This post comes to you in rather a hurry as I have to leave for the airport in less than an hour. So I don’t have time to write much, but luckily for me, I already wrote a blog post this week for the nice people at the British Sociological Association postgraduate forum. I chat to them on Twitter, they’re all kinds of helpful and supportive, and they have a rather excellent blog. I was delighted to be the first in their new ‘day in the life’ series. So if you want to know about a representative kind of day from my working life (there’s no such thing as a typical one), click here. Meanwhile, today in my working life will mostly be spent on a plane, as I’m off to Calgary in Canada. I’ll be working there, too – tell you about it next week!
You’ve probably worked out by now that I love to write. I still remember the joy of winning a class story competition when I was 7 or 8 years old. I filled most of an exercise book with the story of four children who had adventures in a flying car. It was an incredibly derivative Chitty Chitty Bang Bang/Swallows and Amazons mash-up, but I didn’t know, then, that you’re not supposed to nick other people’s ideas. I did know that writing, for me, was enormously satisfying.
It was a habit I never lost. As a young adult I found that I couldn’t not write: I wrote on buses, in bed, on holiday and at work, and when I wasn’t writing I was often thinking about writing. There’s a game I still play with myself when I have a bit of spare brain: which words would I use to describe the way sunlight shimmers on that wheat field, the taste of this flavoursome curry, how I feel when my partner is unexpectedly late home and I don’t know why. I’m looking for precision. I don’t want to conjure up any old wheat field, curry, or emotion, I want to describe the quality of light on that wheat field, the joy of this spice mix making my taste buds sing, the bittersweet combination of love and anxiety I’m experiencing right now.
I love to rewrite, too. In the previous paragraph, I originally wrote of the spice mix ‘exploding on my tongue’. That was a bit too cliched even for a disposable blog post. Then I tried ‘colonising my taste buds’, which pleased me because of the reverse colonisation implication for this UK resident, but then I began to doubt that phrase in case, even though I had associated it with joy, it could be read in the opposite way by someone with racist tendencies. So I went for ‘sing’ which has pleasing links with joy and mouth. As this is a blog post, which I am writing when I should be doing client work, I plumped for the third idea. If I was writing a book, I might have run through many more possibilities before making my choice.
If I didn’t love to write, I wouldn’t write. I certainly don’t do it for the money. When people find out that I’m a writer, they sometimes assume I’m rich, JK Rowling-style. Nope. It’s particularly dumb being an academic writer, whose average annual earnings are the lowest of all the categories at an average of £3,826 per year in the UK. I’m not sure of my own exact average, but in the 12 years since my first book was published, I know it is somewhere around £350 per year. I don’t earn anything for book chapters or, usually, academic journal articles, though I did get paid £1,500 for writing one in 2014. If I count my average earnings from writing over the three years since my first research methods book came out in 2012, that one single payment pushes it up to somewhere around £850 per year.
However, the calculation of direct earnings is not the whole story. In academic circles, my writing confers credibility and, quite literally, authority. I know I have obtained paid work, from academic and non-academic institutions (including, ironically given recent events, HM Government), as a direct result of my writing. But writing takes a lot of time and, when you’re self-employed, time is money. One of the really, really annoying things about being an indie researcher is that you can’t get funding from anywhere. Research councils will only fund institutions, I’m not arty enough for the Arts Council, not literary enough for a Royal Literary Fellowship, and even the Independent Social Research Foundation doesn’t do what I thought it did. I got all excited when I saw the name, but it seems to be the Foundation which is independent, not the researchers it funds who are all employed by academic institutions.
I have wondered whether to try using the web for its potential rather than its usefulness and go for some kind of crowdfunding. I’ve thought about Kickstarter, or Unbound, or Patreon. They all have slightly different models. With Kickstarter, you propose a project, set a funding limit, and offer ‘rewards’ which can be as nominal as funders getting their name in the acknowledgements/credits or as tangible as you like: a copy of the book, dinner with the author, feedback on a draft of your own work – whatever you want to offer for varying levels of contribution. Unbound is a bit like Kickstarter but specifically for books. And Patreon is a way in which fans of artists can pay a set amount per week, per month, or per output, again in return for rewards chosen by the artist to suit the size of the contribution.
