I’ve noticed that a lot of freelance journalists yearn for a staff job. I’ve also noticed a lot of staff members yearn to quit their jobs and go freelance. Is the grass always greener on the other side of the fence? Yes. Absolutely. But as someone who recently made the leap from staff to freelance, I can share some of the pros and cons I'm aware of so far.
Staff writers have benefits and a steady paycheck
Perhaps the most obvious difference is that when you’re on staff, you have some sort of health care, taxes withheld from your paychecks, maybe even some retirement savings, and consistency in when you get paid. For a lot of people, this is the real deal-maker, and makes the elusive staff job worth it.
For me: I knew I could get on my husband’s health plan easily, and suspected that even with being in charge of my own taxes and retirement savings, I’d still net more $ as a freelancer.
Freelance writers can pick their hours
Being self-employed and choosing your own hours, no matter the profession, can be a real blessing or a real curse. If you’re not great at time management, and/or need external motivation (like from your boss or timesheet) to get out of bed and to your computer at a certain hour, maybe a staff job is better for you. But if you have no problem working 9-5(ish) when nobody’s watching (or whatever your preferred workday is), you might make a great freelancer.
For me: I love being able to roll into my home office some days at 10 or 11 am, totally guilt-free. I am not a morning person. That said, I’ve been learning that if I make myself wake up early (for me “early” is 6 or 7am) I not only gain more work hours, but am more productive during those early hours.
Vacations Are Complicated
Taking time off from a staff job can be challenging when you need to get approval from higher-ups who can literally say no to a time off request. Especially when staffs are already stretched to the limits, it can seem nearly impossible to carve out a couple consecutive days — let alone a week, or more! — for a vacation.
You may be tempted to think: So if I’m a freelancer, I can take time off whenever I want! Technically that’s true, but you can also never take paid time off. Every day you’re not working, every week you pass on your weekly assignments, you don’t get paid. That means vacationing takes a lot more planning ahead, and really thinking about how much you can afford the foregone income.
For me: This scares the heck out of me. Let’s say, for ease of calculation, I’m on target to make $52,000 for the year — or $1,000 per week. If I want to take a 1-week vacation, I now have to add $1,000 of foregone income to the costs of the trip. Brutal, no?
It Helps to Know People to Freelance
For me: This one is totally from personal experience and nothing else. But 100% — literally! 100%! — of the assignments I’ve gotten as a freelancer so far have been from connections. I haven’t cold-pitched a single story. Some of my assignments have been from ex-coworkers, some have been from connections made on Twitter, some have been random editors who reached out to me (through LinkedIn or Twitter). I don’t want to discourage anyone from trying to cold pitch, but realistically, I can’t imagine trying to make a living as a freelancer starting out with zero network. I couldn’t do it without my network.
You’ll Probably Get Laid Off, Anyway
Sorry, is that too harsh? Something a lot of staff writers say is that the biggest perk of the staff job is stability. But with the way the industry has been going lately, it is sure feeling like a staff job isn’t actually that stable. Working as a freelancer is kind of like diversifying your portfolio — if one publication goes under, or cuts their budget such that your services are no longer needed, at least you have your other clients to keep you going.
For me: I love writing for the publication I used to be on staff for! They are the best. Also, there were 12 staff members there when I started, and by the time I left 2.5 years later, 7 had been laid off, and 5 had quit. (One person stayed the whole time, but one other person started and was laid off within my tenure.) I’d rather take my chances as a freelancer.
Business, Bureaucracy, and Co-Workers
Staff writers have to deal with, well, staff. Co-workers can really make or break your workday experience. Your daily enjoyment of your work, and your general sanity, is pretty much dependent on the decisions made by your boss, and your boss’s boss, and your boss’s boss’s boss. Are you cool with that?
For me: I had the great pleasure of working with a staff of editors that I really, really loved. It can be lonely going through the day without them.
That said, I found there was a significant difference between what “my coworkers” thought and what “the company” thought. In other words, I didn’t always love decisions made regarding staffing, advertising, marketing, and the like. It wasn’t my job to care, yet these things bothered me a lot. That said, I’m kind of a busybody, so it’s very likely this wouldn’t have such an effect on everyone as it did me.
Freelancers Can Diversify
The stability of a staff gig also means you’re pretty tied to that single publication. What if you’re at SciAm but your life’s dream is to write for NatGeo? Freelancing is a great way to have bylines in different pubs.
Some publications will say: You can write for anybody you want, if it’s in your free time, and if you offered us your pitch first and we declined it. But who wants to work 40 hours for one science magazine, and go home on the weekend and write for a different science magazine? Not me.
For me: It’s not so much that I wanted bylines in other magazines, but that I wanted to be able to pick up some non-journalism scicomm pursuits. For instance, I’ve been editing documents for environmental NGOs, working with universities, and have been ramping up my personal brand (ick, sorry) and scicomm interests. It’s just hard to make time for that stuff when you’re on staff.
More Money, Or Less Money
The number one consideration for people when they choose between staff and freelance seems to be the ratio of hours worked to money earned. As a freelancer, you get paid more when you do more work. This is great if you can find work that pays a good amount per hour. This can be devastating if you can’t muster up enough assignments, or if you're slow to get assignments done.
If you don’t get assignments regularly, or ever, you’re totally screwed. It’s scary. I wouldn’t want to freelance without savings or a backup plan. (What would I do if all my clients said tomorrow they weren’t going to hire me anymore? I have no idea. Go work at the mall while I figured it out, probably. #Vaccinated)
For me: When I was on staff, I made $38K, which is $730/week before taxes and retirement and health care were taken out. I took home $494/week. Meanwhile a typical freelance story pays $300. So if I write 2-3 stories per week, and add on one bigger assignment per month (like a big editing contract, or a $1+/word print story, or really anything that pays $1,000-$2,000), I'm ahead.
Musings on science writing, from a scientist turned writer.