One of the tricky things about navigating a freelancer’s career is that you can’t really be promoted or offered a raise out of the blue. The next level of your career isn’t as obvious or as pre-planned.
Freelancing gives you a lot of freedom, there are also too many options to way and a lot of decisions to make. How do you go about climbing the career ladder—getting promoted, having a raise, taking on more important roles—when you are the one who has to decide for yourself if you’re ready?
The truth is that there’s no single way to determine what the next step is and how you should take it. But there are definitely some things you can do to actively plan for career advancement, better clients, and a bigger paycheck. It’s more involved than waiting for someone else to tell you you’ve been promoted, but the good news is that all of the decisions are in your control. This short guide will show you how to plan for the next level of your career if you know you’re ready for a “promotion” but aren’t sure how to start.
Visualizing the “Next Level”
The first thing to do is to get a concrete picture of what you want the next level of your career to look like. Maybe you already have a vague idea about what’s next, but if you want to flesh it out more or see if you’re missing out on any options, here are some things to consider:
Your Specific Goals
Usually, when we think of the “next level” we already have a job title in mind—project manager, marketing consultant, art director—but to do this right we have to get more specific than that. This is especially true if we don’t know enough about our options to judge if we’re even aiming for the right target in the first place. To identify more specific goals, ask yourself:
- Why are you looking for a career shift? What do you hope to achieve with the change?
- Which skills do you want to master more, and why?
- Which professional experiences do you want to have?
- What kind of pay or benefits are you aiming for?
- When do you want the transition to be complete?
By answering these questions, rather than having your “next step” to be a title like “print designer”, you’ll have something more like, “A role that allows me to focus almost exclusively on design work, but more specific to print design and to work with bigger brands. I want to be paid $250 per hour.”
Giving yourself a deadline and a very specific goal produces a strange effect: While you do get more specific with the details of your goal, you also get to be more flexible. Rather than being hyper-focused on acquiring a specific title or role, your focus will be on the overall benefits, skills, and experiences you’ll get as a result of reaching the next stage of your career.
It’s also important to take a look back at your career so far and evaluate which tasks and experiences you like and don’t like. Ask yourself the following:
- Which work tasks do you currently enjoy and would be willing to do for free?
- Which tasks do you dislike so much that even if you were paid double for them, you still wouldn’t want to do them (or would do them reluctantly)?
Your Acceptable Opportunity Costs
This is the part that most freelancers overlook. We tend to focus so much on the goals we want to achieve, that we usually don’t take into account the costs we need to pay to get there — and whether we’re willing to pay those costs or not.
The cost can be as straightforward as paying for additional training. How much are you willing to pay? How much can you afford? But it can also be in terms of time and opportunities. For example, if you currently have three recurring clients, would you be willing to let go of one of them to pursue establishing yourself in a new role? Or would you be willing to keep working with all these clients and devote three hours a day of your leisure time to training?
To have a clearer vision of the next step in your career, consider the above criteria. You can write down your answers in a notebook or a note-taking app, or download the worksheet that comes with this tutorial.
Mapping Your Course
Now that you know your internal goals—what you want your career to look and feel like—it’s time to look outward and see what’s available out there that would help you accomplish your goals. What options do you have? What types of career paths are a good fit for your goals?
This is where some research can come in handy. You can start with a simple Google search on the different career paths in your field. For example, a search of design career paths yields a list from the New York Film Academy (NYFA) and a list of 150 careers in the arts. For photographers, a similar search leads to another NYFA resource and a guide from Black Hills State University.
You can also use tools like PayScale’s Career Path Planner to get a broader view of your career trajectory. You can even look up specific skills or job titles in PayScale if you want to see fuller career maps (for example, check out the one for web developers).
Just keep in mind that these tools are designed mainly for employees rather than freelancers, and that the data they have isn’t exhaustive. Still, they can be a useful place to start if you don’t know what your options are.
If you want to get suggestions that are tailored to your existing experience and skills, you can look for online groups, such as those in Stack Exchange or Quora, to ask professionals in your field about the possible next steps in your career.
Based on your research, list three to five options for your possible path. For each option, identify which of your goals it will help you with. Include notes about the potential pay, why it seems interesting to you, and the things you expect to learn or do once you’ve leveled up. Be as concrete as possible, since this can help you evaluate later the exact reasons why you thought each option was interesting enough to be on your list.
