[Interview] How to become a self-employed PhD

The word Entrepreneur. It probably makes many academics shake. I was always attracted to an academic career because of  lifelong job security, quiet campus hallways, and a comfortable cheque appearing magically every month.

This interview offers advice from a PhD who left the security of tenure and launched her own successful business.

I remember my first graduate student stipend. It felt great to be getting paid for thinking and writing. The money, I thought, would come: first graduate scholarships, then some post-doc funding, and then finally, the eternal flow of tenure until I sat a comfortable old man in a sea of books.

Like most fictional realities, this story came to an unwanted end. I left grad school and was forced to rethink my economic strategy of hooking in my feet into some university and waiting for the paydays.

This interview is about leaving the system behind and starting your own business with a PhD. Self-employment has its own set of anxieties and uncertainties, but it does also have many benefits.

Here to share her advice for PhDs and humanities grads looking to become self-employed is Karen Kelsky from the Professor Is In, a business providing academic career consulting for PhDs and ABDs.

Karen spent 15 years as a R1 tenured professor, department head, and university advisor. She then decided to start her own business and give up the certainty of tenure.

In this interview, she shares advice about how to start a business with just a few dollars in the bank, why PhDs should consider becoming self-employed, and how to deal with the anxiety of starting your own business.

How did you start your own business? What led you to want to be self-employed?

After 15 years of a successful academic career, I grew disgusted with the declining conditions of academic work. The corporatized university, the loss of faculty autonomy, the entitled, increasingly aggressive undergraduate students, the soulless environment…. little by little I lost interest. Ultimately I realized I’m not a “company man.” I’ve seen what the university job can and cannot deliver, and I decided I was ready to be a free agent.

What advice would you give someone that wants to start their own business–but, for example, doesn’t have much money or doesn’t know how to start?

I started The Professor Is In for the cost of a box of manila folders and a monthly server fee. Online businesses don’t cost much to start.

What I came to understand, as I looked around for models on building an internet-mediated business, was that the internet business gurus give away an enormous about of information for free on their blogs. The trust relationships they build, and the crediblity they gain through that information then forms the basis of the client work they do with individuals.

When I started, people told me I was giving away too much information for free on the blog. I was confident that in fact the blog would be the primary means to help people find me, learn to trust me, and eventually decide to hire me to work on their own individual documents. Turns out, I was right.

What is the best piece of business advice you have ever heard?

Promote, promote, promote.

I actually first got my feet wet with another business, selling handmade jewelry on Etsy. (For many years I’ve been making jewelry and other items using Japanese handmade washi paper that I collected over the years in Japan). I learned that I spent 25% of my time making jewelry, and 75% of the time blogging about it, guest posting about it, designing ads and buying ad space, etc.

When I started The Professor Is In, I focused my energy on the blog, blogging 5 days a week for several months, so that the site would be easily found by people searching different topics like “how to do a conference interview,” for example. I also wanted readers to feel confident that I am a) genuinely knowledgable and b) a person they’d like to work with.

Then I also pursued guest posts on sites like Worst Professor Ever, and ultimately in the Chronicle of Higher Education. These helped me to reach a wider audience. I did no advertising of the business, but the collective result of these kinds of indirect promotion was indeed a solid foundation for client work to come in, and the business to become self-sustaining very quickly.

Do you think more PhDs should become self-employed?

I do. I think that people with Ph.D.s have tremendous assets. I have noticed that the Ph.D.s I work with are determined, tenacious, honest, good humored, resourceful, organized, and profoundly intelligent. They sell themselves short when they think that they only have skills for academic work and university-sanctioned jobs.

It seems that there can be a certain amount of fear in running your own business–for example, not knowing if there will be work and clients next month–how do you deal with this?

I have not had to deal with the fear of not enough work: I have been deluged with business from almost the first week. I thought it would be cyclical, but its been quite steady. When I realized that I had reached and surpassed my annual salary as a tenured professor at a Big Ten institution, I knew that I didn’t have to be afraid of not having enough work.

A much bigger fear was the fear of being mocked or despised for being a “failure” academic who dropped out. That fear certainly played a role in holding me back from launching a business for several years. It took several years of internal psychic work to get comfortable with my decision to turn my back on the formal academic career, and formulate, and then believe in, my own unique vision for a contribution to the world.

I think that academia is in many ways a cult. I would be happy if more people understood that, and took the necessary steps to deal with the cult-like hold that academic judgment has on their psyches. The fear of being cast out of the cult holds far too many academics back from reaching their true human potential.

What is the single best thing about being self-employed?

I am the master of my own fate. I am not in a state of dependence on an institution or subject to the judgment of anyone in a position of superiority controlling my access to resources. I come up with an idea, and I execute it. I get the satisfaction of it. And I claim the rewards. Simple as that.

Thanks Karen. 

The Professor Is In offers a ton of free advice for PhD’s and grad students, including advice on how to write academic job cover letters, major job market mistakes, advice on how to win grants and funding, how to write teaching and research statements, and other practical tips for those trying to land that tenure track job.

You can visit Karen’s blog here. And look for the sign-up form for her free newsletter. If you sign-up, you’ll get her resource The Professor’s “Top Five Tips for Getting Funded.”  www.theProfessorIsIn.com

Related Resources:

How to NOT Find a Non Academic Job with Your MA or PhD

Adapting Your Academic Skills to the Real World: Passion Versus Money

35 Awesome Non-Academic Jobs for English Majors 

How to Find a Job Without Experience

The Ultimate Guide to Finding a Job With Your Humanities Degree  

How to Find a Career With Your Humanities Degree in 126 Days 


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Up Next:

I Crave the Absence of Functionality

I Crave the Absence of Functionality