The Tenured Entrepreneur

Haven’t gotten a raise in several years? It’s time to peddle your skills on the open market

Kevin Trotman / Creative Commons

March 09, 2015

As a full-time, tenured faculty member and emerging entrepreneur, I was fascinated by Katie Rose Guest Pryal’s recent Vitae post, "The University Is Just Another Client." She argues that contingent faculty members, especially those who teach at multiple campuses, should start thinking of themselves as freelancers and their institutions as clients—meaning, among other things, that they should not give their work away free.

But here’s the line in her essay that really caught my eye: "If you are a tenure-track professor … and you’ve noticed that higher education might not be able to sustain you either, then I’m also talking to you."

I came to that exact realization a few years ago, after receiving my last promotion and struggling through several years without so much as a cost-of-living raise. The resulting epiphany has changed the way I look at my work, revitalized my career, and improved my life immeasurably.

For the record: I enjoy my job and feel very fortunate to even have one in this academic market. I know I am one of the lucky ones. But I still have a family to support, bills to pay, braces and college tuition to fund, and luck will only take you so far. It dawned on me a few years ago that if the state wasn’t going to give me a raise, then I would have to give one to myself.

This is a sensitive subject, which is why I’m writing it under a pseudonym. To be completely honest, my other motivation for seeking freelance work is that I have become somewhat disenchanted with higher education—the business of it, not the vocation. Once I was as idealistic as any professor. I loved my institution and constantly volunteered for anything I thought would promote it or make it better. But a series of events that took place over several years led me to realize, finally, that my institution probably loves me a lot less than I love it. Even for the tenured, loyalty is not necessarily a two-way street in higher education.

That didn’t make me want to quit my job and do something else instead. It made me want to do something else in addition to my faculty job, something over which I would have more control.

So I did. Although it didn’t come naturally to me at first, I became an entrepreneur, or what Pryal calls a freelancer. I began peddling my hard-earned skills—teaching, training, speaking, writing, editing—on the open market. The result? Last year I grossed about a third of my annual teaching salary in additional income. And I have plans to improve on that in the near future by reinvesting some of the profits and expanding my business.

If you find yourself in a similar position—a tenured professor with too little income and no obvious next step, careerwise—and you’re considering taking the plunge as an entrepreneur, here’s what you need to do:

Identify your marketable skills. Pryal’s Vitae column covers this step pretty thoroughly, and I see no reason to reproduce her effort here. Suffice it to say, you might be surprised at just how marketable some of your faculty skills really are.

For example, when I began editing for a local web designer, I discovered that even educated people don’t write particularly well. Most of the jobs I did for that company involved working with existing content. The customer just wanted the designer to make it look better. To his credit, the designer understood that it also needed to read better, and he was willing to pay me $60 an hour to accomplish that.

Good teaching—the ability to present information clearly in a manner that people can understand and relate to—is also a highly marketable skill. Obviously, our government-funded educational system doesn’t value it very highly, but there are plenty of organizations out there willing to pay top dollar for good speakers and trainers. Your skill as a presenter is something that can’t be taught, and companies know that.

Identify potential markets. Once you’ve decided what you can do to earn extra money, you have to find someone who will actually pay you to do it.

A good place to start is with friends, family members, and acquaintances who might be in a position to hire you or know someone who could. These could be friends from your schools days who have gone into other fields, family members who have their own businesses, former colleagues who have left academe, or people in your social circle outside of work. (Here’s a handy tip for the budding professorial entrepreneur: Have a social circle outside of work.) Call up some of those people, take them out for coffee, tell them what you’re trying to do, pick their brains. And don’t be afraid to ask them for work, or at least a referral.

A simple Google search will reveal numerous marketplaces for writers, editors, speakers, and so forth. As is always the case with the Internet, some of those options might be a bit dodgy. But picking out the legitimate ones is where your research and reasoning skills will come in handy. You should also have a profile on LinkedIn—completely separate from your faculty profile—that outlines what you view as your marketable skills. Then work at building your list of contacts.

The objective is to get that first freelance job—just one, to start with. That provides a line for your entrepreneurial résumé, and gets your name out there. Word of mouth is incredibly important: From working with that one web designer, whom I knew personally to begin with, I’ve gotten work from two other web designers.

