Twelve Top Tips for International Indie Work

plane.jpgMy chosen career has offered me some interesting opportunities to work outside my own country. First I went to Syria, before the conflict began, to teach qualitative research methods to doctors. It was a fascinating experience, I met some wonderful people, and I grieve for the plight of that delightful country. At the time I thought it was a one-off opportunity, but since my book on creative research methods came out last year, several others have arisen. I’ve taught in Scotland and Canada, next year I’m teaching in Wales, and next month I’m off to Australia!

Glamorous, right? Well maybe above the surface, but beneath, the administrative feet are paddling like mad. If you, too, want to do international work as a freelance indie/altac, here are my twelve top tips.

  1. Charge more for international than for national work. You need to factor in at least two unpaid days for pre-trip admin: sorting travel and accommodation, planning work, applying for a visa, getting travel insurance, having vaccinations – there’s a lot to do. I recommend adding 50% to your usual day rate as a minimum.
  1. Find out what you can charge in the country concerned. It may be more than your usual day rate plus 50%. If so, charge the going rate, or a little less. If you charge much less than the going rate, people will think you’re not worth much. Strange, but true.
  1. Make sure any costs you quote include, as extras on top of your day rate, any taxes and/or visa costs payable locally.
  1. Charge half your day rate for travelling time. I usually allocate half a day each way for short haul flights, one day each way for long haul.
  1. Make your own travel arrangements. Otherwise you risk several changes of flight and a hotel that is grotty, or inconveniently located, or with no wi-fi. Making your own arrangements takes more time but it’s worth it because you can suit yourself. Having said that, you can still use an agent for some of the work. I booked all my own travel for Canada and it took ages; for Australia, thanks to a suggestion from my Dad, I used FlightCentre (available worldwide) and I would recommend them highly. They understood my needs and my budget, and evidently have an encyclopaedic knowledge of international flight options.
  1. Don’t take the mick with expenses. I book economy class direct flights: that usually costs a bit more than flights with changes of plane, but I arrive in better condition and am fit for work sooner. I book accommodation that is comfortable and suitable for a business traveller but nowhere near top end (examples: Premier Inn in the UK, Best Western in Canada). I will use taxis, but only if I need to; I’ll use public transport where that’s easily accessible with suitable routes.
  1. Search for more work than the job you are initially offered. There’s no point flying all the way to wherever-it-is simply to deliver one short workshop or keynote speech. Use your contacts, your contacts’ contacts, social media, even cold emailing – any ideas you can come up with to generate more work. Don’t be shy. The very fact that someone wants to bring you to another country to work will impress other people. You need to maximise this opportunity, both financially and interpersonally.
  1. Where jet lag will be a factor, build in an initial day in which you won’t be working to help you acclimatise. Get onto local time as fast as you can: start before you leave for your trip if possible. And similarly, build in at least a day after you get home, before you have to do any substantive work.
  1. Plan for a final day with no commitments, so you can take up people’s offers to ‘grab a coffee’ while you’re in the area. If there are no such offers, you can spend the day exploring and having fun, so it’s a win-win.
  1. Check and double-check all travel arrangements, timings, and contact details. If someone has flown you thousands of miles for work, it’s enormously embarrassing if you don’t actually turn up in the right place at the right time. (I imagine. I’m glad to say I’ve never yet suffered such embarrassment – and I do not intend to in future.)
  1. Prepare your work carefully, and deliver it to the best of your ability. You are, to some extent, on trial. If you do well, you may be asked again.
  1. Do the follow-up work: send the emails you promised to send, pass on the references you mentioned, put people in touch with others as you said you would.

Working internationally is a lot of hard graft. It’s also a great deal of fun. I love to travel, meet new people, and see new places. But I find it helps to be realistic about what is involved, clear about what I can offer, and unambiguous about my terms.

Devising Your Own Research Method

yesI’ve had several emails recently from people asking whether they can devise their own research method. The answer is yes – in the right circumstances.

If you’re an undergraduate or a Masters’ student, you’ll have difficulty convincing your tutors that it’s a good idea for you to devise your own research method. They’re likely to say, with some justification, that you need to learn about existing research methods and practise doing research first. The possible exception is if you’re studying for a Masters’ degree in research methods and you want to use your dissertation to try out something new. But otherwise you probably need to leave the devising of a new method for your doctoral study or professional research.

Devising your own research method very rarely means creating a whole new method. Mostly it means tweaking an existing method, or layering two methods together, or some other form of adaptation. For example, Jacqueline Belzile and Gunilla Öberg, from the University of British Columbia, took a new look at focus group data. They found that it was usually treated in the same way as interview data, i.e. the content of the text was the focus of analysis while interactions between participants were generally ignored. Belzile and Öberg came up with new ways to analyse interactions in focus group data, and so moved analytic methods forward.

This usefully demonstrates that devising your own research method does not and need not apply only to data gathering. You can also experiment with writing, as I have done alongside many others, and there’s loads of room for creativity in presenting and disseminating findings. Art installations, theatrical performances, interactive multimedia – these are just a few of the options available to anyone who wants to go beyond the conventional conference presentation, thesis, journal article, or research report.

However, my inbox suggests that data gathering is the phase where people are most inclined to be experimental. And by ‘people’, I mean doctoral students. When I was doing the background reading for my book Creative Research Methods in the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide, I found that a surprisingly high proportion of papers on innovative methods were written by people who had developed those methods during their doctoral studies. This applied right across the methodological spectrum, from people developing new scales or algorithms, apps or computer games, or ways of mixing methods, to people developing new arts-based techniques. I myself developed a new method of gathering data using oral storytelling during my own doctoral studies. I guess this is at least in part because doctoral study provides enough time to research and develop methods – for those who have the inclination.

Some doctoral students find that their supervisors are nervous about the idea of a new method. The key to soothing supervisory anxiety is to construct a solid argument for the methodological move. So, let’s say a student, Ali, wants to research the effect of living close to mainline railway lines on outdoor social opportunities. Ali decides to create two three-dimensional models of small towns, identical except in one respect: one of the towns has a mainline railway running through the middle while the other has a stream with a path alongside. Ali also makes a collection of small figures and objects (barbecue, picnic blanket, bicycles etc) that participants can place on the model to show what kinds of outdoor social opportunities they would expect to see in which locations. However, Ali’s supervisors favour traditional methods of data collection such as interviewing. Ali needs to come up with some kind of precedent to demonstrate that the plans are viable, but there is no direct precedent – in fact, Ali can’t find anything anywhere in the methods literature about people using three-dimensional maps or model towns for qualitative research.

This means Ali needs to do some lateral thinking. There is some information in the methods literature about using maps with research participants, and there is also information about using objects to support interviewing. Ali collects and reads both sets of literature and uses the arguments therein to build a new argument in support of the planned method. Very sensibly, Ali also identifies some potential weaknesses of that method, and outlines plans to pilot and review the method as the first stage in its development.

So, if you want to devise a new method, whether for academic or other research, start by reading widely in the methods literature. Be prepared to think laterally, and to use a variety of search terms. At the methods frontiers, terminology is often unclear, and it would be embarrassing to claim you’d invented a new method then find several other people had invented it first but called it something different. Also, allow enough time to test your method thoroughly, through a pilot or a series of pilots, before you use it for real.

Devising a new method of gathering data – or, more likely, extending the boundaries of an existing method – is not for everyone, and it is certainly not necessary to do this to gain a doctoral qualification. But it can be great fun and very satisfying.