People often ask me how to become an independent researcher. Then they ask me how I became an independent researcher, which is a different question. The answer to the latter is no help to anyone as I became an independent researcher by accident. Here’s the short version of that story. In January 1999 I was asked to do a piece of research as a one-off. I agreed, did a reasonably good job, people got to hear about it and I was asked to do more. I realised I enjoyed the work, signed up for an MSc in Social Research Methods in September 1999, got my PhD in 2006, and never looked back.
For the first 10 years or so, almost all my clients were local and national governments, charities, and public sector partnerships. Then we had the change of government in 2010, swiftly followed by a recession, in which most of the people in my networks took early retirement or redundancy or were demoted back from management to direct service delivery roles. My company’s financial year runs from August to July, and 2011-12 was the worst; the company’s turnover was less than £11,000. I had to get a part-time job for two years from September 2011, but – with a huge amount of support from my partner – managed to keep my business afloat.
Over the last five years I have reinvented myself as someone who works with academia. I still work with clients from other sectors, but these days the bulk of my work comes from universities. This reinvention has involved a lot of writing – two books, several journal articles, a bunch of e-books, this blog, tens of thousands of tweets, more of all those in the pipeline – and a lot of networking. Luckily I’m good at, and enjoy, both networking and writing.
So that’s my story, but it’s mostly made up of accidents, and so is not a route anyone else can follow. However, I do have ten top tips for people who want to adopt the indie lifestyle.
- Be able and willing to live on less money than your employed contemporaries. The day rates can be high but you won’t get paid work for every day, and some weeks or months you will have no paid work at all. There are none of the benefits of employment such as holiday pay or sickness pay, so you need to earn enough to cover those. Some years you will make more money than others, but the surplus from any good years needs to be put away to cushion you in the bad years, or you risk needing to give up being independent altogether. So if you crave luxury – perhaps even if you want, or have, children – the indie lifestyle is not for you.
- Be highly motivated. 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. Thw6 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, sorting out your own continuing professional development, and so on.
- Be very well 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.
- 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. Also, networking should be part of your marketing strategy, as it will help to bring you work. Network online as well as offline. Twitter is currently a very useful networking tool for researchers. I’ve had work from several sources that has come directly through Twitter, from people who have never met me in person.
- 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.
- Use your time productively. 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, but it makes more sense to ‘work smart, not hard’. I have learned from experience that I can get more done working six to eight focused hours in a day than putting in 10-12 hour days. The workload is lumpy, though, 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.
- 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, with a badly injured foot.
- 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.
- 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. But when you are an indie researcher, time is your most valuable asset. People will ask you to do all sorts of things for free – even governments will – 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.
- Write for publication, even if you don’t plan to work with academia. Published writing looks great on your CV and is 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 indie researcher still excites you, then go for it, and good luck!