Posts filed under 'Q&As'

How to roll with changes in the freelance writing landscape

I recently was interviewed for the freelance journalism site Ebyline by Susan Johnston of the The Urban Muse. Here’s my favorite question from the bunch. (You can read the interview in its entirety here.)

What changes have you observed in the freelance landscape over the past several years?

Online assignments have gotten shorter. Many national media outlets that once asked writers for 800-1500 word web stories are now asking for 300-600 word blog posts. This has decimated pay rates for freelancers writing for these sites. Online aggregation has become the norm, too, with many leading sites heavily relying on partner content (for example, routinely using stories from sites like and This also means fewer opportunities for freelancers.

But not all hope is lost. Freelancers who want to write for mainstream web outlets just need to fold in more lucrative assignments to supplement their income. Consumer magazines, trade and custom publications and copywriting remain a good bet, as do editing, teaching and coaching. And diversification, staying on top of publishing trends and following the money is perhaps more important than ever before.

A few other changes that seem to be the norm now thanks to web and mobile publishing:

  • More freelancers are expected to provide links, photos, videos, audio and/or HTML tags when filing their stories, as well as promotion via social media outlets when the story runs. Depending on how well you negotiate with editors, this will either mean a bit of extra work per assignment or a bit extra of pay.
  • Given all the aggregation that’s happened in recent years, all-rights and work-for-hire contracts are fairly standard for online writing these days. That’s not to say you can’t negotiate or can’t find an outlet that will let the rights to your work revert back to you at some future date. It just seems that these deals are more scarce.
  • Many online startups have no qualms asking freelancers to write for free or close to it. Unfortunately, there’s no shortage of new, hobbyist or exposure-hungry writers willing to take the bait. For this reason, I advise inquiring about the rate in the first conversation you have with a new-to-you outlet.

[Read the rest of my Ebyline interview here.]

8 comments February 16th, 2012

The startup cost no new freelancer should go without

Got an email from some mystery reader the other day asking, “Is this site still active? I haven’t seen a post from Michelle in many months.” (Actually it’s been just under two, but who’s counting?) In an upcoming blog post, I’ll explain why I disappeared from the blogosphere for such a long stretch. But first, some fresh content…

Work It, Mom! just ran a new Q&A with me and I wanted to share my favorite question of the bunch:

If you were just starting out as a full-time freelancer and had just enough money each month to pay for ONE of the following things, which would you choose, and why? (1) Hosting for your own website. (2) Mobile web and e-mail on your cell phone/Blackberry. (3) Membership in a paid job listing site like FreelanceSwitch. (4) Four Americanos.

My answer: Easy: web hosting. It’s criminal to not have a website as a freelancer these days. You need your own corner of the digital universe where people can easily learn who you are and peruse your samples and/or client testimonials.

Number one, it makes you look like you’ve joined the twenty-first century (if you forego a site, don’t expect potential customers to be impressed). Number two, it saves you extra time you might have spent explaining your work/approach/MO to a new client. Number three, you can make a one- to four-page WordPress site in a morning. Number four, Web hosting costs less than $10 a month. Number five, in the time you spend scouring those (often crummy, $10/hour) ads on freelancing job sites you could have sent your new URL to everyone you’ve ever met in your life, started schmoozing with other freelancers on Twitter, and drummed up your first client by word of mouth or the power of SEO. I’m a big fan of joining a community and cultivating relationships rather than bidding into the void on projects advertised on job sites, unless it’s a really, really kickass-sounding job.

As for options (2) and (4), I don’t use a smartphone and I don’t drink coffee.

Bonus answer: Yes, you can build a site with an address like for free, but having your own URL is so much easier for people to remember and looks a bit more serious.

Yes, coffee makes the deadlines go ’round, but it’s expensive. If you drink it, brew your own.

Yes, a cool smartphone + data plan will liberate you to work anywhere, but as a new freelancer you should be watching your pennies. Besides, do you really need to be online 24/7?

And yes, some people swear by using freelance job hunting sites like Elance, oDesk, and Guru to land their first few gigs or to supplement their freelance income, despite all the cons they themselves are all too happy to admit (wading through all the crap-pay listings, giving the site a cut of your earnings, the preponderance of bidders willing to work for slave wages). But on freelance email list after email list I subscribe to, people regularly say that they haven’t found such race-to-the-bottom bidding frenzies worth their time.

