Graduating from university with an English Literature degree in 2020 was rough. I was entering the job market during a time of mass unemployment – with research showing that only 18% of graduates had secured jobs, compared to the usual 60% – and the creative industries I was hoping to become a part of were seriously suffering.
I knew it was going to take a long time to find a job, but I couldn’t bear the thought of spending all of my time editing CVs and writing cover letters. So with little understanding of what freelancing actually was, I started sending out pitches to editors at newspapers and magazines, in order to break up my days in a productive way. I already had some writing experience – I was an editor at my student paper and I had interned at a couple of publications – but I wasn’t sure that I was entirely qualified to be a freelance journalist.
However, slowly but surely, I started to get commissioned, and, without even realising it, by November 2020, I was freelancing full-time and earning enough to live on. One year later, I’m so grateful I began my career within journalism as a freelancer. Not only is it a way of working that I enjoy, but freelancing allowed me to build up skills and experiences I don’t think I would have gained in a typical graduate role.
One reason freelancing is so beneficial as a recent graduate is that it allows you to network with a wide range of people. Particularly when in-person events are limited and most companies are still encouraging work from home, it’s a difficult time to network when you first enter an industry, especially if you don’t live in a big city like London.
Even though communication is mostly virtual as a freelancer, sending out pitches to editors or getting involved with the freelance community on Twitter is a great way to make connections. In fact, reaching out to an editor from my dream publication on Twitter and regularly freelancing for them helped me eventually secure a staff role there.
Charley, who started freelancing after graduating from her journalism masters four years ago, says that working with many different people within the industry has helped her to develop a set of unique skills. “I’ve walked into a lot of new offices, dealt with a lot of new editors – I’ve had so many first days on a job which has helped me become confident and made me very adaptable,” she says.
A varied freelance portfolio is an amazing way to demonstrate your adaptability to employers. Building up a portfolio also proves your creativity, potentially more so than most entry-level roles, which often involve administrative tasks and restrict the extent to which you can explore the things that interest you.
“Being freelance keeps my creative juices flowing and helps me stay in touch with what I really care about, which makes my writing better,” Charley says. And although as a new freelancer you might have to take on some work you’re not particularly excited about, sourcing your own work means that there will almost definitely be opportunities to work on projects that you are interested in.
Pitching ideas is a big part of being freelance and although more time spent pitching often means less time spent writing, pitching is a fantastic exercise for creativity. It taught me how to express my ideas interestingly, clearly and succinctly, which is an invaluable skill as a writer.
Healthy work-life balance and time management
Being a freelancer also allows you to figure out when and where you are most creative. Katie, who has worked as a freelancer in social media and PR since she graduated in 2020, says that freelancing straight from university has helped her establish healthy boundaries with work from the get-go. “Freelancing gives you the freedom to discover how you work best without the structure of a 9-5,” she says.
Many people feel uninspired or lack motivation when they first graduate, so being able to work on your own terms can help prevent this, as well as making the transition from student to working life easier.
Plus, figuring out your own hours and setting your own deadlines can improve your time management skills. You’ll be able to figure out how long it actually takes you to complete tasks, as well as building up pace in the way you work in order to meet deadlines.
Varied business skills
As a freelancer, you’ll also have to manage many different tasks at once, building up skills that you might not even realise you’ll need in later parts of your career. “When freelancing, there aren’t accounts, sales, or HR departments that will do the nitty-gritty of the business admin work for you,” says Zack, who freelanced while he was a student and has now been a freelance SEO consultant for the best part of a decade. “There’s rarely someone fighting in your corner to help with these types of tasks and issues; you must be comfortable tackling everything on your own.”
Jasmine MacPhee is the founder of the platform, Find Your Intern, which she designed to help recent graduates find paid work. Jasmine champions freelancing as a potential option for graduates. “As a freelancer, you are basically a business and you learn every single phase of business from building a brand, updating a website, finding work and getting paid. These hard skills are what every employer needs,” she says.
“Freelancing also helps you develop confidence, self-promotion skills, resilience and self-motivation,” Jasmine continues. “All of these freelance skills build an incredible creative person that every brand or business would want on board.”
When Zack first graduated, he wasn’t sure which area he wanted to specialise in, so freelancing was the perfect way to expose him to a wide range of disciplines and tasks. ”I’ve been able to build a diverse skill set within my main field and related fields, and I’m confident I would not have been able to do that as easily within traditional employment,” he says.
If you have recently graduated, you might find the idea of setting your own rates as a freelancer daunting. But many self-employed people acknowledge that doing so has helped them to learn to value their own worth, which is an incredibly useful thing to learn at the start of your career.
“I’ve learnt the importance of being able to communicate the value of my work to clients. Whether you’re an artist, writer or social media manager like me, you have to be able to explain how your work contributes to clients’ wider business goals,” Katie says, explaining that this has allowed her to respect herself more while also gaining a better understanding of her industry.
Whether you’re unsure of the exact path you want to go down and want to explore your options, you’re looking for a way to work flexibly or watching paint dry seems preferable to writing another cover letter, exploring freelancing as a graduate might just be the best way to kickstart your career.