Freelance job during full time masters program?
May 11, 2010 12:37 PM   Subscribe

What freelance skills should I cultivate to support myself during graduate school?

Hi everyone! I'm applying to full-time masters programs (architecture) for fall 2011. I've been going to school part-time in the evenings, but I'm ready to bite the bullet, get serious, and go back full time. Here's my problem - I'll be 30 when I go back, and I've been spoiled because I've been working full-time, even all through undergrad, since I was 18. I can't imagine living a lifestyle for 3 years where I'm living solely off loans and have no money coming in at all - especially if the job market doesn't rebound for a while.

My question is for those of you who took on a flexible freelance gig while you were in grad school. What's something I can learn/cultivate in the next year that I can do freelance, from home, on my own schedule to make some extra cash when I start school in a year and a half? I'm changing careers, so I'm not an architect now, but I've got decent intermediate drawing and AutoCAD skills. I've worked professionally in advertising and film as a producer for the last 10 years, and am great with anything techie/computer. I've worked freelance as a writer, but honestly you spend more time looking for gigs than working, which sucks. Any ideas I might not be thinking of?
posted by emily37 to Work & Money (20 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Oh, and just to amend the above - I am definitely saving, but I don't have the means to save up my living expenses for three years, as a lot of my cash in the last 7 years has gone towards my undergrad student loans!
posted by emily37 at 12:39 PM on May 11, 2010

Don't assume that you'll have a lot of free time to do this.

I'd recommend something that you can do on your terms - a lot of freelance gigs want you to work on their (short) schedule. What if that is the same week that you have a big paper? Or what if all of a sudden your advisor wants you to go to a conference? You'll screw one or both things up and you'll generate a bad reputation.

Even tutoring or test prep is hard to do on a grad student schedule.

There aren't too many things that are profitable that you can do on your own terms, but here are a few ideas:

- eBaying stuff for people that you know
- some sort of craft that sells well and quickly (and in a channel that you have easy access to -- etsy, for example, doesn't really make money.)

But honestly, your best bet is to get a gig that is designed for grad students - a part time TA position, a part time research assistant position... they will be completely understanding of your school schedule AND at least in my neck of the woods, they pay quite handsomely.

Your second best bet is to get any ol' work/study job that will have great flexibility - library assistant, etc.

Sorry to burst your bubble, but trust me - every year I see 3 or 4 grad students with plans to freelance or work on the side and I have not yet seen one execute it successfully.
posted by k8t at 12:57 PM on May 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks k8t, I will be looking for something that can work with my schedule. Having to work a backbreaking schedule during undergrad just to make ends meet caused my grades and sanity to suffer. Thankfully I'm aiming for state school this time around - so no $100K+ of debt (hopefully!)
posted by emily37 at 1:02 PM on May 11, 2010

Have you done any editing? Especially if you're at a school with a larger international student population, you can make decent money editing MA theses and PhD dissertations. The downside of this is that they are often facing the same end-of-semester deadlines that you are. And given how time consuming architecture programs are, this (or other things like tutoring or test prep) may not be a great option.

If there is a writing center on campus, see if they maintain a list of editors to give to students who need this kind of help. If not, try to make connections in various departments (especially math/science/engineering) and make your availability known to the administrative assistants in those departments so they can pass your info to students who need it.
posted by BlooPen at 1:03 PM on May 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

This may not be a solid freelance job route, but if you can make the time I have friends that participated in a lot of paid focus groups (from $50 up to $250). You can do a search for paid focus groups in your location, or check Craig's List even. Every little bit helps.
posted by YessieLynn at 1:03 PM on May 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

This seems like a great question for the type of people you think you may want to work with in the future. Within a week you could probably set up informal interviews with a bunch of 'em, and that would be a great start.

Even if you could only do networking activities until you were 30, it'd pay off well. The people you network with would start thinking about you when work comes up. You may have to help them think of the possibilities ("I could be your computer/techie guy! You just feed me ideas and I spit out CAD drawings!!!") but it could work really well.

If there is some skill you're good at, and you find yourself staring at opening floodgates of work at some point, you can get practice at the ultimate job that freelancers tend to procrastinate: Raising your rates and/or saying "no."

If you're cultivating something for the next year though, prepare for the possibility of being under-worked. A year isn't a lot of build-up time. I think networking could really help with that though; it normally does. All the freelancers I know who do networking tend to stop when they hook what they think is a big fish, and then that puts them way behind when the big fish project is all over. I did that at one point and really regretted it.

Also, all of the freelancers I know who make more than $2000/yr. have been at it longer than two years. It took me 5 years to make more than a Burger King manager. Of course, there are other perks, though...

