A few years ago, while I was still doing my PhD, I attended a science communication conference. One of the sessions was all about freelancing; though I wasn’t doing so at the time, I figured it might be useful in the future.
It was eye-opening. The focus of the session was about how (and what) to charge for freelance science communication work, and around the issues of working for free. Naive as I was back then, I didn’t realise that being asked, nay, expected to work for free would be such a common occurrence.
During my PhD I did do some science communication work without charging for it. I realised early on in my doctorate that I’d like to move into the world of communication following my PhD, and I figured that as it was kind of a new career, I needed to put some time into getting experience while I was still getting paid (admittedly a laughably small amount) for my PhD. That’s been hugely beneficial – those positions allowed me to bulk up my CV with relevant experience when I was looking for paid science communication work.
The problem with working for free however, aside from the obvious fact that you don’t get any money to spend on chips/rent/bills/beer, is that you and your peers are sort of expected to continue working for free. Once someone finds out that you volunteered at something or waived your fee, everyone expects the same treatment. And that’s not fair; as a freelancer, it’s your decision whether to occasionally do someone a favour and work for nothing – that doesn’t mean that you don’t need the cash.
One of my favourites, which fortunately (for them) nobody has expressly asked me to do, is to work for ‘exposure’ – the rather arrogant assumption that if you do some work for This Company for free, your name will get out there in such a big way that you’ll never be working for free again. Lovely as that would be, it’s not how it works, and like I said earlier if you do free work once, you’re expected to always do it.
Now, as someone who successfully completed a PhD and is actually getting used to being called Doctor, I feel justified in being able to say no with confidence when people expect me to deliver science communication work for free. I’m in the lucky position that I do have a part-time job which (just about) pays the bills, so I can afford to say no to free or very low paid work. I’m still shocked that people expect it, though – funnily enough I didn’t slave away at a doctorate that almost broke me for more than 6 years, to then give away my expertise for nothing. Would you ask a builder to come do some work on your house for free? Of course not. It’s the same principle.
I do still find pitching my fee at the right level a bit challenging though, because the nature of freelance means that each job is relatively different and often bespoke. Luckily I have a few friends who do a lot more freelance work than me so I can ask for advice. It’s about being consistent across the sector, too – if you undersell yourself, yes you might get a bit of work, but then your peers are expected to work for that measly sum too. It’s not fair.
It’s really tough, being a freelancer. Aside from having to do your own taxes (*shudder*), thus being your own financial officer, you also have to be your own project manager, personal assistant, client-facing service… and then you also have to do the work. That’s why freelancers charge, and sometimes why on paper it seems like our quotes are high. We have to live the same as everyone else, on preferably more than beans.
Freelancing doesn’t mean working for free. It means being free to choose who to work for – and who not to.