The Gear Changes of Independent Research

gear changeI have been an independent researcher for almost 20 years, yet I still find the gear changes difficult.

All of last week I was in top gear. On Sunday night I arrived in a reasonable chain hotel in a city centre. The hotel was as these hotels are: clean, reasonably spacious, comfortable, soulless. I asked for a quiet room and got one, plus the bathroom had an actual bath of a decent size. These things can take on enormous importance when you’re working away from home.

I spent the week zooming around the city in taxis and holding meetings with people during which I typed copious notes. I was facilitating the meetings too so I had to pay a lot of attention to what was going on. There was no scope for doing other things on my phone under the table or staring out of the window. Luckily most of the people I met with were lovely and what they had to say was interesting – that isn’t always the case.

I managed one brief meeting for a different project, one bus journey, and one long walk (it wasn’t supposed to be that long but I got lost, ahem). Other than that it was wall-to-wall meetings then back to my hotel room to work on the report for my client while dining al desko on snacks grabbed from a local supermarket. I could have gone out to eat but didn’t want to take the time. Also I didn’t want a restaurant meal after a full hotel breakfast and a working lunch which was generally quite copious too.

I got home on Thursday night. On Friday I had another meeting for a different project and spent the rest of the day writing the report. And all of Saturday and all of Sunday too, holed up in my office, nose to keyboard, while the rest of the world lazed around in the sunshine. I finished the report around 6 pm on Sunday and emailed it off to the client with a deep sigh of deadline-met relief.

In top gear I run smoothly and at high speed. I’m comfortable there, but of course it’s not sustainable long-term. Sometimes I have to drop to a lower gear for a while. And that’s where this whole analogy breaks down because, in a vehicle, changing gear is generally quick and fairly uncomplicated. For this independent researcher, it takes at least 24 bumpy hours, sometimes several days.

Monday was a weird day. I didn’t quite know what to do with myself; how to prioritise the jobs on my to-do list; whether to take some time off. I felt unsettled, out of sorts. I know this feeling so well and yet it always takes me by surprise. It can be almost as discombobulating when I’ve been in low gear and need to rev up, though at least then I can deploy my personal carrot-and-stick self-discipline techniques. But I haven’t found equivalent methods for managing the change-down days. Stopping altogether, that’s easy. It’s when I still need to work, but don’t have to go at steam heat, that I find the adjustment hard.

I’ve heard similar tales from people with jobs as diverse as journalists and heating engineers, so evidently this isn’t unique to independent research. But it’s an odd phenomenon and, in my experience, rarely discussed. Perhaps this comes in that well-known category of ‘more research needed’.

The Undisciplined Interdisciplinary Researcher

undisciplinedLast week there was an interesting conference called Undisciplining that I enjoyed following on social media. The conference subtitle was ‘Conversations From The Edges’ and its stated aim included ‘to foster collaborations and dialogues across disciplines and beyond academia’. There was live blogging, a workshop on making sociological board games, a feminist walk, and all manner of other creative ways to promote reflection and discussion at the conference and elsewhere. But although it talked about working across disciplines and beyond academia, the stated purpose of that was ‘to shape the nature and scope of the sociological’.

From what I read about this conference, its participants were keen to consider how sociology might be changed, extended, morphed into anything at all that could be useful in some way – but would still, in the end, be sociology. As the conference was sponsored by The Sociological Review this is perhaps unsurprising. Yet, despite its aspirations to interdisciplinarity – ‘undisciplining’ – it seemed like a disciplinary conference.

While I was pondering on this, my attention was drawn to a blog post by Ayona Datta about why she supports early career researchers. This sentence resonated with me: “Despite the rhetoric of interdisciplinarity, there are very few institutional and intellectual spaces that actually support interdisciplinary work.”

My first degree was a BSc in social psychology at the London School of Economics. In the early 1980s, few psychologists were experimenting with qualitative research, so my degree was entirely quantitative. What I learned in my first degree influences me today, yet I’m neither a psychologist nor a quantitative researcher. I studied social research methods for my masters’ degree which was mostly taught by sociologists and anthropologists. My PhD was cross-disciplinary, with one supervisor from social policy and the other from the business school. Today, I think I am a researcher without a discipline. Perhaps I am an undisciplined researcher.