I think these are interesting, useful platforms for creative people. I don’t think they’ll work for me. For a start, I don’t have millions of fans. Some projects get funded even though their generators don’t have millions of fans, because they have an idea that captures enough people’s imaginations. I don’t think my current project, a multi-disciplinary research ethics book, is going to capture many people’s imaginations. My ideas aren’t earth-shaking, though they may cause a small bounce in a few odd corners of academia. But they matter to me. And that’s why I am my own patron.
I am lucky that I can use my income to fund my writing habit – and that writing is the habit I want to fund; far more destructive habits are available. I am also lucky that I’m not materialistic. But I’m also not completely stupid when it comes to running a business. So I’ve decided that, where my writing is concerned, it’s time to diversify. I alluded to my Top Secret Project back in April, and now it’s almost ready to… ooh, is that the time? I’ll have to tell you the rest next week!
A few months ago I wrote a post called ‘Why I Am Saying No To Some Universities’ in which I demonstrated that universities are wealthy organisations and explained that, therefore, I was not prepared to work them for free.
This week I got an email from a UK Government department, from a civil servant who had been at the creative research methods conference last May where my most recent book was launched. The email, and my thought processes as I read it, went like this:
Email: That conference was great
Me: It was, wasn’t it?
Email: As a result, I bought your book
Me: I think I love you
Email: I’m a researcher in the UK government
Email: We have a cross-departmental group looking at creative research methods
Me: That’s interesting, and new information for me
Email: I’m very enthusiastic about this, and my colleagues would like to meet you
Me: Yay! This sounds exciting!
Email: And perhaps you could speak at one of our seminars
Me: Woo-hoo! That would be great!
Email: Though we don’t really have a budget
Me: Uh-oh, I might be falling out of love…
Email: But could you come anyway?
Me: I very much want to, but… I don’t think so.
Email: We can reimburse travel expenses
Me: Oh Here We Go Again *grinds teeth with rage*
The meeting is, of course, in London. With travel time, it takes me a whole day to go to a meeting in London. So the UK Government are asking me to write off a whole working day in exchange for… well, nothing. No pay. Nada. Zilch. And their offer of reimbursing my travel expenses is somehow supposed to make that OK.
This is the Government that allegedly supports small businesses. The coalition trumpeted their support for small businesses in the UK, and for micro-businesses like mine, though the relevant web pages now have big banners on saying that they were published under the coalition government. But I wouldn’t expect the Tories to backtrack on coalition commitments to small businesses. Indeed, the 2015 Conservative manifesto included a pledge to increase the percentage of Government funds spent with small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) from one-quarter of goods and services to one-third. Yet now, it seems, they’re asking at least some micro-businesses to provide services to the Government for nothing. How does that constitute support? And how will that help the Government achieve their stated aim of spending more with SMEs?
I’ve discovered that it’s harder to say no to the Government than to universities. This is partly because there are lots of universities and only one Government. It’s also because, well, it feels a bit scary. I know we live in a kind of a democracy with fairly free speech most of the time. Particularly as I’m a native Brit, I don’t think anyone is likely to knock on my door in the night and drag me off to a bunker somewhere for a serious telling-off. But it is… y’know… the Government. The people with the power. There’s a bit of me that thinks I should have rolled over, said yes, at least it would have looked good on my CV. And that, if I’m not going to say yes, I should at least keep quiet, not speak out.
But really, that raises a question I’ve asked my clients more than once when they’ve wanted to suppress some research findings they thought might be politically unpopular. Should we work for our Government? Or should our Government work for us?
I really would like to contribute to their creative research methods group, and I think it’s fair to say that, right now, I may be the person in the country who is best placed to provide support to that group. But I think, I believe, that our Government should work for us, and not the other way around. So, with a heavy heart, I am saying no to the UK Government.
***Update: a few minutes after publishing the above post, I got another email saying oops, sorry, we can’t even pay travel expenses. ***
In the last few weeks I have been asked to deliver seminars at the universities of York and Leicester. I had the time and would have enjoyed the experiences. Also, in both cases, the people inviting me were my friends. So why did I say ‘no’?
