Author Topic: Adjunct + consultant? Reorienting a professor's career  (Read 2621 times)


  • 5 O'Clock Shadow
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Adjunct + consultant? Reorienting a professor's career
« on: December 10, 2017, 11:48:54 AM »
Hi all!  I am at a turning point in my career if I need to decide if I want to stay in academia or transition into another industry.

My current situation:
--I am 33, have an English PhD, and have my dream job: a full-time lecturer at a public university teaching writing and popular culture
--My salary is $45,000 a year, which is low for my region, but I have great insurance and a 403(b) that I am currently maxing out
--I make an additional $20,000 a year from teaching-related side hustles (summer teaching, stipends for extra trainings and committee work, teaching online at another university)
--I have no debt except a mortgage, and am meeting my own saving goals
--I am married to a social worker and have a 1 year old child

In my region, the Pacific Northwest, lecturers are teaching-oriented positions with the benefits of being a full, voting faculty member, minus the expectation of research.  I designed my career to be a lecturer because I love teaching, I'm good at it, and I don't love research.

The problem?  My job is ending.  My position was only three years, and during that three-year position the lecturer job market has gotten a lot more competitive.  We have seen people who are tenured professors and former department chairs applying for lecturer jobs because our lecturer jobs pay so well and people want to move to the northwest.  I am planning on applying to other lecturer regional jobs, but I am not confident I'll get one due to the competitiveness of the applicant pool.

I do not want to get stuck in the rut of being an adjunct professor.  You've heard how bad the working conditions are.  I was an adjunct at a private college for a year, with no benefits and my classes were sometimes canceled sometimes a week before they were scheduled to start.  I don't want to go back to that.  A lot of PhDs think they don't know how to do anything but teach and research, but I don't share their attitude, and I'm not one to stick around and be abused by an employer.

I have a ton of transferable skills from my career in academia.  Instructional delivery, knowledge of learning theory, course design, serving on hiring committees, curriculum development, writing, developmental editing, communication, leadership, assessment, public speaking, and program development.  My computer skills aren't bad either; I know how to make websites, create online courses, the basics of video editing, writing social media content, digital marketing, and I have the basics down for Adobe Creative Cloud. As a Mustachian, I'm always learning new skills and improving myself.  If I don't know how to do something, I can usually figure it out from watching instructional videos and asking for help when I need it.

I'm confident I could find a private-sector job where these skills are valued.  I have a solid social network because I live in the same city I grew up in, and I have acquaintances and friends in a variety of tech-related industries.  Instructional Design is appealing since I'd get to use my teaching skills to help people learn in a professional setting.  However, I'm not confident I want to give up the teaching lifestyle.  Not only do I love teaching (I'd like to continue teaching after achieving FI), but I love the flexible schedule.  I am only physically on campus three days a week.  My husband (a social worker) and I are able to stagger our schedules so we don't need childcare for our 1 year old.  I don't think I'd enjoy a desk job where I am away from my family for 50-60 hours a week.  After all, isn't hatred of the desk job what motivates so many folks to FIRE?

So, I'm thinking about starting a consulting business that includes adjuncting.  In my state, if I teach two classes at any public university or community college (doesn't have to be the same college), I can get insurance for my whole family and continue contributing to my employer-matched 403(b).  That way, I can keep teaching, but not rely on it for my sole income if I have my classes canceled, and I can walk away from abusive employers because I won't be desperate. 

Things I could consult in:
--Instructional design (including online teaching and curriculum development)
--All-encompassing coach for grad students (writing + finishing in a timely manner + not getting into debt while in grad school--not sure if I'm legally able to give financial advice without having any certification though)
--AirBnB hosting (not hosting right now but I was a very successful AirbnB host, believe it or not!)
--Writing, developmental editing
--Subject matter expertise (pop culture)

My consulting ideas might be too abstract/varied right now though.

Am I crazy?  Has anyone else made something like this work?  Is there something I'm overlooking?  have you or someone you know made it as an adjunct + consultant + subject matter expert?

Penelope Vandergast

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Re: Adjunct + consultant? Reorienting a professor's career
« Reply #1 on: December 10, 2017, 08:23:39 PM »
Check (and join) for insight into ALL of these questions...(and give yourself several hours to read!) also has a section on "alt-ac"careers. Good luck! You are definitely not alone.


  • 5 O'Clock Shadow
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Re: Adjunct + consultant? Reorienting a professor's career
« Reply #2 on: December 10, 2017, 08:32:02 PM »
Thank you for the words of encouragement!  Unfortunately my university does not subscribe to Versatile PhD and I don't think there is an option for an individual subscription, but I'll ask my career center if they can join on my university's behalf.  I have spent a bit of time on the alt-ac section of the Professor Is In and found it very encouraging.


