Freelancing as a Data Scientist: 11 Secrets to Success

by | Jan 16, 2023 | Freelancing, Top Freelance

It’s interesting to me how long it took for me to become comfortable with the idea of freelance work. Especially considering the career risks I’ve taken since leaving school. I won’t tell you I’m loving every second of it either… I still have my doubts.

What I will say is that there’s a philosophy I live by as a freelancer that enables me to make the most of the situation (both the good and the bad). And I think it’s important to call this out not only to memorialize it, but for others to learn from my experiences (and mistakes).

So without further ado, here they are!

(Consider this a living document. I’ll update it from time to time as things change.)

For those who are looking for the TLDR, here you go:

  1. Limit The Size of Each Contract (10-20 hours/week)
  2. Line Up Multiple Jobs at a Time (2-3 is ideal)
  3. Have a Life Outside Work
  4. Invest in Your Retirement
  5. Maintain Good Health Insurance
  6. Take Advantage of the Flexibility
  7. Schedule Your Work
  8. Don’t Allow Roll Over Minutes
  9. Do A Non-Work Activity During Work Hours
  10. Work Out of the House (At least a little bit)
  11. Charge What You’re Worth

1. Limit The Size of Each Contract

A lot of companies that you talk to about freelance/consulting work will ask you to commit 40 hours a week to the job.

Please don’t do this!

The reality is that it brings too many risks to you as a consultant, even though you would be paid handsomely for the work. There’s this concept in investing called diversification and it applies here as well. Essentially if you work full-time as a freelancer for a single company you run the risk of the contract ending and then being out of work for a while, until you find your next gig.

If you find this to be an attractive option (and that’s totally fine), you might as well take a full-time job and reap the benefits of significantly greater job security, retirement, health insurance, etc.

So, if you get a potential client asking you for 40 hours/week, it’s time to push back. Most of the time (especially if you’re good at what you do), they don’t need you for that many hours. And it’s OK for you to tell them exactly that.

My rule of thumb is to commit to jobs that require between 10 and 20 hours a week. That allows you to put my next rule to work.

2. Line Up Multiple Jobs at a Time

To help you diversify your client portfolio and make sure that you don’t run the risk of having periods with no income, it’s important to have multiple gigs going at the same time. This is particularly important when you are just starting out, because the single hardest thing when you’re a freelancer is building out your rolodex of reliable clients.

Doing this right is a personal decision, but if you’re taking jobs that require 10-20 hours per week of time then we can make some recommendations.

One job is too few. Five jobs are too many.

I would never recommend anyone signing on to more than 60 hours/week of freelance work. My sweet spot is taking on three 10 hour/week jobs. But like I said, this is personal and totally depends on your desire to “make bank” vs. have a life.

3. Have a Life Outside Work

Whether it’s playing sports, board games with friends, participating in your child’s activities, or something else, it’s really important to do things that aren’t related to work. This is something I’ve been honing over the years. In my grad school days I was pretty much 100% work and I’ve been trying to balance things out ever since.

Freelance work can be super isolating at times. Much more so than a full time job (even a WFH full time job). This is because your relationships are usually much more transient.

So, more than ever, it’s important to build your social life outside of work.

4. Invest in Your Retirement

Okay.. this is really a recommendation for every working person, but it’s especially important for someone who’s freelancing.

Retirement is one of those far off events that seems too far away to worry about for most people. That is, until it’s upon you. The day will come when you won’t be able (or won’t want) to work. And it pays to plan ahead!

Retirement planning (and investing) is a complicated topic. I wish I had a better recommendation than seeking out help from a financial planner, especially since I co-founded a financial planning startup in 2019… but we went out of business 🙁.

The only sound advice I can give you is to make sure you contribute at least something from every check you get from a client. Sometimes this won’t be much, but as long as you keep tabs on it, you should be good.

Roth IRAs are great, but you should also check out SEP IRAs too. SEP IRAs allow someone who is self employed to supercharge their retirement savings. They have over 10 times the contribution limit as a traditional or Roth IRA.

Goals are important here. Make them and review your progress at least once a year.

This is not financial advice. Please do your own homework on this stuff!

5. Maintain Good Health Insurance

If you’re lucky enough to have a spouse that has good health insurance, this is settled. But if that’s not the case, it can be tempting to skimp or even go without insurance while freelancing.

I consider this a big mistake.

Medical bills can get expensive really quickly, even for something relatively benign like an MRI. Nearly 10% of all adults in the US have significant medical debt. A lot of this can be attributed to insufficient insurance (and many other reasons that we’re not going to get into now).

The takeaway? Please get yourself some decent health insurance, even if it’s more expensive than you’d like. Your health is worth it!

6. Take Advantage of the Flexibility

Freelance work is naturally much more flexible than a full-time job. You get to plan most of your day. Of course, you still need to do the work.. but it’s on your own terms. I recommend taking advantage of this.

Since most freelance data science jobs are remote, you can pretty much work from anywhere. I happen to like my home office setup, and find I’m a bit more productive with a large canvas (read: big ass monitor) in front of me. But this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work elsewhere. If you have the opportunity to work from a different location (city, state, or country), I highly recommend it.

