Sunday, May 16, 2010

Adjunct versus Full-time

In the game industry, there is a big difference between working for a single company full-time and being a freelancer. In education, we use the term "adjunct" instead of "freelance" but they are essentially the same thing. There are benefits and drawbacks to each.

Benefits of Freelancing/Adjuncting
  • You can make your schedule as light or heavy as you want, with a proportional increase or decrease in pay. Since you're paid by the hour (or by the project, or by the class), "unpaid overtime" is not in your vocabulary. And if you've got the extra cash to hold you over and you feel like taking a month-long vacation between projects, no one's going to complain.
  • For industry freelancing, you typically make more money per hour than you would if you were salaried. Stupidly, the reverse seems to be true for adjuncts at many schools, but this will vary from school to school.
  • You are, essentially, your own boss.
  • Everything listed above has a flip side.
  • You only get to "set your own schedule" if you successfully drum up business. Sometimes your services just don't seem to be needed by anyone, and if you don't have a nice fat cash reserve, you starve. Other times it seems like everyone wants you to do something, and you have to turn down work because you just don't have the time. Freelancing is a feast-or-famine world.
  • You'll also find that psychologically, it is really hard to turn down work when someone is offering you cash. Even if it puts you in "crunch" mode to get everything done. Even if the project is a boring, soul-sucking grind. Saying "no" is a skill that most of us need to learn, and we learn the hard way.
  • You know about that "make more money per hour as a freelancer" thing? There's a reason for that. First, it's to compensate for the times when you don't have any work. Second, you don't get benefits -- no 401(k), no health or dental plan, no free games and snacks in the break room -- unless you pay for them yourself. So even though you get more money per hour of your time, overall you usually end up making less money per year than you would at a full-time job. (Naturally, this is even worse as an adjunct at schools where you get paid less per class than full-timers.)
  • You basically must have a fair amount of experience working full-time at a game company. For industry freelancing, you need a proven track record, but more importantly you need the personal contacts that come with the territory -- who do you think is going to hire you? For adjunct teaching, the whole reason to hire you instead of having a full-timer teach the class is that you've got field experience. So, freelancing is not an option that's open to you fresh out of college; it's a door that opens up slowly as you gain experience, and the more experience you have the easier it is. (If you've got 10 years experience like me, you get most of your business through a few key contacts. If you've got 30 years experience like some people, all you need is to Tweet saying "I'm looking for contract work, any takers?" and you get a dozen offers in five minutes.)
  • There are a lot of little hassles that are fairly trivial on their own, but collectively make your life a little more annoying. You have to bill clients and wait for them to pay you, rather than just having ADP send you a direct deposit automatically. Your taxes are more complicated because you receive a dozen 1099s instead of a single W-2. You have to keep separate folders for the multiple projects you're working on, and double-check every email to make sure you're not sending proprietary Company A information to the guy at Company B by mistake. You have to do some research on health insurance, rather than just checking a box next to Self, Spouse or Family on the HR booklet.
  • Yes, you're your own boss. As your own boss, you're a slave driver.
You can, of course, get the best of both worlds by having a day job and then moonlighting. Assuming your day job doesn't have you working so many hours that you wouldn't have the time.

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