I was asked to work for nothing.
Both universities offered to pay my travel expenses. This has been standard practice for many years, designed to ensure that academics would not be out of pocket when visiting another institution. Visiting academics don’t need to be paid by their host institution because they are already drawing a good salary from their own institution.
Independent researchers are not drawing a salary and often don’t earn a great deal. I have been open about my income. As I thought about the invitations from York and Leicester, it occurred to me that universities were probably open about their income, too. So I did some research and found that, although often buried deep within layers of web pages, they do indeed publish their financial statements.
In 2013/14, the income of the University of York was £305.4m and its expenditure was £297.2m. It has total net assets of £243.8m, and a retained surplus of £10.5m.
In the same financial year, the income of the University of Leicester was £286.7m and its expenditure was £279.2m. It has total net assets of £172.6m, and a retained surplus of £7.6m.
Clearly universities must exercise sound financial stewardship. They have staff to pay and to provide pensions for, and I believe that university staff work hard and should be paid appropriately. There are buildings to be maintained and refurbished, equipment costs, perhaps debts to service, and so on. But these are wealthy institutions with an annual surplus of millions of pounds. Yet, while they evidently want my expertise, they won’t pay me a couple of hundred.
I found it embarrassing to refuse my friends’ requests. In both cases they said they had no budget to pay visiting scholars. Clearly universities hold on tight to their cash. But in doing so, they minimise the types of expertise available to their students. Is that a sensible educational strategy?
In recent weeks, I have been cheerfully paid a sensible fee for work at Staffordshire University, which is significantly less wealthy than York or Leicester (income: £118.4m, expenditure: £116m, net assets £44.2m, surplus £3.6m). I have also been paid by Swansea University (income £205.8m, expenditure £182.3m, net assets £156.5m, surplus £7.2m). And I am in discussions with Birmingham City University, who said my fee was what they were expecting (income: £173.8m, expenditure £153.6m, net assets £219.9m, surplus £23.2m).
Although this is not any kind of a representative sample, I used my researcher’s eye to try to discern a pattern. York is a Russell Group university; Leicester and Swansea were founded around the same time in the early 1920s; Staffordshire and Birmingham City are post-92. So there is no apparent consistency here.
I wonder what prospective students might think. Would you like to go to a university that will encourage you to learn from a wide variety of expert people? Or would you prefer one that will restrict you to learning from its own faculty and some volunteers?
I began work as an indie researcher in 1999. Over the next seven years I completed dozens of research contracts, an MSc, and a PhD. I also built up a good professional network, mostly in the English Midlands where I live. The people in my network ran local government departments and charities. They liked me and I liked them: we would meet for coffee, or lunch, and talk shop. After I was awarded my PhD in 2006, I rarely had to apply for work; mostly I was simply offered small contracts that I could complete alone, or slightly larger ones where I might sub-contract some of the work to a colleague. And on the rare occasions when I did write a tender for a local organisation, sometimes I was the only applicant, or the commissioner would have two or three to choose from.
Then in 2010 we had a change of government, the cuts began, and my network imploded. Every single person either took redundancy, or early retirement, or accepted a demotion to a non-managerial post. I was left as high and dry as a spine on a cactus in the desert. Lots of people who had lost or given up their jobs declared themselves to be available for independent work, while a number of my peers who had been indie researchers for some time found, like me, that the work dried up. At one point I did a tender for one piece of work, for an existing client, a national organisation, and I didn’t win. When I asked for feedback, I learned that they had had 26 applications. That is nothing compared to some of the employment recruitment numbers I’ve heard of in the last few years, but it’s a lot more than the half-dozen tenders they might have received in the noughties.
The silver lining was that I had time, which I used to write my first book and to start building new networks. In particular, I began to network with academics, and to network more actively online. In 2011 I applied to the Third Sector Research Centre at the University of Birmingham for an Associate Research Fellowship, and in 2012 they took me on. Twitter is an environment I enjoy and it’s a great place to network with academics, worldwide, who also enjoy the exchanges there. I also like offering help with research methods to people who are struggling; it’s amazing how much pertinent advice you can fit into 140 characters (or 280, or 420, or…!) And I also kept my personal friends informed about my work – at least, until they started to glaze over – because, well, you never know.