But taking advantage of this flexibility doesn’t have to be grandiose. It can be as simple as taking a walk in the afternoon to clear your head. Or working out at 10AM once the morning rush has settled down. These are all things that are much easier to do when you’re not chained to a desk for 8-10 hours a day. So take advantage of it!

7. Schedule Your Work

This is something that I struggle with, but am trying to improve. Finding a groove/flow/zen mode to do your work helps you get things done faster. As a freelancer, it’s easy to feel disheveled and unorganized. This leaves you wondering what the next thing to work on should be.

It helps a ton to organize your day (and week). This looks a little bit different for everyone, but I can provide some suggestions that may help get you grooving more quickly.

The Pre-Week Planner

Some people do really well to plan out there week Sunday evening before the week whisks you away. If you’re one of those people who get to the end of the week and say, “what the hell just happened?”, this might be a good style for you.

The Pre-day Planner

Other folks like to spend time in the morning of (or the night before) each day planning out what needs to get done that day. If you struggle deciding on specific tasks to do, this more detail oriented planning style can be a great help.

The Scheduler

For people who don’t quite resonate with the previous planning styles, this one might be for you. The idea is to allocate chunks of time throughout the week to work on certain tasks – this is my preferred method!

“Mondays and Wednesdays I plan to work solely with Client A. Tuesdays and Thursdays with Client B. And Fridays are for me.”

This can be whole days or parts of a day, but try to keep them as large chunks of time (at least 4 hours).

It may be the case that none of these work for you, but the point is to keep trying until you find something that works. You’ll be much happier when you do.

8. Don’t Allow Roll Over Minutes

Speaking of scheduling… If you’re working with multiple clients, this is absolutely required.

Generally speaking I recommend structuring contracts that allocate a fixed number of hours every 2 weeks to each client. You are committing that time to them and them alone. But hours don’t roll over from one 2 week period to the next if they go unused. This means that if you work a little less than your 2 week quota, so be it. If you work a little more, so be it.

If you allow hours to roll over when working with multiple clients, you could end up in a situation where you are completely slammed and “owe” more hours than you could possibly work. Most clients understand the mechanics of this.

It’s both your and your client’s job to make sure that they are getting what they want out of the relationship.

If you feel you’re doing way too much (or too little) work for a client it might be useful to track the hours, but it’s usually not necessary.

Another way to prevent this altogether is to set a fixed price for the completion of a project. I tend to shy away from this approach because data science projects are inherently hard to estimate time for. And companies usually have a really hard time articulating well-defined projects.

9. Do A Non-Work Activity During Work Hours

While this might seem very similar to taking advantage of the flexibility afforded by freelancing, I want to be more explicit. Pick at least one thing you enjoy and do it during work hours!

It might sound odd, but doing an activity you enjoy during the day gives you energy for the rest of the day/week. And it also allows you to quickly reflect and say, “Hey.. This is pretty cool that I’m able to do this right now.”

This isn’t something you have to do every day (although I tend to). It can be a once a week deal.

For me this is going on a bike ride, working on a fun data science side project, working out, or going golfing. The important thing is to pick something fun and just go do it!

10. Work Out of the House

There’s quite a wide spectrum of preferences here. Some folks prefer doing the majority of their work in an office setting or coworking space, while others prefer to work out of their home office pretty much all of the time. If you are more of the latter, I would highly recommend finding a place that’s not your home to do at least a little bit of work.

As I mentioned before, freelance work can be isolating at times. So it’s important to get out and surround yourself with other living breathing humans from time to time.

That being said, certain tasks aren’t well suited for a coffee shop or a hot seat at a coworking spot. If you have a video call with a client, best to have a professional setting where you’ll be able to hear them and there won’t be a lot of background noise. And of course, for tasks that require multiple screens, you might want to stick with your normal spot.

It might take a bit of an effort to figure out which tasks and what locations work best for you, but it’s worth it once you do. And heck, you might actually meet someone!

My outside the home office jam is usually writing blog content at a coffee shop/tea house or somewhere outside that I can get internet.

11. Charge What You’re Worth

My assumption is that, if you are pursuing freelance data science jobs you already have 5+ years of experience in the industry. This isn’t to say that you can’t do freelance work in this field straight out of college, but it will certainly be much harder to find willing clients.

Regardless, it is important to know what you’re worth and charge accordingly.

Now, there are no hard and fast rules here, but generally the more experience you have the higher your hourly rate. This is especially true if you’re a specialist in a particular area (computer vision, natural language processing, etc.).

Today, this is my guess at what the market will bear:

Wrapping Up

As they say, “rules are meant to be broken”. And with that in mind, feel free to use what you like and discard the rest. I’ve found each of these to be helpful in cultivating a healthy relationship with my work, while still allowing me to earn a healthy wage. As you become more experienced, these rules will become less important to you (because you’ll start to get a feel for what you like, where your boundaries are, etc.). But just starting out, these can be a lifesaver.

I hope you found something useful here!

I’ll catch you next time.




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