In December of 2014, I quit my job as a professor to work as a full-time freelance writer. Thus far, I’ve made a pretty good run of it. I’m writing here today to tell you a couple of things I’ve learned from doing what I do.
First, know that your training has prepared you to make a living. This fact is incontrovertible, despite any brainwashing you might have experienced in graduate school or what you might read in the popular media about how academics are useless. We’re not useless. We’re awesome.
Second, your training has likely not prepared you to hustle.
If you want to leave academia and work in the private sector, for the public sector, or for some hybrid thereof, you are prepared. Study up on how to transition, and do it.
If you want to leave academia and work for yourself, you’re going to have to learn how to hustle. Hustling is what I’m here to talk about.
My first piece of advice to you is this: never write for free.
I say “never write for free” because I’m a writer. I write for a living. I pay my mortgage with writing. I turn words into cash and buy food, diapers, and gasoline with that cash.
But one could substitute a variety of verbs for “write.” You know what skills you have that people pay other people for. You might be an editor. You might be a researcher. You might be a tutor or a teacher or a theatrical scenic designer. If you want to work for yourself, either part-time or full-time, the first step is learning how to ask people to pay you for your work. Asking people to pay you for your work can be very hard.
You have to value what you do. You have to value yourself. You do not edit, research, tutor, teach, or design for free.
Your job, starting today, is to value what you’re worth. What you’re really worth. You need to do some research. (You know how to do research? I bet you know how to do research.) Find out what the going rates are in the private sector for what you do. Think about the rates that you should be charging, and start charging those rates.
Here’s a story.
I used to give talks for free. Conference presentations, invited lectures, lectures on my campus. Free, free, free. And then I quit my professorship. Now when people ask me to give a talk, they have to pay me to do it. They can’t con me with the “this will look great on your CV” line. Because I no longer have a CV. I have a checking account into which I put money.
So, recently, the very university at which I used to work invited me to give a two-hour talk on my area of specialty to a group of professors—a professional-development seminar. I charged what I considered to be a vast amount of money. They agreed to my fee without hesitation.
Before I presented my fee proposal, I figured out how much to charge by asking around. I even asked the client for “sample proposals” from “prior lectures,” and they sent me the proposals. I looked at the prices these other groups charged, and I charged similar prices. In other words, I educated myself about the going rate.
Full disclosure: there was a moment when I felt uncertainty. I asked myself terrible questions: Am I worth the going rate? Why me? Is this something that I’m worth being paid this much money to do? Call it self-doubt or imposter syndrome or whatever, I felt it, and I felt it hard.
And then I sent the proposal. And then, a few weeks later, I cashed the check.
That’s hustle. Research, running down work, and bluffing a little bit. Acting like you know what you are doing even when you don’t feel like you know what you are doing.
And then, in breathtaking fashion, doing it, because—actually—you do know what you are doing.
Never write for free. Hustle instead. Figure out what you’re worth. And get paid.
Katie Rose Guest Pryal is a novelist and freelance journalist living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She’s the author of the novel Entanglement and the novella Love and Entropy, both available now from Velvet Morning Press. Katie contributes regularly to the Huffington Post, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Toast, Dame Magazine, and other national venues. (You can view her writing here.) She earned her master’s degree in creative writing from the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University, where she attended on a fellowship, and her doctorate in rhetoric from the UNC Greensboro. Katie has published five books on writing, the most recent with Oxford University Press. She’s active on Twitter (@krgpryal), Facebook (facebook.com/katieroseguestpryal), her blog (katieroseguestpryal.com), and her monthly newsletter, Writing Isn’t Sexy (no really, it isn’t).