But research is a topic, not a discipline. So does this mean my work is interdisciplinary? I think it does, for two main reasons. First, my main topics of interest, i.e. research methods and ethics, are interdisciplinary. A geographer might invent a new method, which is then adapted by an anthropologist, reshaped by a poet and used by a lawyer. Research ethics don’t vary much across disciplines either. Second, I read across disciplines, like a magpie, searching by topic, picking out the texts that look shiny and passing over the dull ones. I don’t have a disciplinary imperative to keep up with this journal or that blog. I began to read like this as an undergraduate, pre-internet, finding that tracking trails of interest through bibliographies in the library was far more interesting than trudging through the prescribed reading list (though sadly it was less use when it came to writing assignments).

I’m not anti-disciplines, though, as such. I think perhaps there is merit in learning and thinking within particular fields for some purposes. But I am anti-disciplines when they constrain thought and action. To help avoid this, I think discipline-based researchers and scholars should make regular visits to other disciplines, such as through reading, collaborating, or attending conferences. During my undergraduate degree, every student was expected to take a module outside their core subject. I learned a lot from studying anthropology, sociology, and literature, which enhanced my learning of psychology. (I was amused to find that this approach has been introduced as an ‘innovation’ by another London HE setting recently. My cackling splutter of “LSE did that in the early 80s” received a frosty reception.)

Academics often tell me they can’t work in this kind of way because of constraints which, to be fair, often seem more institutional than disciplinary. So is the problem here that disciplines serve the needs of the institution? Was the Sociological Review able to sponsor a conference more radical than some because it is a publication, not an institution? Is it, as many have suggested and I myself suspect, because I work outside an institution that I can do truly interdisciplinary work?

Being a researcher, I generally have more questions than answers. I wonder, though, whether interdisciplinary work holds dangers for those in power. I wonder whether this is why independent researchers are not able to write for The Conversation or apply for funding from research councils. I suspect my forthcoming book, Research Ethics in the Real World, which certainly is interdisciplinary, is going to annoy some people. More than one academic has told me they wouldn’t have been able to write it from within academia.

I would have loved to go to the Undisciplining conference, but I couldn’t afford the cost plus the unpaid time to attend, so I’m glad they did so much on social media. I will try to do my part on that front at the Research Methods Festival in Bath next week. That’s a truly interdisciplinary conference, with geographers, philosophers, sociologists, criminologists, health researchers, artists, economists, and many others too. I’m running a workshop on writing creatively in academia, which means I get a sizeable discount plus my travel paid, which means I can attend the rest of the conference. I can’t wait!

The Variety Of Indie Research Work

varietyOne of the things I love about being an independent researcher is the sheer variety of projects I work on and tasks I might do in a day. Yesterday, I was only in the office for the afternoon, yet I worked on at least seven different things. Here’s what I did.

First, I checked Twitter, and found a tweet with a link to a blog post I wrote about an event that is part of a project I’m working on with and for the forensic science community. This is a new departure for me, in that I haven’t worked with forensic scientists before, though the work itself is straightforward. I’m supporting a small group of people with research to identify the best way to create a repository for good quality student research data, and it’s surprisingly interesting. So I retweeted the tweet.

Second, I dealt with the morning’s emails. The arrival of a purchase order I’d been waiting for weeks to receive – hurrah! I formulated the invoice and sent it off to the client. Then some correspondence about the creative research methods summer school I’m facilitating at Keele in early July – just three weeks away now, so the planning is hotting up (and there are still some places left if you’d like to join us – it’ll be informative and fun). The most interesting email was a blog post from Naomi Barnes, an Australian education scholar who is considering what it means to be a white educator in the Australian school system. This chimes with the work I am doing on my next book, so I leave a comment and tweet the link.