I can’t speak to the job listings on Freelance Switch specifically; if anyone has a review to share, by all means please do. I’d love to find a job listing site serving multiple freelance disciplines to recommend to new freelancers. As for writers, I hear wonderful things about the publication editors and the freelance listings they post on Freelance Success, which costs about $100 a year.

13 comments June 4th, 2009

Reminder: San Francisco freelancing Q&A and book reading

Calling all Bay Area freelancers (working or aspiring): I’m headed your way for a night of freelance banter; I read to you from My So-Called Freelance Life, you ask me questions, I answer, you ask me more questions, and then I sign books. It’ll be an opportune time to learn new tips and resources, talk about freelancing in a down economy, and meet other independent pros who walk your walk. The event details:

When: 7:30 pm, Tuesday, February 10
Where: Books Inc. in the Marina, 2251 Chestnut Street, San Francisco
Info: Free admission. More info at Books Inc. or (415) 931-3633.

And if you’re a professional organizer, dream of being one, or call one your BFF, you (and possibly your organizer friend) should join me and the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the National Association of Professional Organizers (NAPO-SFBA), for a presentation about how to deal with difficult clients. The event details:

When: 6:30 to 8:30 pm, Wednesday, February 11
What: Seminar, Q&A, and networking for professional organizers
Where: The Doubletree Inn, 835 Airport Boulevard, Burlingame, CA
Registration: $20 members, $25 guests
Co-sponsor: Books Inc.

If you attend either event, be sure to say hello. Thanks and happy weekend.

2 comments February 6th, 2009

Anti 9-to-5 profile: Ian Sanders, project manager/marketing consultant/author

Yesterday I ran an interview with author Ian Sanders (LEAP! Ditch Your Job, Start Your Own Business & Set Yourself Free and Juggle! Rethink Work, Reclaim Your Life) about what self-employed women can learn from their male counterparts. (You can read his simultaneous Q&A with me on what self-employed men can learn from women here.) Because Ian has such an impressive entrepreneurial bio, I decided to make him the first male anti-nine-to-fiver that this blog has featured. And because he lives in the UK (and I am a seventies-rock dork), I threw in a “favorite British rocker” question at the end.

Q. You’ve had quite an impressive business development and marketing career. What prompted you to strike out on your own?

A. I’d reached that glass ceiling where I was being pigeonholed to do just one thing: I was managing director of a radio studio business but wanted to do loads of other stuff and I wasn’t permitted that freedom. On a personal level, I had burnt myself out – I was stressed and unhappy. I needed a change.

Q. What was the most unique or innovative way you wooed and/or landed a client?

A. All my business has been won by word of mouth alone over eight years so I don’t have any amazing, jaw-dropping secrets. It’s dead simple. Be nice to deal with, be a safe pair of hands, make a difference, and people will use you and recommend you.

Q. What would you do differently in making the leap to self-employment if you could hit rewind?

A. What would I do differently? Have more confidence from Day 1 to charge more money, to pick and choose what I do, to choose what I don’t do, to only work with people I respected 100 percent. I would have been more true to myself from Day 1. But hey, those things come with time.

Q. What advice would you give to hopeful entrepreneurs looking to make their own leap to self-employment in today’s credit-crunched economy?

A. If you have a great idea, if you are resourceful, if you are a ‘grafter,’ and if you have buckets of optimism and passion, there are still stacks of ideas out there. A recession is a good environment for incubating new ideas. For a recession, I think opportunity not threat. All my clients want to retain their competitive edge, so they still need to spend money on hiring me in a downturn!

Q. Why did you decide to write LEAP? What makes the book stand out on the business shelf in bookstores?

A. Why did I write LEAP? It’s my story. A few years ago I started writing ‘The Self Sufficient Entrepreneur,’ but it wasn’t me — it was like any other business book. So I tore that up and started again. I wrote something that was me: punchy, accessible, short, not the nuts and bolts of business, but a book like a friend to inspire, support, and motivate. Because going it alone can be lonely and you need someone to help you on that journey. It’s the business equivalent to that great book ‘The Best Friend’s Guide To Pregnancy’! What makes it stand out: it’s (hopefully) different. I think it really talks to the reader. I have had some great emails (from Seattle to London) from readers who felt empowered to make the change once they read the book.

Q. You’ve done some fun promotions for the book (the great video series on your blog, for example). What was your most successful promo tactic? Which did you enjoy doing/making most? What would you never bother with again?

