How to Create Your Own Post-ac Job

By Margy Horton

Margy Thomas Horton

Have you been reading all the posts about how to write a resume and what to say in interviews and thinking, “These posts are great, but I don’t have any jobs to apply for”? Maybe you’re geographically limited in your job search, or you’re bored by every job posting you read, or you’re riddled with guilt over the prospect of stealing some Art History major’s job, or (my personal favorite) you hate the idea of taking orders from anyone besides yourself, especially after having suffered the indignities of the academic labor market. If any of these conditions applies to you, then perhaps the reason you’re feeling so frustrated by the post-ac transition is that the job you’re looking for does not yet exist. Perhaps the person who is going to hand you your dream job is, cue swelling music, you!

At this moment, as you lie curled on your couch with 15 open tabs on your computer mocking you with postings for 15 different impossible jobs (jobs in distant cities, jobs that require coding expertise, jobs that pay less than the cost of childcare), the idea of creating your own job might seem just as impossible. How would you even begin to build a business? What would you sell? Who would give you a paycheck? And how soon? Adding to your unease may be the awareness that most small businesses fail within 18 months, and that your academic colleagues are likely to look down on you even if, or especially if, you succeed.

But I want to suggest that you have a much better than average chance of success in small business for two reasons: (1) given the skills you honed in academia, you can start a knowledge-based business that requires almost zero startup capital, and (2) your desperate thirst for challenging and meaningful work is going to make it impossible for you to give up until you find a way to do that work every day. I predict that, once you discover the Big Idea for your business and commit to making it happen, you’ll fall so in love with the project that you’ll actually start feeling happy and inspired again as you go about the work of creating your business: of designing your services and experimenting with your marketing message and figuring out what works for you and your clients. It may be slow going at first, but you can always ramp up gradually as you continue a steady day job.

In an earlier post I proposed some exploratory questions that you might ask as you prepare to write your business plan. After answering these basic questions, like “What can I do?” and “What do people need?”, you can move onto the specific questions that will undergird your business plan. You may opt to write a traditional, highly researched business plan or go with my own preference, an improvisational “lean start-up” plan. Either way, as you develop your business plan, don’t just guess what the answers are to these questions. Conduct some type of market research, even if informally.

1. What service(s) will I offer?

You might consider coaching, consulting, or editing, as these are all knowledge-based services that correspond to your skills honed in academia. In a coachingrelationship, the coach helps the client to achieve competency in a specific area, but does so mostly by asking questions rather than prescribing a course of action. By contrast, consulting tends to be more directive; the consultant provides expert advice for how the client ought to proceed.  Editorial services, broadly construed, involve written feedback on a work in progress. The lines among these three services can be blurry, of course. For example, in my business I provide writing consultation, which as it happens, can be more like coaching than like other forms of consulting. I do not prescribe solutions to my clients so much as ask them questions, help them tease out ideas that they hadn’t clarified before, and suggest strategies for revision. The client maintains full ownership of the project.

2. Who are my clients?

These people are the heart of your business, so know them well and love them deeply. A few considerations: Are your target clients aware of the need you propose to solve? If not, how can you help them see the need? What has kept them from meeting this need before now? Will they find your solution uniquely compelling? Also, consider whether you’ll target individuals or institutions, or both. If institutions, who are the decision-makers with whom you need to develop relationships? If both, will you need two distinct marketing messages? No matter who your clients are, be sure to design your solution (services) in a way that it will fit their time and money constraints.

3. What’s my Unique Value Proposition (UVP)?

This is key. Think of your UVP as the thesis of an argument: the concise, compelling articulation of what makes your your business both unique and important. Answering this big question requires attention to what similar services others are providing. How do those other people describe their services? What qualifications do those people have? How are you similar to or different from other people offering similar services? How can you communicate unique value so that you are not competing on price alone? For me, developing a UVP is not just a marketing technique. It is, far more significantly, a way to see oneself and one’s “competitors” as a community of unique individuals who respect one another and even collaborate. Call me Millennial, but I find this perspective far more inspiring than one of zero-sum competition.