While on Twitter, I got side-tracked by a tweet announcing #AuthorsForGrenfell, an initiative set up by authors for authors to donate items for auction to raise funds for the Red Cross London Fire Relief Fund to help survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire. I’d been wanting to help: my father is a Londoner, I have always had family in London, I lived in London myself from 1982-1997, and one member of my family is working in the tower right now to recover bodies. So it feels very close to home. But I’m not in a position to give lots of money, so I was delighted to find this option which I hope will enable me to raise more money than I could give myself. I have offered one copy of each of my books plus a Skype consultation with each one. My items aren’t yet up on the site, but I hope they will be soon because bidding is open already. If you’re one of my wealthy readers, please go over there and make a bid!

Then I spent some time researching aftercare for data. Yes, indeed there is such a thing. So far I’ve come up with two ways to take care of your data after your project is finished: secure storage and open publication. They are of course diametrically opposed, and which you choose depends on the nature of your data. Open publication is the ethical choice in most cases, enabling your data to be reused and cited, increasing your visibility as a researcher, and reducing the overall burden on potential research participants. In some cases, though, personal or commercial sensitivities will require secure storage of data. There may be other ways to take care of data after the end of a project, and I’ll be on the lookout for those as I work on my next book.

By now it was 6 pm so I did a last trawl of the emails, and found one from Sage Publishing with a link to a Dropbox folder containing 20 research methods case studies for me to review. They publish these cases online as part of their Methodspace website. I like this work: it’s flexible enough to fit around other commitments and, like other kinds of review, it tests my knowledge of research methods while also helping me to stay up to date. Best of all, unlike other kinds of review, Sage pay for my expertise. So I downloaded all the documents, checked and signed the contract, and emailed it back with a ‘thank you’. By then it was 6.30 pm and time to go home.

As the old saying goes, variety is the spice of life. I certainly like the flavour it gives to my work. Some days I work on a single project all day; those days are fun too. Yesterday I worked in my own office, today I’m out at meetings locally, tomorrow I’m off to London. It’s always ‘all change’ and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Let’s Talk About The Money

cashbox-1642989__340As the end of the financial year is imminent, it seems a good time to talk about money. Turns out I had a bumper year in 2015/16: my company made a profit of over £36,000. That’s the most this decade. Part of the reason was I won a good-sized research contract, which is the first time that’s happened in this decade. I won a lot of work in the 2000s, and did a fair bit of sub-contracting too, but since the change of government in 2010 I’ve mostly been the sub-contractee. Which is fine by me, actually; it’s a lot less hassle, and I like working in teams.

When you run your own business, one year’s profit doesn’t tell the whole story. You need to look at the last five years to get a sense of where you’re at financially. My worst years were 2011 and 2012, and those are now receding into the distance, thank goodness. Here are my profit figures for the last five years:

2016: £36,168
2015: £8,594
2014: £26,939
2013: £12,357
2012: £5,261

The profit on a business does not constitute your income, because you have to pay tax. I’m happy about this because I appreciate the public services they fund (though I wish more would be spent on schools and hospitals, and less on armaments and wars, but that’s a discussion for another time). Here’s the tax I’ve paid on the profits above:

2016: £7,271
2015: £1,719
2014: £5,316
2013: £2,486
2012: £0

This is corporation tax, not income tax. I also pay tax on my income, but nowhere near as much, because my income is quite small. It’s usually a few hundred pounds (I would give the actual figures but I haven’t kept records).

To really get a sense of the full story, we need to look at the averages of these figures. The average profit my business has made over the last five years is £17,862, and the average tax I’ve paid over the last five years is £2,491. So, on average, I’ve had a surplus of around £15,000. From this, I have to put money aside for business expenses such as professional subscriptions and training/conference costs (so now you probably understand why I am rarely able to pay for conferences). Then I can give myself an income.

Through 2011-13 I paid myself very little from the business, but since late 2013 I’ve been able to pay myself £1,000 per month. This provides me with a comfortable living, mainly because I’ve paid off my mortgage, don’t have children, do have a partner who earns a similar amount, and am happy to live fairly cheaply.

It’s strange to see that the odd numbered years are less lucrative than the even numbered years. If I wasn’t a fan of empirical methods, I’d probably start reading something into that, especially as 2017 looks set to follow the pattern.

