Freelancing & Portfolio Careers | The Careers Service Freelancing & Portfolio Careers – Oxford University Careers Service
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An estimated 2 million people in the UK work on a freelance basis – as everything from independent IT consultants to translators, from graphic designers to musicians. A 2014 report into Generation Y and the freelance economy found that 87% of students with first or second class degrees found freelancing a highly attractive career option.

Sectors with lots of freelance work include media, arts, translation, IT services, marketing and events. However, most industries have some opportunities for freelancers or contractors.

The basics of freelancing
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Freelancing is working for a client under a fixed contract to do a task or project before moving to the next.

A portfolio career combines a mixture of (often freelance) professional roles, some of which might involve your degree subject or research area. For further insight, download our Workbook on optimising and managing a portfolio career or pick up a free copy in the Resource Centre.

Freelancers might choose freelancing because they can:

  • Earn more per hour than permanent staff members, and can pay less tax
  • Be strategic: choose the projects they work on, how many, and who they work for
  • Be ‘their own boss’ or work more autonomously
  • Adjust their working hours around family or other commitments
  • Take time off whenever they want between contracts
  • Build a portfolio of work and experience ready to move into a new role

Organisations might hire freelancers because they:

  • Offer specific expertise or skills that staff members don’t have
  • Can be brought in easily for any length of time, so are ideal for less common tasks
  • Can be paid by the project/task – ensuring that it will get completed on budget
  • Don’t need paying for holiday or sick-leave, and can be more simple to hire than staff

Why doesn’t everyone freelance?

  • Freelancers aren’t guaranteed any further work after their contract finishes
  • Freelancers don’t have a team around them for support or collegiality
  • Freelancers take responsibility for their marketing, administration and accounts (unless working with an umbrella company)
  • Freelancers don’t get regular pay when they’re on holiday or sick
Types of job
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‘Freelancing’ does not have a single legal definition and so, if you decide to ‘go freelance’, you’ll have to think about what kind of structure your new work will take. Please note, this information relates only to freelancing within the UK.

Limited companies

This is probably the most common structure for freelancers. You have to register a business with Companies House (incorporate), file company accounts, and comply with business rules and regulations.

  • Pros: Personal assets and finances are protected: i.e. if the company loses money, you’re not bankrupt. Clients might also be happier to deal with the credibility of a limited company. Tax efficiencies.
  • Cons: Taxes, National Insurance Contributions (NICs), and company regulations are your responsibility (you might hire an accountant, of course).  If you’re just freelancing sporadically to supplement your main income, this is usually far too much hassle and paperwork!

Doing a single piece of freelance work

If you’re not ‘going freelance’ but just taking a one-off piece of freelance work alongside a regular job (through which you’re paying tax) – you may not have to fill in self-assessment forms at all: call HMRC to let them know as soon as the work is agreed to find out.

Sole trader

This is the simplest of all self-employment structures: there’s no registered business – it’s just you registered as self-employed with HMRC and filling in self-assessment forms to record and pay your tax and NICs.

  • Pros: It’s quick to set up, there are very few regulations and the finances are very straightforward – you just need to keep records of your work and technically don’t even need a separate bank account.
  • Cons: If the company loses money it’s coming out of your pocket with no protection for your assets. Some clients might be reluctant to deal with sole traders.

Umbrella companies

Umbrella companies are effectively a way to invoice clients and avoid having to do self-employment admin. Technically you’re an employee of the umbrella. You fill in timesheets; they invoice your client, and pay you a salary based on your work.

  • Pros: No hassle dealing with invoicing clients, self-assessment or company regulations, with the freedom to choose the clients you work with and the work that you do.
  • Cons: It’s not the most tax-efficient system for you, the umbrella will take 1-5% of your income as their margin, and it’s hard to build your brand.

IPSE Guide to Freelancing

For more information on all of these structures and the pros and cons of each – see the IPSE Guide to Freelancing (a free PDF download after submitting your name and email address. It’s well worth it).

If you’re not working alone, make sure to read the sections on Partnerships and Limited Liability Partnerships – two further business structures you can consider. Go online to research freelancing structures that are common for your niche/industry.

Working through agencies

Some freelancers deal with agencies, rather than clients. The agency will source work for you and they’ll deal with the clients for you. You still have the freedom to choose what you do and turn down jobs you’re offered, and take additional work on the side.

Self-employment with agencies

Many agencies, including many ‘Oxbridge’ orientated tutoring agencies, require you to register as self-employed (most tutors are technically ‘sole traders’ above).  They typically will take a commission on the fee that you get paid from the client. After registering as a sole trader, it’s up to you to make sure you contact the HMRC and complete self-assessment forms for tax and to make your National Insurance Contributions.

Employment with agencies

Being employed by an agency for a short contract isn’t really ‘freelancing’, but known instead as ‘temping’. There can be longer contracts too. After signing up with an agency, they can offer you work with one of their clients. You still have the right to turn them down, but if you accept the work, for that period you’re an employee of the agency and will be paid by them.  You don’t need to register as self-employed and they arrange your tax and National Insurance payments to be deducted from your wages. Payment for work is normally given on a weekly basis, and done around hours of work.

If you regularly work with agencies you should be aware of Agency Worker Regulations which are there to protect you and other staff – they give you the right to the same treatment, pay and working time as permanent staff once you’ve been with a client for more than 12 weeks.

Skills & experience
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Would you answer yes to the following questions?

