Ensuring early-career scholars receive market-value compensation for freelance work

By Brian DeGrazia, in the Inside Higher Ed Carpe Careers series.

As a graduate student and early-career scholar, building a portfolio of professional academic experiences provides a lot of potential value. Freelance jobs in editing, translation, indexing, research and similar kinds of work can be good résumé and CV builders and offer useful preparation for a range of careers within and beyond the university. They can be an opportunity to deepen one’s knowledge of a certain subject area or learn about a new one. And they often offer a chance to expand one’s network by providing a way to collaborate with new colleagues.

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. But it does take on particular contours in the academic context, as Sarah Jaffe makes clear in a chapter about academic work in her recently published Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone. This is especially true for graduate students, whose labor, as Jaffe writes, is all too often seen as “not really labor, but a privilege.”

While this is first and foremost a labor issue, we should also consider this question from a career pathways perspective. Emphasizing the immaterial benefits of freelance academic work, as tenured faculty and other more secure scholars frequently do, can implicitly (or explicitly) presume that graduate students and other early-career scholars aim to pursue the same professional path as the hirer — that is, that of the tenured faculty member. Increased transparency and structure around freelance academic work can help render it not only a meaningful professional development opportunity but also a fairly paid venture. 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.

But first: What is a fair rate? The Editorial Freelancers Association provides, free on their website, a chart of median ranges for rates of pay for all different kinds of editing work, based on a survey conducted with their membership in April 2020 by Venture Research Associates. As a rule of thumb, editing rates should be at least $35 per hour, and translation work should pay at least $0.11 per word. Those rates are not limited specifically to the academic context, but they nonetheless provide a good benchmark for what market-rate — and fair — compensation looks like. Those rates resonate with my own experience, as well: during the first year of my Ph.D. (2014), a faculty member in my department paid several grad students $0.125 per word to translate articles for a special issue of a journal he was editing.

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