Independent scholar, cat addict, tattoo lover

Life and work of an indy scholar part 8 – In my previous blog I listed some of the things that can keep you from being a successful entrepreneur, all of them involving not having your priorities straight. This week I take a more positive approach and talk about ways to get your indy mojo running. One of the most important assets is a good story. There are two issues you need to take into account and some tricks that will get you into your trade.

The two issues both have to do with how clients see you as an indy scholar. When you have a PhD and you don’t work at a university, some clients may think not only that you’re out of place, but also that you must be out of place for a reason. Maybe you’re not good enough for academia, maybe you lack ambition, maybe whatever. The fact that today 80 percent of the PhDs leave university and that the remaining 20 percent are the odd ducks is a fact unknown to your clients, because it’s from a world they don’t know nor care about really. To them, the traditional equation ‘PhD = university’ is still current no matter what the modern reality is. Perhaps you feel mistreated by university, and perhaps even rightly so. Academia can be a downright battlefield.[1] Keep your indignation to yourself, clients are usually not that charmed by bitterness and it actually tells them you still have your head, heart and energy elsewhere instead of with them. They like to feel first place, not second best. When asked, just say your indy scholarship gives you more freedom and better opportunities to contribute to a better society. Underscore what you like about your indy scholarship and whatever you do, don’t mention the war.
There’s another perception of PhDs and that’s that they’re nerds. We can be. Yesterday I hosted a workshop on entrepreneurship for doctors and that involved some role playing. I pretended to be a health insurance company that wanted to reduce falls in hospitals. I asked the PhDs, ‘What would you have to offer me for solving my problem?’ One of the participants answered, ‘I would send you a nice article I recently read.’ Obviously, that’s not how indy scholarship is done. What our clients need from us is that we merge our theoretical knowledge with their practical problems. And more often than not, they like us to remain silent about theory and just use it implicitly. Personally, I have no problem with that anymore. I now save my exhibitionism and flaunting with theory for the academic journals and conferences. But I must admit it took some time to shake it off for clients.

How then can you create an attractive story that will get you clients? A story without your personal disappointment or theory galore? Of course, this depends on what you have to sell, but only partly so. A successful narrative will make your potential clients’ choice for you an obvious one to them. For instance, your proposition fits their question seamlessly. Or, the other way around, your proposition surprises them and the timing is perfect, because they’re in for something new. Either way, they think you have something that helps them. These last words are key. Every narrative has a subject that wants to attain a goal. Along the way she meets helpers and adversaries. From your point of view, you are the star of the show and your goal is to shine as an indy scholar. But from your clients’ viewpoint, they are the heroes of their story and you are but one of the potentially helpful resources. To enter their horizon as such, you need to make clear that you understand their goal and show how you can help them reach it. For most entrepreneurs this is stating the obvious, but for most academics it isn’t. We learn how to position ourselves in the scientific community with a story that is mostly about our individual (or team) efforts and successes. In short, in academia we build our ego. That’s helpful in that particular arena, but not in the business arena, where you play the servant’s role. Also, we learn the academic version of ‘help’, which is quite different from the help our clients need (read more here). You need to reposition yourself as the story character who joins the hero on her way to a happy ending.
But obviously your PhD experience isn’t completely hostile to your indy scholarship. You can exploit most of the skills you’ve acquired. As in your research, you don’t create a field out of the blue but access one in medias res. So as in your PhD, you join an ongoing conversation and can make use of shared points of reference to enter it smoothly. Make sure everybody knows you entered the field. Write blogs, give presentations, contribute to books, show up at conferences and create an audience. And as in your PhD, you demonstrate what sets you apart, makes you unique. Use your creativity and imagination to profile yourself as an expert in a particular field. Mine is narrative sociology in urban renewal by residents and local entrepreneurs. Potential clients find me via my websites and social media, but more often via word of mouth. That’s also similar to the positioning you do in your PhD. Nobody owns the field you’re in and you don’t unilaterally control what’s going on in there, but you can exercise some influence in where it’s going. And if you do it well, your clients will include you in the stories they tell others. Getting your mojo running starts with finding the flow you can attune to. A successful story is about striking the right balance between blending in and standing out. The communicative skills are the same as for your PhD, only the community you address is different.

I’m not sure about what I’ll be writing about next week. If you have any suggestions, please let me know via floorbasten@orleon.nl.

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[1] This was one of the outcomes of my PhD research in 2000. I published about it, see for instance Metaphor in Action in an Academic Battlefield, Through the looking glass. A narrative of non change, Narrating around and How metaphors (re)produce culture.

Part 7: If it smells cheesy, rethink your priorities          Part 9: Making money or monkey business         All weekly blogs