A. Probably the videos. I liked these most but have they translated to a huge uplift in sales? One viral had 28,000 hits but didn’t seem to be a huge rise in Amazon rankings. I guess there are no short cuts — it’s a slow-ish process. But on a personal level I enjoyed the videos most — I like that currency of communication; talking to the camera. I like to blog. What would I not bother with again? Handing out postcards at a ‘Change Your Life’ event did not seem to be very fruitful.

Q. Your new book, Juggle, features interviews with leading business bigwigs about how they do what they love without letting their personal life suffer. What was the biggest thing you learned from your interview subjects while working on this book?

A. It reinforced my own philosophy to be yourself, to stay true to your own values. Stick to what you love and forget the rest.

Q. Speaking of juggling, how are you splitting your time between running a business, being a dad, and promoting two books? Where have you had to cut back the hours?

A. How do I split my time? Not very well. I struggle with having enough ‘me time.’ Writing the second book was a huge drain on my family life; finding the bandwidth to write a book in two months was tough so I took two mini-trips to inspire me, to write it. I love the flexibility of working by myself to spend with my two boys, but they are demanding. Where have I had to cut back the hours? Doing ‘me’ stuff, sitting in a coffee shop reading the weekend papers and stuff like that. Weekends get full of work stuff; it’s all a blur, work and play are all mixed up. That’s good but it’s also bad.

Q. Who’s better: Beatles, Stones, Led Zeppelin, Clapton, or The Who?

A. I don’t ‘do’ Clapton or Zep. I cannot see them making it on to my iPod in any circumstances! I guess I would say the early Who. I am a late convert to the Who. I went to a Who press conference to launch their world tour last year and Townsend and Daltrey played a four-track acoustic set to a tiny audience that blew me away. How Daltrey had such presence and still that voice all these years on really wowed me. Early this year at a small showcase gig I saw Ronnie Wood from The Stones join the Sterophonics on stage, and boy, he’s still got it too. I think big bands and artists like that playing acoustic or in a small setting is like being self-employed. It’s like, ‘Can you go solo? Can you still cut it without the backing band?!’

1 comment December 16th, 2008

Women vs. men: When it comes to self-employment, what can we learn from each other?

My email pal Ian Sanders and I are running simultaneous interviews with each other this week on how men and women approach the self-employed life differently and what we can learn from each other. Ian owns a creative agency in London and is author of LEAP! Ditch Your Job, Start Your Own Business & Set Yourself Free and Juggle! Rethink Work, Reclaim Your Life. He’s also a dad to two toddlers. Part 1 of my interview with Ian follows; part 2 headed your way tomorrow. You can read Ian’s interview with me on his blog.

Q. Do you think men and women are driven by different factors in business?

A. Essentially I think men and women are both driven by being enterprising; they may have different approaches but they want the same goal: success.

Q. What do you think self-employed women can learn from men?

A. As soon as we start talking about gender differences we are of course generalising! With that caveat, I would say women can learn something about having guts to “just do it,” which sometimes men posses to a greater extent. Having that self-belief to be bold. I think women are better team players than men, so when they are working for themselves it can be tougher if they are not part of a team.

Q. What do you think self-employed men can learn from women?

A. Self-employed men can learn a few things from women, as I think women can be more adept at juggling a mixed portfolio and have the bandwidth to handle the varied tasks. Men are better at one thing at a time (apart from me of course!). I think blokes can be good at going out and winning business but sometimes lack the ability to simultaneously be across everything, the trivial and the detail. Women can also be better team players – personally, I find working relationships with women co-workers can be more stimulating and fruitful than with men.

Q. Do you think either men or women are better (in general) at separating work and play and keeping a balance between the two?

A. I think men are better at separating work and play; women are used to mixing it all up. Incidentally I think that mixing it all up is the way forward, and I’m no good at separation.

Q. What is your single most important survival tip for freelancers and people making the leap to self-employment?

A. My single most important survival tip is Focus. Focus on building revenues; focus on one area of business at a time, then diversify and build once you have foundations in place; focus on delivery of a project. Because a project not executed is just an idea.

5 comments December 15th, 2008

Guest post: How do I know when it’s time to hire some outside help?

The Boss of YouAre you a business of one who’s wondering whether it’s time to hire an extra pair of hands? Torn between whether you should hire an employee or a subcontractor? Fairly certain that if you don’t start delegating soon your head will implode, but not sure what tasks to farm out, let alone where to find a capable set of extra hands in the first place?