  1. Am I organised and self-disciplined?
  2. Am I confident in my skills?
  3. Can I focus on a task and motivate myself?
  4. Can I thrive without a team of colleagues?
  5. Can I state how my specific skills differ from those of others in my field?
  6. Do I know there’s a market for my skills?
  7. Do I know freelancers who do this already?
  8. Do I know who a first client/agency might be?
  9. Have I worked out the financial impact?

 

If you answered yes to questions 1-4, it sounds like you might suit this kind of work, but it’s probably the case that you need to do more research into these questions before making a move into becoming a freelancer.

If you answered yes to questions 5-9, then it sounds like you’ve done that research already, and are ready to move into freelance work.

International students, please note:

If you are an international student from outside the European Economic Area and here in the UK on a student visa, then you are not allowed to set up in business or to be self-employed.

 UKCISA: What kind of work can I do?

This also means that you cannot take freelance work (for example as a translator/interpreter) where you would have to invoice the company or client for the work that you do.  If you get offered freelance work you should ask the company if they can offer you a contract (even if a temporary one, or a ‘zero hours’ contract, which means that they do not have to guarantee you work every week).

If you do work on a self-employed basis you will be committing an immigration offence.  This could lead to a refusal of future visa applications or removal from the UK.

Graduate entrepreneurship visas

 Tier 1 Graduate Entrepreneurship Visa.

International students who have completed a degree in the last 12 months are currently able to apply for a Tier 1 Graduate Entrepreneurship Visa.

The UKBA have given the University of Oxford 10 of these visas to grant each year, plus an additional 10 for MBA graduates.  More information can be found in our guidance documents on our visa pages.

Entry points
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For some people, the first piece of paid work as a freelancer might come while they’re a student. For others it may be once they’ve developed in a profession through employment, including a Post-Doc. There is no set time or ‘way in’.

Winning clients is an important part of being a freelancer, and the key is to develop your professional networks and engage in ways consistent with the particular industry or sector. Ask people you know who work in that area to introduce you to others so that people know you’re available. Joining relevant forums, directories or registers of professionals is also a good idea. If you’re just starting out, research what a reasonably low rate for your services might be – you might need to build up your reputation and credibility before you can charge more.

Developing your brand / portfolio
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Often the key starting point for rewarding freelance work is to win one or two initial small contracts and deliver high quality, timely outputs. Your clients will then become confident to offer you further work and tell others about your skills and professionalism. You may want to consider promoting your services through professional networks or social media, by developing a strong personal brand.

Over time, the kinds of projects you are offered are likely to diversify, meaning that you can choose those which look rewarding. You may want to prioritise work that offers strategic opportunities to develop new niche areas of interest, rather than do repetitive projects.

IR35

IR35 is a relatively recent ruling brought in to stop the practice of evading tax and National Insurance responsibilities by classifying someone who would normally be a staff member as a self-employed freelancer/contractor.

IR35 is something all freelancers and contractors need to be aware of. Liability for cases ‘caught’ under IR35 is different with different business structure: in the case of sole-trading, the liability lies with the client, which is why some are less keen to deal with sole-traders!

The key is to think like a business, regardless of what business structure you use for your freelancing – you are not an employee of the company.   This means that your client is not obliged to keep offering you work, and you are not obliged to keep working for them. It means that you’ve promised to get the work done, not necessarily to do it all yourself. It means that the client doesn’t get to tell you how to carry out your work, provide you with equipment or ask you to do other tasks. If any of these are not the case then there is a risk that the HMRC might view you as ‘deemed employed’ under IR35. For more on this, see the IPSE Guide to Freelancing.

Our resources
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Books

The following books are available to read in our Resource Centre at 56 Banbury Road:

  • Brilliant Freelancer, by Leif Kendall
  • And What Do You Do?, by Barrie Hopson & Katie Ledger
  • Carve Your Own Road, by Jennifer Remling & Joe Remling
  • Start your own coaching business, Entrepreneur Press and Monroe Mann
  • Start it up, Luke Johnson
  • How to write a Business Plan, Brian Finch
  • The one page business plan, Jim Horan
  • Brilliant Business Plan, Kevan Williams
  • Brilliant Employability Skills, Frances Trought
  • Velocity, Ajaz Ahmed & Stefan Olander

Practical Guide

We have prepared a workbook full of useful tips and exercises to help you prepare for a portfolio career, or optimise it if you already have one. It is based on Hopson and Ledger’s book (see above) and covers finances, marketing, support networks, time management and how to tell your story.

Download the workbook, or pick up a hard copy at our resource centre.

Recordings of past events

Portfolio Careers: Combining Academic work with other Roles

You can hear experiences of two people running portfolio careers in two podcasts from our event. Select ‘other careers’ from the dropdown menu and scroll down to the Crossover Careers Panel to listen to Sandra and Peter.

Videos of past events

Portfolio Careers: Combining Academic work with other Roles

A useful video from our panel event on Portfolio Careers.

Programmes and services

  • Oxford Careers Network – find alumni who are self-employed consultants or freelance in other areas among our career mentors.
External resources
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  • IPSE Guide to Freelancing.– A free downloadable guide to going freelance, with help and information on finances, taxes and business structures, and a ‘check list’ of actions to get you started.
  • IPSE Contract templates – Ready to use, adapted for various kinds of clients.
  • Freelancers in the UK– Focused on a few sectors including copywriting, translation, design and IT; but ‘Useful Information’ section is useful to all.
  • Contractor UK– IT freelancing focused news, network and advice. Particularly useful for the First Timers section: Contractor UK: First Timers.

More articles and case studies from Prospects on graduate freelancing:

This information was last updated on 03 January 2020.
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