4. How will I communicate with potential clients?

This begins with choosing a name for your business, which will succinctly and evocatively communicate the essence of your brand to the public at large. After you’ve decided on a business name and bought the url, you’ll want to think about what combination of web presence and in-person networking you’ll use to get your name out there. Again, it’s amazing how much you can accomplish without spending a cent. Once you create a genuinely compelling Unique Value Proposition and tell everyone in your network about it, the news about your business will have a way of spreading on its own. For me and many others with knowledge-based service businesses, the entirety of the marketing budget is the annual fee for website hosting–under $100 a year. I do spend lots of time building relationships, but this is the fun part of entrepreneurship! One note of caution against relying on online marketplaces such as Elance, Fiverr, Craigslist to generate new business. On these sites, people compete with one another based on price alone and do so at well below market rates. Avoid the commodity trap! Focus on quality relationships, and as much as possible, work with clients who appreciate the value of what you do.

5. Which resources do I need?

When launching your business, don’t spend money for something without first trying to get it for free. The public library, for example, is where I found this book on building a consulting practice. Believe me, I worked my way through the entire Business and Marketing section. I also found Quora to be a valuable resource, a place to ask questions of a brilliant community of people in all spheres of life. Canva is my source for graphics, and plain old Excel and PayPal are sufficient for my current accounting purposes. Obviously, social media accounts are free. The trick with those is to choose only two or three platforms in which to invest time in a purposeful way, rather than trying to be present on every platform.

Suffice it to say that creating a business plan is, like writing a dissertation, a recursive process. Even now, I still revisit and reimagine my business plan. At the moment, I am working out the details of an exciting expansion (I’ll be announcing my first Associate within 3-6 months!), so I am thinking a lot about how other people’s services fit within the ScholarShape brand. For me, this endless room for growth is what makes entrepreneurship fun, energizing, challenging, and rewarding–all of the adjectives that most of us are looking for in a job.  In my next post, I’ll discuss two different approaches to self-employment, entrepreneurship and freelancing, and I’ll explain why the distinction is important. Until then, keep dreaming and scheming!

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How to Create Your Own Post-ac Job — 10 Comments

  1. I’ve been thinking more and more about starting my own business, so this post came at the perfect time. I had a very successful 15-year career in industry before coming to academia, in two high-pressure careers where there was little work-life balance. I came into academia thinking that I’d be more in control of my schedule — still working hard, but with more flexible hours at least, and the ability to telecommute, and time off to enjoy school vacations with my kids. (Okay, okay: I can hear the snickering now. But honestly, that is how it looked from the outside, and even once I was a doctoral student). I also thought that once I got tenure, I’d have job security that did not exist in my previous careers. That was the trade-off I accepted in exchange for making less than I’d made before and taking time out of the workforce to get my PhD (which I completed in 3 years, despite having a baby in the middle).

    My first job was at an R1, then I got an even better offer at another R1 in a place where I had always wanted to live. First three years here went great, and although I was busting my butt, tenure seemed to be in sight. I’m well liked, have stellar teaching evals, seemed to have met the publication expectations set forth when I was hired, and have gotten three positive annual reviews.

    But now, a new department head and a new provost are shaking up tenure requirements university-wide. I was just told, at my third year review, that the publication requirements have doubled — so instead of being on-track, I am now not meeting expectations. Given what I have in the works, it is possible I could meet these new expectations, but I am now asking myself, “At what cost to my family life? And what guarantee is there the requirements won’t change again? Do I really like this job well enough to take that gamble and find myself without a job and 2-3 years further removed from the career I left for academia?”

    The prospect that I’ve worked this hard and might not get tenure has really taken the wind out of my sails — ironically, I am finding it far more difficult to work now than before — and I am usually someone who thrives under pressure. (Although maybe this feels less like being under pressure than being on death row — not a winnable situation).

