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 that taxes 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. My income tax is 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.

University bureaucracy needs to sort itself out

bureaucracy

Photo credit: Alexas_Fotos on Pixabay

Now and again, I come across an academic bureaucrat who wants to help people find ways to solve problems. More often, sad to say, I encounter jobsworths for whom ‘the system’ seems to be all-important. I know my colleagues in academia expend a lot of time, effort, and frustration on their interactions with academic bureaucracy. This can often get in the way of what should be simple, straightforward transactions, such as paying people for work that a university department needs – or paying people for work they have already done.

 

I was recently asked, by a Professor of my acquaintance, to teach a research methods module for his doctoral students. The Prof explained that this would involve one day of teaching per month for six months. I agreed to do this, and to accept the university’s sessional teaching rate rather than charging my usual, considerably higher, day rate, because his budget was limited. I figured the work would be interesting, something new on my CV, and I knew he really needed my help. But then, when we’d already had a planning meeting, the bureaucrats said I had to join the payroll, to become a part-time employee of the university, rather than invoicing for my work in the usual way. One day per month is nowhere near even a 0.1 post, and the work this would have caused my accountant – and the resulting costs to me – made it completely uneconomic to take the job. The really bizarre part is that I had worked for this university before; I was set up on their system as a supplier; and I had done tasks of longer duration for which I had invoiced and they had paid quite happily. There seemed no sense in their refusal, and I know the Professor pleaded – it made his life particularly difficult as the refusal came so late in the day. But they were obdurate. So he had a more demanding and stressful semester, and his students didn’t get the benefit of a different teacher.

Some months ago, an academic I had never heard of contacted me out of the blue to ask me to take up a Fellowship at her department. This was a comparatively new department, set up with millions of pounds of funding from a research council, at a university that is in excellent financial health. They are doing interesting work, but I said a polite ‘no, thank you’ because they were looking for a significant time commitment and I don’t do unpaid work for wealthy organisations. She had a chat with the head of department, and emailed to say they could pay me: not my usual day rate, but an amount worth getting out of bed for. If I was still interested, she said, I should seek a sponsor from among the department’s staff, all of whom were aware of the sponsorship scheme for the department’s Fellowships and would understand that their primary role was to help with the bureaucracy. The first person I approached said they had never heard of the sponsorship scheme, which was embarrassing, and – when he realised about the bureaucratic requirements – decided he didn’t want to sponsor me. The second person didn’t reply to my email; the third replied enthusiastically saying ‘yes of course, carry on’, so I emailed again explaining about the bureaucracy, and heard no more. With the fourth person – someone I knew slightly from other arenas – I struck lucky: being fairly senior in the department, they actually did know about the sponsorship scheme and what it entailed, and they were enthusiastic about working with me. However, after a few days, that person emailed me and said oops, sorry, actually we can’t pay you after all, there’s been a problem with the bureaucracy. So that was several months of effort down the drain.

It’s not only independent researchers who are at the sharp end of this kind of bureaucratically induced misery, but also casual staff. An academic who I met online recently had a problem with a post-doc who was working for him and had employed a research assistant. The RA started work very late in the contract, which was partly due to bureaucratic difficulties, and ended up working more hours after the end of the grant period so they were owed money. In the meantime, the post-doc had moved to a second university, with another grant which included funds to pay the RA. However, the second university would not issue a contract because the amount of money concerned was too small, while the original university would not raise an invoice without a contract. So the RA ended up having to invoice the second university themselves. That meant the RA had to declare those earnings as self-employment for that tax year, with all the attendant hassle of completing a self-assessment form: a classic example of bureaucracy generating bureaucracy.

These are just three sad and sorry cases of bureaucracy impeding effective academic work. I am sure most, if not all, of my readers will have their own examples to share. I know it doesn’t have to be this way, from work I have done with universities where bureaucratic systems have supported and enabled, rather than obstructing, academic work. Perhaps that’s why I, and others I know, find bureaucratic impediments so very frustrating. We know they don’t have to be there – but they are there, and at times, for unfathomable reasons, they’re insurmountable.

