3 Things Graduate School Taught Me About Freelance Writing


Freelance writers can learn from grad schoolBy Jill C. Moffett

Before I became a freelance writer, I spent 6 years in graduate school.

I studied feminist theory, anthropology, public health and cultural theory. I got my PhD. But I decided not to pursue a career in academia.

Why? It may be tough to make it as a writer, but it is even tougher to make it as a professor. So I took the things I’d learned in school and applied them to freelance writing.

Here are the transferable skills I acquired:

1. Always cite your sources

If there’s one thing academics hate, it’s a cheater.

In fact, plagiarism by undergraduates is such a problem that many instructors run student assignments through plagiarism-detection software.

By the time students make it into grad school, they are steeped in the fear of being kicked out of school and professionally shamed. As a result, grad-school papers are replete with footnotes.

That doesn’t mean you should include footnotes in your next pitch to Parents magazine, but keeping track of sources is a crucial habit for all freelance writers.

2. Specialize, don’t generalize

For my grad-school research to be meaningful, it had to focus on the details. Dissertations look at the small picture, and all successful academics are specialists.

As a teaching assistant for large undergraduate classes, one of my main jobs (besides making sure they weren’t plagiarizing) was to help students narrow their ideas — to go deep instead of broad.

The same applies to freelance writing. You can market yourself as a health writer, but it’s even better if you are a women’s health writer who focuses on public health policy. The more specialized you get, the easier it will be to find markets who need your services — and to command the highest rates.

3. Don’t give up

Every graduate student knows that the best dissertation is a finished dissertation. The only way to get it done is to work at it every day with one goal in mind: finish it.

It wasn’t easy for me to stay on track. I knew most academic articles are published in journals that aren’t even available to the public.

Chances are, the only people who will ever read my dissertation are the five people who were on my committee. But if you want to get your PhD, you can’t let that stop you.

Things are not much different as a freelance writer. The editor I just pitched might not read my email. I might have to submit dozens of ideas before I get an assignment.

But I don’t let that bother me. I have to make money. For one thing, I have to save up to send my son to college.

What life or academic lessons have you applied to your writing? Tell us in the comments below.

Jill C. Moffett is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. She focuses on women’s health, education, and a variety of issues pertaining to gender, race,  class, and sexuality.


  1. Jennifer Gregory

    I totally agree with you on specializing. I went to a writer’s conference last fall and one of the speakers was a VP at a huge content marketing agency. He said that he freelancer is much more likely to get a gig if they are marketing themselves as a specific type of writer. If he gets an LOI from a finance writer then he forwards it to the manager who handles their finance accounts, but he says that more times than not the generalists stay in his email box.

    I think that many writers think that they are limiting themselves by picking a specialty, but this is the thing, you can have several specialties. I am a business, finance, technology hospitality and retail writer. However, if I am marketing myself to a tech firm, then I make myself sound like a technology writer by including all my tech jobs and pubs. But if I am marketing to a hotel management firm, then I talk up all my hospitality experience.

    • Jill Moffett

      Hi Jennifer,
      Right — specialization does not mean limiting yourself to one topic. But creating a cohesive body of work can be very important to establishing yourself as a credible, professional writer.

  2. Lori Ferguson

    I, too, come from an academic background Jill (though I stopped with my M.A.) and you’re right, details matter. I’m fanatical about checking and re-checking to make sure that I’ve quoted someone correctly, referenced sources appropriately, etc. And as you and Jennifer point out, specializing is very helpful–the longer I work, the more I drill down.

    • Jill Moffett

      Hi Lori,
      Right. That’s something that’s been drilled into us as academics, and it’s so important. Accuracy matters!

  3. Samra Khan

    Hi Jill,
    It was a great post. A good start off to day, I needed it. 🙂 Thanks.

    I’ve one question. Jill, you said the more specified one is, better it is. But how to find that ‘specificity’?

    Sometimes being multi-talented is a pain.

    • Jill Moffett

      Hi Samra,
      I know! I have lots of interests, but try to just focus in on marketing myself as one type of writer (women’s health). That doesn’t mean I can’t write about other things occasionally, but trying to filter all my ideas through this one lens is extremely helpful when it comes to tailoring articles and not getting overwhelmed by ideas. Hope this helps!

  4. Elke Feuer

    Hi Jill,

    Your article is a great reminder that we got more from our time in school than just an academic education. Getting organized was the best lesson I learned in college. It’s something I took with me into the work force and in my personal life. Priceless!

