I marked the day with a return trip to my old alma mater, Leeds University, to talk to the media students [pictured above] about going freelance and travel writing as part of the #LeedsMediaFutures series.
It was a sparky session, comprising both post- and undergraduates, with lots of good questions.
I’ve got a real soft spot for Leeds. My first ever published article was a review of a Mudhoney gig at Leeds University in 1992 and my time working for the Leeds Student newspaper helped me to build my portfolio of cuttings.
This in turn helped to secure me a place on a postgraduate journalism course in London back in 1994.
I’ll save the whole lecture for the Leeds group but here’s a glimpse of what I discussed, looking specifically at how to get started as a freelancer journalist:
The onus is on you, so do a good job. Stick to deadlines, word counts and follow the brief
Look for fresh angles and new ideas. Stand out as editors get some 50 pitches per day
Journalism is moving online, so build digital skills – leverage the strengths of the medium and build community
Start with what you know. Pick a publication you read regularly and look for regular sections to fill
Spin off angles on the same story for different publication
When you file your copy, follow up with a fresh new idea
And here are some of the comments from the group when I asked them to jot down some feedback after the lecture:
“I found that going freelance is being a jack of all trades; not just climbing the ladder but spreading your wings. It stretches your mind and challenges you to think differently.” – Evelyn Robinson (puravidastudent.com)
“Interesting points on how to pitch an idea and how to come up with a story if you are struggling. Would like to know if the blogosphere is already saturated?” – Rory Dormer (sunburntabroad.blogspot.co.uk)
“You were very honest and didn’t pretend you haven’t struggled at times with freelance work. I liked the way you shared tips or ideas that could help but that we hadn’t necessarily thought of ourselves.” – Lily Connagher
* An edited version of this story is due to appear on the Guardian Higher Education Network.
The students are back on campus this week. But, instead of uploading schemes of work and heading to class, I’ll be clearing my desk.
I’m leaving a contracted role as a university lecturer to go it alone, offering my services as a freelance tutor [pictured above], setting up my own day courses and developing e-learning projects.
It feels scary. On a practical level I’ll miss the resources of having a university behind me while, emotionally, the isolation of working without a community of trusted colleagues to share the day-to-day travails feels pretty daunting.
But I feel increasingly frustrated by the lethargy of the university environment, the gear-grinding bureaucracy of decision-making and the nit-picking interference of senior management.
According to Jon Richards, trade union UNISON’s National Secretary Education and Children’s Services, I’m not the only one.
“The increased pressures at work, the tendency for some HE institutions to ape poor business management practices and an environment of falling pay, conditions and pensions. Faced with these, the idea of working alone under your own steam must seem attractive,” he says. He adds:
“There are risks, notably the change from a steady paycheck to uncertain and non-guaranteed income.”
Dr. Neil Thompson left a job as Professor of Applied Social Studies at Staffordshire University in 1997 to go freelance. He set up his own business, offering training, consultancy and expert witness services.
“I walked away from university employment but carried on doing academic things, such as working as an external examiner and being part of an editorial board for an academic journal,” he explains.
He offers three pieces of advice for lecturers looking to make the leap: establish a market for your services, act as a professional and build a freelance career around a diverse portfolio of work.
“I still remember the pressure I felt when I first went freelance to do a good job. After all, somebody is paying you,” he adds. “And remember, working independently means you are effectively a small business so start to think more commercially.”
“Business is not a dirty word.”
For Roger McDonald, an independent curator and lecturer based in Japan, the evolution of technology has enabled him to carve a new niche. Roger, who did a PhD in art history at the University of Kent, Canterbury, moved to Japan in 2000 as a founding member of the not-for-profit Arts Initiative Tokyo (AIT), which runs an independent art school in Tokyo. He combines this with casual work as art lecturer at Tokyo Zokei University.
He teaches contemporary and modern art history in Japanese with sessions available to watch free online via YouTube. “It took time getting used to recording myself but now there is a substantial archive available online,” he says.
“For me, I enjoy thinking up a curriculum outside the remit of ordinary institutional teaching, such as like a course on hallucinogenic drugs and modern artists. The downside is less peer group discussions than in an institutional setting,” he adds.
From my own point of view, I’ve tried to prepare myself for change by putting the word out through my professional network, contacting a broad range of organisations from schools to higher education via corporate clients to offer my subject expertise, and updating my website and social media channels to reflect my plans.
