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Going Freelance Out of Graduate School

Despite what one may think, there are many different alternative PhD Careers that are available out of graduate school. The goal here is to make you aware of what is out there and encourage you to follow your passion, whatever it may be (it could capitalize on a newly found skill, or something that you have had all along).

Also, keep in mind that some may have financial pressures/incentives that ‘dictate’ or influence your choice of career out of graduate school, but I hope that these personal stories at least open your eyes to all possibilities.  And with that, I will introduce you to someone who has found their passion out of graduate school and continues to pursue this further.

The Story: A Scientific Visual Communicator

I finished my PhD in Cellular and Molecular Biology program at UW Madison two months ago in June of 2013.  Now I am using my graduate degree to develop informative diagrams for scientists as a freelance scientific visual communicator.  I help clients disseminate their complex ideas as well-organized figures.  Although I use graphic art tools to build these images, I think of them as efficient communication rather than pieces of art.

I chose this field because it requires my strongest skill.

I am a good bench scientist, but I am exceptional at translating scientific ideas into visual images.  I have a broad and deep biology background, strong graphic software experience, knowledge of publication standards, and inquisitive people skills.  Together, I can extract complex information from scientists and formulate a journal-ready image much quicker than a typical researcher.  I hope that these skills constitute a rare and valuable skill combination that I can use to help people and be financially successful.

Many scientists need my help

Scientists spend long and frustrating hours formatting images or trying to put together model-diagrams.  I can save them tremendous amounts of time and make an impressive image that will help readers understand their presentation, article, or grant application.  It is extraordinarily satisfying for me to save hours of someone’s time with just a few minutes of my own.

When reading scientific papers or watching presentations, I often see a need for my type of work.  Some well-meaning researchers choose the wrong type of graph for their data or fail to label the graph well enough for readers to understand it.  Many gels/blots lack labels and require the reader to interpret the caption and re-draw the labels in order to make sense of the 12+ lanes.  Often I read complex genetic models in discussion sections that are difficult to understand from the text alone and would have greatly benefited from a diagram.  Many researchers don’t know what adjustments they can safely make to their photomicrographs that won’t change the meaning of the image but will make it easier for readers to see their data.  I can solve these problems quickly and efficiently.  I also enjoy teaching people so that they can take these skills forward to future projects.

I am a freelancer

I wanted to be a scientific visual communicator after graduation, so I created a job for myself as a freelancer.  During graduate school I didn’t have enough time to maximally advertise myself or build a large portfolio of clients.  However, I had done a small number of projects during graduate school and was hopeful that I would have a small number of repeat clients once I started business on my own.

Freelance work is not for everyone

To start a freelance business right out of graduate school means not getting paid often and no employee-benefits.  I would not recommend this trajectory to anyone that doesn’t have a cushioned nest egg saved up and the capacity to obtain reasonable individual health insurance.  As an alternative, one could wait for a vacancy at a university or a biotech company.

A major benefit of being freelance is that I could start right away, and I have immense freedom in work load and schedule.  I don’t have a packed schedule every day, so I have had time to catch up mundane things that were suspended during the intensity of finishing my thesis.

It’s an adventure starting a business because of the high risk of failure.  I have tried to enjoy the journey by keeping in mind that I am prepared for its possible failure.  Madison is key to my freelance plan.  I was a researcher at the UW for eight years and I know a lot of scientists here.  My freelance aspirations rely on leveraging these contacts and networks.

I prepared for my new business

Some of my friends have compared starting my own business to leaping off a cliff.  I have done my best to make it more like a ball pit so that I will not be ruined if I fail to attract sufficient customers.

Financial cushion

In order to popularize my services, I am charging very little right now.  As a result, I am not making enough income to support myself and am living off of savings.  I hope to increase my rates and number of customers as my name grows.

Health insurance

When I first got the idea of becoming a freelance scientific visual communicator, I wasn’t sure if I could get individual health insurance at a reasonable price.  I worried that health insurance would be the ‘deal breaker’ for being self-employed.  As a graduate student, I had excellent health care through the university with Dean Heath.  I heard from a friend that the same company had good rates for individuals too.  I used the Dean Health website to get a quick quote.  Thankfully, the price was not prohibitive for me, and I was accepted into the quoted plan.  One reason this plan is affordable is the caveat that it does not cover pregnancy for women.  I think my plan will have to start covering child birth in 2014 during the final implementation of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).  I suspect that my rates might change to reflect this increase in coverage.