Market yourself. That, for me, has been the hardest part, mostly because "selling" doesn’t come naturally to me. I suspect that’s the case for many academics.

It’s also extremely time-consuming. Lately I find I have time for my full-time job and my freelance work, but I don’t have time to do those two things and do the marketing necessary to bring in more work.

I just have to do it, anyway. That means setting aside time each week, or at least a couple days a month, for data mining, making phone calls, working LinkedIn and other social media sites, and writing and sending marketing emails.

Every day, I make myself do at least one thing that could potentially bring in extra money. Most days, that involves working on actual freelance projects, but if I have no work right then, I’ll do some marketing. And if I have as many paying projects as I can handle, as is often the case—well, I make myself do some marketing anyway, so when the current work is finished I’ll have more.

Understand that time really is money. Becoming an entrepreneur requires a significant change in mind-set: realizing that each hour of your workday actually has monetary value. As salaried faculty members, we’re not used to thinking that way. We may have idly calculated how much we make "per hour" — and the answer is usually "not much" — but that’s about as far as we’ve gone down that path.

The whole "time is money" concept didn’t really strike home for me until I started getting paid for copywriting and editing work by the hour. That led me to look at my schedule in an entirely different way: What was I spending my time doing, throughout the day? Was I getting paid for it or not? And where could I find the hours necessary to generate the extra income I needed?

The next logical question, when faced with any optional task, is: What’s in it for me? I know that goes against the grain for many professors; I used to be one of them. But I reached a point where I realized that my institution was not really looking out for me and my family. I had to do that. And anything that took too much of my time away from that goal—like excessive committee work, unnecessary meetings, and volunteer assignments—needed to go.

Of course, in academe, there are certain "extra" things you have to do just to keep your job, such as publishing articles in nonpaying venues and serving on a certain number of committees. It’s also true that there are other forms of compensation besides money. I sometimes take on additional assignments if I believe doing so might help my career in some way or earn me a certain amount of goodwill that I can leverage to my advantage down the road.

But I no longer do things for my university free, purely out of the goodness of my heart. I’ve learned the hard way that there is no future in that. There are only a certain number of working hours in the day, and I plan to use as many of those as possible to earn money. If that sounds calculated or jaded, then you’re probably not going to be very successful as an entrepreneur.

Observe clear boundaries. If you’re a full-time faculty member, tenured or not, your greatest challenge on this front will be keeping your freelance work separate from your "day job." You owe it to your employer, your colleagues, and your students to give your best effort during the hours you’re "on the clock." In addition, many institutions have rules about what you can and can’t do during working hours.

Fortunately, tenured professors tend to have flexible schedules, in terms of when they teach, hold office hours, and so forth. As my freelance business has grown, I’ve begun designing my schedule to create blocks of "free time" that I can use to earn extra money. I’ve just been very, very careful about not mixing the two. For instance, I never use my office hours, when I’m supposed to be meeting with students, to work on outside projects that have nothing to do with the university. I do almost all of my freelance work on my own time, using my own cellphone, computer, printer, email account, and website.

I say "almost," though, because there is some overlap between what I do as an entrepreneur and my day job as a professor. After all, I’m using the same skills, and there are bound to be cases where something I get paid for outside of my regular job—such as giving a lecture in my area of expertise or writing an article for a paying publication—actually qualifies as part of my job. In those cases, I don’t feel bad about using university resources. I even put those items on my CV and list them in my annual evaluation. But apart from those situations, I work hard to keep my professorial life and my freelance life as separate as possible.

Far from making me feel more cynical about my chosen profession, becoming an entrepreneur has rejuvenated my career in a way that carries over to the classroom and even to my research. I’ve never felt more content or fulfilled, professionally. And my family has enjoyed the fruits, as well.

The administration would probably not approve if they knew the full extent of my "outside activities." But the truth is that the university would be a much better place, a happier place, a more dynamic and vital place for both faculty and students, if more of my colleagues embraced the entrepreneurial spirit.

Sam Johnson is the pseudonym of a tenured professor in the humanities at a regional university in the South.