realistically need to spend generating work through networking, canvassing, or writing proposals.

The maths may be straightforward, but sadly actually getting paid anything approaching your calculated figure may not be! You will find that many clients, particularly charities or learned societies, will stump up less than half of this--if they are willing to pay a fee at all. Conversely if you break into TV, presenting or writing your daily rate should be higher than this. But this figure gives you some idea of what you should aim for and it is what you should ask for even if you are prepared to work for less. If a client cannot pay this amount they are more likely to ask if the figure is negotiable than to simply walk away. In the early days it is probably simplest to explain that this is your full-time job and you therefore ask for a fee. Then, if you feel uncomfortable suggesting a figure, ask what they can pay on top of expenses. You will need to accept that, even though you will be doing similar types of work most of the time, your rate of pay will vary hugely depending on the client.

A quick way to do some market research might be to get involved in the organisation of an event and to offer to contact potential speakers and presenters. You will then be able to ask them what fees they would expect for such an event and you will also gain some experience of the budgets involved which will help you decide how to price yourself.

Marketing is anther area which will need some careful thought, and time--so you are beginning to see why freelancers only get paid for one day's work in three! I would keep a business card very simple--I know when I went freelance I spent a very exciting few afternoons on the computer designing the most intricate and (I thought) visually impressive business cards imaginable. Although it was a lot of fun, they ended up looking more like party invitations and I never used them. I now have a simple design with my business name in colour in a nice clean font, a tag-line (just six words) which sums up what I do, and my contact details--including my Web address. I print them out myself as I need them onto precut card which is widely available. I don't use a graphic, but if you decide that a logo reflects your services more effectively than words then go for something simple which will still be recognisable on a small card. You will find free images available on the Web, but it may be better to draw something yourself so that it is unique. For inspiration, why not look at some of the links from the Wellcome Trust's Science and Art page?

Setting up a Web site is something that may be worth investigating. In the short term you can probably do this for free--many free internet service providers include Web space in their service and, although your URL may not be the most professional, at this stage you don't want to invest any money in your business unless you are sure it will pay dividends. You can use the site to give details of all your activities, reproduce (subject to copyright) any articles you've written, and include positive feedback from clients. This may also be another mechanism for developing public awareness and understanding of science which could ultimately bring in income through sponsorship. Have a look at related sites to see if you can provide something that is currently missing.

Even though freelance work is often more satisfying than working to someone else's agenda it is important to have time out, as you rightly mention. Again, your market research should help here as there are definite high and low seasons in most fields of work. When are science promotion events or conferences taking place? Try to build up a calendar of events and deadlines for funding proposals or publications, and look for obvious gaps. You will need to be strict with yourself and block out your holidays.

If this seems difficult then you aren't alone! Most freelancers, even those who are well established and successful, will hesitate before turning away work in the irrational fear that it could be their last, or worse, that it will go to someone else who then supersedes them. This insecurity is one of the few downsides to freelancing, but is easily outweighed by the satisfaction of doing a job you love, working for people who will generally share your enthusiasms, and, hopefully, being paid for it!

All the best in your career,

The CareerDoctor

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