A jump into the deep end of the pool? From research to freelancing - an interview with Natalia Nowakowska, PhD to be

edited by Ayaka Ando


Natalia Nowakowska was just going through her Master studies in pharmacy at Jagiellonian University in Cracow, Poland, when she got personally interested in biotechnology. After completing a two-year internship in this field, she obtained a Master of Science diploma organizing collaboration between the Faculty of Pharmacy and the Faculty of Biochemistry, Biophysics, and Biotechnology in Krakow. With experience in laboratory work, she then looked for a PhD programme through Nature Jobs, and got accepted in to a project on childhood tumor neuroblastoma at the Department of Oncogenomics of the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Now, she is doing a freelance job as a copywriter, content writer, and marketing advisor in the blockchain industry. In this interview, we will find out how Natalia found her new job, and what the pros and cons of working as a freelancer are.

Natalia, first of all, do you like your job?

Of course, I like it a lot!

In what circumstances did you start working as a freelancer?

Well, my PhD is still pending, and even though I was still highly interested in doing research, I needed a new source of income. Since I have not defend my thesis yet, the only academic jobs I could get were positions of a technician or a research assistant. I also felt a bit trapped: at the free market, PhD experience is often a liability: for some jobs, you are overqualified, while for some others, you are too inexperienced.

Furthermore, I realized I enjoy the personal freedom and flexible hours, and I needed to find a profession that would give me that. Hence, I turned my eyes to freelancing. In a way, it was also a lucky strike - I met a person in a bar who was leading a course on how to become a  freelancer. I joined the course and got some practical instructions on how to start and find my own place in this space.

So, how do you start?

You need to get some online exposition, namely to create accounts on major online freelance marketplaces such as Upwork. Upwork protects your rights and ensures that you work under a formal contract with escrow and you get paid - but it also cashes 10-20% of your income. You also need to create a portfolio which often requires taking a few smaller jobs with lower payout only to gain a certain amount of positive reviews. It is also very important to network in your daily environment; you can get some jobs through friends when starting. Some freelancers are competitive, but I believe in cooperation - if you help each other in the field, we stimulate the whole freelance economy.

How can you get your first job if your portfolio is empty?

You can use a ‘crystal ball’ strategy by Danny Mergulies, namely, understand what the client wants and write a short sample text. You can also ask the client for a test job first (worth, say, 100EUR), just to test if this works for both of you before embarking onto the main project.

You can also show your skills by blogging. For instance, in the blockchain industry, blog medium.com is very popular. If you post there, you might get noticed, and you can also use it as a form of a portfolio demonstrating your knowledge and writing skills.

What was your first freelance job?

Well actually, I was working on a transcript of English teaching materials for a Japanese language school. I got the job because I have a very good command of English, and I hold a Cambridge CPE certificate of proficiency.

What are the types of jobs you do these days?

If I have a choice, I prefer to take copywriting jobs because they are creative and allow you to develop your own style. In copywriting, you need to closely collaborate with the client in order to find out what the selling point for their product is, and then extract the message in a brief and catchy way. There is a lot of psychology and marketing to it. Copywriting jobs are also relatively well paid given the effort.

I also edit white papers for ICO projects. I found my own niche in which I select one particular type of white paper: not too technical and simple to understand. It happened via personal networking - a friend from the freelance course recommended my skills and this is how I got my first contract in crypto. But I got to like this field, and I stayed.

How do you select clients?

It is a hard question because it is all about finding your match - just as with any other job. You can only discover if you work well together in practice. Sometimes I impatiently look forward to the end of the contract, while sometimes both the client and I are so happy that we prolong the cooperation. Freelancing gives me a lot of freedom in choosing who I work with.

Do you prefer longer or shorter collaborations?

I do both.

How does your daily life look like as a freelancer? How much do you actually work?

Well, it is true that you need to develop a self-discipline as a freelancer, as you need to work out your own daily schedule. I mostly work from home, but you also have various work spaces where freelancers can meet and work hand in hand here in Amsterdam. I also belong to a few online groups for freelancers to exchange tips and motivate each other. Everyone in this field have similar struggles, so often our chats turn into a group therapy: “I was a cancer researcher and now I am a content creator” (laugh). Plus, you need to put active effort into keeping your social life alive. I am not a fan of small talk, therefore, instead of going to parties, I go to lots of meetups in the fields I work in.

Actually, I usually work more than I am paid for because I like it - which I should probably change as soon as possible. I was working hard on developing a good portfolio and receiving good reviews at Upwork, therefore, I’m used to overdelivering. Also, I spend a high amount of time looking for new clients. In freelancing, at early stages, you cannot be sure how the cooperation with the client will pan out - some of the clients might step back after receiving your sample. To sum up, I would estimate that I spend triple more time on a project, than I am actually paid and my hourly rate needs to reflect that additional time and effort.

So, doesn’t it make it hard to survive in Amsterdam?

You just cannot compete with freelancers living in low-income countries by lowering hourly rate - you can only compete by providing quality. Some of my freelancing friends approached this issue by becoming digital nomads, travelling through Vietnam or other low-income countries. I stayed in Amsterdam mostly because I have been living here for the past nine years, I got a Dutch citizenship, I bought an apartment here, and I have a cat who is very dear to me. Honestly speaking, I live a modest life, which I could upgrade by taking more jobs or raising my hourly rate. My business is only in its second year and I'm still finding ways to improve my efficiency, find new interesting niches and earn money.

Do you have issues negotiating your hourly rate?

I feel I should raise it again as my quality have improved dramatically, but I still have a psychological blockade from doing so; like fear of losing current clients and scaring away the new ones. You need to exude confidence that matches your rate or the clients will call your bluff. It’s very much a mind game and it’s also what I like about it. By thinking outside the box and working on your confidence and your skills, you can achieve amazing results in this field. You are your own limiting factor, there are no salary brackets here. Negotiating and pushing myself out of my comfort zone is something I’m continuously working on.

It also adds another layer of freedom to this line of work. Sometimes it feels that there are no limits. It’s totally up to you what you can imagine, divide into actionable steps, and execute.

Thank you for the conversation, and good luck with your freelance adventure and completing your PhD!

Natalia Bielczyk