Josh Boldt

Technology Director at University of Kentucky

The Academic Side Hustle

Full hustle 4 1

Original Image: Do the Hustle / New York Hustle Incorporated

For years, I’ve advocated the “side hustle” for academics interested in making a career change. Having a backup plan is especially important for adjuncts and other non-tenure-track faculty for whom a contract can expire, quickly and without warning. You might wake up one day to find that student enrollment has dropped,that funding has dried up, or that you’re just plain tired of working for low pay and no health insurance. When that day comes, you want to be ready to hit the ground running.

Maybe you’ve always wanted to start a small business or you’re excited by the prospect of setting your own hours, learning new skills, or simply testing your mettle. Start small and grow until you are ready to make the leap. In academia, I think we sometimes put ourselves in a box and assume we don’t have transferable skills that are valuable in the outside world. That’s not true at all.

What are your strengths and interests? How does your academic experience complement those strengths? And how can they be translated into a side hustle that will make you happy and earn you money?

While you’re answering those questions for yourself, consider the following list of transferable skills you may have learned in graduate school that you can put to work outside of academe. That’s exactly the strategy I used to escape the adjunct trap — I built on my academic work experience.

  • Editing. Notice I’m specifying editing here and not writing. I hate to say it but average writers are a dime a dozen and most businesses can’t tell or don’t care enough to pay for the difference between adequate writing and great writing. But a good editor has a valuable skill. Can you take someone else’s writing and make it great? Think college admissions essays, scholarship applications, or cover letters — any piece of writing where even a slight increase in presentation can make all the difference.
  • Web design. These days you can learn almost anything on the web if you have the patience to study and practice. And most of the training is free. I picked up all of my web-design knowledge by reading and practicing on nights and weekends. I happen to like Treehouse for learning new tech skills because it’s easy and inexpensive. I can’t overemphasize how valuable these skills have been for my career, when combined with my previous experience in writing and editing.
  • User experience and/or content strategy. You don’t even need much technical knowledge to join the web-design fun. New career fields — like user-experience design and content strategy — are growing fast. If you have empathy and you understand how to reach a target market, then you already have a step in the right direction. Highlight the audience-awareness skills you learned as a teacher and writer. Lots of companies hire user-experience specialists and content-strategy consultants for project-based work.
  • Research. If you’re an academic, your research skills are about as strong as they can get. There are plenty of opportunities to work as a freelance researcher. Local law firms are a good place to start.
  • Build things. Good with your hands? Try making furniture, jewelry, or art. Set up at the farmer’s market on Saturday mornings and, bingo, you have an instant side income.
  • Tutoring. An old standby for freelancing academics. Target people who are working to achieve a specific goal. Get very specific. Don’t just say you are a math tutor. Say you specialize in increasing math SAT scores for high-school seniors. And then make sure you learn how to do that, of course. Also keep in mind that tutoring can be done online as well as in person.
  • Powerpoint, Prezi, or speechwriting skills. If you can make someone look good during their presentation to the board members or at their regional sales meeting, they will pay you for it. Turn their notes into an impressive speech or Prezi.
  • Child care, pet care, or elder care. Maybe your side hustle will focus more on soft skills. Are you good with kids? Love dogs? Patient with the elderly? Why not get paid to do what you enjoy? Bonus: Work like this also doubles as a kind of ethnography or historiography. Might as well turn on the recorder and get some quality oral history while you’re at it.
  • Podcasts. Is it me or are podcasts having a moment? There are some really great podcasts out there right now, and some of them are making good money from advertisers. Granted you would have to build a large audience to make money, but it’s possible and it doesn’t cost anything to get started.
  • Teach local classes. I’ve been wanting to take classes locally on beer and wine appreciation to learn more about flavor profiles and brewing styles. I’d gladly pay someone who is knowledgeable on the subject. Frankly, I wouldn’t care a bit about their degrees or their work history, or even if they’ve ever taught a class on the subject. I just want someone who knows beer and wine. Another thought: Declare yourself a local tour guide. That is especially valuable if you can carve out a niche for your tour business, such as Civil War history, ghost stories, or celebrity/pop culture. Work up a city route with a few landmarks and get going.

As you consider which side hustle to pursue, one detail I want to stress is the importance of finding a niche in whatever market you choose. The niche is a crucial piece of the side hustle. You have to drill down far enough to be a unique specialist on a certain topic: Be a researcher who specializes in immigration law, a web designer who excels at Wordpress for photography businesses, a dog sitter who works with small breeds that suffer from separation anxiety.

Specializing helps you stand out from the crowd. The key is to find a marketable talent that is specific enough to limit your competition, but that still has a big enough client base to grow.

Any of these side hustles can be started today with little or no investment. You just have to decide to do it. I know from personal experience how many adjuncts are out there barely scraping by. Ideally, colleges and universities would stop the exploitation and start paying their contingent faculty a living wage. But don’t hold your breath. Why wait on someone else when you can start building a career of your own today?

I love hearing success stories. What’s your academic side hustle? What advice do you have for someone who is considering a new career adventure?

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