I’m sure some independent researchers make more money than me, and I’m equally sure others make less. I could probably earn more if I chased work harder, but I like writing books. This means that as long as I have enough work to keep me going, I don’t chase moStreet harbour-wardsre work, instead I spend my time writing. And the books are beginning to yield something of an income, after six years of hard graft; I can now rely on a four-figure sum arriving each year, and that’s a month’s money, maybe two months this year if I’m lucky.

We don’t talk about money much, but I think we need to, because this is the reality behind our high day rates. I’m not complaining, though; quite the reverse. I feel very lucky that I can support myself by doing the work I love. And I can even afford holidays. Right now I’m in the Canary Islands having a wonderful time, and not missing the British March weather at all!

How To Become An Indie Ally

cat-and-dogCalling academics! Do you want to be a useful ally to independent researchers? Then here’s how you can. No, wait, let’s start with why it’s a good idea. Independent researchers can add considerable value to academic research and teaching projects. We bring a fresh perspective, which can be useful to help disentangle problems that seem entrenched, or simply to provide a new view of a situation. We have time to think, because we don’t have to tangle with time-consuming internal meetings and university bureaucracy. And we are not limited in what we work on by managerial directives or departmental policy. Also, we are flexible and can sometimes help out at short notice, such as when a colleague has an unexpected leave of absence at a crucial stage in a project. One potential downside is that an indie researcher is unlikely to have the depth of knowledge in any one subject of a professor who has spent decades studying a single area. On the other other hand, indie researchers often bring a breadth of knowledge across several related areas, and are skilled in bringing themselves up-to-date fast in any area they haven’t worked on for a while.

Another reason it might be a good idea to support independent researchers is that, as the options for tenure in academia decrease, the likelihood of any academic ending up as an indie increases. So supporting indie researchers and scholars may prove to be an investment in your own future. An academic of my acquaintance told me recently that she wonders why staff at her post-92 university are regularly asked to give free support to universities in the much richer Russell Group (another structural faultline of academic inequality). She has decided to stop offering free training to other universities, whatever their grouping, because it affects the market for independent workers. Be like her!

So those are some reasons why it’s a good idea to use indie researchers; now let’s look at how they can be used. The three main ways academic departments use indie researchers are: as part of a team on a funded research project; to augment a teaching programme; or to fill gaps in capacity. Of course there are many other ways, from delivering a single class or seminar to providing years of doctoral supervision.

Here’s how to help make that happen.

  1. Get to know your local indie researchers and/or the indie researchers who work in your field. This way, when you need some help in a hurry, you’ll have an existing relationship as a springboard.
  1. Be mindful that indie researchers don’t receive a salary; nobody is paying for their time. Any decent indie researcher should be willing to come to an exploratory meeting without expecting to be paid. However, it will be helpful if you can acknowledge the imbalance: you are drawing a salary for your time at that meeting; they are not. It will be even more helpful if you can at least reimburse their travel expenses, and maybe give them lunch. Please do not expect an indie researcher to come to more than one meeting without recompense. Some academics still think it’s OK to ask an indie to run a workshop, speak at a conference, and write a chapter for an edited collection. A salaried academic could say ‘yes’ to all of those without pausing for breath, even though the tasks probably require 2-3 weeks of full-time work to complete. If you’re not paying an indie, you’re asking them to do that in their own time. That’s equivalent to asking a salaried academic to work on a dozen consecutive Sundays. If the latter would give you pause, so should the former.
  1. Understand how independent researchers’ day rates work. These day rates look high, but at times we go for weeks or months with no paid work, and we have none of the benefits of employment such as holiday pay or sick pay or conference budgets. For example, I charge universities £800 per day and in 2015-16 I was able to pay myself £17,000 – around one-third of what I would be taking home if I’d spent the last 17 years in academia. In the last five years, I’ve had two good years and three lean years. There are other compensations to the indie lifestyle so this is not intended as a sob story. But it’s surprising how many intelligent people still think ‘high day rate’ equals ‘rich person’.
  1. If you really can’t pay an independent researcher, but you want them to work with you, think about what you can offer them in exchange for their skills and labour. They might be glad to have use of your library, an honorary position with access to paywalled journals, or a free place on a professional training course. Most indie researchers are open to barter as long as you can offer something that is of value to them. What won’t be of value is ‘exposure’, because in these days of social media we can all expose ourselves.
  1. Where appropriate, allocate time and costs in your funding bids for input from one or more independent researchers. This sends a positive message to funders: it shows that you are thinking beyond the walls of the academy and taking a creative approach to your bid and your project design. Any credible independent researcher who you plan to include should be willing to put in some unpaid desk work up front, perhaps to write a section of the bid or to give feedback on a draft.
  1. Raise awareness among your colleagues of the value, and support needs, of independent researchers. If you have the contacts, and want to earn serious brownie points from the indies in your networks and beyond, lobby for indie researchers to have access to research funding.

