Independent scholar, cat addict, tattoo lover

Life and work of an indy scholar part 9 – Last week I wrote about your mojo and getting into the flow (here). Suppose you manage to let the world know you’re here and it welcomes you with open arms. Your expertise is much valued and you receive many invitations to show it. For free. How can you avoid the image of champion volunteer and make successful propositions that help you pay your bills?

First a small sidestep to explain the market you’re entering. Governments of modern societies are working on the transformation of welfare-states to a post-welfare era. Regardless of the reasons why, they set in motion two simultaneous developments that can affect your livelihood. On the one hand, the promotion of entrepreneurship with in its wake tax cuts, flexible workforces and the rise of the freelance worker. On the other, the encouragement of big society and civic participation in matters that were previously government business. If you’re an indy scholar in the humanities or social sciences (or both, like me), you probably enter the public or non-profit domain, which is characterized by less public spending AND a boom in freelancers: a buyers’-with-small-wallets market. That might mean that the two developments together add up to the expectation that you somehow earn your money by working for free. One option is to redirect to the commercial domain, but it can be hard to create a profitable network if you lack first contacts there and perhaps your ideology opposes commerce and capitalism. The other option is to stay and mature as an indy scholar in societal issues. How to create a proper living as such?

First, to invest is normal. Just make sure you don’t waste time on the wrong priorities (more here). When you’re new in the field and start to grow your network, it’s okay to invest time and travel expenses if that gives you a chance to meet people with whom you can build relationships of mutual interest (for me, the network drinks of the local Chamber of Commerce turned out to be not that opportunity, but find out for yourself). And it’s okay to give a presentation or join an expert meeting for free if that offers you an opening to demonstrate your abilities and value as a scholar in that particular field. This also helps you know your market, the challenges prospective clients face and promising leads you can hook up to. It’s, however, not okay if you’re repeatedly invited because your free participation is taken for granted as you always put in an appearance before. You don’t want to become the world’s most wanted volunteer, you want to get paying clients. Being offered free work indicates you’re not considered value for money and oddly enough, it’s sometimes presented as doing you a favor. It debunks your professionalism and won’t give you the right track record for serious clients. Accepting too much free work only says you’re not in the market for paid work. Find out asap if volunteering can evolve into paid projects. If you’re invited as an expert and unsure about payment, just ask for the available budget. If there’s none, ask for other possible benefits, like name or network. If you’re dissatisfied with the answer, politely decline.

Second, it’s better to sell a 30-days project to one client than 30 one-day projects to 30 clients. As a starting entrepreneur, it’s tempting to go for the latter—immediate money and self-confidence boost—but then you’re in and out without a lasting commitment. Moreover, handling 30 clients instead of one is more time consuming: 30 times the acquisition, contact, tender, negotiation, evaluation, invoice, administration. And hanging on to small assignments will keep you in the wrong market, one in which fast and furious statements rule as attention spans are short. Are you into that and up for that, with your training in hesitance and nuance? Can you Khrushchevly hammer that table with your shoe? Further, like in academia, a track record is important but a chicken-and-egg problem. You need to establish your name before being invited as keynote speaker, but it’s only with a host of recurring public appearances that you can achieve this. How to kick off without sponsors? In academia, the recommendation of a powerful person can get you started, but where to find such an influence in territories you’ve only recently entered? And in academia, with the safety of a paycheck at the end of each month one can be persuaded to work for prestige, but outside, successful speakers are often self-employed professionals who work for cash and, with speaking as their core business, are far better performers too. Why enter their market with no track record, when you have one as a scholar? Your PhD unmistakably evidences your research skills. You’ve crawled out of that egg, so shake your chicken feathers and don’t try to grow a monkey tale. The pecking order is still out there, but there’s less competition in niche markets. Try to scoop your first large-scale project within two years. Together with some smaller projects it will help you build up a portfolio with a rich and consistent story prospect clients can relate to (more here). Once you’ve created a compelling story interwoven with the problems your clients deal with, you’ll be invited as an expert whose in-depth knowledge of their real-life issues will be fairly paid for, in both big projects and short presentations and workshops. And you can choose to accept free work as a favor to who’s asking, not the other way around. In general, the peanut-market is okay to start in, not to stay in.

There’s more to say about making money as an indy scholar, but for now this is enough. I’ll come back to this issue, I promise. Meanwhile, if you have any suggestions for upcoming blogs, let me know via And follow me via @BlanchefleurX to stay updated about my weekly posts.

Part 8: How to get your mojo running          Part 10: Care to share           All weekly blogs