Advertising my services is important to finding clients:

 

Friends and Contacts

The number-one way that I have been finding clients is through word of mouth recommendations.  I have tried to increase my network by participating in new events that allow me to meet new people and tell them what I do for a living.  I have chosen a non-conventional career, so clients need to be told that services like mine exist and are affordable.  Having friends tell their friends about me and meeting new people face-to-face has absolutely been my most successful advertising strategy.

Introductory Prices

I have been offering very low quotes in order to increase my client list as much as possible.  My informal researched showed that clients would like to be charged a set price for a project; thus whenever possible I try to provide a set quote for a job.  II read some online resources to find that some experienced web developers and graphic designers charge $40 an hour for their services.  For now, I am using the calculation of $20 an hour to make my quotes.  I have also been offering some free bonuses (like an extra diagram) to endear myself to my clients.  I don’t know if this strategy is really helping me because so far my clients have not been very concerned with the price.  One customer even insisted on giving me more than my quoted amount.

Taking all jobs

I have been accepting every job that crosses my desk, regardless of whether it’s science related.  I have been doing travel photo retouching for a brother of a friend and making websites for my uncle’s asphalt business.  At this point, any money is good money, and expanding my portfolio seems like a good idea.

Getting new clients

I have posted free graphic tools on my website in the hope that people would share the link and consequently spread the word that I exist and can help scientists.  I don’t think I have successfully obtained any paying jobs through this route yet, but my friends have thanked me for providing the illustrator brushes.

The next step for me in my business is going to be more aggressive client acquisition.  I am currently weighing the relative value of the following ideas:

  • Offering question-and-answer-based workshops/classes on campus.  Either for free or with a tip jar in order to spread my name.
  • Cold-contacting biotech and intellectual property companies and informing them that I can help them communicate their ideas to customers and the US patent office.
  • Putting up fliers on campus targeting professors writing grants, manuscripts, or preparing presentations.
  • Proposing projects to specific clients where I see a need.

My future still remains uncertain

I am enjoying building my business.  My clients so far have been great, and the projects have been fun.  I have been using the extra time I have during this slow start to catch up on things I put aside during my thesis and also to keep up with the latest software tools.  I hope that I can eventually build this business enough to become a financial success because I love this lifestyle, but I am definitely operating in the red for now.  Please tell your friends about my services and check out my website.


About the Author

Dr. Kate Baldwin is a Scientific Visual Communicator and Science Illustrator in Madison, Wisconsin.  She uses her scientific understanding to make clear visual communication.

10 Ways To Successfully Defend Your PhD


Well, I’m back. After 3 months of intense thesis writing, revisions, and successfully defending (all while working a part-time job in industry), I want to share with you Part 1 of 3 of this series. Part 2 will be how to finish your thesis in a timely manner (and write a good quality thesis). Part 3 will be life after a PhD, making the transition into the workforce, and how to prepare ahead of time (i.e. apply for jobs before, during, or after writing your thesis).

First, what does it take to give a successful PhD Defense? How can you prepare, keep the stress levels low, and make sure you have the highest chance of success?

I’ll just say that everyone’s PhD Defense is unique and is unpredictable. Your talk/presentation is only as good as you want it to be. And you cannot fully prepare for all the endless possibility of questions. If you wrote a 200 page thesis, your thesis commitee can pick apart an error bar on a graph on page 133. They can ask you what you meant by a word in a random sentence in any given paragraph. Keep in mind, this is all just apart of the PhD hazing process, and in a sense is just to humble you. At the end of the day, if you wrote a good quality thesis and are CONFIDENT, you should have no problem successfully defending and leaving that room with a sense of relief. Either way, I wanted to share my experience while it is still fresh in my mind

1) Do not underestimate how long it takes to prepare your slides/talk and make sure you give multiple practice talks

When I turned in my thesis two weeks ahead of time to my committee, I thought the hard part was over. Although a very important milestone, don’t let your guard down. If you already have most your slides ready to go, then you are lucky. I ended up getting data at the last minute and my story changed. I had to make many model slides from scratch.

