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.