New Year’s Resolution: Open Access Only

open-doorHappy New Year, all my lovely readers! I hope you’ve had a wonderful break and that any resolutions you may have made are the life-enhancing rather than the punitive kind.

My resolution for 2017 is that from now on, I will only write academic articles in my own time for open-access journals. If someone wants to pay me to write an academic article, then I’ll be open to submitting that article to a journal of their choice. (It has happened once in my life, so far.) But otherwise I’m going OA.

I can’t afford to do that with books, as I’m finding that academic self-publishing doesn’t pay, while academic traditional publishing does, a bit. (My trad pub royalties for the year 2015-16 finally broke four figures, which felt GREAT.  The actual figure was £1,627.20 which is a month’s money for me. Though it did take five-and-a-half years of dedicated writing and promo to reach this point… at that rate I should be able to give up the day job in 2071. When I’ll be 106 years old. Oh well!)

Articles for academic journals are much easier and quicker to write than books. They’re also good for testing and refining small ideas. I enjoy writing them, so I’m not going to stop. But I am planning to reduce the number I write to two a year, and publish those in OA journals or not at all.

This is primarily an ethical decision. Early in the days of OA publishing, although I liked the prospect from a reader’s viewpoint, I worried that many writers would be excluded because of the costs. I think that is still the case in some quarters, but I have found that reputable OA journals are often willing to waive their fees for independent researchers, and some don’t charge fees at all. Also, I would like my work to be more widely accessible, including to people who are temporarily or permanently outside the academy, or in parts of the world where it’s particularly difficult for people to access paywalled academic journals.

There are many more open access journals around now than there were five years ago. When I was working on the first edition of Research and Evaluation for Busy Practitioners, in 2012, the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) listed 22 journals covering social work. Now it lists 125. There are similar levels of increase in other subject areas, and there are now 9,000 journals on the site as a whole. Yet the DOAJ only lists journals that are peer-reviewed or otherwise editorially controlled; they don’t list predatory journals. They promote best practice in OA publishing and have high ethical standards.

I feel ashamed to say that I have never published an article in an OA journal. To begin with I was advised on where to publish by academic mentors, then I wanted to publish in the journals I liked to read. Now I want to read more OA journals as well as publishing in them. I’m not going to rule out citing work from paywalled journals – yet – but I want to focus on finding and using more OA journals, rather than going straight to the usual suspects all the time.

I do have a couple of articles in the pipeline with paywalled journals, so it’ll be a while before I get to assess the impact of my New Year’s resolution for 2017. Nevertheless, I’m sure it’ll be an interesting adventure!

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 for a day’s teaching in UK 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 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.

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?

Back On The Indie Researcher Rollercoaster

rollercoasterI’ve written before about the indie researcher rollercoaster. I’ve been riding it again recently. The last few months have been quite tough. I’ve had one contract rolling along, and some bits and bobs of teaching work. I’ve also had:

  • The promise of ten days’ sub-contracted work in the second half of 2015, which turned into two days’ work at the very end of December, for which I still haven’t been paid.
  • An associate role with a national organisation, since last summer, that seemed likely to yield a fair bit of work but hasn’t yielded any yet (though I do have one whole day booked in for them in May).
  • The promise of almost full-time contract work from January to March of this year, which didn’t materialise at all due to staff sickness.

So overall I’ve been keeping my head above water, but only just. I have consistently been able to pay myself £1,000 per month, and had calculated that I would be able to carry on doing so while continuing to break even up to and including June. However, the rolling-along contract is about to end. I have some more bits and bobs of teaching work booked in over the next three months, but after the end of June I was going to fall off the edge of the work cliff into the cold deep workless sea.

On top of this, there were a number of unavoidable expenses looming: from essential repairs to my elderly and infirm car, to all my underwear developing holes at once. I was resigning myself to digging into my savings for the first time in many years, reasoning that if I’d saved for a rainy day, it was now, metaphorically speaking at least, about to throw it down.

