Making Freelance Academic Work a Fairly Paid Venture

Brian DeGrazia recommends some best practices for ensuring that early-career scholars receive not only professional development but also market-value compensation for such work.

March 22, 2021
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As a graduate student and early-career scholar, building a portfolio of professional academic experiences provides a lot of potential value. Freelance jobs in editing, translation, indexing, research and similar kinds of work can be good résumé and CV builders and offer useful preparation for a range of careers within and beyond the university. They can be an opportunity to deepen one’s knowledge of a certain subject area or learn about a new one. And they often offer a chance to expand one’s network by providing a way to collaborate with new colleagues.

The benefits of such work are certainly real, but they should not be thought of as compensation or reason enough by themselves to take on a project. Indeed, one of the main challenges of this kind of work is receiving market-rate pay for it. The notion that working for free or less than market rate can be “worth it” for the experience or exposure is pervasive and certainly not limited to the academy. But it does take on particular contours in the academic context, as Sarah Jaffe makes clear in a chapter about academic work in her recently published Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone. This is especially true for graduate students, whose labor, as Jaffe writes, is all too often seen as “not really labor, but a privilege.”

While this is first and foremost a labor issue, we should also consider this question from a career pathways perspective. Emphasizing the immaterial benefits of freelance academic work, as tenured faculty and other more secure scholars frequently do, can implicitly (or explicitly) presume that graduate students and other early-career scholars aim to pursue the same professional path as the hirer -- that is, that of the tenured faculty member. Increased transparency and structure around freelance academic work can help render it not only a meaningful professional development opportunity but also a fairly paid venture. Below I suggest some best practices, both for those of you looking to be hired to do this kind of work and for those looking to hire them.

But first: What is a fair rate? The Editorial Freelancers Association provides, free on their website, a chart of median ranges for rates of pay for all different kinds of editing work, based on a survey conducted with their membership in April 2020 by Venture Research Associates. As a rule of thumb, editing rates should be at least $35 per hour, and translation work should pay at least $0.11 per word. Those rates are not limited specifically to the academic context, but they nonetheless provide a good benchmark for what market-rate -- and fair -- compensation looks like. Those rates resonate with my own experience, as well: during the first year of my Ph.D. (2014), a faculty member in my department paid several grad students $0.125 per word to translate articles for a special issue of a journal he was editing.

Best Practices for Faculty/Those Hiring

  • Decide if the work really must be done. This may sound obvious, but it is essential. One helpful question to ask is: If you are unable to compensate someone at market rate, do you have the means, will and time to complete the work yourself? It is likely to be a significant investment of time and/or money.
  • Offer a fair rate. Wendy Laura Belcher suggests, in a blog post on her website, to think of hiring an editor as just that: an investment. Belcher recognizes that while to some people copy-editing rates might seem like a lot of money, it can be useful to think of them as an investment in one’s work.
  • Seek funding. Belcher’s idea of an investment is a good starting point when asking others to help fund this work. While you may be able to pay for the work yourself or with your own research funds, could the press or journal help cover costs? What about a humanities center or other campus resource? If you are a department chair or leader, is it possible to establish or advocate for funding for this specific use upon which junior faculty members can draw as they work toward meeting their publishing requirements for tenure? Since multiple parties can benefit from this work -- the ones contracting for it and the ones doing it -- consider cobbling together multiple sources of funding, perhaps using already-secured monies as a way to ask for matching funds from others.
  • Frame it as professional development for everyone. A dean’s office or career center might be able to support the freelance work of graduate students if it is framed as a structured and well-paid professional development opportunity for them. Depending on the nature of the project, this kind of work can offer important skill-building and experience in editing, translation, research, collaboration, project management, contract negotiation and rights procurement.
  • Draw up a proposal. In your proposal, state clearly what the work is and what it pays, and what you anticipate deadlines to be. Information about the project and details about the kinds of professional development it offers are helpful, as well. This can also serve as your contract, or the basis for one.
  • Use a contract. It should be clear and formal, but it can be short and sweet. At a minimum, it should stipulate the scope of work, a timeline and the rate of pay. If any part of the contracted agreement includes significant changes from the proposal, those changes should be delineated clearly and discussed openly. Another option is to use a hybrid model, in which details like deadlines and deliverables become a shared conversation.
  • Transparency, transparency, transparency. A clear proposal, fair rate of pay, open communication and written contract are good ways to establish and maintain equity and transparency. Keep in mind that, because you are most likely further along in your career than the person whom you’re hiring, a power dynamic is at play. It is not fair to offer a lower rate of pay, or a very short deadline, with the assumption that the editor or translator “can just say no if they need or want to.” Students and other precarious workers may be afraid to say no because of financial insecurity, their need for your continuing professional support or fear of blowback. Navigating these situations is made even more difficult along the lines of race, gender identity, class and higher education experience. Set the work up for success from the start with a fair proposal and an open dialogue, and make clear before the contracting phase that passing on the proposal is always an option.

Best Practices for Graduate Students/Those Being Hired

  • Decide if you really want to take the work on. Ask yourself: Do I have the time and energy to dedicate to the work being proposed and according to the timetable laid out?
  • Consider this opportunity alongside others. If a fairly paid freelance opportunity unexpectedly comes your way and sounds interesting and doable, then maybe it is worth seizing. But remember that your time is valuable, and your own. If you are early on in your program and/or open to a variety of professional development experiences, it is worth doing some research on the opportunities available to you. Does your department or institution have paid internships or other on-campus work opportunities that might interest you? Have you considered seeking out part-time work in an industry or type of work that you might want to pursue down the line? The website ImaginePhD can help you identify and articulate your skills, interests and values and match them to different kinds of work and careers.
  • Evaluate the proposal. Does it clearly state a rate of pay that sounds fair to you based on the above recommendations? Will you be able to complete the work within the timeline proposed? If any of this information is missing or vague, ask for a clarification or state an alternative rate and/or timeline that would work for you, and then ask if it is agreeable to the other party, as well. You may want to consult with friends or colleagues who have done similar work and/or with your adviser or other mentors before responding.
  • Ask to sign a contract or agreement. Ideally, the person or organization seeking to hire you will provide a contract or agreement, but if not, you can offer to draw one up based on the proposal and ensuing conversation you’ve had with them. Once again, it might be helpful to talk things over with friends, colleagues and/or your adviser before signing the contract.

Freelancers, regardless of their title or position within the university, are workers, and they should be treated and compensated as such. A fair rate of pay, beyond helping to pay the bills, also offers one last but vital piece of professional development for early-career scholars: it helps them see the value of their time and work, hopefully giving them more confidence throughout their careers to seek properly paid freelance and full-time opportunities and avoid those that are less desirable and less fair.


Brian DeGrazia is assistant director of programs and project lead for graduate and career programs and partnerships at the Modern Language Association. He is a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.


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