Not to worry. Lauren Bacon and Emira Mears are here to help. Lauren and Emira started Raised Eyebrow Web Studio, Inc. in 2000, so that they could be their own bosses and continue to work with the not-for-profit and small business clients they loved. They became so dang good at it they decided to write a book — The Boss of You: Everything a Woman Needs to Know to Start, Run, and Maintain Her Own Business. So without further adieu, here’s what Lauren and Emira have to say on hiring your first employee…

There comes a time in every successful self-employed gal’s life when the question arises: How do I know when it’s time to hire some help?

The first step is to look for the warning signs that going it alone is not working out. For most small enterprises, there’s a good long stretch where you (and your business partner, if you have one) are your only employee(s). Of course, if you’re successful, you’re likely to get busier and busier, up until the point where you stop being able to juggle all the work you’ve got coming in.

We hit this point in our business about three years in, but we didn’t see it for much, much longer. It’s our hope that our tale of woe will inspire others to act promptly when the time comes to bring in an extra pair of hands.

See, between client work and the administrivia of running our business (answering email and phone calls, managing our books, and so on), we found ourselves working longer and longer hours and feeling like we were getting no further ahead. We were losing our weekends at the office, and losing sleep over the prospect of missing deadlines if we slowed down. Our success was killing us — the more work we did, the more referrals our clients sent our way, and we couldn’t keep up with the demand.

So why didn’t we hire someone right then and there? Three big reasons:

1. Fear of financial risk. We were terrified that the moment we hired someone, our workload would drop off and we wouldn’t have enough work to keep everyone busy (and the business profitable). The thought of being responsible for another person’s salary on top of our own was just scary enough to make us hesitate.

2. Fear of change. We liked our little two-person, best-friends-and-business-partners-forever setup. And we knew that dynamic would change the moment we brought another person into the mix. We weren’t ready to step out of our roles as comfortable equals and into being the bosses of someone else.

3. Fear of losing control. Yeah, we were hardcore control freaks. (Or, as our hero Joss Whedon prefers to phrase it, “control enthusiasts.”) We were completely stressed out at the thought we might hire someone who wasn’t as perfectionistic as we were, and see the quality of our work deteriorate.

So where did that leave us? Stuck in overwork hell for another couple of years. Yeah, that’s right, I said years. It got pretty ugly; there were emotional breakdowns on both our parts on a fairly regular basis, due to too much work and not enough play, rest, and perspective. People kept telling us we needed to hire help and we kept arguing with them, telling them we didn’t want to grow, and that we’d find some other way to cope.

(Now, by the way, that’s a perfectly legitimate strategy, but only if you’re comfortable turning down work so that you can stay sane. We weren’t doing that.)

So how did we get over our fears? In short:

1. We discovered that not only will a hard-working employee pay for themselves (in our case, by working a reasonable number of billable hours per week), but will speed up production times (duh) and thereby quicken up the cashflow cycle (because when projects finish faster, the billing date comes sooner).

2. We hired someone we liked. A lot.

3. We peppered our job posting with phrases like “detail-oriented” and “meticulous,” and hired someone just as careful and quality-conscious as we are.

That’s the short version. There’s plenty more on the subject of hiring help in our book. But meanwhile, please feel free to post your questions about hiring here, and we’ll do our best to answer them.

5 comments May 5th, 2008

Q&A: How’d you score THAT gig?

gig_big.jpgIf you or someone you know is graduating this year or thinking about changing careers, check out Alexandra Levit‘s brand-spanking-new book, How’d You Score That Gig? A Guide to the Coolest Jobs — and How to Get Them. Reading this book is like going on 60 informational interviews for some of the most coveted careers out there — boutique owner, inventor, video game designer, archaelogist, landscape architect, futurist, classic-car restorer, and on and on and on. Happily for us, Alexandra answered a few of my questions about writing this book and some of its most important take-aways.

Q. What prompted you to write this book?

A. The idea originated as a result of several conversations I overheard at friends’ dinner parties. It seemed that someone at every event always had a job that totally intrigued the rest of the group. People were completely captivated by this individual, and were always curious to know how s/he scored the gig, and what exactly it entailed.

Q. In doing your research for all these careers, what did you unearth that surprised you most?

A. First of all, because I tend to caution people against going to graduate school to prepare for a career they have no experience in and don’t know if they even like, I was encouraged to discover that so many of the dream jobs didn’t require a master’s degree for entry into the field.

