Making Contracting Work For You, with Kim Cullen-Cobb

by: The CoC Team

Photo by STIL on Unsplash

We recently had the privilege of sitting down with Kim Cullen Cobb, the current contract conservator for the Smithsonian Institution’s Department of Anthropology Collections, to talk about her experiences as a career contractor.

Conservation is Kim’s second career–before she found her current passion, she had a long and successful career as a metalsmith making one-of-a-kind jewelry. Over time she realized that the work she was doing no longer fulfilled her as it once had, so she decided to go back to school for something she had long been interested in: archaeological and ethnographic conservation. She learned quickly that, due to an over-saturated field and a lack of full-time, well-paying gigs, contracts are the name of the game. Kim explained that she has had an overall positive experience working as a contract conservator, so we asked her to share some of her top tips for getting the most out of a contract.

Think of yourself as a business from day one

Those of you who have contracted with the federal government may have become aware of your technical status as a ‘sole proprietorship’, aka an independent business, from the very beginning of the process. Mechanisms like the federal System for Award Management (SAM), the central federal database of vendors in which all contractors are required to register, makes that status very clear through questions about the demographic makeup of your employees, whether or not you import and export goods, and the option to mark yourself as a woman or minority owned small business. When you’re registering in SAM as a single, independent contractor these questions can all seem like a weird formality and information that doesn’t really pertain to you. While this is true for much of the information that SAM is designed to capture, taking that registration process seriously can help you to get into the mindset of owning and operating your own business–even if that business is literally just you. Kim advises every new contractor, even those who are not going through the federal award system, to do their best to operate under this mindset.

To paraphrase Kim, when you start treating yourself as a business and the services you provide as a product it allows you a degree of separation which can make it easier for you to both value and evaluate your labor. It also, in our experiences as well, simplifies sometimes messy inter-personal relationships with employers and HR departments. Advocating for yourself as a professional with the education, skills, and experience needed to accomplish the tasks put forth in a request for quote can sometimes be intimidating (albeit always important). Advocating for your business on the other hand, an entity that is performing a job for an agreed upon fee, removes the impulse or seeming need to justify one’s worth as a person. Given that many contracts, especially short-term ones, are established as a fee for service or an agreement that you will be paid a set amount of money for completing a list of predetermined deliverables, it is important that you become comfortable situating your labor within the market landscape of your field.

A specific piece of advice Kim has regarding operating as a business: When it comes to taxes, you should become familiar with the tax deductions available to sole proprietors, LLC’s or S Corporations, depending on how you have set up your business. Check with your tax accountant (if you’ve got one) or pool resources with your colleagues and bring in an accountant who can advise you on some of these finer tax details.  We’ll be doing a longer, more in-depth look at doing your taxes as an independent contractor, but for now we’ll emphasize that as soon as you sign that first contract start tracking your expenses and income carefully. If it isn’t in your normal routine to ask for and keep receipts, look into an expense tracking software or app that can help you flag business-related expenses!

Think of your quote wholistically

When responding to a request for quote (RFQ), think your way through all the steps involved in the scope of work to capture all the mundane tasks involved. Some of these fall outside the broadly stated scope of work; Kim explained that this includes all of the time she expects to spend working that isn’t directly resulting in a deliverable, such as reading and responding to emails, scheduling and attending meetings, planning for and organizing her project, and preparing invoices. This varies with each contract so don’t be too hard on yourself if you fail to capture every detail, some of this just comes with time and experience.

If this is not something you feel you can do (i.e. increase your rate of pay to include these fees), make it clear that some of you billable hours will necessarily be delegated to these administrative tasks which impact the overall timeline for a project. While it may seem obvious that any job regardless of contract length will require some degree of housekeeping work, it is not uncommon for a Call For Proposals or Request for Quotes, or even the language of the contract itself, to not explicitly include mention of that labor. The time you spend following up on emails is just as important and valuable as time spent working on your project deliverables and should be treated as such from the very beginning of the contracting process.

Be flexible and use ALL of your resources

In a lot of ways, Kim says, having the opportunity to work on many different kinds of projects and with lots of institutions is a contractor’s biggest asset. Being able to spend 3 months doing one thing and the next 3 months doing something completely different, and so on, allows you to gain many different skill sets often across different departments or museums. This is a big asset to your resume going forward! The big key to landing diverse contracts, according to Kim? Use everything you’ve got. Any skill set you’ve acquired, regardless if it strictly pertains to your field of work, is an asset and should be in your mental reservoir of experiences to draw on. Worked in a clerical position in grad school? Great, you’ve got data entry skills! Again, remember that you are a business and above all what you are selling is YOU, so make the most of every bit of experience you have.

Network, network, network!

It will come as no surprise to those of you who are old-hands at contracting, but a lot of times the single best thing you can do to help your career is to network with anyone and everyone. Regardless of whether your next opportunity is a sole-source situation or if there’s a call for quotes, word of mouth goes a long way in influencing what opportunities you have access to. One way Kim stays tapped into a professional network is through involvement in professional societies. Not only is she a member of various professional museum and conservation societies, she encourages participation in committees and boards for those societies. This sort of extra-curricular work, often on a volunteer basis, has allowed Kim to establish herself in her field and be in regular touch with other professionals from all across her discipline.

Kim has let us know that while there are some definite potential drawbacks to contracting, especially basing your livelihood on it, she feels empowered as a contractor and generally feels very happy with where she’s at in her career because of it. We feel her advice could be boiled down into these two nuggets: be proactive, and don’t be afraid to be assertive! Thanks Kim!

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