Then last week there was one of those reversals for which the indie lifestyle is famous. A colleague and I went for an interview at a Russell Group university that wanted to commission some research – and we got the gig! Sensible budget (not so sensible timescale, but you can’t have everything) and the people were lovely.

So now I don’t need to dig into my savings, instead I can pay myself a little extra to cover the unavoidable expenses. Plus I don’t have to start worrying about work again until the summer. This is a huge relief – I have, quite literally, been sleeping easier.

Plus I landed another teaching client, and the more of those I can reel in the better. I’m working to build up my teaching because, although the work lasts for days rather than months, it’s more regular than research. If I can reach the point where I have a few days of teaching work in each month of the academic year, I’ll be able to stop chasing commissioned research altogether. Though the Teaching Excellence Framework is looming here in the UK, and I don’t know whether my input will help universities to manipulate the metrics successfully enough to make it worthwhile for them to use me. So while I can take a break from the rollercoaster for the next little while, I’m sure I’ll be riding again soon.

Costing A Research Project

 

currency-signs-33431_960_720Following on from my last post about funding, I thought it might be useful to explain a few things about how I cost a research project. There are two parts to this process: setting a day rate, and working out how long the project will take.

My day rate is flexible, depending on the nature of the commissioning or funding body and the size and nature of the project. For example, I will charge less for a small project for a local charity than for a large project for a Government department. I will charge less per day for a long project that offers months of financial security, or for a project where the application is not onerous. And I will always negotiate on rates – at least, up to a point.

When it comes to working out how long the project will take, I break it down into individual elements. Let’s say a national client tells me they want a three-month project to include a focused literature review, 20 interviews with key people, presentation of draft findings at a meeting in London, and a written report with an executive summary (and let’s say I agree this is a suitable approach to the work – which is not always the case). We will also need a project initiation meeting, and I’d need to build in time for correspondence and administration: my rule of thumb here is half a day per month.

The first thing I need to do is a quick check of the literature, as a ‘focused literature review’ takes different lengths of time depending on whether the key search terms yield three items or 300,000. If it’s the former, I start thinking more laterally about potential search terms. If there are lots of hits, I start thinking about how to narrow down the search: I usually start by restricting the date range on Google Scholar and then take it from there. I am always mindful that a client’s budget is limited, and that they are unlikely to want to fund six months of my time to review the literature in detail. In fact, I’m lucky if I get six days. So I need to come up with a search strategy that will work for quite a limited review – and it does no harm to point out to the client that I can only read, on average, 10 documents a day. (Of course the exact number depends on the length of each document, but I work on the basis of a 15-page average, i.e. 150 pages/day or 20 pages per hour (7.5 hours per working day) or one page every three minutes.)

Then I need to think about the interviews. If they’re with professionals, I can probably do them by phone or Skype; if with service users, they would need to be face-to-face. And if those service users are scattered around the country, there are huge implications for travel time and cost. Plus I need to factor in time for setting up the interviews, and rearranging the inevitable ones where I call or turn up and the person I’m due to interview isn’t there. I also need to have a first go at drafting the interview questions, to get a sense of how long the interviews themselves might be. That is impossible to predict entirely, as some people are much more talkative than others, but I have another rule of thumb: for a shorter set of questions (say, nine or fewer) I’ll schedule an interview every 45 minutes, for a longer set I’ll allow an hour per interview. (Unless I’m interviewing school teachers, who are ninja level question answerers, in which case I’ll allow 30 minutes however many questions I have.) Occasionally people are willing to talk for longer than 45-60 minutes but if I’ve got someone really chatty, I’ll start drawing their attention to that within the first 15-20 minutes of the interview to help us both to manage the time.

It’s also important to think about recording and, if necessary, transcription time – which is usually calculated at four hours for each hour of talk. Indie researchers often outsource transcription, to make it cheaper for clients, though you need to be sure the service you use will yield good quality transcripts.

