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Academic wage slavery: Freelancer work isn’t free!

Making Freelance Academic Work a Fairly Paid Venture

Source: Inside Higher Ed
By Brian DeGrazia

freelancerAs a graduate student and early-career scholar, building a portfolio of professional academic experiences provides a lot of potential value. Freelancer jobs in editing, translation, indexing, research and similar kinds of work… 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.

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.

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.

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Nick’s take on freelancer abuse

Academic and commercial employers get highly educated graduate students and other academics to do freelancer work cheap. These folks are usually terrified of the job market and will often accept jobs for no pay at all “to gain experience.” DeGrazia exposes this slave-wages racket. Read his article for great suggestions about how to get fair pay! (Also see 20 pointers for new graduates.)

What’s your take? Are you a grad student or other academic just starting out? Have you taken jobs that pay little or nothing? Is “experience” worth working for slave wages? How do you convince employers to pay for your work? If you’re an employer, do you pay academic freelancers fairly?



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  1. Very similar when applying to med school. We have to inform the students that they are now all on the same level. They may have been stars in their university, yet so was the person sitting next to them or the ones in the back or front of the room. That is what got them into the doors of medical school. Then we have to educate them on the fact that their learning, classes, and study is totally different than what they had at a university. They won’t be able to walk into a test center and receive an A without studying. Studying that requires daily attention so they do not burn out and provides them opportunities for research and rural clinics.

    Just as the real world of professional work, you are a star at a university or college, yet you start at the bottom. I feel it a success to be in the field I’m in for 20 years and wage has increased with each new job, which I get because of the experience. Once you have the experience it provides the background to what the future holds.

    I have mentored many individuals and willing to teach what I know to others to increase their abilities and skills. People have taken lower paid positions from a manager to a staff member to work with me once again for as they said to the interview team, “I know I can learn from Shirl and she will help me in my career path.” I felt great honor when I heard that and gave me evidence that mentoring is important in any job I have. Beware of the person who is not willing to share information or teach. And on the other side, be willing to learn. Even with 40 yrs of work behind me, I still learn something new everyday and sometimes, every hour.

  2. Thanks for posting this article, Nick. It lays out the commonsense reasons graduate (and undergraduate) students should be paid a fair or market rate for whatever work they’re doing for more established faculty, be it research, editing, teaching, etc.

    I’ve worked in academia for a long time, and unfortunately the more common philosophy regarding paying graduate (or even undergraduates, depending upon the institution) isn’t about paying them a fair or market rate. All too often faculty look at this as the students should be grateful that they’ve been hired and have the opportunity to put into practice what they’re learning, even if the pay is so far below a fair or market rate that the students have to find other work to pay their bills and survive (eat). Many of the faculty feel “hey, I had to struggle, I wasn’t paid a fair rate, and what I learned helped me, so these current students have to pay their dues if they want the opportunity to work for me”. Many of those faculty are older, tenured, and went to college and graduate school at a time when the costs were much lower, and they didn’t need to be on public assistance in order to live like monks.

    In many jobs, new hires do have to pay their dues. No one starts out at the top, in the corner office, with a very high salary, lots of perqs, a bevy of secretaries and assistants to do the tasks that need to get done. But usually in those jobs the new hire is making a wage/salary that enables him to pay his rent and other bills. I see too many students who qualify for food stamps and other public assistance because they can’t make it on what they’re earning because it is so little. Even the graduate students who get the few TA positions often need to supplement their incomes, despite the TAships coming with tuition waivers. Why? Because fees are higher than tuition, and they still have to pay those fees, plus live (rent, utilities, transportation, food, insurance, etc.).

    And yes, the faculty do take advantage of students. Rich(er) students can rely upon parents, but poorer students are stuck. They have to decide whether the connections they will make working for the faculty and the experience they’ll earn will outweigh the additional student loans they’ll have to take out in order to live, especially if they’re not rich enough to get parental financial help and not poor enough to qualify for various forms of public assistance.

    The problem that arises is that the best students for these jobs may not be the ones who get hired, especially if the student absolutely needs to earn more money in order to be able to return to school and/or pay for his living expenses. It is similar to the problem many students face with regard to required internships. The wealthier students can afford to take unpaid internships because they receive adequate financial support from their parents. But those students who absolutely need to earn money in order to pay for school can’t afford to give 40+ hours per week for an entire summer for an internship. And that’s too bad, because the other part of internships, besides giving students some practical work experience, is those all-important connections they’ll make.

    Years ago, when I got out of school, I wasn’t having much luck getting a job. I remember talking with classmates, and being told that I’d need to volunteer in order to get my foot in the door. I was an older, non-traditional student, and needed to work in order to pay rent and put food on the table. I remember thinking, I’ll go around and offer to volunteer for one day, because that was all I could afford (after crunching the numbers). I had no takers, and received plenty of snotty replies along the lines “Well, I HAD to volunteer full time when I got out of school before anyone would even look at me, so why the hell do you think you’re so special that you should be paid or that you can get away with volunteering for only one day per week?”

    It’s great that they were able to do so; not everyone is so fortunate as to have parents who can pay your rent, utilities, insurances, buy you food and professional wardrobe while you’re paying your dues (volunteering 50+ hours per week). Those of us that couldn’t do this ended up doing other things.

    I’ve often wondered what faculty would do if no students were available or willing to work for slave wages or volunteer. If the work has to get done and the faculty don’t have the time to do it themselves, how much would they pay someone who wasn’t a student to do the job? They probably wouldn’t be able to find anyone else willing to work for such low wages.

    • @Mary Beth: It’s a long way between getting an opportunity to develop experience… and getting taken advantage of! There’s an analogous abuse: college athletes who, we’re told, are “paid” with “an education” rather than paid for the work they do as athletes. Work which produces huge revenue for their schools and the associations they belong to. The truth is, most such athletes are permitted little time for academics and, even if they were, there’s still no excuse for not paying them.

      Seems academia has been sticking it to students for a long time!

      • Nick: You used a good example with student athletes, particulary those who play the “big” sports at the “big” Division I schools (think football and basketball at Alabama and Michigan, not fencing at Amherst College). Those sports bring in a great deal of money, and for a very long time, those students weren’t compensated for the value they brought. Some schools found ways around this: I remember reading that some of the student athletes at one of the schools for which I worked received fancy cars, clothes, an “allowance” (very, very generous), and more, some of it from the school, but some from sports agents. Everything was done under the table because it was against the rules, but it was an open secret on campus. And when it came out publically that one of the students had received some of this largesse, the entire men’s basketball team that year forfeited its wins, and those were stricken from the record (as if they never made an appearance in the Final Four that year).

        I think the Supreme Court is going to rule on whether student athletes should be paid this year. I hope they do the right thing.

        • @Marybeth: Getting people to work for you with no pay is perhaps the biggest racket in the world. Getting them to compete for the “right” is immoral. Getting “fans” to pay to watch those people work is obscene. I didn’t know this was before the Supreme Court this year. Good. I think.

  3. Why anyone would subjugate themselves to free intern work is beyond the pale of common sense. I guess the 13 th amendment has little credence from the academic and artsy world. Still, this is evidence to the adage “there’s no such thing as victims, just volunteers”.