Can you really earn a living as a freelancer?

Alex Taylor of C&E News wrote this lovely piece about my path to scientific illustrator (click on image to go to full article), and as a result I have received some very nice e-mails from Ph.D. students who have been inspired by it. This was exactly the effect I hoped this article would have so I was delighted, but I also imagined that many people may have read this and wondered how feasible it really is to make a living doing this, and so I want to give the full story.

My annual income is in the ballpark of a postdoc salary, without the guaranteed monthly check (but also without the grueling hours). Having the safety net of a very supportive husband with a full time job has been key to this all going so swimmingly. Part of the reason for quitting teaching, in addition to the fact that I was having to turn away illustration work, was that it's hard enough to do two things well, but I found it nearly impossible to do three things well. So, when our first son was 18 months old, we looked at our finances and decided we could do it. And now four years later, with two kids aged 2 and 5, I'm very grateful for the flexibility this career allows. I am keenly aware that although I have worked very hard and made sacrifices for this career, I am lucky. It would have been much more of a struggle without the second income, and I thought that aspiring science illustrators ought to know that too. Freelance is not for the faint of heart, but I will say that at this point, I do not do any marketing, and I am simply fielding requests. I believe it would be more lucrative if I was more proactive, but I am steadily getting exactly the amount of work I want right now. This isn't due to a lack of ambition, but rather the constant fine-tuning of the ever-elusive work-family balance. 

That said, there are other more stable jobs in this industry than freelance. There are illustrators and illustration editors for scientific journals, graphic designers for biotech companies, scientific animation studios, textbook illustrators and much more. To help pave the way to some of these, there are masters programs like the Master of Science in Biomedical Visualization at the University of Illinois-Chicago, the Master of Science in Biomedical Communication at the University of Toronto, the Medical and Biological Illustration graduate program at Johns Hopkins, and the Graduate Certificate Program in Science Illustration at CSU Monterrey Bay. You can also learn programs like Illustrator and Photoshop, and even 3D modeling and animation programs like Maya and 3D Max, with a very reasonably priced subscription to And if anyone would like more advice feel free to ask.