If you want to give a GOOD thesis talk, you need to practice multiple times. And this means that you don’t cram it all in a couple of days right before your talk. I’m not talking about giving just one practice talk. You need to give multiple group practice talks. In between, you need to practice on your own.

You certainly don’t have to memorize every word of your thesis defense talk, but you should have it well-polished. There is no limit (or requirement) on how many practice talks you should give, but give as many talks as it takes until you feel like you are ready. If you are unsure of the quality of your talk (or being “ready”), tape record yourself or watch a video of yourself to see just how good it is. You might be surprised when you play it back to yourself.

You should also time your talk. I noticed that I tend to talk faster (by about 5 minutes) when giving the actual public talk vs. when I practice on my own. The length of the talk can depend on many departmental factors. My talk was ~45-50 minutes long which also leaves time for questions.

Either way, do not procrastinate on your slides and/or talk until days before. Make sure you use the full two weeks to perfect your slides, polish your talk (and be very concise about your words), and review material you are unsure about.

2) Listen to other thesis defense talks

The best way to mentally prepare for your thesis defense talk is to listen to other thesis defense talks. I actually went and got a few talks on DVD (the good ones that I remembered). If their research is on a similar topic as your own, this would be more ideal-but take what you can get. When you watch the talk, ask yourself what makes it good or bad? Were they enthusiastic and sincere? Did they keep the energy throughout the talk? Were there some rough areas of the talk? When nerves are running high, talks may not go as expected. You can battle this nervousness by showing up well-prepared. If you are, the thesis defense talk is just a formality.

If you cannot obtain any thesis defense talks on video, make sure that you go to actual public thesis defense talks. At least go to one so that you have a good idea of how to TIE the whole story together and give your audience the big picture. Keep in mind that you are giving a talk to a general audience. This means that use of jargon and highly technical terms will only put your audience to sleep. Make sure it is clear and understandable. Simplify it the best that you can and put it in the larger context of your research field. Use cartoons or model slides (if necessary) to give your audience the general, overall picture.

3) Have your friends, labmates, and others drill you with questions

What’s the best way to prepare for unforeseen questions? Have others that are familiar with your work drill you with questions. Chances are that even though these questions may not be the actual questions you will be asked either by the public and/or your thesis committee, it prepares you to think on your feet. It also builds your confidence. And the questions that your labmates or friends ask you may just be the same question you will get asked on your defense day.

4) Re-read over your entire thesis and write out your own list of questions

You may be sick of reading your entire thesis over and over by now, but you need to keep everything fresh in your mind. I actually read over my entire thesis multiple times during my final two weeks and came up with my own list of questions that I thought my committee would ask me. In addition, I also came up with a list of questions that I had of my own (questions that I was unsure of or that I thought were a weakness of mine). If you cannot come up with a list of good questions, then you are not trying hard enough.

Even though my committee didn’t ask me my exact list of questions, the process of  coming up with my own list of questions-then finding the answers to those questions (beyond my thesis)-actually helped me gained a deeper understanding of my project. And it was a confidence booster in disguise.

5) Don’t let distractions get to you

Completing your thesis is a huge milestone. Those last two weeks until defense day can be stressful. Whether you are doing job interviews, applying to other jobs, or you want to “jump the gun” and finally start your post-PhD life, don’t give into temptation. Keep your guard up until your actual defense day. This is key to giving a good talk. You need to go in with the mindset that you will kill your presentation and give a long lasting impression to your audience. I have actually heard that some people who gave great thesis defense talks were offered a position shortly after (i.e. a postdoc).

You are going to want to do all those little tasks that you have been putting off for so long because you have spent X amount of months writing your thesis in solitude and you had no time to do them. Your list could be very long. I can tell you that one of the things on my list was to keep publishing blog articles and keep my blog running. I simply did not have enough time. Prioritize and focus on your defense talk and nothing else. If you are looking for jobs during this time period, I will be writing about this in Part 3 of this series.