I also signed up to a local co-working group, taking a hot desk in a communal space with a seminar room, where I intend to run my own masterclass sessions. I hope this will provide me with a new support network, albeit one with a broader community of micro-businesses from IT to publishing.
To be honest, the diary still has lots of blank pages and the creeping sense of unease still gives me some sleepless nights.
I know it will take time to build up my business and I’m in this for the long haul.
I’ll admit to a twinge of sadness as pack my things this week, take a deep breath and step into the unknown. But whatever happens, I’ll be the master of my own destiny.
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Matthew Draycott is not planning to mince his words.
When the new undergraduates arrive for an induction-week pep talk on making the most of their time at university this September, the Enterprise Associate at the Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning plans to give them both barrels.
“If you spend your time in the pub for three years, then it doesn’t matter if you get a 2:1,” he says, sipping coffee in the university coffee bar.”
“Your degree is no longer the only thing you need to leave university with. You need a set of practical experiences that will give you a competitive edge.”
The department where Draycott works aims to teach students about enterprise, making them more employable and inspiring many to start their own business. “The trend is for students to come to us earlier,” he adds.
“We have seen a big increase in numbers of first years, especially from IT courses, in recent years.”
Of course, developing interests outside of your course is nothing new.
From playing for a university sports team to chairing the debating society, one of the best aspects of undergraduate life has always been the chance for students to broaden their horizons.
But with graduate unemployment currently at its highest level in over a decade, savvy students are increasingly realising that getting a job is not just about good grades, it’s about making the most of those extra-curricular activities.
“Students now view the university experience as something that leads to work.”
Ed Marsh, National Union of Students (NUS) Vice President for Union Development, adds: “While students are often under increasing time pressure, many having to work part time to fund their studies, extra-curricular activities are now a big part of their thought process.”
So you want to get involved. But what are the best options for you?
Marsh says that, while traditional sports, politics and societies remain popular, he sees more students doing more community outreach work, especially at inner-city universities with more diverse students populations.
During his own undergraduate days at the University of Hull, he volunteered with local schools and nursing homes for the elderly.
Another growth area is student enterprise with students looking to use new skills from their course before they actually graduate.
For the aspiring Sir Alan Sugars and Richard Bransons, it’s a natural progression towards social enterprise. Hushpreet Dhaliwal, Chief Executive, National Consortium of University Entrepreneurs (NACUE) says:
“We can’t be a complacent generation. It’s about being the cause, not the effect.”
“Many students arrive at university not knowing what they want to do in life. You have to expose yourself to all aspects of university life, create your own personal value and build networks from the start,” she adds.
Student-led NACUE works over 70 university enterprise societies across the UK and supports over 85 universities to stimulate student businesses. They recently advised on an Apprentice-style competition, led by students from King’s College London Business Club working with eOffice.
Dhaliwal advocates the smart of use of websites such as Twitter and LinkedIn.
“Social networking helps to build awareness amongst the wider student enterprise community. It offers a fast and efficient means for students expose themselves to new opportunities in career development,” she says.
But perhaps the smartest students of all are the ones seeing the global picture. University courses in modern languages traditionally include a year of study or work experience overseas as a mandatory third year off campus.
But recent research by the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA) estimates some 22,000 UK students are currently studying in other countries.
Maastricht University in the Netherlands is fast becoming a hotspot for school leavers turning their backs on the British university system for its winning combination of lower course fees and grants available from the Dutch government if undergraduates work 32 hours a week while they study.
Maastricht University has been sending representatives to a sixth-form careers days over the past year and is installing a fast-track admissions scheme for prospective UK students this summer.
Ed Mash of the NUS says: “We’re competing in a global market and the costs of courses at British universities are now higher than ever. There’s real value,” he adds, “to the individual of having an international perspective.”
Back at the coffee bar, Matthew Draycott is finishing his latte and checking his Twitter account, his favourite way these days of engaging with students and communicating to them the latest news from the student entrepreneurship sector.
“University offers you a privileged three years of flexible identity, so why not do something to put yourself in a position of authority? If you can’t play rugby, be the rugby club treasurer. If you can’t play lead guitar, start managing students bands,” he says.
“Employers are not looking for standard CVs.“
He adds: “They want candidates to reference the opportunities they have grasped and created at university.”
“In short: do it while you can and make sure you have a broad experience.”