    • Jill Moffett

      Hi Elke,
      I agree! One of the other great things I learned in graduate school is how to make a living with variety of income streams — teaching assistant, researcher, freelance editor etc. It’s been consistently useful to me as a professional writer!

  5. Stacy Cohen


    I enjoyed reading this post. You have a skillful way of tying in the academic experience to freelance writing.

    During my university studies my English professors taught many aspects of the writing process from brainstorming methods to holistic organization to final drafting to editing. Though the one thing that stuck in my mind is this: “concrete details.”

    Have you ever noticed the most engaging blogs that suck you into the story– like dust into a vacuum — use concrete details (specifics) and the least interesting are more vague (general)? I think this can apply to most types of writing as well.

  6. Jamie Beckett

    When I was in school I labored under the misconception that a single, proper way to write was out there. And I worked hard to find it. Only years later as a successful freelancer did I come to the realization that there is indeed a single, proper way to write. Ironically, that reality exists between the ears of every editor I’ve ever worked with. The one way they want to see the story written is absolutely, positively the correct way to write – for their publication.

    Each editor is different. One uses the AP stylebook while another prefers Chicago. Still another is rooted firmly in the New York Times method. They’re all right, at least for the distance that exists between their desk, the warehouse door, and the person in accounts payable who cuts the checks.

    I learned many worthwhile lessons in school. But freelancing taught me how to write, and how to write for the editors I choose to work with. It’s a wild and wonderful ride – but there is no one way to do anything. Thankfully, there never will be. Writing. This is where diversity truly lives.

  7. Daryl

    What did I learn from my years in academia?

    The ability to research, find numerous pieces of research to back up your point, then provide that information in a coherent and logical format

  8. Marcie

    Hi Jill,

    I didn’t even know that plagiarism was so bad that software had to be created for it. I knew it was a problem, but not on that level.

    Anyway, there is no better feeling than that of completion, especially when you’ve put in hard work and long hours to achieve it.

  9. Emelia

    Hi Jill,
    I also learnt your #1 point from university-“always cite your sources”. I knew I was going to get caught if I allow any trace of plagiarism slip through my assignments and projects. One lecture once showed me that software and told me that they check the assignments through it before they mark them. Since I always wanted to get high marks, I made sure that all sources are cited.

    Finding sources and citing them within the text and in the bibliography always felt like a daunting task to me. But I always did it because I knew I was going to be penalized for not doing it.Today I do it because I believe giving credit is a good and respectable practice.

  10. Tom Crawford

    One great side benefit of freelance writing is that it builds the “muscle” of working to a deadline. This is also true of the academic world (in certain circumstances). This is one of the most important skills to hone as a freelance writer, as it can set you apart from many others, and will lead to long term clients.

  11. Alex Gastel

    Your last point made me think of one difference that makes me love freelance writing and hate academic writing: people will actually read your articles if you’re a freelance writer. I find that extremely motivating.

  12. Michael Levanduski

    Thanks for the tips. I do a mix of general freelancing and specialized writing. This helps to keep me busy, while still making pretty good money.


  13. Mi Muba

    Thanks for telling no-so-uncommon tips in a very innovative way. It will not only remember them but keep applying them pursuing my freelance writing career. Last tip is the soul of your post. If one can finish a task it means one can’t make it anything big in your life

  14. Sarah L. Webb

    Congratulations on finishing, Jill! I think the best takeaway for me is the fact that grad school doesn’t limit a person’s career options. He or she simply has to think outside the box about how their knowledge and skill can be transferable!

    I really think there are even more than three things we can learn from grad school. In addition to what you’ve said, I gained better research skills, presentation/verbal communication skills, and my teaching experience helps me to take big ideas and communicate them to people outside the field.

  15. Aiman

    Great post!
    I’m pursuing an academic writing job with a company that matches up freelance writers with jobs.
    Do you think such a job would look good on my CV for a potential application to grad school? Or should I get a permanent job?

    • Carol Tice

      I’m a college dropout myself, and not sure our guest post author is still watching this. And you don’t say what sort of grad-school program you’re interested in, so it’s hard to know.

      Also, not sure what sort of ‘academic’ writing you’re talking about?

      If you mean writing students’ essays for them, know that this is an unethical niche that doesn’t help your reputation. I know the platforms that do this spin it that students will just use your work for ‘inspiration’…but we all know how it really works.


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