The previous two posts in this “science to scicomm” series, with writing tips and ideas for science communication opportunities, were also useful for scientists who just want to find new ways to reach out about their research. But this post and the next one are for those scientists who might want to move into science communication as their main career. This post will cover freelance work and the next one will be about looking for full-time science communication employment.
Paid vs unpaid scicomm work
In the previous post, I listed a lot of opportunities to start doing science communication as a researcher. Most of these opportunities were unpaid, so you can’t make a career out of just doing those. But what kind of scicomm can or should you get paid for, and why did you never get paid for e.g. visiting school classes on behalf of your university?
Here are a few situations where you might be doing unpaid science communication:
- You want to share your own research with a wider audience, for example at a pub talk, and you can count that talk as being relevant to your (already paid) main job.
- You are building your portfolio or scicomm CV (more on that in the next post) and you are actively searching for opportunities to show what you can do so that you can get more (paid) scicomm work in the future.
- It’s for a friend and you are happy to give them your time for free.
- It’s for a charity event or other good cause.
And here are a few situations where you really should be getting paid:
- Someone you don’t know approached you out of the blue and asked you to devote several hours of your time to work for them for free or for exposure only on a project that they profit from.
- You’re asked to work for free on a project where others are getting paid.
You should decide for yourself, and on a case-by-case basis, what you should do. I end up doing a lot for free, but then it either was MY idea and MY project, or I’m taking the opportunity to plug one of my own projects.
If you decide not to work for free after someone asked you to, you can either try to negotiate a rate, or just decide to decline the opportunity entirely, and search for paid freelance work yourself.
Seeking out paid freelance opportunities
Once you’ve been doing your favourite kind of scicomm activity for a while, and are starting to get noticed, it’s possible that someone one day offers you a paid gig out of the blue, but if you don’t want to sit around and wait for that, you’re going to have to seek out opportunities yourself. But where? I can’t really help much with specifics, because science communication is such a broad area, but here are some general ideas:
- Use your network. Do you know people who have gotten paid for the kind of scicomm activities you want to do? Ask them how they got involved in that, and whether they know of anything available in that area. They won’t know you’re looking for this kind of work unless you tell them!
- Pitching articles. If you remember the writing tips post, I mentioned that you should be collecting some clips of your writing that you can use to showcase your skills once you start writing for money. Here’s where you use them! If you want to write for a magazine whose editors you don’t know, they’ll want to see some examples of your writing. I have gotten paid work with clips of unpaid work, and I still use some unpaid clips in pitches if they happen to be relevant. I select clips that best represent the style and topic area of the pitch I’m writing. For much more advice on pitching science articles, and for example pitches, see The Open Notebook.
- Join mailing lists and groups for scicomm professionals. There are several lists and groups where people might occasionally share useful opportunities. Some are free, such as the PSCI-COM mailing list, which lists all kind of science communication opportunities in the UK. Others might require a membership, for example science writing organisations. These often operate per country, and sometimes have special rates for students.
- Do you know which organisations hire scicomm people in your field? Follow them on Twitter! There’s a good chance that they’ll post opportunities there.
(Spoiler alert: Some of these tips are also useful for finding full-time scicomm work, not just freelance. But that’s a topic for a future post!)
For me, one of the hardest things about transitioning from volunteer scicomm to paid jobs was figuring out how to send an invoice. Nobody ever taught me that! All my classes ever taught me was how to study science and how to do research. I never felt so dumb.
When I had to send my first invoice, I spent a long time googling “how to send an invoice” and “example invoices”. They all look different, so I still didn’t know what to do. I’m pretty sure my first invoice didn’t include all the information it needed (I think I forgot the payment details or due date) and I may even have left in the weird sample invoice number from the example I got off the internet…
Shortly after, I heard about Freshbooks from some of my friends who were hardcore full-time freelancers in their own fields. Freshbooks had just started at that time, and it looks so much better now with lots of new shiny features, but even then it was already a lifesaver! For my next freelance invoices I just entered the pertinent info in Freshbooks and they produced a professional-looking invoice.
You can invite your clients to pay directly through the site, but I usually just download the PDF of the invoice and send it to the client as attachment in a reply to the existing email conversation I have been having with them. That way it’s connected to the history of my work with them. It doesn’t matter which method you prefer, Freshbooks makes it much easier either way.
(Disclaimer: This post originally included affiliate links to Freshbooks. Those were later removed as I left the affiliate programme)
After you send your invoice to your contact, they will send it off to their accounts manager and if all goes well, you will get paid according to the terms in your invoice and by the due date. Realistically, once in a while, this does not happen. The due date comes and goes, and you haven’t heard anything. If you’re a full-time freelancer, this is terrible news because you relied on that income to pay your bills. But even if you’re freelancing on the side, you probably had plans for that money that you now have to put off until later. And, to make matters worse, you have to chase down the payment. It’s awkward and uncomfortable for everyone involved, and it takes up time that you weren’t expecting to still be devoting to this project. But if you’re owed money, and if you’ve been promised money that is late, do keep asking for it. You have a right to it!
Useful links and further reading
- If you like this kind of money talk, you will love the frank and entertaining Bad With Money podcast. It covers all kinds of money issues, and is a bit US-centric, but there are some episodes about the challenges of freelance or self-employment that I found very useful.
- For science writing pitches, see The Open Notebook. They recently refreshed their database of pitch examples.
- The comments of this 2013 blog post by Neuroskeptic contain a very interesting discussion about whether unpaid science writing on blogs interferes with the livelihood of paid writers. It can be a bit of a grey area, because some types of science blogging don’t really overlap with what writers are paid to write, and you can see people disagreeing on certain points.
- Science artists, meanwhile, have a unique problem where they’re not just regularly asked to work for free, but sometimes outright have their work stolen. If you create science-themed art online and this is something that you’re worried about (or maybe has already happened), there is a very supportive community of science artists on Twitter who regularly discuss these matters (find them under the #sciart hashtag). See also this comic by Maki Naro about the consequences of asking artists to work for free.
- Science communicator, writer and neuroscientist Dean Burnett wrote a great blog post about why he won’t work for “exposure”.
- Know any other useful links related to freelance scicomm work? Leave them in the comments!