    Instead of keeping my mind on my writing, I find myself distracted now, thinking instead about how I can coast along with a paycheck for the next year or two, doing the minimum for my academic job and devoting most of my time and effort to laying groundwork for a new job, or even a new business. I would love to hear from people who have possibly used this strategy. If so, what surreptitious steps did you take? If you were looking for a job, did you establish a bigger presence on LinkedIn, pick up consulting gigs, or spend your summers freelancing? If you were considering entrepreneurship, did you write a business plan, perhaps develop a website, perhaps even begin secretly taking clients while still in a TT junior faculty position? Can this realistically be done while still working?

    I have an incredibly strong work ethic, so on the one hand, not devoting myself to my job feels dishonest. On the other hand, I feel like it is my university that has put me in the position of “doing everything right” and still being at risk of losing my job, so in some ways it feels like I owe them nothing. I am also realizing how ultimately, when I was in industry, job security was not nearly as scary, because there were always plenty of jobs to hop to if I had needed one. In academia, as we all know, those opportunities just don’t exist without a move across country or a demotion to adjunct teaching.

    Margy, I really appreciated the starting-a-business resources you provided, and would love to hear other stories from post-academics who started a business before or after leaving the ivory tower.

    • Thank you for sharing your experiences. What’s crazy to me about your situation is that you have all this evidence that you’re super capable and that you’ve done years of valuable work both inside and outside academia, and yet you find yourself in a place where your employers do not seem to value your contributions very much. The old adage goes, “Being great at your job is the best job security,” but clearly, in academia, that is not the case! I can see why, after having the rules changed on you halfway to tenure, you are thinking of shifting your focus from the pursuit of tenure to the construction of an exit strategy. I think it sounds totally realistic (and very smart) to quietly take on freelance gigs on the side as you figure out the next stage of your career. You can experiment with different services and target markets, gaining experiences that can lead either to full-time self-employment or to contacts/experiences that will set you up for employment within a new organization down the road. At the moment, I know of a few academics who are doing just this. If you can get your work mostly through word-of-mouth contacts, rather than through building an online presence, you stand even less chance of colleagues finding out–not that they necessarily would find out anyway, or that it would particularly matter if they did.

      I relate to the anxiety of feeling, “Am I dishonest/inauthentic for not devoting myself fully to my prescribed academic role?” I felt this way back at the end of grad school when I was “supposed” to be on the job market but was completely half-hearted about it, applying for exactly one job and one fellowship. In retrospect, I see that this lack of effort was me following my instincts rather than following the expectations of my professors and colleagues (some of whom are still trying to get me back in the academic fold!) For me, forsaking TT was 100% the right choice. So I just want to affirm that if your instincts are telling you *not* to invest in tenure, and only external forces are telling you *to* invest in tenure, then honor your instincts!

      Like you, I’d love to hear more people’s stories of starting businesses! I have a website in the works that will be a non-commercial meeting place for alt/post/current academics who consider themselves entrepreneurial in any way. In the meantime, I have a few “academic entrepreneurs” listed on the Going Post-ac page of my website (scroll down):

      Glad you found this post helpful, and I wish you all the best as you contemplate your next move!

  2. A tip I’d offer for business-naming is whether you could shout it across the street and be understood. I gave my (now defunct) blog a clever title but it involved a pun on a French phrase — definitely not one I can shout across the street to a colleague!

  3. I am really grateful for tackling thie issue of starting a business by PhD holders. I have been thinking about it for years working in academia (my PhD is in business) and will finally do it. Even thinking itself about it is a great source of joy for me. The academic working conditions are worse and worse, atmosphere is unbearable, and first of all I have an impression that all the academics around are bloodsacking vampires: they live on criticizing, humiliating and judging other people. I don’t want to be like them, I don’t want to become like them: frustrated, depressed, with low self-esteem and self-respect.
    However, when I talk to my collegues they don’t dare to move on to some other job or to start a business (I considered finding a business partner among them). I have an impression that people become risk-averse due to working in academia…

  4. Thank-you Margy for your articles on this topic. They are very grounding for me and I will return to them again and again.

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