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Careers Café

Street-wise advice for PhDs?


[Undergraduates] seem to think becoming a humanities professor is a reliable prospect — a more responsible and secure choice than, say, attempting to make it as a freelance writer, or an actor, or a professional athlete. (William Pannapacker, writing as Thomas H Benton, January 2009)

I wouldn’t discourage someone from pursuing a career as a freelance writer, an actor, or a professional athlete. And I’m not going to discourage you from pursuing a career in literature, theoretical physics, or sociology either. However, I encourage you to take this comparison seriously.

The advice in a recently published book by a professor of music, Ramon Ricker, Lessons from a Street-Wise Professor: What You Won’t Learn in Most Music Schools, might help.

Just as you aren’t given a lot of advice about how to earn a living with a PhD, music students aren’t given a lot of advice about how to earn a living as a musician.

Ricker’s book aims to correct that.

The basic principle is this: Excellence in [insert your discipline here] is the basis of a successful career but it is not enough.

Ricker takes an entrepreneurial approach that focuses on what you can offer, who might pay you for that, and gives you some tools to figure out how to combine those elements into a successful career.

That career might not look like the secure, life-time job you imagined. It might look more like what career professionals call a “portfolio career” — a path in which you combine multiple means of earning an income, including traditional employment (probably part-time), freelance or self-employment, contracts, etc.

This approach to your career can seem frightening but Ricker’s book provides a lot of information about how to do it well. There is a good introduction to entrepreneurship and chapters about taxes, copyright, and other important information. He’s writing to an American audience, but the principles are a good starting point for anyone. His 96 street-level tips are incredibly valuable and pretty easy to apply to non-musical careers. (For example, when he says “stagehands” read “clerical staff”.)

There are also detailed examples of a few different career paths, demonstrating how individuals have put these principles into practice. As a classicist, chemist, or psychologist, you will have to do some work to relate these examples to your own field. Information interviews are a good way to build your own set of examples of the different options open to you.

The one piece of advice I’d add for academics is this: Sessional teaching doesn’t pay very well and does not improve your chances of getting better pay and more secure work. However, if you find teaching rewarding, it makes a good addition to your portfolio.

I highly recommend that you read this book. It could change the way you think about your career options.

Jo VanEvery is a career coach who specializes in helping academics. Find her at
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