6 Ways Graduate School Helped Me Become a Better Freelancer-EP063
Hello fans of Better Biz Academy. I'm excited about this episode because I'm going to do something a little bit different and I'm going to talk about six ways that graduate school, in particular, has made me a better freelancer or a better freelance writer. I decided to do this particular episode because there are a lot of people that I know in graduate school - and there's just a lot of people in graduate school in general - who could really benefit from thinking about developing a freelance career as an editor or writer or honestly as anything else that they are passionate about. And all too often, these opportunities are never presented to people in that scenario. In fact, in graduate school when I was doing my Master’s program, I wish I had known about becoming a freelancer. There have been times when I have reached out to local universities to offer to give a free talk to their classes in digital media or the English department or the career department and I will get rejected because they say, well freelancing is not a career. They are so focused on those graduation job placement rates that they write off a legitimate career that a lot of people just don't know about.
If I had known about freelancing earlier, it would have helped me tremendously in my own graduate school journey and in my life. It would have given me a better perspective on the type of career opportunities that were out there.
I like to say I was an accidental freelancer but that doesn't have to be the case for everyone and I wish that in college and in graduate school that there was more of a discussion about the gig economy and what that means post-graduation because so many people who are leaving college or graduate programs may want to do this on the side or may even want to do it full-time.
So, to give a little bit more perspective if you don't know my graduate school journey - I chose to go to graduate school very late in the game, I studied abroad in my junior year of college; for the entire year I lived in England, I took all my core classes at my university the year before I left in order to qualify for that program. So, I took a lot of advanced classes earlier than I probably should have; I took the LSAT that summer. I was really ready to go to law school. I was just sure that this is what I was going to do.
Then my junior year abroad in England, I just had an amazing professor over there and I just remember these moments - he had this extremely messy office with books piled from the floor all the way up to the ceiling and he was just so happy teaching and I'm like, this is what I want to do - this is it. So, I'm changing course; I called my mom and I said, "I'm not going to law school, I'm not applying, I'm going to graduate school instead."
Because I was abroad that whole year, I didn't really investigate programs, I couldn't take the GRE, I couldn't do all of these traditional prep things because I was changing course. When I came back in my senior year, I very hurriedly spent all of Thanksgiving break on campus at my college filling out grad school applications. I had just taken the GRE two weeks before and was kind of getting these materials in, and I really didn't know where I was going to end up. And I ended up about two hours away from my undergraduate institution.
After I got my degree in Economics and Political Science, I went to an all woman's college in Central Virginia. I moved over to Virginia Tech to get my Master's and it was really a whirlwind experience because I decided to go there at the last minute and had no plan; I had no income, I was not sure how I was going to swing this. I graduated from college and just said, I'm going to move there and figure it out as I go. I'm in the program, that's the most important thing. My very first day in the program they offered me an assistantship that paid for all of my tuition, took care of a lot of different things for me and really made it possible for me to go to graduate school but also gave me that critical teaching experience. And I loved what I did there - I was in my Master's program for two years, I worked with five different undergraduate courses, a number of professors, I had an amazing mentor there who has since passed away but who was really instrumental in the development of my Master's research and even my Ph.D. level research because I fell in love with studying in graduate school during that period and decided to apply for a Ph.D. program.
We were kind of at the whims of where my now fiancé - very soon to be husband - would end up for his last two years of medical school. So, I was actually able to get into the Ph.D. program at Virginia Tech in a different department; the public administration and policy department, due to the coursework at night because they had a satellite campus in Northern Virginia and we lived in Maryland. It was a hardship so I graduated from my Master's program in 2010 and I started my Ph.D. program immediately that fall and I'm recording this in the fall of 2017. I have, for all intents and purposes, taken about the last two years off from my Ph.D. program because I got extremely burned out and I really needed to reconnect with my motivation for completing that, but for three years, two to three nights a week, I drove an hour and a half, sometimes two hours each way to go to these three-hour long classes there from 6:45 to 9:30 or 9:45 at night. It was really long days but I completed all my coursework, I completed the mentoring program, I had to attend 30 different meetings and I did all this with a full-time job. I was working at an insurance agency at the time. And it was hard, it was really really hard and in the midst of this, right before - we kind of knew that we were going to be moving because my partner is in the military and we knew the move was coming so I very quickly finished all of my courses, was ready to move into the dissertation and qualifying exam phase of my graduate degree program. And that is about when I discovered freelance writing. And the whole time that I was launching a freelance career, I never intended for it to be a full-time job. I was amazed at how quickly it exploded and I wished I had found it sooner.
