From Academia to Small Business Ownership (Part 1): Making Peace with Capitalism – Horton 1

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

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.

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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.


From Academia to Small Business Ownership (Part 1): Making Peace with Capitalism – Horton 1 — 11 Comments

  1. Thank you for this article! I agree with you that being an entrepreneur is very similar to academia. Both professions allow you a good degree of autonomy in regards to your hours and are not supervised as much as other jobs, etc.

    • Glad you appreciated the article. After writing this post, I thought of another parallel between academia and entrepreneurship: the necessity of defining who you are, as distinct from everyone else around you. The scholar must distinguish his or her research from others’ in order to get published, and in the same way, the entrepreneur must distinguish his or her products or services from the others on the market. We all have to sell ourselves, one way or another!

  2. I’m in a very similar position! My son is now 7 months old but this consulting business found me. I hired a great coach to get me through my writing stage and she has been sending me some clients she cannot take on anymore. I thought I didn’t want an academic job throughout my studies but being on the “other” job market, I have found it incredibly difficult to make a transition. There are aspects of academia that I love, so I am looking forward to reading more.

    • Thanks for reading. In my experience, consulting is a profession that offers lots of options for academics (or former academics) who want to incorporate the aspects of academia they find most rewarding. I hope my next posts help you to do just that!

  3. As a woman entrepreneur in and otherwise male-dominated industry, I am constantly dismayed by the fact that I have to justify my role as a businessperson and an employer to people who don’t have the slightest idea of the value that Small-business owners have to both our economy and society as a whole. Especially during the ’99 percent’ demonstrations of a few years ago, I watched the news reports and felt ashamed for daring to have a profitable business that employed over a dozen hard-working people so it’s nice to see someone from academia eloquently demonstrate the capitalistic/entrepreneurial spirit.

    • I appreciate your reply. When I was in graduate school (PhD, English), I specialized in 19th-century American literature. Reading Herman Melville’s accounts of the whaling industry, Mark Twain’s (often veiled) descriptions of Gilded Age society, and various kinds of rags-to-riches narratives, I gave lots of thought to the complicated relationship, in American history, between the pioneering, enterprising, industrializing spirit on the one hand and progressive, liberal ideals on the other. The former can verge on exploitative and the latter can sometimes be disconnected from reality. Ultimately I concluded that being entrepreneurial and being socially conscious don’t have to be mutually exclusive–and in fact, very often aren’t. Being an entrepreneur actually puts me in a better position to help others than I might have been otherwise.

  4. Pingback: Small Business Ownership II: Take What You Love, Leave What You Don’t –Horton #2 | The Professor Is In

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  6. Thank you I like your story and completely understand. In todays world capitalism seems under attack and mistakenly so. I was a teacher in Chicago and now have my own tiny tea company and write on the side. My tea company is designed so that I can contribute more and help protect people as well as nature from toxic pesticides. Without capitalism, I couldn’t do that.

    Living is an adventure and for some that does lead to creating your own business. Perhaps the small business owners and entrepreneurs need to be classified as creative capitalists, rather than being put under the same umbrella as sectors like the energy industry. I admire you and think you’re doing the right thing for you and your family at this time. Who knows that may change but for now there’s no reason to feel guilty or feel you have to explain why you are doing this rather than remaining in academia. Please know many times I feel as though I’m in the same boat.

    Best to you!

  7. Pingback: The 4 Terrors of the Academic Entrepreneur | The Professor Is In

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