In the year after I earned my PhD, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out who I am as a professional. I would introduce myself as “Sandlin, I recently earned by Ph.D. in Molecular Virology,” to people at networking events and meet with something between silence and panic. Someone gave me the advice to present myself in a way that allows people to help and connect with me. For example, I had a much easier time convincing people that I could be a top notch writer than that they wanted to hire the world’s leading expert in native SV40 large T antigen purification.
My time in graduate school taught me a lot of things that weren’t written up in my final dissertation, and identifying what those things were, and who was looking for those skills took quite a lot of experimentation. One thing that I quickly recognized was that I like writing, and that writing is an employable skill. As a result, I realized I needed to learn about careers for writers quickly, and a lot of the other writers and editors I was in touch with worked freelance. I decided to give it a go.
Deciding to be a freelance writer helped me (forced me?) to develop an array of professional skills that I’d never touched as a scientist, particularly in business. I was submitting enough invoices (charging clients for my time on projects) that I knew I needed to take out a business license. It’s empowering to be able to tell people “I’m self-employed.” It also requires you to keep track of your business expenses, file taxes and generally have some business savvy.
What surprised me about taking out my business license was that it empowered me to promote my business in a way that I hadn’t felt comfortable doing for my own skills. As a recent grad, I felt like I was bumming around, bugging people for opportunities. As a business owner, I could look for contracts, and that seemed like acceptable, professional conduct. It made sense to me that I should formally check in with editors that I hadn’t gotten contracts from, to remind them of our relationship. I also got to choose when I thought I would be able to stretch my skills. No one will hire you to do a job that you have no experience in, but they might give you a two week contract if you seem confident. Knowing that I was representing my business helped me to take calculated risks about taking contracts while trying to develop some professional experience.
Being in business for myself also made me think a lot harder about what contracts I would choose to take. For example, I could easily find editing contracts that would pay me ~$20/hour, which felt like a lot of money to a broke student. But I realized that the money needed to be divided between my taxes (~30%) and to cover my time in administration (which was usually just a few emails back and forth with editors, but add an hour or two per project). I wasn’t making $100 for 5 hours of work. It was $70 for a day’s work. When I could find work. Although I was willing to work in a variety of disciplines, this was partly out of necessity to keep even solid part-time work.
If I had wanted to make a life of working as a freelance writer, I would have needed to learn to juggle multiple projects, to court more different types of work, and generally been better at planning and managing the business of keeping a full time writer employed. This can be a really fun way to keep a hand in several different fields and to make choices about balancing your interests. I took contracts editing scientific manuscripts, writing Medline summaries, and curriculum writing. Personally, I never got past the feast or famine part of freelancing, and was very interested in finding a steady paycheck. In the end, I convinced one of my clients to hire me full time, so at the very least, freelancing proved to be an invaluable way to gain experience, to develop contacts, and to redefine myself professionally.
Freelancing wasn’t for me, but I was surprised at how easy it was to get into it. In the state of Washington, you need a social security number and $15 to become a business owner. Then you can tell your friends you are in business for yourself, too.
Sandlin Seguin, Ph.D. earned her doctorate in 2011 from the University of Pittsburgh. She currently works as a curriculum writer, writing career education materials.