Even though I wish that I had discovered freelance writing, editing, being a virtual assistant earlier on in my graduate school timeline, there were some things that I picked up in that graduate school experience both being on campus as a full-time student in the main Virginia Tech campus getting my Master's as well as doing a Ph.D. at night while having a full-time job and all of that. So, in this episode I'm going to talk about six specific things that I took from graduate school and my point here is really to try to encourage you if you've experienced any of these things in your personal or professional or academic life that you could be successful as a freelance writer because I'm now in my fifth year of freelancing. I have been doing this full-time since the summer of 2013; it's been a very high revenue generating business; it's been really enjoyable and I truly love what I do and the clients that I work with and I wish I had discovered this sooner because I was making $1000 a month as a teaching assistant at Virginia Tech and my rent was $600. So, looking back, I'm like I don't even know how I made it every month. I honestly don't know how I pulled that off and the extra income and experience would have been invaluable. So, if you are in graduate school, take what I'm saying seriously because you can do this, you can make extra money doing this, you can build your portfolio, you can even start a business that may serve you after you graduate.
And I'm to the point now where finishing my Ph.D. is more of a personal goal for me and that's because I love my business so much; I intend to work for myself, I do not intend to enter academia. So, if you're like me and if you are in the academic process; you're in graduate school and you're disgruntled with it or just realize it's not right for you, there are other options out there. You are not bound to continue in the field that you have chosen for your graduate study. So, keep that in mind too; you can have big sea changes. That's been a huge part of the reason why it's taking me forever to get my Ph.D. because I knew the focus should be on my business and for the last two years it has been. And I've seen that pay off in spades for me but not in the area of academic progress. So, there are six different ways that graduate school, both at the master's and the doctoral level, have served me as a freelancer.
It developed my writing skills
Number one is that it made me practice writing. Constant writing is really valuable, whether you are going to a freelance writer, editor or any other type of freelancer because even if you are not a writer or an editor, you will still have to pitch yourself. You will still have to appear professional over communication and the more you write, the more comfortable you'll become with it, the more confidently you will speak about the unique value proposition that you bring to the table. So, that continuous practice of writing - basically all of our grades in graduate school were based on papers and a few presentations, so you are even practicing those sales skills for the phone as well. So, that practice is valuable even if it's a different type of writing; I don't really do academic writing - I do academic editing as a freelancing service - but just becoming more confident about writing, in general, was really powerful for my freelance journey.
It Taught me to deal with criticism from others
Number two - and this one's really important - is you get used to criticism from others. This may even be true if you have graduated college or if you’re in college. Academics in particular at the graduate level will be very picky about how they talk about your writing. They will spot every mistake, they will circle it in red. When I defended in my qualifying exams, individual words were up for discussion for ten minutes at a time by an entire team of faculty.
So, you develop that skill of hearing criticism and being able to suss out when it's genuine versus when someone is just being ridiculous. But you don't take it so personally anymore; you're like "okay they're criticizing that, I can see that, I could have done that better, let me make those revisions." And that will serve you really well as any type of freelancer because you will have clients who will want changes, they will have their own style and formatting requirements that you will have to adhere to, and being used to criticism from others is a great skill to develop.
It gave me control over (and responsibility for) how I spent My time
The third way that graduate school really empowered my future freelance career is because graduate school was the first time I felt that I had real control over my schedule; I'd take these classes for three hours at a time and this was really at the master's level that I felt this. And sometimes even after doing my teaching and lecture responsibilities and grading and having office hours in my office and all that, I would still have extra hours in the day where I was like, what am I going to do.
Getting used to how to fill that time really served me well when I established my business because even as an early academic. I made use of fringe hours; those times when other people maybe aren't working or aren't willing to work. I used to go into my teaching assistant office at 7 o'clock in the morning and get started with my master’s level research and that was actually how I met my advisor; he was the only other person in the building at 7 o'clock and would kind of stop in and say, the people who really get things done are the ones who see the end goal and fit work into these fringe hours to make it happen.
So, having more control over my schedule, at least in that initial part of graduate school, showed me some self-discipline; how to nail down my schedule, how to have goals and achieve them with my free time. It can almost be overwhelming, making that transition from college to having a job or from college to just doing anything - even in college you've got this really regimented schedule, you've got activities you need to go to, you probably have a day of class all day long. It's a little bit different in grad school, you have more control over your time but because of that you have to be more self-disciplined; and self-discipline is a crucial skill that any freelancer has to have.