Second, it was interesting to find that so many of the jobs I was profiling attracted similar types of people. For example, documentary photographers, travel journalists, news correspondents, and oceanographers are all rather spontaneous and thrive on new and varied experiences. This led me to develop my seven “passion profiles” — adventurer, creator, data-head, entrepreneur, investigator, networker, and nurturer — and place my 60 cool jobs into the appropriate categories. Readers can take a quiz at the beginning of the book to see what passion profile and corresponding jobs best suit them.

Q. Was there one refrain you kept hearing over and over in the interviews you did with these dream careerists?

A. It’s not about talent, it’s about persistence. Most of these careers are tough to penetrate, but not impossible. If you take the right steps and push hard enough, for long enough, you will eventually break through the wall.

Q. Were there any dream careers you once mythologized that now have you thinking, “Ugh, I could never ever do that!”? Any that you’d initially looked down on that now have you raising an eyebrow?

A. I used to think that it would be amazing to own my own business, but after speaking with dozens of entrepreneurs, I’ve realized that it’s incredibly hard work. You have to sacrifice your personal life for a long time to get things off the ground, and frankly, I don’t know if I have what it takes. I didn’t exactly look down on any of the top careers per se, but I was pretty surprised when school teacher ranked so highly in the survey. I wouldn’t have personally considered this a dream job, but the teachers I interviewed were some of the happiest, most satisfied people in the entire book.

Q. What are the top three things a newbie with no experience in their dream field can do to break in (aside from applying to grad school)?

A. This tends to vary by field, and How’d You Score That Gig? provides specific guidance on how to break into different ones, but here is some general advice:

  1. Join an appropriate professional organization and attend events regularly.
  2. Seek out volunteer opportunities.
  3. Research individuals doing your dream job, and set up informational interviews with them.

Q. Give us your best informational interviewing tips.

A. Use the Net, your contacts, and your college’s career center to set up informational interviews with people already working in your career of choice so that you can learn more about what the job actually encompasses. In these meetings, which will usually take place via the phone, don’t be afraid to ask specific questions about training requirements, responsibilities, salary, work environment, and opportunities for advancement. As long as you are polite, no one will fault you for wanting the real scoop, and if a job is not as glamorous as it sounds, you want to know that before investing your time and energy.

Q. How do you account for a complete career 180 in a resume and cover letter, say if you’re applying for an internship or entry-level gig in a field you have zero experience in? What do you say (especially if you’re in your mid-thirties and above)?

A. Instead of writing a resume that lists your previous and unrelated jobs, which might have your potential new employer questioning the relevance, create a functional one that’s organized by transferable skills that would be applicable in your new career, such as client relations, project management, and budgeting. This will turn their attention to what you know already as opposed to what you might be missing because you haven’t worked in the field before.

Q. So many people choose miserable complacency in a career they loathe because they’re worried about the financial ramifications of starting at the bottom again. Or they’re scared of change. What advice can you give to light a fire under their butts?

A. First, ease into a new career one foot at a time. Perhaps this means earning a paycheck at your current job while doing a part-time internship in your new field or taking an adult education class or workshop on the weekend. The only way to find out if you’re passionate about something is to try it, and to do so risk-free will make it less daunting.

Also, remember that any progress is good progress. As you say, even confident people stay in unsatisfying jobs because they feel safe, and because they’re afraid of making a bad decision. But in the quest to uncover a source of meaningful work, your worst enemy is inertia.

Q. Were there any careers you’d initially planned to put in the book that landed on the cutting room floor? Why?

A. There was only one — astronaut. This career made the Top 50, but I couldn’t include it because NASA refused to grant me an interview. I pursued their PR department for weeks to no avail. I feel they missed a terrific opportunity to promote their field to the public.

4 comments April 16th, 2008

How to get a corporate blogging gig

ariel-meadow-stallings.jpgSome of you may know Ariel Meadow Stallings, author of Offbeat Bride, the book and web phenom. She’s also the subject of my current “How’d you land that great job?” column in the Seattle Times, as her part-time day job as a blogger at Microsoft is pretty dang enviable. Following are excerpts from my Q&A with her.

The job: “I never thought my silly Internet addictions would actually be useful,” says freelance writer and author Ariel Meadow Stallings, who’s kept a personal blog since 2000. But in the Microsoft job she’s had for the past year, being Facebook-savvy isn’t just useful — it’s essential. As a marketing manager on the software giant’s staffing team, the Seattleite spends much of her time publishing Microspotting, a blog profiling some of Microsoft’s most notable employees, from a Peruvian rockstar to a technical editor known as That Goth Girl to the company’s infamous mystery blogger Mini-Microsoft.