Then I have to work out how long it will take me to code and analyse data (I reckon to code 10 interview transcripts per day, but then I’ve been doing it for a long time), draft reports, and prepare for meetings. So, assuming the interviews can be done by telephone, and the project will take three months, my time allocation for this fictional project might look something like:

  • Project initiation meeting in London (including preparation and travel) – one day
  • Focused literature review – six days
  • 20 telephone interviews (including set-up time etc) – four days
  • Data coding – two days
  • Data analysis – one day
  • Drafting report – two days
  • Preparing for presentation meeting – 0.5 day
  • Presentation meeting in London – one day
  • Finishing report and executive summary – one day
  • Correspondence and administration (0.5 day/month) – 1.5 days

That gives a total of 20 days. I multiply that by the day rate I’ve decided to offer this client, which produces a rate I can quote for the job.

Funding for Indie Researchers

coins on handOne of the great frustrations of being an indie researcher is inability to access funding. Maybe this is easier in other parts of the world but there are few options here in the UK. The UK’s Research Councils, which hold most of the country’s research funding, do not regard indie researchers as eligible to apply for that funding. For example, as a social science researcher, I would look to the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). They have a budget of almost £200m to fund research, but indie researchers are not even eligible to apply for any of this public money. (ESRC also says it ‘has no budget’ with which to pay indie researchers for work they ask us to do directly, e.g. independent assessment of its end-of-project reports – but that’s another story.) Indie researchers can form part of a team to apply for research funding from ESRC, but that team must be led by someone employed in a university or research institute.

I would like to see this change. I believe independent social scientists have a lot to offer to research, because we have perspectives that are not directly affected by institutional pressures, constraints, and power games. Therefore, I think excluding us from national funding is a waste of a valuable national resource. I’m not asking for funding to be ring-fenced for indie researchers, or for any special treatment. I’d just like to be allowed to apply for funding, as I could if I was a researcher from a university or a research institute.

If the ESRC isn’t sure about how to distribute funding effectively to single operatives, they could always ask the Arts Council who have a great deal of experience in doing just that. However, much though I’d like to change ESRC policy, I realise I’m unlikely to be able to achieve that with this blog post – or with anything else, for that matter. So I’m glad to say there are a few other funders who are offering small pots of money which are accessible to indie researchers. Here are the ones I’ve found out about.

The British Academy offers Small Research Grants of between £500 and £10,000, which may be spread over two years. These grants are for primary funding in the humanities and social sciences. The lead scholar must be based in the UK, but beyond that, people from other countries may be involved in the project. They look for a clearly defined piece of work with an identifiable outcome.

The Wellcome Trust offers Small Grants of up to £5,000 for small-scale projects in the humanities and social sciences. You can apply for up to £10,000 if you intend to hold an international meeting or attract international speakers. Applicants must be based in, or travelling to, the UK or Ireland or a ‘low-to-middle-income country’ (long list from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe).

The Wellcome Trust also offers Seed Awards of £25,000 to £50,000, usually over a 6-12 month period. These are intended to help researchers develop a novel idea that will enrich our understanding of human or animal health. They encourage the development of new approaches and collaborations. They are also piloting Themed Seed Awards of £75,000 to £100,000.

The Independent Social Research Foundation offers independent scholar fellowships for European researchers (scroll down). They are intended to buy out someone’s time for up to a year, with a maximum award of £25,000, to enable them to work on a research project or an article or book.

That’s all I’ve been able to find so far. On the one hand, these are paltry amounts of money compared to the £193million of ESRC funding that indie researchers can’t access directly. But on the other hand, I could do a great deal with a small five-figure sum. This is partly where I think the larger funders are missing a trick: indie researchers don’t have big overheads so we’re very cost-effective.

Do you know of other funding for which indie researchers can apply? I haven’t looked beyond funding available to UK-based researchers. Shall we try to develop an open access spreadsheet of global opportunities? If you like this idea, and you know of suitable funding, please leave details in the comments.