  • Magnum Stache
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Re: Adjunct + consultant? Reorienting a professor's career
« Reply #3 on: December 11, 2017, 05:44:52 AM »
No,you're not crazy, and it absolutely makes sense to me to have multiple streams of income. You can also have a lucrative side gig editing dissertations (some PhD level folks are horrendous writers).

And yes, I've done something similar and made it work for me. My current income streams include:

- 3 days per week with one contract
- 1/2 day per week with contract 2
- subject matter expert on retainer
- 1/2 day per week with contract 3
- one-off contracts/speaking engagements
- rental income (totally unrelated to my area of expertise)

It works out to be a full-time job, but I set my own hours and can work around family commitments. What has worked for me was to be open to any and all opportunities, even if they weren't completely in my comfort zone. With a consulting business, I've found that you have to say yes to quite a few things. Since much of your business may be word of mouth/referral, if you keep saying no, eventually people will stop asking. So make it a habit to say yes more often than you say no. It's okay to be varied. As you take on projects, you'll eventually find a niche and your projects will narrow in scope.


  • Bristles
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Re: Adjunct + consultant? Reorienting a professor's career
« Reply #4 on: December 11, 2017, 07:37:49 AM »
(Hooray!! A PhD/professor topic). I see that I really went off the rails here. I hope this doesn't take us too far from your original topic - but I didn't delete it in case you or other readers find it helpful.

I'm in the process of quitting my tenured position at the end of this academic year in order to pursue my side-business. (I'm happy to share more details if you'd like).

I think this is definitely possible, yet challenging. Forgive me if I'm taking this down a different road, but I have found that I've had to deal with some major mindset issues. Some of the challenges are internal and some external. Perhaps you're facing some of these same challenges (these obviously represent my assumptions and my training):
- PhDs live in a world of specialization. check that. Narrow specialization
- We've been taught that we're not really an expert unless you're the top dog in a very specialized area
- We've been taught that the only legitimate career path is to become a graduate school faculty member and a prestigious, research-oriented institution
- Despite the insane amount of transferable skills we've developed, we've been taught to only look at how they apply in very limited arenas
- We've become used to regular paychecks and benefits and those paychecks and benefits are either determined by a) research productivity or b) years of service .... but in either case, not based on how well we teach, communicate, get along with others, or develop any new programs or classes. In short, our compensation is rarely tied directly to our performance.
- We become used to the semester-based calendar and convince ourselves that we have a great schedule and flexbility

I have had to repeat some version of the following statements to myself on a daily/weekly basis:
- My skills transfer to a wide variety of fields - don't be too quick to limit potential opportunities/partners/customers
- I have a lot of autonomy as a professor, but I don't necessarily have to give that up to go into a non-academic field. (Try to take a 2-week vacation any time during the academic year - our jobs are flexible compared to some, but we actually have a lot of limitations .... we've just grown used to the academic calendar because it is what we have known since kindergarten.)
- I will work hard in my new field .... but I already work really, really hard in my academic position
- I need fewer ideas that are personally interesting and optimal, and more ideas that provide value to customers (individuals or businesses)
- I have much to learn from the world of business. I'm a smart dude, but I'm a baby in terms of business and sales knowledge. Don't be too proud to recognize how little I know compared to others.
- Building trust, expertise, products, and clients will take time.
- Don't be afraid to charge based on value (and learn quickly what value I bring in this field)
- Ideas are common and cheap. Fully created and tested solutions that make life easier and more profitable for clients are extremely valuable. Less "have you thought about doing this ...." and much more  this: "Based on what you've told me and I've seen, it appears that this is a problem that costs you money or time. I've created a solution for that problem that I could implement for you tomorrow. Can I tell you more about it?"
- There are risks with leaving academe, but there are no indications that higher education is going to improve in terms of workload, work responsibilities, or compensation. In my position at my institution, I'm treading water (average 1-2% raises since 2008 .... and there is the very real possibility that higher education (and my specific institution) will experience a financial crisis.  should not mistake a regular paycheck and benefits as being a safe position - it is more accurately defined as a job where I am slowly losing income and wasting years when I could be fully invested in more profitable pursuits.
- While finding other employment is possible, realistically the job market will only become more difficult as I grow older. While striking out on my own has risk, having all/most of the income coming from one institution should also be viewed as being very risky. Having multiple products and services spread across many paying clients is a much safer position than hoping my institution will continue to be profitable for the next 30 years.
- and more....