Q. How did you get this job?

A. About a month after I’d been laid off from [a] startup job, I got an e-mail from a colleague who I’d met at a blog conference in 2006. She started the e-mail congratulating me for getting back to my freelance career, and then said, “Just in case you’re interested, I heard about this job at Microsoft…”

I was going to stop reading right then. I wasn’t looking for a full-time job, let alone a job at The ‘Soft. In the late ’90s, I’d worked a contract gig at Microsoft, [doing] content editing, and it was such a bad fit that I was fired after two weeks and literally escorted out of the building.

But then I noticed the job was part-time — and permanent. That hit a special and rare sweet spot for me, as I’d have the benefits of a permanent gig (Helloooo, health insurance!) but still have time to work on all my freelance projects. I wouldn’t have considered the job if it had been a 40-hour-a-week position.

Q. What does a week in the life of Ariel at Microsoft look like?

A. I try to get a new [employee] profile up every week or two on Microspotting, so there’s a fair amount of behind-the-scenes researching and networking that goes on. I’m obsessed with conveying the diversity of Microsoft in my profiles, so I do a lot of mulling over whether I’ve already profiled too many white-dude testers vs. female Indian developers vs. older gay Inuit program managers. I want the stories to stand on their own as interesting and noteworthy, even without the marketing angle.

Once I’ve got a person I know I want to profile, I meet with them to record an interview and take a few photos. That’s actually been a surprisingly fun part of this job — somehow I’ve become a corporate photographer. But I try to take unexpected shots of people having fun and being themselves. I’m not into the stuffy head shots.

Like any journalist, there’s transcribing and writing up the interview, and then pushing it live on the Web site. I also manage promoting the site — mostly using social media sites like YouTube and the photo site Flickr and the bookmarking site Digg. And I’m managing the development of a Facebook application for my team and helping with the Workin’ it @ MSFT fan page.

Q. What advice can you give hopeful corporate bloggers?

A. Just blog! And then blog more! And read blogs! And blog more! Blogging for yourself is the best training you can do — especially if you get into the metrics, like your Web stats. Granted, it’s not easy work (there’s nothing sadder than an abandoned blog that hasn’t been updated for 18 months), but the payoffs are remarkable. You’ll show up higher in search engines, get questions/comments from people you didn’t know were looking at your Web site and have the opportunity to impress your prospective employers with your latest thoughts.

You also can’t just be a writer. Even though modern blog tools make it easy to get by without much design knowledge, having a basic understanding of HTML and how the Web works will go a long way in making things better.

Networking is huge too. I attended blog conferences like BlogHer and Blog Business Summit and met lots of amazing folks, one of whom recommended me for this very job.

Want more? Read the whole profile here.

3 comments March 20th, 2008

Grad school, round two: Q&A with PayScale reporter Kristina Cowan

We had ourselves such a lively conversation about grad school last month, I thought the topic deserved another look. I recently did a Q&A about all things higher ed with Kristina Cowan, aka The Salary Reporter, at Kristina has more than a decade of experience reporting on education and the workforce. Here’s her take on higher ed, community college, trade school, and recession-proof gigs.

Q. I’m a big fan of not using grad school as the “I don’t know what else to do next” default. In the The Anti 9-to-5 Guide, I suggest auditing classes and talking to students in programs you covet before enrolling. Can you offer other tips for weighing a program you’re interested in?

A. It’s a good idea to interview others in the field you’re exploring. Talk to a professor at the school you’re considering, as well as professionals working in the industry. Request informational interviews by phone or, ideally, in person, and prepare a set of questions. A good one to ask is: Will a master’s degree help speed me along the career path and boost my paychecks? I did this when I was exploring a master’s degree in journalism, and found it very helpful.

Ultimately, you should determine the pricetag of graduate school, and whether the advanced degree will truly advance your career and increase your pay enough to justify the expense. Do as much research and talk to as many people as possible so you make a well-informed decision.

Q. When grad school isn’t required for making strides in a particular career path (for example, writing) what are the most compelling reasons to go?