Remember those three gigs I landed in one day, two weeks ago? They all came through networking, even the one where we wrote a tender. For that one, I was recommended to the lead organisation by my mentor at the Third Sector Research Centre. The gig in Calgary came through a woman I met online, a fellow fiction writer. I met her in real life once, in England, shortly before she emigrated to Canada. We’ve kept in touch via Facebook, and at times I’ve been able to give her advice and support with her postgraduate studies. She wrote a very kind review of my first research methods book, and has been delightfully encouraging about my second. But I was gobsmacked when she announced that she wanted to pay me to go and do some work with her in Calgary.
And the Swansea gig came through an even more modern route. A woman in Canada, who I have only ever spoken to on Twitter, recommended me to an American woman in Swansea, who had never heard of me nor I of her. But she evidently trusted the woman in Canada, because she emailed an enquiry, then we spoke on the phone, and I taught a very enjoyable session there last week, helping her postgraduate students to formulate their research questions.
So, if you want to be an indie researcher, you need to be comfortable with networking, both in person and online. And you need to carry on doing it even when you don’t know where it may lead. I had no idea, when I started building new networks in 2010, that they would lead to Swansea or Calgary. And I have no idea where else they may lead. But that’s the indie researcher’s life: exciting, unpredictable, and forever uncertain.
When I’m teaching research methods to postgraduate students, I encourage them to be comfortable with uncertainty. After all, research is a quest to discover the unknown, so if you’re already certain about everything you’re probably not doing it right. But if you want to be an indie researcher, you need to be comfortable with a higher level of uncertainty than most.
Of course there is also much less certainty, these days, in conventional jobs. Short-term contracts, lack of tenure, funding cuts etc all serve to destabilise employment. But if you have a job with a contract, at least you know you’ll get a salary payment at the end of each month for as long as the contract lasts, and you know how much the payment will be. No indie researcher has that level of security, and many of us earn much less than our salaried counterparts.
In my culture we don’t discuss financial specifics very often. I think that’s unhelpful, so let’s subvert that taboo. Last year was a good year for me: I took home £22,000. That is enough for me. I can live, enjoy myself, and save on that level of income. This is partly because of my life choices: I don’t have children, I do have a partner who earns around the same as me, and we have paid off our mortgage. Also, my greatest luxury is time. I’m not interested in spending money on make-up, beauty treatments, jewellery, household goods, etc; shopping is low down my list of desirable leisure activities; I don’t have expensive hobbies, and I happily drive an old unfashionable car. But I love to buy myself time: time to write, time to see my family and my friends, time just to be me, living my life my way, free and in peace. That seems to me the greatest possible luxury.
Last year, though, was a very busy year. It needed to be as I’d taken home around half that for each of the previous three years. So I was glad to become involved in two contracts a year ago: the Big Lottery Fund’s research into building capabilities, and the Independent Commission on the future of third sector infrastructure. And I was zipping around the country all year: from Chelmsford to Wigan, London, Exeter, Sheffield, Bristol, and London again, Portsmouth, Tameside, and oh yes back to London, and so on and so forth. That ended with the launch of the NAVCA commission’s report at the House of Commons in January and, since then, life has been very quiet.
I do have one new contract, a local evaluation running from November of last year to spring 2016, but it doesn’t require a great deal of work. I’ve had a few enquiries, and been involved in a couple of tenders, even one interview, but nothing actually converted into real work. I’m good at using my down time and have been productive on the writing front as well as moving forward with some non-work projects like refurbishing my office. But I did start worrying about where the next contract was coming from, and preparing to make some financial cut-backs of my own.
