Jennifer Polk

Coach at From PhD to Life

A Ph.D.’s Path to Entrepreneurship


Note: We’ve got Quit Lit in two phases today. Below, Jennifer Polk, career coach and blogger at From Ph.D. to Life, explains why scholars are well-prepared for what comes next. And here's Joe Fruscione on getting out in the first place.

Two years ago this month, I defended and submitted my dissertation. Now I’m a self-employed postacademic Ph.D. with a growing coaching business.

Getting from there to here was a roundabout journey. Not long ago, the idea of running my own business seemed impossible. I’m not from a family of entrepreneurs, and I have minimal work experience outside academia, so I didn't see myself as entrepreneurial, whatever that meant.

It took me a while to realize what is now obvious: Ph.D.’s are well-suited to being their own bosses. As a humanities graduate student, I managed my own projects from beginning to end, with no one telling me on a regular basis what to do or how to do it. In general, doctoral students are incredibly self-motivated and driven: to plan, research, write, present, teach, apply, report, submit, budget, edit, navigate bureaucracy, and manage their own time and their supervisors’ expectations. And we do this with limited funding, drawing on our creativity and resourcefulness to accomplish our goals.

I now work with graduate students and Ph.D.’s.—all creative, resourceful, smart individuals—who come to me because they feel stuck or lost in some part of their work or life. Here’s what I tell them: You have the skills to strike out on your own. I know because, not long ago, I felt just like you.

A little over a year ago, I was spinning my wheels. I was sick of academia and had no interest in going on the academic market—well, I couldn’t avoid peeking at listings now and again—but I wasn’t sure what to do next. I was frustrated and committed to moving forward, but didn’t know how.

So I hired a coach. She helped me immensely. And that’s one reason I’m now following in her footsteps.

For a few months, though, my postacademic story was less than thrilling. I freelanced occasionally as a researcher or virtual assistant—as I had in grad school—so I could bring in some cash. My future job prospects seemed poor, and I felt like a loser.

Then, in December 2012, I started a blog called From PhD to Life. My intentions were to chronicle my journey and to provide resources and support—both of which were sorely lacking—to other Ph.D.’s seeking nonacademic employment. Through the blog, I happened upon a community of alternative- and post-academics online that gave me new purpose. I was committed to figuring out my place in the workforce, but I discovered, to my surprise, that I was equally committed to helping others through their own transitions.

As I learned more about myself and about what my options might be, I could feel my story beginning to change. I stopped looking at academic job postings completely. I drastically cut the time I’d once spent searching for nonacademic work. Instead, I spent my time reflecting, doing informational interviews with an array of working professionals, and getting an ever-clearer picture of what I wanted my next job to be.

As it turned out, I didn’t want a job at all; instead I wanted to have my own business and do meaningful, challenging work that directly benefited individuals and communities. The freelance research I’d done was never as exciting, rewarding, or lucrative as I wanted it to be. Being a coaching client, reading about the field, and talking with people who coached others for a living made me think it was something I needed to try.

Six months ago, and a year after graduating from the University of Toronto with a Ph.D. in history, I went back to school to learn coaching skills. I began the "Foundations" program offered by Mentor Coach, a training institute accredited by the International Coach Federation. I never thought I'd take a class again, but I'm currently enrolled in one weekly one-hour course, completed another one in January, and will sign up for a third and fourth in the coming months. Some of my classmates have Ph.D.’s, too. (Two of us joined forces in December to offer a free telephone workshop for graduate students—and we got class credit for doing it.)

A month into my first class I started practicing my coaching skills on real, live people (read: non-classmates). And that’s when I knew my choice to pursue coaching was the right one. Over the past seven months, I've done more than 100 hours' worth of initial consultations and individual and group-coaching sessions. My work is fascinating, fun, and fulfilling. I get paid to listen and ask questions—two of my very favorite things to do—and I get to see the immediate impact of my work. Most weeks I spend three hours coaching and being coached by my Mentor Coach classmates. There's much to learn, but I'm pleased with my progress so far.