A. I chased a master’s degree in journalism for two reasons I thought were compelling: I knew I could get hands-on experience from the school I picked (Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism). I’d get a chance to write and report for real publications in both the Chicago and Washington, D.C. areas, while getting guidance from professors with plenty of journalism experience. I also knew I’d come away with clips I could use when interviewing for jobs.

The other reason was networking. Medill’s alumni and professors form a strong circle of seasoned journalists at every level and in every medium; they’re individuals on fire for the Fourth Estate. I owe much of the last eight years of my journalism career to that network and my Medill experience.

Q. More and more career paths don’t require a college degree, and more and more students can’t afford a college education at all. If a person is clear on the career path they want to pursue and it doesn’t require a four-year university degree, would you advise them to save themselves the cost and skip the diploma? Go to a more affordable community college instead?

A. I always argue in favor of a bachelor’s degree. I’ve read a slew of studies and talked to countless career and education experts who say a bachelor’s degree these days is what a high-school diploma was years ago: almost essential if you want to make it in this world. I wrote a story for exploring the value of a bachelor’s degree, where I report that earnings tend to rise as education levels increase.

That said, higher ed’s skyrocketing costs are scary and disheartening, but they shouldn’t be a deterrent. Community colleges are an excellent, inexpensive option, and they’re incredibly accessible: according to the American Association of Community Colleges, there are 1,195 in the United States. Students should consider spending their freshman and sophomore years at a two-year school, and then transferring to a four-year school. To help pay the bills, they can do work-study or find off-campus jobs.

At the end of the day, college teaches young people about accountability, responsibility, and organization — essentially, what it means to be an adult. I don’t remember much about the facts I learned or the essays I wrote as an undergrad, but I do remember learning how to fend for myself, pay bills, and take responsibility for my future. It was my first taste of independence, and I’ve never looked back!

Q. I’ve interviewed a number of women over the years who’ve rejected the corporate grind from the get-go — or rejected it after a decade or two — for work in the trades (firefighting, bus driving, construction). Do you think trade school is the new graduate school?

A. Trade school can be invaluable. It provides real-world experience you can’t get in a classroom or through a book. I think it’s especially useful for career-changers who want to gain skills and put them to use relatively quickly.

Q. Any tips for a person with a traditional college education who’s considering embarking on a one-year or two-year trade school program? What might they find different in their new program, and what perceptions do they need to let go of?

A. Depending on the person’s age, re-entering anything associated with the word “school” can be daunting. But the truth is, we all should approach learning as something we do throughout our lives. There is no right or wrong age to attend a trade school, community college, or a four-year institution. Demographics in our country are shifting swiftly, as baby boomers retire or change careers and Generation Y comes of age. We must let go of the dated notion that school is for kids. School is for us all.

Q. Do you think there are there any truly recession-proof jobs?

A. It’s important to remember nothing in life is guaranteed — except death and taxes, as the saying goes — and that includes careers and jobs.

Still, some career paths are more fail-safe than others, such as health care, information technology, education, and jobs with the U.S. government. So-called green jobs are another option. The green arena, which includes energy and environmental industries, is growing quickly and there’s high demand for workers in a variety of positions. You can see my recession stories here and here.

Want more Kristina? Visit The Salary Reporter on

1 comment March 4th, 2008

How to beat the web into submission

connect-cover-small.jpgIf you’ve visited this blog before, you know I have a love-hate relationship with the web. In the interest of attempting to overcome some of my Luddite fears, I recently put these web productivity questions to Anne Zelenka, web technologist, former editor of Web Worker Daily, and author of Connect! A Guide to a New Way of Working.

Q. Some days, I feel like email is the bane of my existence, tempting me away from deadlines and productivity. How do you recommend self-employed types stay on top of email without letting it rule their life?

A. There are numerous schemes for managing your inbox, but what’s worked best for me is a post-email era approach. I don’t get all my information through email. For example, I use Twitter to stay in touch with my online professional network, instant messaging for quick discussions with colleagues or clients, bookmarks to share things I find interesting, and blogging to think out loud with feedback. That lightens the load on my email inbox and it makes me feel more hooked in throughout my workday. Email on its own can feel a bit disconnected, I’ve found.

Q. At the expense of sounding like I’m writing a white paper for one of my software clients, I have to ask: What are three things even a Luddite like me can do to use the web more effectively and boost productivity?

A. You’re a great example of the most effective way to use the web to succeed in your work life: get yourself a professional presence online with a blog or other website. Don’t focus on making advertising dollars from it — use it to make connections and promote your work. Most of all, be authentic online so that when opportunities come to you because of your online profile they will be opportunities you’re really excited about pursuing.