One caveat: it is important to perform due diligence. Ask for a CV, with references; follow up the references, and spot-check a couple of items from the CV. If the independent researcher hasn’t been independent for long, it would be worth quizzing them about their intentions. Due to the economic climate and the casualisation of academic work, some people are setting up as independent researchers in the hope of earning a few quid while they’re searching for salaried employment. It won’t help your research plan if, by the time you secure funding for your three-year project, your nominated indie researcher is now a full-time lecturer at the other end of the country.

I hosted a lively Twitterchat about independent research for #ecrchat on 24 February, and was hoping to link to the resulting Storify from this post but technical problems have intervened. If we are able to storify the chat in future I’ll include the link here. I was also hoping to refer to the Storify for any points I may have missed, as I’m not at all sure the above list is exhaustive, so if you have any points to add, please include them in the comments below.

How I Charge For Work

money-budgetingThis post was inspired by @CClements29 who posted a question on Twitter last week. I was on my way to Australia at the time, via London and Tokyo, so I couldn’t answer directly. But Charlotte’s tweet, plus various other recent queries, made me realise I should write about how I charge for work.

What I can’t tell you is how much you should charge for any work you’re being asked to do. However, I hope that by explaining how I work out my charges – a system developed over 17 years in business – I can at least give you some pointers on how to think about charging, and what kinds of questions to ask yourself and others.

First, I charge by the day (or, at the minimum, half a day). My rates depend on: the type of client and/or source of funding; the complexity, location, and interestingness of the work; and (to some extent) my capacity. For example, if I don’t have much on and I could do with the work, I’m more likely to accept less interesting work at a lower fee; conversely, if I’m maxed out, it doesn’t matter how interesting or well-paid a gig might be, I’m not going to say yes.

As a rule of thumb, I charge more for more complex work, work that involves more travelling, and boring work. If there’s something interesting I can do in my office, I’ll be happy to charge less. I often reduce my day rate somewhat for a longer piece of work, on the basis that if a client buys, say, 20 days of my time or more at one go, they deserve a discount. Sometimes the client sets the day rate: if that’s higher than I would set it myself, I won’t argue; if it’s lower, I probably will (unless there’s some other reason I want to do the work).

In terms of client type, I charge the least to small, local charities, or for any work funded by public donations. I charge the most to national governments, or for work funded by national governments, and to wealthy organisations such as universities. Larger charities and local governments get charged at an intermediate level.

In terms of what my day rate actually is: for UK work, it currently varies between £120 (small local charity, work funded from public donations) and £1,000 (rate set by a client for training when the course is full). I charge £800 to universities, which seems to be pretty much the going rate; £500-£600 to central government or for work funded by central government; £350-£450 to larger charities and funders; and £200-£250 to smaller charities and funders. This sounds like a lot to some people; the rationale is here.

The other part of the equation is working out what you can actually do in a day. This takes some experience, as everyone works at different rates, and the time things take can vary. For example, not all interviews will take the same length of time: an interview with five questions is likely to take less time, on average, than one with 15 questions. Sometimes, too, there’s a chunk of the work where you need to invest some time updating your knowledge and/or skills. I don’t think it’s fair to charge a client for the time you spend doing this, because the update will only help them for this particular job, while it will help you more widely. Occasionally the two will combine, e.g. when a client wants a literature review, as part of the work, about the exact topic on which you need to update your knowledge to do the whole job effectively. That kind of serendipity does happen, but it’s rare.

