Ask an Expert: Building a Portfolio Career

Christine Beamer

Christine Beamer, Director of Career Education, College of Music

Question: I’m considering a career path that will involve working freelance (earning revenue from multiple streams).  What are some factors I should consider as I make my decision?

Are you interested in a career field where there is a lot of freelance work? If so, you may get questions from friends or family about stability or worry about making this plan after graduation. There are many fields (in the arts and beyond) where freelance or contract work is common, and these fields can still offer viable and fulfilling careers. However, there is some specific career advice that you’ll need in order to make freelancing into a full-time professional path.

Start thinking about your future career like a pizza. First of all, pizza is delicious and fulfilling, as (hopefully) your future career will be! But more importantly, just like a pizza, a freelance career needs to have multiple pieces. In other words, you need to plan to have multiple revenue streams to make up your salary, rather than just one job. These multiple “slices” (revenue streams) will combine to contribute to your total salary each month. This also allows you to pursue multiple interests simultaneously to support your own creative fulfillment! For instance, a music graduate might be making ⅓ of their monthly income from performing, ⅓ from teaching, and ⅓ from a part time social media marketing position with a small nonprofit. This is very normal in many fields. We call it having a portfolio career.

A portfolio career doesn’t just happen, though, it’s built deliberately. How do you build a strong portfolio career? Start with these tips:

Begin by exploring what kind of revenue streams could combine well for you, based on your interests, skills, and values. Use MSU Connect or LinkedIn to do several informational interviews with MSU alumni who are working in your desired industry. Ask them what their “slices” are, and how they combined revenue streams into a fulfilling career.

Seek out professional experiences in multiple fields (aligned with those multiple revenue streams). This will build your skills and reputation in the fields. For instance, you might seek out volunteer opportunities through MSU Center for Community Engaged Learning to tutor in order to build teaching skills, find an internship on Handshake in social media marketing to build communication skills, and find a student organization like Impact89 using Involve@State to gain audio production experience.

Start developing your personal brand and portfolio of work, especially as a junior or senior. Consider building a website, or curating your social media profile (whether on LinkedIn, Instagram, Facebook, Tiktok, YouTube) so it communicates your professional reputation and what you do–including ways to connect with you to get gigs.

Be intentional in building your professional community. This does not mean doing a lot of shallow networking for personal gain; instead, you want to invest in intentional, authentic connections with professionals in the field you want to work in, as well as students outside of your major (after all, people outside your field are probably going to be the ones who are hiring you!). A strong professional network is crucial for most freelance work.

Finally, learn about small business practices. Many freelancers operate as sole proprietors or create an LLC, and need to understand self-employment practices. You can learn more about self-employment and entrepreneurship through the resources from the Burgess Institute or the Michigan Small Business Development Center.

Got more questions? Meet with a career advisor to talk about how freelancing might apply in your specific industry.

By Christine Bastian
Christine Bastian Director of Career Education, College of Music