The title of this is a bit of a misnomer, because if I actually talked about a day in my life I think you’d all stop reading immediately. There isn’t a lot of glamour that goes into being a freelance consultant; there’s just a lot of daily administration and marketing.
But I do want to talk about a career path that maybe isn’t considered ‘common’ in the humanities. I think that might depend on what your exact background is, and also what country you live in. I’m from Canada, and being a freelance consultant is neither common, nor is it really understood, at least in the heritage field.
I finished my PhD in 2015, rather disillusioned with academia. I wanted out. But it’s not an easy thing to transition out of academia, when all the work you’ve done has been to pursue the academic career path. I felt very lost and very unsure. But I knew that leaving was the right choice for me. The question was: where to go next?
During my PhD student years, I’d done a project that had, at the time, been a favour for my supervisor. It had paid well, not taken up a lot of my precious time and been rather interesting. But I never considered it as a career path. As I began to review my (limited) options post-PhD, I realised that not only was it one of those few options (having some experience in it), but that maybe it didn’t sound as unappealing as it had seemed at the time. The project had been to do an audience engagement study at three museums in England over the course of several months. It wasn’t onerous or complicated, and being out talking to visitors was really interesting, as was coding the data we got from doing interviews. It was my first ‘freelance’ gig, I just didn’t know it at the time.
Fast forward several years (from that project) and here I am. Freelancing and consultancy in heritage are still virtually unknown career paths in Canada, but they’ve worked very well for many people in the UK and Europe, and even the US. And it’s not uncommon in western Canada either. But here in Ontario? Ontario doesn’t really understand what a heritage consultant is. That’s okay. It means I get to explain it to people. I get to start networking conversations off with ‘let me tell you what I do for a living’. There are worse ways to market yourself.
That does not mean there aren’t bad days. I hear a lot of academic friends talk about their office hours and how students never show up for meetings, or the endless emails at all hours, or attending meeting after meeting where nothing much is said. Freelancing isn’t glamorous either. It’s a lot of marketing and tracking down leads and clients. It’s a lot of accounting and legal issues and daily paperwork (because freelancing means self-employment, and self-employment means no one does the boring stuff for you). It’s also a lot of doing stuff that I don’t ‘get paid for’, at least not directly. The point of everything is to get clients who will pay you a very good wage that covers all the other work you don’t get paid for. But every freelancer and consultant will tell you that is one of the hardest aspects of this career.
And yet, I can’t imagine doing anything else now. I don’t miss academia, and pursuing another career path that would have involved going back to school, or a very difficult transition to a new way of thinking wasn’t for me in the year after I finished my PhD. This definitely is. It’s hard, it’s challenging, it’s exhausting, but it’s also interesting, exciting and impactful. All the reasons I wanted to do a PhD.
And more than that, it’s important. Museums don’t have the resources to manage much in house anymore (if they ever did). They don’t have the needed skills in online marketing, in audience studies, in digital design. They are getting by with what they have, but that isn’t much when they can’t afford to hire someone full-time with these skills. Instead, consultancy and freelancing offer an alternative that is – in comparison – relatively low cost and much easier to manage.
You can become a consultant in almost anything, if there’s a need. And if you have the experience and skills, freelancing isn’t the worst way to go, especially if you are transitioning away from the corporate or academic world and want a drastic change. It can temporarily bridge a gap, or become a permanent type of employment. And the freedom is definitely a plus (even if the constant struggle for clients is less fun).
I hope it’s a direction that takes off in eastern Canada like it has out west and south of the border. I hope it becomes appreciated in the heritage sector, just as it has in the business world. I think there’s a future for this that fills a gap and definitely fulfils a need. And until then, I’m going to enjoy doing something that not many other people get to do.