6) Get plenty of sleep, keep your diet in check, and take care of yourself

This might be the most difficult thing for anyone. I struggled with this the most while writing my thesis. Skipping meals, late nights, overloading your system with caffeine just to stay awake. You have to fight it the best that you can. A month before my defense talk, I hit the gym 3x a week (for the first time in months). Everyone handles the anxiety of their defense talk differently. I am someone who thinks about it constantly. So it becomes hard to focus on other things, like taking care of yourself.

Once your thesis is turned in to your committee members, during those final two weeks- sleep and a proper diet are KEY. The day of your defense, make sure you are well-rested (don’t stay up all night stressing about it) and eat well. Don’t sell yourself short. By taking care of yourself, you ensure that you have the highest probability for giving a great thesis defense talk and showing your committee members that you are confident about your project.

7) Keep your cool and relax

When your defense day comes, you have to remember that you have put in a lot of HARD WORK to get to this point. You know your topic better than anyone. Because of this, you have no reason to be stressed out.

When your committee pushes you and asks you questions, they again will push you to your limits. You will meet a point where you won’t know the answer. Also, a question could simply be a future direction/experiment that you simply haven’t tested yet. Remember that they are simply trying to test your knowledge and humble you. You don’t have to know all the answers. Therefore, when you are answering questions, keep your cool and relax. Answer the questions the best that you can and you should have no problem passing. And in all honesty, the prelim (or qualifying exam) was much harder than the actual defense…

8) Don’t focus on the after-party until you have actually reached the after-party

Who doesn’t want to spend their final two weeks planning the celebration? Although I did have an after-party, I did not go to great efforts to plan it like a wedding party. As I said in #5, prioritize and focus on your thesis defense talk and nothing else. Plan your after-party while you are on break from your practice talk/preparing for questions/working on slides but do not make it a number one priority. Once you have passed, then you can change your focus. The feeling is indescribable (see #10).

9) Have a good structure

A good thesis talk also has a good introduction before going on to the next idea or slide. It should flow in a logical manner and be smooth. That is why #1 is important, because many people don’t spend enough time in the creation of good powerpoint slides. Your slides and talk have to MATCH up, meaning you can’t have really good slides and a mediocre talk (or vice versa) if you want it to go well.

This is why practice is important, and if you spend enough time on BOTH the talk/slides you will give a very good talk. A lot of times while I was actually practicing my talk, I had to go back and change the order/wording of slides or how I introduced certain slides (the wording) so that the flow would be better.

Be formal in how you word things (i.e. say “our data show that”… vs. “you see here that”…). To give a good introduction, it might be wise to use slides that ask a question in between. This question slide (break) in-between your next idea allows for your general audience to CATCH UP and understand your logic. Why are you doing this experiment? If you just show a bunch of your published data with no introduction (and maybe a title that gives an interpretation/punchline), you will overwhelm and bore your audience.

Many scientists forget that although they are an expert on their topic, what seems easy and understandable to them-does not apply to others outside of their field.

Before you go to your next data slides introduce the idea (based on this data I wanted to ask this question). Then tell them WHY you performed this particular experiment (which is basically in the form of a question). Once your audience understands why, go on to the next slide and give them your interpretation. In other words, don’t just jump to the interpretation. This will keep your audience’s attention and make sure that your thesis defense talk gets a lot of positive feedback and leaves a good impression on your committee members (it really does show).

10) Visualize yourself giving your defense each day and think about how good it will feel when it’s over

This one is pretty self explanatory. I will say that when it is all said and done, it feels like a huge burden has been lifted off your shoulders. It is emotional and you finally feel that all that hard work and time that you put in over the years-was all worth it in the end. Good luck to all those who are preparing for their defense talk in the future! Think about what it will be like to get up in front of a large audience and show everyone how you moved a field forward. This is YOUR moment to show everyone you are an expert in your field. The more you keep this mentality, the better your talk will be. Keep your cool and relax (#7) and everything will be fine.

If you would like to see an example video of a defense talk that illustrates the advice I’ve given, a link to my PhD defense can be found here: http://bit.ly/1sAIT7O

Best of luck to all!


Further Reading

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