I can’t tell you what you can do in a day, but I can tell you it will help if you are able to work fast, as then your work will represent better value for money. I touch-type at 90 wpm, I read fast, and I make good use of time. All of this means I can offer my clients a lot of work in each day.

I charge for some expenses on top of my day rate: travel (second-class, taxis where necessary, mileage at Inland Revenue rates if I need to drive) and accommodation when required. I don’t generally charge subsistence to clients, but I do write it off against tax. I absorb all other expenses – stationery, printing etc – within my day rate.

Some clients want a ‘job rate’ so they can budget – or they tell you what their budget is, and ask you to work out how you can do the job within the available resources. Either way, you have  to decide whether and, if so, how you can meet their needs. Sometimes you simply can’t: I’ve lost count of the jobs I’ve turned down because the client wants, say, a three-year evaluation of a publicly funded project for a total budget of £5,000. It’s just not feasible to do a good piece of work, of that duration, for that price.

Charging for work abroad is different: info here.

People may, at times, ask you to work for nothing, or for ‘exposure’ or ‘the experience’ or ‘the contacts’. It is up to you whether or not you take up these opportunities. If you’re at the very start of your indie career, some may be worth the effort; I benefited from such things myself. I still work for nothing at times: I offer free support to groups of service users, community members, activists etc who want help and advice in relation to research. But I’m long past the point of working for ‘exposure’ or ‘experience’. I doubt any of my clients would ask a car mechanic, or a hairdresser, or a window cleaner to work in return for ‘exposure’, so why do they feel it’s OK to ask a researcher to do this? Beats me. And I already have 17 years of paid experience, so I hardly need more unpaid experience.

Whatever you decide, don’t sell yourself short. We all need to value our own knowledge, experience, and skills. This isn’t always easy: the day rates I now charge are this year’s rates, as my post about the rationale shows. I could only bring myself to charge these rates after, quite literally, years of people I respect (including several clients) telling me I wasn’t charging enough for the work I was doing. Yet I now realise that under-selling myself didn’t do me any good, and it doesn’t do the rest of us any good either, because it can lead clients to have unrealistic expectations. So do the necessary thinking and research, take a deep breath, and charge what your work is worth.

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 any full day spent travelling, e.g. on a long-haul flight.
  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.

University Bureaucracy Is Driving Me Mad!!!

I understand that where there are institutions, there must also be bureaucracy. I know that when I work with a new university, I need to fill in a New Supplier Form for their records, and someone will have to raise a purchase order before I can get paid. This is how most universities work. The initial form-filling can be a bit of a pain, and it can take a while to get set up on the system, but once that’s done, the admin is usually straightforward. I do a job, a purchase order arrives in my inbox, I create an invoice for the specified amount bearing the purchase order number, email it off, then some time later the money appears in my bank account.

That kind of administrative overhead seems reasonable and proportionate for the kind of work I do and the amounts I charge. Most of my invoices are in three figures or the small end of four. However, some universities have a massive administrative overhead for new suppliers. I’ve just come across one at the other end of a very long spectrum. Nameless University requires me to do the following:

  1. Complete a New Supplier Form
  2. Complete a Vendor Appraisal Questionnaire
  3. Read and understand their Terms and Conditions for Purchase
  4. Complete a Supplier Engagement Tool online

The New Supplier Form is on a spreadsheet and has 22 questions. The Vendor Appraisal Questionnaire is two pages of A4 and has several of the same questions that are on the New Supplier Form.

The Terms and Conditions for Purchase are 11 pages long. Being savvy in these matters, I skipped straight to the insurance section, where I found that they want me to hold £5m in public liability insurance and £1m in professional indemnity insurance. My own insurers, in whose interests it is to sell me as much insurance as possible, have told me that I only need £2m in public liability and £250,000 in professional indemnity for the kind of work I do. To raise my cover to the levels demanded by Nameless University would cost me more than I will earn from my work with them.

