Always Have a Side Hustle, and Other Lessons I Learned from Academia (Part 2) – WOC Guest Post

I am delighted to offer this guest post contributed in response to my recent call for contributions to the blog by black women and other women of color. I am still enthusiastically welcoming draft posts and ideas/pitches – send them to me at I pay $150 for accepted posts. The posts can be anonymous or not, as you prefer. I welcome content on #MakeupMonday (the initial impetus was a Twitter follower asking for #MakeupMonday posts oriented toward women of color) as well as anything related to the academic and post-academic career.

Dr. Nneka D. Dennie is a Consortium for Faculty Diversity Postdoctoral Fellow and Visiting Assistant Professor of Africana Studies at Davidson College. She researches black intellectual history, black feminist thought, and black radicalism. When outside of the classroom, she enjoys cooking and playing soccer.

Nneka D. Dennie, PhD

In part one of this series, I discussed the importance of having a side hustle and setting boundaries. In part two, I turn to networking, the dissertation, and productivity.

Network selectively.

I don’t think I know anyone who genuinely enjoys networking. Some of us may excel at it, but very few enjoy it. We’d probably rather sit at home in pajamas with our noses in books. (Am I projecting yet? Probably.) Alas, networking is vital to building mutually beneficial scholarly communities. Part of our charge as academics, particularly among those of us who study processes of oppression and liberation, is to ensure that our work reaches a broader audience. In order to do this, we need to connect with people who do what we do, as well as people who don’t.

First, I’ll address networking beyond faculty circles. This is where having a side hustle is valuable—working outside of traditional academic spaces grants access to untapped resources and audiences. Collaborating with community partners and university staff members creates a more equitable environment by encouraging intellectual exchange beyond classrooms and conferences. As we know, access to these spaces is often limited by structural inequalities derived from race, gender, class, and more. Furthermore, as scholars, we have things to learn from people who are not in academia. This type of networking challenges academic hierarchies by allowing us to reconsider who we see as knowledge producers, what types of knowledge we deem worthy of study, and why. Seeking out meaningful collaborations beyond departmental hallways can enrich your scholarship by introducing you to new perspectives and encouraging you to renounce the jargon that often infiltrates scholarly discourse.

When it comes to networking with faculty, don’t be a clout-chaser. To exclusively pursue influential scholars obscures the fact that all of us, ranging from contingent to tenured faculty, are experts in our fields. Rather than trailing the biggest name in the room (and being embarrassed when you have nothing to say), be intentional about speaking with scholars whose interests have actionable connections to yours. Capitalize on relationships where you can foresee collaborations on panels and articles. Don’t always be the “taker.” Be the “giver” sometimes too. Remember to “lift as we climb” so that we increase opportunities for junior scholars to thrive. While we may not immediately see how helping others will help us, I’m a firm believer that if you put good into the world, it will come back to you.

Your dissertation is not your magnum opus.

Your dissertation is not the end-all-be-all, and it shouldn’t be the only thing you spend time on. It’s an exercise intended to demonstrate that you can do original, independent research and convey your ideas coherently. Remember that dissertations are a means to an end, not an end in and of themselves. Your dissertation needs to satisfy the 3-4 people on your committee. Then you can graduate and perform the work that originally motivated you to attend graduate school. Dissertations serve practical purposes beyond fulfilling degree requirements; they allow you to develop writing samples for job/postdoc applications, and they offer you a blueprint for future articles and a book manuscript. You may be tempted to include all of your wonderful data in your dissertation—don’t. Save some of it for later so that you can differentiate your dissertation from your other publications.

As you write, find time to be still and to do something that sustains you, whether it’s spending time with people who matter or finding an activity that allows you to decompress. While I was dissertating, I didn’t really have hobbies. When I needed a break, I played with my dog or watched TV, but that was pretty much it. I kept telling myself I’d rediscover the things I enjoy when I finish writing. That plan was unrealistic—as academics, we’re never finished writing. There is always more to be done. So, we might as well carve out time to relax regardless of our workload. I went to the pool a few days ago (on a weeknight no less!) and I was surprised by how liberating it was to stop working and genuinely feel guilt-free about it. Taking a break from your dissertation is not the end of the world. Writing can wait. Life won’t.

Always have a project in the works.

I know, I know. I just said to take breaks, and now I’m saying to stay busy. Hear me out. I’m a big advocate for self-care, but I’m also a big advocate for accomplishing your goals.

On an individual level, always having a project in the works ensures that you’re strategic about timing when you ask a colleague for feedback on your work, apply for fellowships, submit proposals for conferences, or send manuscripts out for review. All of these things take time. Academia is more of a marathon than a sprint, and it can take a long time to see the fruits of your labor. While you’re waiting for a response on one front, continue working on something else. Having something on the back burner also gives you an outlet if you’re getting stuck with your main project. You can take a step back from something challenging while channeling your productivity elsewhere.

On an interpersonal level, ongoing projects make for good conversation starters and they make networking a little less painful. Whether we like it or not, “what are you working on?” is a popular question in academia. Having an answer at the ready helps you avoid awkward silences and it helps you build connections with people whose interests intersect with yours.

I can’t overstate the importance of the five lessons I’ve shared in this series. Collectively, they’ve helped me to strike a balance between being productive, finding new opportunities, and being a happy human being. Academics are people, too, but we tend to forget that as we get caught up in the minutiae of higher education. We can (and have to) do better—not just for ourselves, but for our communities.

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