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From PhD to Life

Let’s talk money


In this post I’m going to tell you how much money I’m making and how I’m making it. I’m doing this because I think it’s important to have conversations about money, especially among freelancers. I want to help potential business owners learn more about the process of starting out, and I share my own experience in the hopes that it helps other beginner solopreneurs, too.

I’ve been self-employed since I finished my PhD. I did freelance and informal contract work in the months following my defense and then began building my own coaching business about a year after my graduation. I didn’t apply to any jobs in that time, though I did consider doing so on many occasions.

My excuse for not applying was that I had a good amount of personal savings. This is an uncommon situation for doctoral graduates, and I thank both privilege and choices I made over many years for my financial cushion. Without the absolute necessity of earning money, I could afford not to apply. At first that generally meant not applying for a postdoc or academic position; later it meant not stressing out too much about not applying for other jobs. And even later, after a particularly awful work experience, it meant I decided to quit freelancing entirely.

Well, quitting turned out to be one of the best things I ever did. Two or three weeks later I signed up for a coaching course. A month after that I had my first paying client — $10 a session. That was in the summer of 2013, and I’ve since taken more courses (with MentorCoach) and worked with well over 100 paying clients, raising my rates along the way. I’ve also earned money from writing and blogging, the Beyond the Professoriate conference — coming again in 2016! — and, increasingly, from speaking engagements on campus or at academic conferences. Here’s the approximate breakdown by year, including all sources of income related to From PhD to Life:

2013: $3,000 net income.
2014: $10,000 net income.
2015: $20,000 net income (so far).

I’m hopeful that I can get to $30,000 in 2016. That’s the minimum I need to cover living expenses.

Here’s how my earnings break down by income stream: Just over 10 percent of my earnings thus far in 2015 come from writing, blogging and speaking combined. That number should rise in 2016. About 25 percent is thanks to the online conference, which is a major undertaking. The bulk of my earnings come from one-on-one coaching work with clients. My business expenses — not including phone and internet — will come to about $4,000/year, including professional development, books, and online services such as ScheduleOnce and Edgar.

I work full time on this business, and I think I’ve made good progress given where I started and the work I’ve put in. I launched my coaching business as I was learning how to coach. This is, I think, unusual. Most people will do freelance work on the side for several years before going solo full-time. Katie Rose Guest Pryal did this over the course of 8 years, for example. Or, they’ll build up expertise and a reputation over years of employment in an industry, which is what Melanie Nelson did before quitting her last job to work entirely for herself.

My plans for growing my income are two-fold: First, continue to increase the number of clients I have (I’m nearly full nowadays) and continue to book paid speaking engagements (now booking for 2016!). Second, build other products and services, particularly ones that don’t rely on me trading my time for money. As you know, I’m drafting a short book, and aim to turn that content into other products, such as an online course. Having offerings that will scale, that is, products that I can sell 10 times or 1,000 times without putting in that much extra work, is the key to sustainability for me. There’s only so much I’m willing to raise my coaching fees given who my preferred clients are, and I only have so much energy and time for paid work. Not much point in a stressed-out life coach, eh?

If you’ve got a side gig that you hope to turn into a full-time job one day, know that you can absolutely accomplish this! Or, if you want to jump mostly head-first into a new industry, as I did, you can also do this. But in either case, it might take you a few years. In the meantime, you’ll want to keep your day job or rely on savings or a partner to cover your living costs.

Was this useful? I’d love to hear from others who are starting their own businesses or working freelance on the side.

Jennifer Polk
Jennifer Polk is a career coach and entrepreneur. She earned her PhD in history from the University of Toronto in 2012. For more information and resources, check out her website:
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  1. John Robertson / November 11, 2015 at 13:32

    I work freelance on the side, at several things, and recently had to take down all mentions of it from my websites because I was getting too busy to keep it as a side gig (yet nowhere near secure enough in my flow of work to quit my day job). That was a time of much hand-wringing — there’s a big gap between being over-booked with only ~10 hrs/week available and trying to find ~40 hrs/week of work to go full-time.

    One of the main things I used to do was investment coaching or “investment technical support” for people. For a few hours per client, a weekend or two per month, I’d bring in maybe $2-3000/yr in side income. Then I had a similar thought to what you had there: most people are facing the same set of problems, I can write a book to address this and it will be scalable, etc. I did the Fermi math (15,000,000 Canadians in the target demographic and ~10% of them should or in surveys already said that they want to become successful do-it-yourself investors but need help getting started, maybe ~1-10% of those will actually pick up the book = massive scale!) and dove into writing, testing, revising, writing, editing, testing, revising, publishing, promoting…

    Of course, writing a book is a lot more effort than sitting down with people. So while the book has helped a lot more people than I ever could have meeting them one at a time, it’s still well shy of those scale estimates (0.06% of those…). For my own personal income I would have been far better off just spending more time meeting with clients (I’d have more money in my pocket and burned less of my leisure time) or taking on more editing freelance work. But that’s where the risk in business comes in, and risking a year’s worth of evenings and weekends is not the end of the world (and it’s not like I could schedule clients for the 8pm-12am block when much of the writing happened).

    • Jennifer Polk / November 15, 2015 at 12:16

      Thanks for sharing some of your experience, John! It’s tricky, all this, eh? A friend of mine is working evenings and weekends to put together an online course. So that will eventually be his version of passive income, in the way that yours was the book. But he’d have to build up quite a side business, money-wise, to be ok quitting his FT permanent job. It’s a risk he may take one day, or not. So much depends on so much! All really interesting, this stuff.

  2. GBKB / November 11, 2015 at 13:34

    Great to see a piece on this topic. I’ve done consulting work throughout my graduate studies and have had numerous students approach me about money. Its a difficult subject to discuss for personal reasons, but also difficult to advise others on what to charge for their services in the absence of knowledge about their skills and experience. It should be clear from this piece that one can charge more based on having gained experience from past contracts and with additional professional training.

    I want to reinforce the fact that one can also build up an independent business part-time, aside from TA/RA duties, and Tri-Council funding. The trick is, like most of grad school, time management. As a contract research consultant I found it somewhat awkard to negotiate money with professors, who often presumed I would work for going grad student rates. Sorry, a consultant with a masters degree makes way more than a typical grad student. However, I often found it worthwhile to consider investing in relationships worthwhile as well, and academic politics are always something to keep in mind.

    In any case, good topic for discussion. I’d be curious to learn varying rates for coaching like this. E.g, how much does the most experienced coach make, per hour, or per session (how long is a session)? Dr. Polk hints at balancing one’s personal ethics with rates charged for particular clients and audiences, this is also an interesting topic worthwhile for future discussion perhaps?

    • Jennifer Polk / November 15, 2015 at 12:12

      Very cool! Thanks for this. Rates vary enormously, and there’s variety in session time, too. I find 30 minutes is good for my clients, and the majority do monthly (4-session) engagements with me.

  3. Hillary Hutchinson / November 13, 2015 at 15:42

    Great post, Jen! Not very often you get to see a new coach being completely honest about their financial situation, and it’s really important. It’s also nice to see that you have an upward trend in terms of income even though it may have taken you a few years to get there, and you are still working on true sustainability. I look forward to reading your ebook about the emotional pain of transition “From PhD to Life.”

    • Jennifer Polk / November 15, 2015 at 12:09

      Thanks Hillary! It’s really helped me to have conversations with other self-employed folk about money. We and our businesses are all different, but it’s useful to have some context.