The online Supplier Engagement Tool was the icing on the cake. Sample question: ‘Is there someone in your organisation who is responsible for sustainability? To qualify, sustainability must form 50% or more of the person’s job role.’ Yes, there is someone in my organisation who is responsible for sustainability. It’s me. I make sure we buy recycled paper and compost our teabags. But is that 50% of my job role? Is it heck. For a start it only takes about one minute a week to ensure that my business is as sustainable as possible, and for a second thing, if I spent half my time on sustainability, I wouldn’t be able to earn a living.

Most of the questions in the Supplier Engagement Tool were irrelevant to me, so I ended up answering almost all of them with the ‘other, please specify’ option. At the end of the process I got a personalised action plan for my business. This turned out to be a pdf of a single page with my company name at the top and NOTHING ELSE AT ALL.

I said in an email to the person commissioning my work that Nameless University was by far the most bureaucratic I had come across (it is). That person forwarded my email to the Head of Procurement. The HoP wrote me a lengthy email saying, among other things, that it is ‘standard business practice’ to operate in this way for any contract over £1,000 in value. (As this is the first university which has done this to me, I’m not sure what the standard is here, let alone the business; even the local authorities I used to work with didn’t operate like this for costs under five figures.)

The HoP did acknowledge that there was duplication between the spreadsheet and the questionnaire, and said they are ‘looking to merge the documents into one in the future’ (a job that could be done in five minutes flat). The HoP also said that ‘insurances can be negotiated… with suppliers such as yourself’ – so why not put that in the Terms and Conditions of Purchase? Some suppliers will reach that point and conclude that they are ineligible. Bureaucracy is not only a nuisance, it can also exclude, which is unlikely to be in anyone’s best interests.

Apparently the Supplier Engagement Tool will enable Nameless University to ensure that all their suppliers ‘fully comply with the recently introduced Modern Slavery Act‘. I know I can drive myself hard at times, but I didn’t realise I was at risk of enslaving myself. More seriously, this Act is only applicable to businesses with a turnover above £36million. The UK Government evidently understands the need to keep red tape to a minimum for small and micro businesses; why can’t Nameless University get its head around this too?

Most galling of all, it will take me a couple of hours to jump through all their hoops. I’m debating whether to reply to the HoP asking who I should invoice for my time. What do you think? Is that a good way to make a point? Or is it a good way to shoot myself in the foot?

Ten Top Tips For Becoming An Indie Researcher

independence.jpgPeople 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.

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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!

When A Contract Ends

finish lineI’m putting the finishing touches to the report of a research project that’s been running for the last 18 months. And then it’ll be over. Which is a bit sad, for a number of reasons.

First, the work is for a national organisation, but unusually that organisation is based close to where I live in the Midlands of England. So, unlike most, this job hasn’t involved a lot of travelling: much of the work has been done within half an hour’s drive of my office.

Second, I’ve been working with another researcher, a colleague I met for the first time on the day we went to be interviewed for this job. I liked him then and my respect and appreciation for him has grown throughout the project. He’s responsive, thoughtful, caring, creative, and generally a terrific collaborator. I will miss working with him.

Third, it’s been an interesting, complex project, evaluating a community-based advocacy service for older people with cancer. The work is multi-faceted and that makes it a real challenge to investigate it fully and come up with suitable recommendations for taking the work forward.

Fourth, it’s paid some of the bills. These kinds of longer-term contracts, that provide a basic level of income for a period of time, don’t come along so often but are invaluable for indie researchers.

Letting go of a project can be hard for anyone, but there are some specific areas of difficulty for indie researchers. Commissioners don’t think to get back in touch to tell us how our work is being used, and seem surprised if we email or phone to ask. We have very little say in how our work is disseminated, and sometimes it’s not disseminated at all, which can be really frustrating. And unlike our academic colleagues, we don’t have the requirement to publish that can keep the relationships formed during a project alive for months and years after completion.

So in many ways I’m sorry to see this contract end, but the pill is very thoroughly sugared by the new contract I landed earlier this month. Without that I think I’d be in deep mourning. But this time it really does feel as though, as one door is closing, another opens.