Independent scholar, cat addict, tattoo lover

Considering becoming an indy scholar? 5 tips to get you started…

By Floor Basten

You’re approaching the end of your PhD. While considering your alternatives for work, why not flirt with entrepreneurship? In 2003, almost a year after I left the university, as a postdoc, I decided to start my own business. Twelve years since, I have learned some things I’ll share here with you, so that entrepreneurship can enter your window of opportunities.

First and foremost, tell everyone you know you’re thinking about starting your own business. As long as people think you’re employed by a university, they assume you’re taken care of, at least financially. The minute you start talking about setting up your own business, they’ll think along with you and come up with ideas and potential clients. Don’t seclude yourself in the attic writing a Five-Year Plan (Soviet Union style!) by way of business plan. Include your personal network and have them introduce you to their networks, and from thereof you can start growing a professional network. Use LinkedIn to showcase your work.

Secondly, build a portfolio that illustrates how you helped what kind of clients. This is different from your academic resume. For most non-academics, your specific expertise/PhD project is abracadabra. Furthermore, academic origins suggest to them a lofty inclination to theory and a clumsiness with practice. Yet, most clients don’t struggle with theoretical issues. Their challenges are in practice. Research can be one of the solutions so your expertise can help them out. Your particular research experience can be in completely different fields, but you know your methods, so be creative. If your PhD thesis is about Papua New Guinea, remember that organizations, urban areas and all other sorts of communities can be analyzed as societies. Think about how to translate your expertise into a potential offer for a client.

Thirdly, don’t give away your expertise like candy on Halloween! You’ve worked hard and invested a lot to become the expert you are now. Temper your desire to build an impressive portfolio asap and resist the temptation to work for free. Here are some pitfalls to avoid:

  • Clients will attempt to seduce you to work in exchange for ‘network’ and ‘name’. In some cases this works out well, but in others you end up being the only unpaid individual in the room as the others cash their salaries at the end of the month. Inexperience in entrepreneurship is no reason to lower your price. Prospective clients will thank you for the work you put into designing research which they can now do themselves. No need to see all prospectives as potential profiteers, but some vigilance is necessary.
  • You can be asked to be on board a project that never starts. The hours spent aren’t necessarily wasted as you can benefit from contacts and ideas in future projects, but be careful not to invest weeks into nothing—and you might want to reconsider future invitations by people who turned out unable to successfully land a project. Having said this, you can never invoice every minute of work, so don’t be too stiff with the quid pro quo.

Fourthly, entrepreneurship calls for investment, for instance in your own research program. This helps you bring coherence into your projects and it increases visibility, expert status and credibility. Use social media. Blog about your observations, participate in discussions on your subject via Twitter. When I started, I focused on the narrative method I developed for my PhD. This wasn’t an easy route, as ‘narrative’ wasn’t very en vogue then. Although it can be applied to any subject—and in fact I did, from educational innovation to soil sanitation—the breadth of subjects was confusing for clients. I decided to make a clear choice and given some recent large-scale projects, I now present myself as an expert in urban development based on the initiatives of residents and local entrepreneurs (not that I decline research on other subjects). Make sure to clearly profile your qualities too. If you’re a researcher with little experience in advice, don’t call yourself a consultant, even if this resonates more with clients. I introduce myself as a researcher and once I teamed up with experienced consultants, we can offer the full package—and it’s nice to work with others.

Last but not least, help your client. Elsewhere I explained the difference between how academics help each other and how clients want to be helped. In a nutshell, where academics use criticism in a peer-review setting, clients consider this to be yelling. They look for solutions that don’t hurt them. That doesn’t preclude criticism, but means that criticism isn’t the primary focus of your research. While you may have learnt to speak truth to power, remember two things. One, your clients aren’t stupid. Often they understand the truth perfectly but work within the constraints of power balances that are carefully and subtly negotiated. The outcome may not be ideal, but it may be the worst except for all others. You calling out the elephant in the room can be insulting and destructive—you wouldn’t consider that a perfect strategy in a university context either. Two, again, your clients aren’t stupid. Their truth matters as much as yours. Don’t ignore, or worse, deny their perspective on the matter. They’ve probably been thinking about their problems long before they asked you to help them. Use their experiences and insights, acknowledge their expertise.

So there you have ‘em, five pointers that should set you right on your way to becoming an indy scholar. There’s more to say about this, so I started a weekly blog. Follow me via @BlanchefleurX for weekly updates.