Margy Horton, introduced last week, runs a successful scholarly writing consulting, coaching, and editing business named ScholarShape. She’s here to illuminate the transition to small business entrepreneurship, the post-ac route closest to my own heart. Today, she demystifies the “world outside”: it’s not as bleak as you think!
by Margy Horton
You believe that academic work is your calling and that academic people are your tribe. The thought of leaving behind the socialist utopia that is the University and selling your soul for a bit of filthy lucre makes you want to cry red tears. But unless you’re a woodland creature or the resident of an actual socialist utopia, money is what you use to put a roof over your head and food in your mouth. And getting money by selling your labor on the free market, rather than essentially giving yourself away as an adjunct, is a sound and responsible thing to do—not a sign of moral and professional failure.
First of all, we’re not talking about embezzling elderly people’s retirement savings or forcing undocumented persons into servitude at a sweatshop. We’re talking about providing useful products to people at prices that that they, the people, freely decide are worth paying. Honest, hardworking entrepreneurs provide goods and services that save people time and money and improve their quality of life.
Second of all, being an entrepreneur does not have to mean giving up the work you love. Take me, for instance. Here’s what made me happy while I worked in academia: Talking with students during office hours and helping them to sort out the ideas they wanted to express in their papers; drinking cups of tea by the dozens while analyzing students’ essays and writing suggestions for improvement; and working long after dark with my dachshund, Herman, snoring softly in my lap. Here’s what makes me happy as the owner of my own writing consultation/editing business: Talking with clients and helping them figure out how to express in writing what their research means; drinking cups of coffee by the dozens while analyzing clients’ work and writing revision suggestions; and working long after dark with my dachshund, Herman, snoring softly in my lap (and my other dachshund, my husband, and my son snoring softly elsewhere).
Perhaps you’re wondering how I got from there to here. How exactly did I leave behind traditional academic work—a move that, to many in academia, is tantamount to abandoning the balmy comfort of the earth’s atmosphere for the terrifying vacuum of outer space? And how, in leaving, did I manage to bring with me all the aspects of academic work that I most loved? If I must answer in one sentence, I’d say that I got here through some combination of forced introspection, NPR podcasts, and self-help books.
My son was born five weeks after my dissertation defense, in the middle of the academic job season. I spent my first few months of motherhood doing little more than nursing my growing baby and thinking about the tenure-track job I was supposed to be pursuing. Every day that went by, academia felt more and more remote from me, and yet I really did miss working with my brain. Somehow in the midst of those achingly sleep-deprived months, as I listened to hours and hours of NPR podcasts to keep my brain sharp, and as I read self-help books propped up on my son’s breastfeeding pillow, my writing consultation business gradually took shape in my mind. I literally came up with the name of my business, ScholarShape, while changing my son’s diaper. I’m grateful for those months not only because I got to be with my son as he adjusted to life outside the womb, but also because my circumstances forced me, at that crucial moment in my life, to assess what really mattered to me, what I considered worth working for, and which direction I wanted to point my life.
Only gradually did I realize that the world beyond academia is not a dark vacuum at all. It is, in fact, a lot like academia itself: it’s a diverse marketplace of ideas, a bustling world full of people and their problems and solutions. All of the multiplicity, the flexibility, and the uncertainty that I enjoyed in academia are present in equal or greater measure in the outside world. I set out into that world to discover whether entrepreneurship was a viable option for a post-academic like me. What I found was that entrepreneurship is actually the perfect option for a person who wants to fashion a personalized career out of favorite scraps from academia.
In the series of posts to follow, I’ll give you specific suggestions for how to begin the transition out of academia and into small business ownership. You will begin by identifying your own marketable skills, matching these skills to an unmet need in the marketplace, and developing a strategy for building a profitable business that suits you perfectly while also filling a real need for other people. In describing my own experiences, I’ll point out some elements of my story that are generalizable to readers contemplating a similar move from academia to the free market. Finally, I’ll discuss in more detail the varied work of editors and consultants, who sell their intellectual expertise, because this work is a natural fit for many Ph.D.s.
If you’re not yet done with the Ph.D. and you do plan to finish, your first step will be to figure out how to complete your degree in a timely way. Check out my blog post that lists 101 Tips for Finishing your Ph.D. Quickly. If you’re done with your doctorate or don’t plan to finish, now is the time for some serious reflection on what you have to offer the world. Get to it, you budding capitalist, and we’ll talk again soon.