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Careers Café

Creating your own work


Finding work doesn’t necessarily require finding a job. Some academics turn to entrepreneurship to provide some or all of their work and income.

Dr. Kathryn Allan happens to be one such former academic. After completing her PhD in English Literature, she launched an editing business.  While her degree was clearly relevant in terms of honing her facility with language, it also proved to be generally useful.

“In many ways, running your own business is like being a graduate student: there are multiple deadlines that need managing, it’s independent work with little (to no) supervision, and you choose the clients and projects you work on.” In short, grad school trained her to be “a self-sufficient worker with good time management skills.”

Of course, skills aren’t the only key to self-employment. If putting yourself out there on the job search is tough, putting yourself out there to potential clients can be even more intimidating (and is an ongoing part of running your own business).

Kathryn initially found it “difficult to translate academic skills into non-academic language and find the confidence to start out in a new field of work. It can be scary to start working outside of an institution where there are no longer clear guidelines on how to be a worker.”

She also needed to develop new skills—ones not necessarily taught in most graduate environments, like marketing, pricing services or products, and preparing estimates. If you’re contemplating starting your own business, Kathryn’s experience can save you heart- and wallet-ache. Like many entrepreneurs, she wishes that she had devoted more effort to researching pricing and to developing relationships with potential customers: “I simply undervalued myself and ended up doing a lot of work for which I should have been better compensated.”

John Aylen, of (the dreadfully named but comprehensive) Starting and Running a Small Business for Canadians for Dummies All-in-One, echoes Kathryn’s experience and highlights a few more potholes to avoid. He advises academics turning to entrepreneurship to know their market, because “education is not a substitute for market analysis and planning.” That said, a graduate education can lend credibility, so John recommends mentioning academic credentials in marketing and networking materials.

Along with knowing one’s market and having a business plan, John suggests being conservative when estimating how long it will take for your business to become profitable. That’s the bad news. The good news is that business owners don’t necessarily fit—or need to fit—the entrepreneur stereotype. John sums it up: “there is an entrepreneurial type, but most business owners aren’t that type.” You don’t have to be confident and skilled in business right off the bat.  Your graduate education provides you with expertise that you can use to make your business successful while you develop your confidence over time, and while you outsource or work on your business skills. Just as you’d bring your unique characteristics to any job you do, no matter how many other people have that same job title, so would you bring that same mix to your own business venture.

As both Kathryn and John advise, though, draw on that most highly-developed academic skill and do your research first.  And keep your eyes open for more people like Kathryn and John—people who can be mentors to help you hop over the potholes, find the good resources and learn from their successes.

Liz Koblyk
Liz Koblyk is the associate director of the Wilson Leadership Scholar Award at McMaster University.
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