As I write this, I'm looking forward to a busy day: finishing and submitting this column, conducting three coaching sessions, hosting a Twitter chat. By the end of the week, I'll have had a number of client calls, completed another module of coaching skills class (topic: using metaphors with clients to create self-awareness), collaborated on coursework with a classmate, posted to my blog, promoted my business online and off, updated my website and client files, and sent out my monthly newsletter, among other tasks. What I'm doing now is not radically different than what I did as a Ph.D. student: I’m still responsible for budgeting my time, still juggling writing and research (of a sort), still searching for ways to stay as productive as possible.

What is different is my attitude toward business and money. When I was in graduate school, and for a time thereafter, I believed that I existed in a space largely unsullied by capitalism. I did not, of course, and had plenty of evidence to the contrary. (A case in point: At the beginning of my master’s program my supervisor discovered to his great horror—when we students couldn’t locate documents he’d sent us to find—that the university library had summarily shredded a series of irreplaceable Russian history reference materials to make way for a coffee shop.)

Finally recognizing the irrelevance and absurdity of the “selling out” narrative made my nonacademic options much more palatable. It also helped me embrace my talents, skills, and the service I provide people as saleable. I set and charge fees with growing confidence. (In fact, my editor prompted me to write this paragraph, because I’d forgotten that what is obvious to me now is almost anathema among academics!) My earnings don’t yet cover my expenses, but I am in this to make a buck. As are we all.

That said, money matters, but it’s not what drives me. I love what I’m doing, and can envision an exciting future for myself helping others, something I couldn’t do when I was freelancing. Everything I do is fun (well, almost everything) and fulfills a need for my clients: for support, community, personal growth, motivation, etc. Doing work that engages me keeps me motivated to tackle less fun tasks. And, I’m taking business building one step at a time, figuring out as I go what I need to do.

This is not to say that what’s right for me will be right for one of my clients, or for you. But if you’re contemplating a move away from academia, keep this in mind: Many scholars are doing as I am, beginning businesses and cobbling together income from multiple sources. Sure, entrepreneurship can seem daunting. But you’re much more qualified for it than you might think.

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  • Bravo, Jen! Congrats on your success. I agree that academics have great skills for entrepreneurship in terms of discipline, time management, organization, attention to detail, etc. What works against academics is the habit of turning to an institution for every need, from salary to legitimation to identity. This habit of dependency is debilitating, the more so because it's usually totally unconscious. The biggest challenge for academics, to my mind, is to realize that you CAN chart a path independent of institutional legitimation and funding.

    Karen Kelsky Karen Kelsky
  • You really can! I think the best part for me is that what I'm doing now aligns fantastically well with who I am as a person. Academia didn't fit me nearly as well. (See what I did there?)

    Jennifer Polk Jennifer Polk
  • This was just what I needed to read! I'm ABD, looking for funding opportunities for my dissertation, but the thought of not engaging with people and organizations outside of academia feels more like a prison sentence than freedom to complete my dissertation without distraction. I feel like the only way I will be able to complete my PhD without losing my sanity is to engage in something in tandem, something that fulfills my passions and utilizes the skills I've developed. Thank you so much for this article! And congratulations on all you have accomplished!

    Jennifer Kerner Jennifer Kerner
  • Hello Jen,

    My name is Shawn Warren. I am an expatriate Canadian living in Redmond, Washington. I have a PhD in philosophy and did the adjunct thing for a little over 10 years. Now, thanks to a wife with an excellent paying job, am at home writing a book that presents an alternative model for the provision of higher education. This model is original and entrepreneurial in nature so I thought it might interest you.

    Here is a link to an initiation document:

    I agree that PhDs have many skills necessary for entrepreneurship. I had my own business during my Masters studies and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. It was also during my Masters that I developed this alternative HE model based on the professions (e.g., attorney, physicians, accountants, etc).

    The model allows academics to open entrepreneurial, private practices and offer their expertise to the public (e.g. students) for academic credit. It essentially cuts out the middleman institutions such as universities and colleges and allows academics to independently provide the services they are currently hired by these institutions to provide. In fact, the model is superior to the current institutional model on every metric that matters, from cost to quality to access, and finally to the right of academics to earn a living (in higher education, the sector that is typically their aim).

    I hope you have time to read some of my arguments for this model on the Professional Society of Academics blog. On a business note, If the model were in place I could see a large market for your services, helping to establish and manage new professional academic practices in every field. If you have any questions please feel free to contact me.

    Shawn Warren Shawn Warren