Then last week I had one of those amazing days that come along every now and again in an indie researcher’s life. First, I heard that the interview I’d been involved in had been successful, and we’d won the contract. This was great news as it’s a sizeable piece of work, and means I’m now on break-even for the next year, so anything else that comes in is profit. It also means I can be certain of a £1,000 payment per month for the next 12 months. But it’s also a whole new world of uncertainty, as I had never worked with anyone from the lead firm, or anyone else on the research team, before we started work on the tender, so I have no idea how it will work out. Still, paid uncertainty is less uncertain than unpaid uncertainty. Then I received a commission from a university department I haven’t worked with before, who are making noises about developing an ongoing relationship, which is music to my ears. But, again, more uncertainty: it’s in Swansea, a city I don’t know, and I’ll be teaching postgraduate students of management which is not my area of expertise – though they need to learn how to do research, which is my area of expertise. And finally, I heard that I have secured my first international speaking engagement, giving a keynote at a conference in Calgary this autumn. The conference is already fully booked, with over 200 people from a range of public services including academia.
So essentially, in 24 hours, I swapped the uncertainty of wondering whether I would ever get any more work for the uncertainty of wondering whether I could actually do all the new work that had just landed in my lap. It felt very much like that top-of-the-rollercoaster moment, when your stomach begins to lurch just from looking at the drop, before you actually start the descent. But these new problems are great problems to have and, after 16 years as an indie researcher, I know how to ride this rollercoaster.
Sometimes my career as an independent researcher delivers ‘ beyond my wildest dreams’ experiences. Last Tuesday was one of those times.
I spent much of last year working as independent research adviser to a national Commission on the Future of Third Sector Infrastructure, set up and resourced by NAVCA. For those outside this field, the ‘third sector’ includes charities and social enterprises, community groups, co-operatives, community interest companies, and so on – everything that isn’t the ‘private sector’ (profit-making companies for personal gain) or the ‘public sector’ (tax-funded public services). The ‘infrastructure’ of this sector is made up of the organisations and functions that support charities, community groups, and other organisations in setting up, managing, and when necessary winding down their businesses. This is particularly important for charities which, in the UK, must all – by law – be run by groups of unpaid volunteers. As there are over 160,000 officially registered charities in England and Wales, and over half of those have an annual income of £10,000 or less, most are not in a position to pay for the support they need. It is also essential for community groups, most of which have no funding at all.
If you’ve lost interest by now, you’re not unusual. Although third sector organisations fulfil a lot of our society’s needs, they, and particularly their infrastructure, are often all but invisible to the naked eye. Of course people will see charity shops, will know about the big hitters – Macmillan Cancer Support, Oxfam, Red Cross, etc, as well as their local ‘friends of the park’ or ‘lads and dads footie’ on a Saturday morning. But all the work that goes on behind the scenes, much of it by organisations such as Councils for Voluntary Service, Volunteer Centres, and Rural Community Councils, is rarely talked about, thought about, or understood, even by people working in the sector.
This has interested me for a long time, so I was delighted to be asked to work with the Commission. And it was a privilege to be present at their discussions. They are a group of intelligent, knowledgeable, independent thinkers. And last Tuesday, the Commission’s report – based on the research I led, and which I was heavily involved in writing – was launched at a House of Commons reception hosted by Nick Hurd MP.
The reception was in the Terrace Pavilion, the strip of white you can see in the photo which is actually a marquee right by the river. As the visitors’ entrance is on the other side of the House of Commons by Parliament Square, we had to walk through lots of halls and corridors: first a huge mediaeval hall, then big Gothic passages with ornate tiled floors and doors ten feet high, then smaller corridors with green carpets and dark wood-panelled walls. When we arrived, we found that afternoon tea had been set out as a buffet: crustless finger sandwiches, scones with jam and cream, and a selection of gorgeous cakes. The Pavilion soon filled up with people happily munching and chatting. When everyone was there and had had time to eat and drink, there were five short speeches: from Sara Llewellin, Chair of the Commission (who is also chief executive of the Barrow Cadbury Trust); Nick Hurd, who was formerly the Minister for Civil Society; Rob Wilson MP who is currently the Minister for Civil Society; Lisa Nandy MP, Shadow Minister for Civil Society; and Caroline Schwaller, Chair of NAVCA. It was so encouraging to hear all three MPs praise the work of the Commission and endorse the recommendations of the report. And it didn’t seem like just a pat on the head; they all spoke knowledgeably and intelligently about the issues raised. This was truly heartening, because it means there is a good chance the work we’ve done will make a real difference to charities and communities in the difficult years ahead.