Filling the Gap Between Now and Your Next Level
Now that you have some options for your career trajectory, it’s time to close the gap between where you are right now and what the next step is. While you can do research on your own to figure out what’s missing, you can be more thorough if you look for other freelancers in your field who are doing exactly what you want to. They’re pursuing the idea you want to, they're doing the tasks and projects, and working with the types of clients you want to work with.
In my experience, most professional freelancers are more than happy to help pass on their knowledge and experiences to newcomers in their field. They can be the best guide since they’ve walked the path and made the mistakes that you can hopefully avoid. The more mentors you can interview, the better.
Here are some questions you can ask them:
- What do you wish you knew when you were at my stage?
- What did you think it would be like and what is it really like?
- What did you think was going to be a major factor for your success, and it turns out it wasn’t as important as you thought?
- What did you underprepare and overprepare for?
Notice that most of these questions are basically about one thing: Comparing expectations with reality. This is a crucial part of any career transition, where we might expect a certain outcome—higher pay, better work hours, doing tasks we like—but end up with something completely different. Having expectations that are closer to reality will make you better prepared to see the opportunities and problems before they arrive.
There are also other things you need to ask or research so that you know the exact difference between the position you want to be in versus the position you are in right now. Here are some areas of your career you should look at:
Skills and Experience
Sometimes getting to the next level just means developing the right skills and experience so you can qualify to provide a new service or work in a specific position. If you used the tools in the previous exercise (PayScale's Career Path Planner and some web research), you will have a concrete list of what skills are needed in the next step of your career.
For example, if you’re a content writer who’s looking to become a content marketer, PayScale’s skill chart will show you that you need to learn copywriting, content management, and social media marketing. But if you’re looking to make the biggest impact in your income, blogging, content management, and online marketing are the skills you should be cultivating first.
Those who want to become web developers, on the other hand, will mostly have to learn HTML, PHP, CSS, and Java Script. But having additional skills in ASP.NET, C#, and Microsoft SQL Server can dramatically increase their income.
Keep in mind that you don’t have to learn all of this immediately. Just pick one or two skills that can bring you closer to your goal as soon as possible.
It’s not just the professional skills you need to look at. In some cases, looking at your “soft skills” (the skills you need to better interact and collaborate with others) is just as important. This is especially true if you’re used to being a solo freelancer and want to switch to a role that requires leadership and collaboration, such as consulting or project management.
Also, it’s crucial to be ready to handle financial conversations if you expect that the next level will increase your rates dramatically. After all, negotiating a $50 per hour rate with a client is a very different conversation from negotiating a $150 per hour rate. Not only are the numbers different, but your attitude as well as the client’s business are bound to be dramatically different as well.
When programmer Patrick McKenzie was growing his consulting business, he quickly learned that pitching clients business results instead of time made a dramatic difference in how the value of his services were perceived. As a result, he had to learn to change his pricing structure, as well as craft case studies after each successful project. While these skills are not directly related to programming, they’ve certainly made an impact in his career.
Think about the social situations that you’ll run into when you take on your new role. Do you need to lead others? Will you have a lot of face-time with clients? Colleagues? Do you need to learn how to make sales? To negotiate? To build rapport? Do you need to give presentations or show social proof? This can help you figure out which soft skills to learn and practice.
The Right Clients and Projects
It’s also possible that you’re already working in the field you want and have enough experience to “level up”, but you’re currently stuck with clients who are a poor fit for your goals. Maybe their projects don’t pay much, don’t challenge you enough, or require skills that are completely different from the ones you need in the next level of your career. We’ve previously covered how to find more profitable clients. You might want to take a look at that guide if the next step in your career means switching your current clients for new ones.
While you don’t necessarily have to make changes to all the things listed above, the important thing is to find out the freelancer you are right now and compare it with the freelancer you have to be as you take on your new role. Dedicating time to a concrete comparison can make it easier to identify the exact steps you need to take to level up.
List all of the skills—professional and social—as well as the clients projects you need to accomplish to get to the next level. Use the worksheet to keep everything accessible in one page.
Climbing Up Your Own Career Ladder
If the above steps seem like a lot of work compared to just declaring “I’m up for a promotion!”, it’s for a good reason. Sometimes it can be so exciting to go all-in for a new idea, a new role, or exciting trends in your field, but doing so can be very risky—especially since your initial excitement is bound to taper off at some point. By being strategic about what rung to climb next in your career ladder, you’ll be able to climb with the full confidence that you’re going the right way towards your destination.
Editorial Note: This content was originally published in 2015. We're sharing it again because our editors have determined that this information is still accurate and relevant.