Good luck!
posted by circular at 1:05 PM on May 11, 2010

If you have contacts in the film world, you may be able to pick up odd jobs as an assistant on shoots. Pay can be spotty, but there are gigs that pay respectably if you've got experience.
posted by schmod at 1:30 PM on May 11, 2010

I worked through law school and grad school as a (live-out) nanny for three children. The hours were flexible to my class schedule. The two little ones took naps, during which I could study, and the older one was at school in the daytime. Nights were even better, they'd go to bed and I could a) study and b) watch free cable! (I'm so cheap.) A lot of my meals were also eaten there which had a reduced-spending effect.

I really enjoyed it and found playing with the children a nice break from all the heavy intellectual work. I made about twice minimum wage, which wasn't the highest wage ever, but I lived in a low cost of living area and there aren't that many jobs with flexible hours that feed you and during which you can study.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:40 PM on May 11, 2010


I used to get people in my dorm to cut my hair, generally friends who did it for free and had no training in hair cutting. I would have easily paid $5-10 for some one who actually knew what they were doing for the convenience of doing it in my dorm or lab.
posted by chiefthe at 1:44 PM on May 11, 2010

Try to get jobs in the building trades. You'll get invaluable experience.
posted by theora55 at 1:45 PM on May 11, 2010

Look into TypeWell. It's a typed interpretation program for deaf and hard of hearing students. The hourly pay is high (usually) and you don't really need to do intellectual heavy lifting - just let your fingers type whatever is said in the classroom. Check out for more info and contact your uni's disability services department.
posted by jrdixey at 1:55 PM on May 11, 2010 [3 favorites]

Tutoring is pretty good, if you can find enough students. Depending on the subject, you can make $40/hour or more.
posted by number9dream at 2:30 PM on May 11, 2010

i've heard that a lot of people take up bartending
posted by raw sugar at 2:52 PM on May 11, 2010

Don't discount student jobs. I worked at a campus writing center during undergrad, and they're obviously used to working with student schedules.

Donating plasma pays about $20/hr.

During law school I wrote summaries of a certain type of published cases. It was the perfect sort of freelancing I was looking for, but I basically lucked into it via a craigslist posting.
posted by craven_morhead at 2:58 PM on May 11, 2010

what about marking exam scripts/invigilating? People on campus might know how to get these gigs, I did both during my PhD (UK-based, but I'm sure you'd be able to find something similar where you're based). I did marking for International Baccalaureate programme, might be worth applying - it's seasonal work, but totally home-based. Also, if there's a local IELTS ( - International English Testing System, a test to check your level of English) centre or similar near your grad school, I would enquire about clerical marking/invigilating, too. I found it was a leave-your-brain-at-the door part-time job where I got paid to sit in a room and read a paper;) Apologies if the suggestions are too UK-centric, but as I said, ask around, there might be something similar. Good luck!
posted by coffee_monster at 3:28 PM on May 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

I did web design - actually, the last nightmare year, I did less actual work my self, and more client management, lead generation stuff, and passed the work on to a partner. That might honestly work for any sort of creative field, if you have a friend who needs a little organizational help.
posted by korej at 4:04 PM on May 11, 2010

Math (and science - especially if you can tutor physics) for undergraduates and high school students. See what the going rate in your area is - on the north side of Chicago, I get $30 an hour.
posted by honeybee413 at 4:10 PM on May 11, 2010

I used to run a university writing center. We were always happy to hire graduate students with good writing skills, particularly if they were in fields that were underrepresented among other tutors in our center (such as architecture). So if the university you'll be attending has a writing center, consider contacting the people there. As someone else mentioned, campus employers tend to be willing to work around students' schedules, and there's nothing more convenient than a job in the same building as your next class.
posted by chicainthecity at 5:20 PM on May 11, 2010

I supported myself by doing freelance web design during my MFA program. Occasionally things got ridiculously busy, and school was my first priority, so a couple of freelance projects ended up taking longer than expected, and I know I completely messed up a relationship with at least one client. However, mostly it worked out - I got to work on some interesting projects through my new university contacts, and I definitely learned a lot about managing my time.

Your drawing / advertising / computer / architecting skills would certainly come in handy if you wanted to start designing websites, but a year is probably not enough time to develop the repertoire necessary to do professional-quality work, if you have no previous experience with writing code or designing user interfaces.
posted by oulipian at 8:41 PM on May 11, 2010

Academic/technical copyediting. Your university will be filled with an abundance of potential clients: professors who are non-native English speakers and need their papers edited before they submit them to journals.
posted by Jacqueline at 5:05 AM on May 12, 2010

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