It inspired me not to follow the traditional path
The fourth way that graduate school really served me in my freelance business was that it gave me an inside view of what I thought I wanted to do and therefore, encouraged me to do something else. So, I saw some things in academia that I knew would not jive well with me, that I knew would not really bring out the best of me and realizing that part way through a program had me thinking about other alternatives; what can I do if I don't do this, if I don't become a professor, what can I do instead. So, I knew pretty early on in my doctoral program that I did not want to be a professor or a traditional academic and really struggled with coming to terms with that because I spent so much of the last few years really focused on that goal of becoming a professor and really felt that when I worked as a teaching assistant that I was good at it and that it was something I could really take many years into the future. But it inspired me not to follow the traditional path. And let me tell you as an entrepreneur and as a freelancer, you are not following the traditional path and that's why universities today still hesitate to have me come talk to their students because they still don't see freelancing as a real job even though my job as a freelancer has been more stable and more fulfilling than any of the other more traditional jobs that I held in the past. So, unfortunately, academia is kind of slow to adapt to these types of things. But if you are in any type of academic program where you are like, I don't see myself doing this when I graduate - and I've even met people in JD or MD programs thinking these thoughts - there are other ways. There are things that can help you make a transition, make a jump and for me, freelancing was huge with that. When I saw the potential with freelancing it really confirmed my decision not to continue pursuing academia as a professional goal.
It taught me to effectively balance multiple projects at once
The fifth way that graduate school really served me for my future life as a freelancer was that it encouraged me to balance a lot of projects at once. You may already have some experience doing this from your college days but as a graduate student, you're probably balancing a number of different responsibilities in your personal life and your academic life. You'll have to keep track of which classes you need to take, if you are a teaching assistant you have a whole basically part to full-time job there and you're responsible for other students, you're responsible for helping a professor, you've got to set office hours, you're probably involved on campus in some way or another, you may be trying to get published or completing research with one of your mentors or professors. In my first year of graduate school at Virginia Tech, I was also preparing to be in a major scholarship competition so there was a lot on my plate but it taught me that I could handle all of that if I was really disciplined and organized.
So that was a great lesson to learn because prior to that, I would have thought I definitely can't handle so many things on my plate at once and that might have shut me off from what ultimately happened which was having a full-time job, going to grad school at night and freelancing in my fringe hours and I did that for a year - an entire year - and yes I was exhausted at the end of that year but I did it and I balanced it and I didn't miss deadlines and I made things work.
It pushed me to do something else
The sixth way that graduate school served me with a freelancing future was that financially it pushed me to do something else. I don't know if you're like me but occasionally there are situations where you are backed into a corner and some people really turn into a diamond during that time. They realize that their back is up against the wall and something has to change. Being in stasis or not really being encouraged to change at all can give you a false sense of security and not lead you to push yourself even harder than you can go.
For me, being in graduate school, and in particular having this low-paying day job that I hated, driving in this 1984 Chevy Cavalier with no air-conditioning through the swamps of DC three times a week and really scraping by to make this happen financially pushed me to do something else. It was what led me to Google "how to become a freelance writer".
So, it wasn't an ideal situation but often when we feel generally happy with our lives, we're not willing to take a risk on something new because we are like everything's good now, I don't want to rock the boat. For me it was being financially pushed in that corner of saying I'm accumulating student loan debt, I'm driving this old car that it feels like I'll never replace, I have to pay tuition, I've got this low paying job, I'm living in a really expensive area, I don't have an assistantship, I've got to do something to make extra money. So, that's the sixth way that graduate school eventually ended up serving me and financially pushing me to do something else.
I wanted to share this particular episode with you because even for me, sometimes it hard to see that connection between my academic pursuits and what I've ultimately ended up doing as a freelancer. But those connections are there, there are things in your life that prepare you for other chapters and I really believe that graduate school may not have been my end goal - I definitely don't want to become a professor - but I still have learned a tremendous amount and that's to say nothing of all the researching skills that I picked up along the way. That's a whole other component of everything and having the master's degree and working towards a doctoral degree has definitely helped me be more marketable to potential clients.
But I wanted to talk to you about the six things that I felt influenced me the most because if you're in a position where you're saying, "Listen I'm in college or this graduate school program, I don't want to do this when I graduate, what on earth can I do? Or I'm broke and in graduate school and I need an extra way to make money and also gain some experience," freelancing is great for you.
So, if you are new to the world of freelancing, I've got two free courses based on your individual interests; if you think you are a great writer, check out my "How to Identify Your Freelance Writing Niche" course and then if you're interested in becoming a virtual assistant, check out "VA 101: Why now is the best time to become a virtual assistant?" and both of those are available on laurateachesyou.com. I hope this episode has been helpful to you. If you have an idea for a future episode, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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