Case study: Physics to freelance

With dozens, if not hundreds, of professionals vying for the same jobs, why not create your own career? Independent space-technology consultant Mark Williamson shares his experience of self-employment.

"So when are you going to get a proper job?" It is a refrain the self-employed hear all the time, but it shows a lack of understanding of the real-world jobs market. As companies continue to merge with competitors, or "downsize", more and more graduates are forced to consider self-employment. Should you be one of them? It depends as much on who you are and what you want from your working life as it does on your chosen profession, but if you dismiss self-employment without considering the pros and cons, you might be throwing away a great opportunity.

Go your own way
I launched my own freelance career 25 years ago, but its roots go back to my 1960s childhood when, as a 10 year old, I spent most nights outside with my telescope. After earning a physics and astrophysics degree from Queen Mary College, London, I joined Plessey Radar as a graduate trainee/microwave engineer. Then, 18 months later, I became part of the space industry after a friend sent me a newspaper advert for satellite-communications engineers.

Having gained some engineering experience in that field, my next move was to a small, London-based consultancy that specialized in advising the City's space-insurance community on technical aspects of insuring communications satellites. But a year and a half later, it closed, leaving me redundant at the age of 29 and facing a choice between returning to industry or taking the risk of self-employment as an independent consultant. I chose the latter and have never looked back.

While some see consultancy as a predominantly technical occupation, my own career has been more flexible. My main client is a space-insurance brokerage, Willis Inspace, for which I provide engineering advice and help with the technical aspects of policy design and claims. This covers anything from the analysis of satellite health reports to the design of "partial-loss fractions" that more accurately address a client's needs in the case of an in-orbit failure. I also write briefing reports, give tutorials and provide support in the field to both the company and its clients. Such assignments have led me to visit Beijing, Moscow and Las Vegas, as well as locations in mainland Europe.

However, in addition to these classic consultancy tasks, I have also made technical writing and lecturing in space technology part of my professional remit. Six books, 450 magazine articles and other writing projects have helped to fill the gaps between consultancy commissions, while presenting conference papers allows me to contribute to the community at large. Consultancy pays most of the bills, but the other work also adds to that all-important bottom line.

This mix of technical work and freelance writing may seem unstructured, but I regard it as a well-integrated business model. Researching books, papers and articles helps to keep me up to date on technical matters, while consultancy tasks can spark ideas for articles. Meanwhile, lecturing, conferences and self-organized industry visits get me out of the office and offer opportunities for marketing and networking.

Pros and cons
Physicists are supposed to be good at "thinking outside the box", but if you are interested in a freelance career, it is essential that you do not confine this trait to your physics. In practical terms, for the freelance consultant, thinking outside the box means not only developing a diverse set of skills, but also recognizing the potential client base beyond your national boundaries. In my case, this has meant working for customers in Europe, the Americas and parts of the Far East – all from my house in England's Lake District.

That brings me to an important advantage of freelancing: because you are not tied to a lab, factory or office in a population centre, you can use the marvels of the telephone and broadband Internet to live somewhere nice instead. Moreover, "nice" does not have to mean isolated: although I live within sight of the North Pennines and half an hour from the Lakes, I also have four international airports within a two-hour drive.

Of course, self-employment is not a panacea. You have a great deal of freedom, but that includes the freedom to be poor. If you are not reasonably well organized and self-motivating, it is not for you. Not only will you need to handle the work in a capable and timely fashion once you get it, you need to be able to find the work in the first place. This means marketing yourself – not in the style of TV's The Apprentice, which would not impress most clients, but with self-confidence tempered by modesty.

This is where my "integrated business model" has really helped me, especially in the early years. Not only did writing magazine articles earn money, it also provided free advertising for my consultancy business. In one case, a single article in an engineering magazine led to many years of writing work charged at a daily rate because the original article was read by the marketing manager of a major space company. It is probably worth adding that, in 25 years, I have not spent a penny on advertising.

Among the many keys to success in self-employment are the ability to know your own limitations and the realization that you are only as good as your last job. Any serious technical error, commercial indiscretion or anything else that embarrasses your client may be your last. Quite rightly, clients want value for money and, as a freelancer, you trade on your name and reputation. Time management, efficiency and the ability to meet deadlines are paramount if you want more than a first commission.

You will also need to handle the financial side, which includes coping with the "feast or famine" nature of consultancy. Commissions can be a bit like buses: none for ages, then three come along at once. When this happens, your efficiency and flexibility come into play. Tasks must be prioritized and completed without distraction, even if this means working evenings and weekends.

On a more mundane level, you are also responsible for everything from ordering printer cartridges and office equipment to funding your own business insurance and pension arrangements, not to mention paying your own tax. Oh yes, and there is no paid holiday entitlement, no statutory sick leave, no paid maternity leave and bank holidays are equivalent to a day's lost work. Plus, the office parties are a bit dull. Still interested?

If the chance to control your own destiny retains its appeal, consultancy could be for you. It is important to remember, however, that there is no "one size" mould for a consultant. Legally speaking, some of us operate as "sole traders", while others form a limited company or a partnership. But there are also differences in working styles. At one end, there are consultants who are 24-7 entrepreneurs, galvanized by doing deals and making money. At the other end, there are people like me running what TV's Dragons' Den calls a "lifestyle business": one that pays me enough to live the lifestyle I have chosen, but will never make me rich. I do it because I like it, and I find there is a lot to be said for job satisfaction.

So if you dream of using your physics skills to build your own business, do not be dissuaded by other, conservative individuals who tell you it is impossible; just research the issues thoroughly and go for it! It might take a few years to get all the cogs to mesh, but with regular servicing, being self-employed can be like running a well-oiled machine. Once you get to that stage, you may even feel like a new professional challenge – which is why, a few years ago, I decided to develop a side-business in stock photography. But that is another story. The point is, if you work for yourself, you can make your own career.

About the author
Mark Williamson is an independent space-technology consultant, technical writer and lecturer. His latest contribution to Physics World appeared in the March issue.