And my research and writing was praised to the skies! By two of the speakers, and several Commission members who sought me out to congratulate me on my work. David Brindle, public services editor of the Guardian newspaper, made my day – perhaps my year, possibly even my decade – by telling me what a good job of writing he thought I’d done. That meant so much coming from him, a very experienced and highly talented journalist, and no mincer or waster of words.
I didn’t expect any of that when I took the job, or ever. I couldn’t stop grinning after the event. I went to sleep grinning, woke up at 3 am grinning, and had to replay the whole thing in my head before I could get back to sleep again. And that made me grin even more! It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and one I’ll never forget.
I think the time has come to declare that I will not do any more unpaid work for rich organisations.
This can be hard to call when you’re self-employed. Some unpaid work is necessary to gain paid work. Unpaid work can have real benefits, whether it’s working on a bid for a contract, making useful contacts through networking, or someone I’ve chatted with on Twitter deciding to buy my book. Every self-employed person needs to work on their business as well as in their business, and at times it can be difficult to separate ‘unpaid work’ from ‘essential marketing’.
Also, I’m not very good at saying ‘no’ to things which interest me. That’s where I need to improve.
‘Pay’ doesn’t always have to mean ‘money’. For example, I will swap some of my time and skills for, say, a free place at a conference I want to go to (though that would need to be a fully free place, i.e. including travel and accommodation). I do some unpaid work for the Third Sector Research Centre at the University of Birmingham in exchange for access to paywalled academic literature. And I will still collaborate on bids for contracts without expecting payment for my work on the bid, as long as the contract includes some paid work for me if the bid is successful.
I have been inspired in this respect, recently, by Charlotte Cooper. I knew of her work, then I heard her speak at the launch of The Para-Academic Handbook in December. Charlotte is also an indie researcher, and an activist, and a terrific speaker. And she is uncompromising about not working for rich organisations without pay. This made me realise that I’m a bit feeble. ‘Oh but they’re nice people… maybe it’ll help my career… anyway it would be fun…’ and there goes another day, week, or month of my life, spent giving away my skills and expertise to organisations that could well afford to pay.
Part of the problem is that I’m doing more academic-type work now. Academic employees are paid comfortable salaries and have the freedom to do things like work on the boards of academic journals as part of their academic role. Academic journals don’t expect to pay their board members, because they’re already academic employees earning comfortable salaries. Except now academic journals are reaching out to indie researchers – which is great; we have a lot to offer – but it’s an odd experience, being the only volunteer in a group of well-paid professionals, treated as a peer in all respects but the rather important one of remuneration. I also recognise that this is not the fault of any individual, or in any individual’s gift to fix. It’s a structural imbalance with historical roots. But I’m coming to realise that this won’t get rebalanced unless people like me start saying ‘no’.
Yet is there a rock and a hard place here? Do I need to demonstrate my value first? This is the question I keep coming up against – but Charlotte Cooper’s example is helping me a lot. And, as I’m a researcher, I decided to do some research.
The journal on whose board I currently sit is published by Taylor & Francis, which is part of the Informa Group, a very wealthy company which is listed on the Stock Exchange. In 2012 the Informa Group made operating profits of £350 million; in 2013 they paid out £114 million in dividends to shareholders. And I am working, for this phenomenally rich organisation, for no pay. Finding this out has helped to focus my mind. I plan to finish my term on the Board – I don’t pull out of commitments I’ve made – and, on the same basis, I will finish a couple of other pieces of work I’m currently doing, unpaid, for wealthy organisations. But after that I’ll stick to doing unpaid work for charities. Such as the UK’s Social Research Association (SRA), a registered charity, not for profit, on whose Board I sit. According to its annual accounts, the net income of the SRA in 2012-13 was £24,379. It’s organisations like this where I should be, and will be, giving my unpaid time and skills from now on.