Back to your thoughts. I think you've sketched out some great options in a variety of fields. A variety of income streams is great, but I've also seen the value of specializing in a sector. It makes it easier for your work and connections to bear more fruit and you can become known as one of the few PhD within the field (or companies can leverage that ... "We've hired a PhD who specializes ...."). Not only do I think this is possible, I'm betting my career and family's finances on it.


  • 5 O'Clock Shadow
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Re: Adjunct + consultant? Reorienting a professor's career
« Reply #5 on: December 11, 2017, 02:46:43 PM »
Thank you both for the replies.  We only get 1-2% raises at my own university, and my level of employment prevents the ability to apply for promotion, so I am basically losing to inflation.  I live in a HCOL city, so this lose of income hurts. 

I need to do some reflection and decide what I CAN DO (which is many things) and what I WANT to do, and learn how to be on retainer as a subject matter expert.  I plan to start hosting my guest suite on AirBnB again to give me a little cushion while I figure things out.  Just waiting for my tenant to move out. 


  • Magnum Stache
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Re: Adjunct + consultant? Reorienting a professor's career
« Reply #6 on: December 11, 2017, 09:42:56 PM »
Since it sounds like you only recently got your PhD, I would say start by being broad. Take any consulting opportunities that are within the realm of "English PhD" including writing, editing, coaching, etc. Then, as you build your name, over the next few years, you will probably organically realize the more specialized areas in which you excel. At least that's what happened to me. I started broad but now am known as "one of the experts" in a much narrower sub-field (it's a scary thought because I don't think I know that much at all).

And "yes" to all of Smokeystache's suggestions. If you're starting a consulting business, you will need to learn about the business side of things -- customer service, billing, setting appropriate rates, marketing, etc.

Another thing to consider is demand -- it may help to do some research as to the demand for your various types of services. For example, I found that there was a significant demand for one type of service that I can offer, but absolutely no demand for another type of service that I thought would be in high demand. One way to test demand is to simply put up flyers/ads on Craigslist -- one for each type of service you offer (e.g., PhD coaching, dissertation editing, English essay tutoring) and then see which ones drum up the most interest. And start talking to people -- letting everyone you meet know that you're available for speaking engagements, etc. Show that you are interested in helping others solve their problems or meet one of their needs (for example, offer to speak at a lunch and learn for graduate students on structuring your dissertation, or whatever), and eventually people will start inviting you to consult.

I remember when I first started out, I had to do several meet and greets, conferences, seminars, etc. for free so that the "key referrers" had a chance to get to know me. I still speak at certain key events annually to stay visible in the field.


  • Walrus Stache
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Re: Adjunct + consultant? Reorienting a professor's career
« Reply #7 on: December 11, 2017, 10:32:20 PM »
I'm in the process of quitting my tenured position at the end of this academic year in order to pursue my side-business. (I'm happy to share more details if you'd like).

Smokystache, do you have a journal? I tried looking and found nothing but the search feature on here is *shrug*

Walking away from a tenured position is a big step, that I've just realized I may also be in a position to do in the next couple of years. It'd be great to hear more from someone going through it right as we speak.

@Tobias I think there's a lot of latent demand out there in academia for people who are really good at writing, and can work well with others to develop and polish papers. I've just recently found a guy who freelances with an MS in my field + a long track record of copy editing, and having him make a pass through manuscripts before they go in has been a game changer for me.


  • Walrus Stache
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Re: Adjunct + consultant? Reorienting a professor's career
« Reply #8 on: December 12, 2017, 07:34:52 AM »
Posting to follow. I'm considering leaving my tenured position as well, applying selectively to jobs but not yet fully committed to the idea. There are still things I want to do, but there are some pretty compelling reasons to leave as well. I can't quite yet retire, and I have two more years to vest in the pension, though at this point I could buy those years with a rollover from pretax accounts.

I did work, adjucting and editing, with a PhD for quite a few years. The big challenge was health insurance, and it looks like that may soon be the case again with the undermining of the ACA. Consider insurance - spousal may be the way to go (it was in my pre-ACA alt-ac career).

Interestingly, I had more schedule flexiblity in that career than I do now as a tenured professor because the editing was from my home office and most of my teaching was online. I make (a little) more now, but I think I might give that up to avoid all the meetings!

However, for the moment, I'm applying only for FT jobs because of the health insurance issues. So only dream jobs, and if I get an offer, well, it will be a nice problem to have.