I have now been an independent researcher for 20 years. People choose to be independent for a wide range of reasons and an independent perspective can bring a great deal of value to organisations. In case you’re considering taking this route, here are my top ten learning points from the last two decades.
1. Prepare to live on less than your employed contemporaries. Whilst the day rates can be high there will be some weeks or months you will have no paid work at all. You will have none of the benefits of employment such as holiday pay or sickness pay, so you need to earn enough to cover those, and you must always put away a percentage of anything you bring in for your next tax bill. Some years you will make more money than others, but the surplus from any good years has to be put away to cushion you in the bad years, otherwise you risk needing to give up being independent altogether.
2. Good motivation is vital. Some days you’ll have meetings, but much of the time there’s nothing to make you get out of bed but your own free will. Some people think that’s all there is to independent work: highly paid jobs for clients and a lot of time off. This is far from the case. You have to run your own business, which means doing your accounts (or earning enough to pay an accountant to do them for you, which still requires you to prepare a considerable amount of paperwork), marketing your services to help you gain further work, organising your own continuing professional development, and so on.
3. Get organised. Sometimes you will have several client projects running at the same time, and you’ll need to keep on top of each of those, plus the needs of your own business. Even when you’re really busy with paid work, you should spend at least 10% of your time working on your business, making sure you keep up with your administration and marketing as a minimum.
4. Networking is essential. You won’t have colleagues down the corridor who you can wander along to see for a chat when there’s something on your mind. At times you’ll need help and without a network you may have nobody to ask. Networking should also be part of your marketing strategy, as it will help to bring you work. Make sure to network online as well as offline. Twitter is currently a very useful networking tool for researchers. I’ve had work from several countries that has come directly through Twitter, from people who have never met me in person.
5. Keep up to date with developments in your field. When you’re employed this happens almost imperceptibly: you hear about new initiatives and legislation in meetings, relevant newsletters arrive in your inbox, organisational briefings ensure that nothing vital is missed. As an indie, you have to sign up for as much relevant free information as you can, decide what of the rest is worth paying for, and make time to read it all.
6. ‘Work smart, not hard’. When work is thin on the ground it’s easy to fritter away hours, even days, surfing the internet or doing housework. When you’re busy it’s tempting to spend long hours at your computer. The workload is lumpy and there are times when there is nothing for it but to work long hours. Try to keep those times to a minimum, and when necessary, organise your tasks so that you can do the easier, more routine work when you’re tired.
7. Look after your health. This is a huge priority for those of us with no sick pay. Eat sensibly, get enough rest, take exercise. Make yourself have regular short breaks away from your desk even when you’re really busy. And be prepared to drag yourself out to work in physical, and emotional, states that would have an employed person reaching for the self-certification form. I have gone out to work for clients with sweat running down my back from a fever, immediately after hearing news of a bereavement, and with a badly injured foot. You might wish to take out insurance to cover you for critical illness, though in my experience the premiums are expensive and the coverage is small. Working with freelance support networks can help, e.g. IPSE, FSB or online groups.
8. Take proper breaks. I have at least one holiday a year, though the nature of those holidays depends on my finances: in the lean years, I might simply stay in the house of a family member or friend, while they’re away on holiday themselves, for a change of scene.
9. Time is your most valuable asset. Think at least twice before accepting unpaid work. Sometimes there are good reasons for volunteering; it might be a way of gaining valuable experience, or something you can give in exchange for something you want such as a conference place, or it may offer excellent networking opportunities. People will ask you to do all sorts of things for free and you need to be sure that whatever you do will also benefit you in some way, and won’t take up too much of your precious time.
10. Published writing looks great on your CV. Even if you don’t plan to work with academia, publications are a marketing asset. What you write, and for whom, and where you publish your work, is for you to decide but make it professionally relevant and write it well. Once you’ve got a piece in a newspaper, or produced a zine, or had an academic journal article accepted, shout about it all over social media and anywhere else that might help to increase your audience and networks.
If you’ve read all that and the prospect of becoming an independent researcher still excites you, then go for it, and good luck!
AUTHOR: Dr Helen Kara, Director, We Research It Ltd, @DrHelenKara
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