Q. What are some of your favorite online tools for freelancers?

A. The tool I rely on most for managing my work life is Google Docs. I use spreadsheets to track income and expenses and documents to plan projects and collaboratively edit papers. Gmail, Adium (an instant messaging aggregator), and Twitter keep me hooked in with my professional network — and I couldn’t succeed without that.

Q. You have an entire chapter on online money management, including tips for freelancers. Can you share one or two of those web banking tips for freelancers?

A. If you’d like a good and secure way to manage your various financial accounts, check out Wesabe. It offers a downloadable tool into which you input your login and password information, then you can regularly update your transaction information and see where you’re spending your money and what your balances are. It includes a social network where you can swap tips and share financial goals — so it’s like the Web 2.0 version of Quicken.

If you have a lot of clients and need to manage a bunch of invoices, check out FreshBooks. That site makes it really easy to create and send invoices then track payments.

Q. Despite the fact that this will be outdated next month, what are your favorite social networks for freelancers who want to mingle and market online? Or do you think social networks are one big fat timesuck?

A. Three sites I like for freelancers and in particular freelance writers are Freelance Switch, Freelance Writing Jobs, and mediabistro. These aren’t specifically social networking sites, but Freelance Switch and mediabistro include forums and Freelance Writing Jobs gets good discussions going in the comments.

I tend to network with other web technology geeks, since that’s my main area of expertise. For that, I like Twitter and also networking via blogging. I’ve tried Facebook and it hasn’t been all that useful to me professionally.

Q. As a freelance writer, when I’m in the thick of trying to bang out a draft, email and an open browser is the kiss of death. Do you work on deadline with your inbox and browser open? Just wondering.

A. When I was working on the book, I regularly closed my browser, including my inbox (I use Gmail), and set my instant messaging status to “writing.” I write blog posts on deadline with my browser open because I need it to do research and I’ve trained myself to work while I’m connected. This kind of group-oriented productivity is something you can learn to do, and it’s a mode that we see teenagers of today often using. They stay in constant contact with their friends and use multiple electronic tools, switching back and forth as necessary.

Q. You mention a preference for pen and paper when it comes to writing to-do lists. Why is this? Any other parts of the workday we should be reserving for paper?

A. I personally love the physical experience of writing and rewriting my to-do list, then crossing off items when I’ve finished a task. I also like to be able to take my to-do list away from the computer to work on it, where I feel like I gain some perspective on my priorities. Paper is generally useful for you want to slow yourself down and take a broader perspective. If I want to really think about something — a blog post I’ve written in draft, a project plan, a list of goals — I do it on paper.

Q. In the book, you talk about this brave new way of working called “bursty work.” Can you explain what that is and why we should be doing it?

A. I came up with the idea of bursty work when I realized that many career achievements arrive in discontinuous leaps rather than through step-by-step action.

I observed that many people working online had different habits than [those in] the typical 9-to-5 gig. Instead of working standard hours, they would work when they felt like it, according to their energy, sometimes in bursts. Instead of shutting themselves off from other people in order to get solo work done, they would stay connected via instant messaging or social networking or other electronic tools and get information and inspiration from colleagues and associates throughout the work day. Instead of building things totally from scratch (or just on top of what their coworkers built), they would use what they found online — whether open source software or research that someone had already done or photos that someone else took — to get where they needed to in leaps and bounds rather than step by step.

The reason the web promotes a bursty style of work is because of the network of people and ideas it makes available to us. Instead of just having ourselves and our office coworkers available to us, we have a whole wide world of resources just a hyperlink away. This means you can navigate shortcuts instead of always working step by step.

In practice, bursty work often builds on busy work — there will always be projects where you have to spend lots of dedicated, focused time working step by step towards a goal. Building a network of professional connections, for example, takes effort over time. But once you’ve done a lot of the busy work, bursts of innovation or achievement may happen almost as though by magic. It’s not magic, though; it’s navigating a network.

You can read more about busy vs. bursty in the Web Worker Daily article I wrote on the topic.

Want more web tips? Visit Web Worker Daily and get your copy of Connect! A Guide to a New Way of Working. 

1 comment February 25th, 2008

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Who I am

Hi, my name's Michelle Goodman and I've been freelancing since 1992. I'm author of My So-Called Freelance Life and The Anti 9-to-5 Guide. Read my full bio here.

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