Guest Post: How to Be a Self-Employed Philosopher… And Actually Get Paid

This guest post comes from Claartje Van Sijl, who runs a fascinating business. Claartje obtained a PhD in philosophy at Utrecht University. About half way through her doctorate, she realized  she did not want to continue in academia. She decided to become a professional counselor for early career researchers. But she didn’t abandon her philosophical training. She uses the Socratic method to help her clients understand themselves and achieve their goals. Here is her story.

You can learn more about Claartje’s business at www.vansilj.com

“What are you going to do with your degree in philosophy?” Every philosophy student sooner or later hears this cliche question. Perhaps even more widespread is the assumption that a PhD in philosophy narrows down your remaining work opportunities to the academic job market. Go figure.

Fortunately, as you know, academic skills are transferrable.

Philosophy PhDs, for instance, are independent thinkers who can synthesize and handle large bodies of tangled information, write and speak persuasively for diverse kinds of audiences, etc..

There are many ways of transferring these skills to non-academic work. The trick is to know how. Today, I want to share with the Scholarpreneur community how I took them into the wider world as I turned from a philosophy PhD into an self-employed counselor and trainer.

Leaving academia: why and when?

I am particularly fascinated with the way philosophy can elucidate complex problems by fundamentally questioning assumptions and suspending judgment about apparently ‘self-evident’ views. With an academic background of 10+ years in philosophy, it is hardly surprising that the core of my transferable skills is directly related to this.

I did my PhD on Stoicism in its social and cultural context, in particular on the epistemological foundations of its relationship to the Greco-Roman religious and mythical tradition, as represented by figures such as Homer (see more here). About half way through my PhD project I knew I did not want to continue in academia. I had no idea what to do, because all I ever pictured in my post PhD future was a happily-ever-after life as an academic. And so did almost everyone around me.

But during my PhD I felt lonely and my work meaningless, despite the camaraderie with my fellow PhD candidates. In my work I was mainly involved in academic discussions with people who have been dead anywhere between 20 and almost 2,500 years. After a while I realized that I wanted to employ my capacity for asking questions and clarifying complex situations in real life conversations, face to face with people, about topics that they personally care about, to make a positive difference in their lives.

My second fascination is with the curiosity and enormous intrinsic motivation of researchers. Hence the plan to combine the two and become a philosophical life and career counselor for early career researchers. But I am getting ahead of the story. When I defended my PhD thesis, this was not clear at all. I distinctly remember telling my former colleagues over drinks after my defense that I did not consider ever becoming self-employed. Within a year I had founded my own coaching and training company.

Towards entrepreneurship

Before and after my PhD project I had been temporarily employed as a student advisor. That experience, plus conversations with fellow PhD candidates had shown me that I am able to let people feel safe to open up and have deep, helpful conversations. When I did not find regular post-ac or alt-ac employment after my PhD, I decided to professionalize these skills by enrolling in a coaching and training program. There, I realized that self-employment is a common and convenient working format for coaches and trainers.

Initially, I did not take a business or marketing course, but went out to make every mistake I could as a start-up entrepreneur. I have met people who are a lot more savvy about starting a business than me. I hardly knew a thing about marketing and did not ask around too much among coaches and trainers for tips and tricks.

But 5 years into business I know I did at least one essential thing correctly: I sat down and defined really precisely what my niche was going to be — who was I going to help and what could I help them with? Some people that I told about my plans to become a counselor for PhDs and postdocs thought my focus was too narrow.

In hindsight, I can say it is not, not at all. HR officers in the field have even asked me whether I ever considered focussing on humanities PhD’s and postdocs in particular! (My answer is ‘no’, by the way). So this is my first piece of advice for you, if you consider becoming a scholarpreneur: focus is key. Figure out who is already a fan of what you are doing. What are their problems? What solution do you have to offer them?

For the sake of complete honesty, I will also tell you about a major mistake I made as an entrepreneur with one of my first clients. After I was about a month in business a client, upon hearing my price, asked whether I was doing this for work or as a hobby because it was so cheap.

Let’s say this is an example of applying another general transferable skill as a PhD: the capacity for learning new stuff quickly. This is my second piece of advice if you are interested in being self-employed after your PhD: hone the entrepreneurial skills you already have as an academic. You are a fast learner, a creative thinker, self-starter with perseverance, used to positioning and presenting yourself as an expert. Now, allow yourself to be a novice entrepreneur and then just go and expand your horizon.

I am not saying that everything is easy down the path to scholarpreneurship. A major challenge I encountered as I started out with my independent counseling practice had nothing to do with business strategy or practical matters. Once I had my website and all formalities and signboards in place I went on to tell a lot of people in my academic and private network about my company, especially those who professionally meet PhDs and Postdocs and could recommend me to them. This took courage. A lot.

I felt extremely vulnerable as I went out in the world while I was still reinventing myself, presenting myself as the expert I did not yet truly feel I was. Moreover, it felt like I was disowning the quality standards of my former academic discipline and its philosophical rigor. Besides, I was afraid to blame my old home, academia, for not providing their PhDs with the support they need.

The scholar and the entrepreneur compared

In general, being self-employed is a great format for my work as a counselor. Clients feel safer to talk about quite confidential and sensitive topics to someone outside their own university circles. They often tell me things they say out loud for the first time and have never even shared with their loved ones.

For me, being self-employed is very similar to working as an academic in terms of autonomy and flexibility. You are free to choose what you work on and when you work, provided that you deliver desirable, excellent output in a timely manner. On the flip side of that autonomy and flexibility lies the difficulty of separating work and private life. In academia as well as in self-employment you are never done, especially if you are intrinsically motivated and hold yourself to high standards, as most academics and many self-employed people do.

The freedom and flexibility of self-employment allow me to plan work around my young family. At the start of my PhD I married my partner who at the time also pursued a PhD in philosophy and an academic career after that. Our family life choices certainly impacted the direction of my career.

Pretty soon into our PhDs we realized that waiting for job security before starting a family made no sense with at least 10+ years of temporary projects ahead on the academic route. We had our first child about midway into our PhDs, our second was born just after I handed in my manuscript (a planning I do not recommend to anyone who values their sanity), and our third was born in my second year of self-employment.

Being self-employed comes with financial risks and a lot of responsibility, but I find that this is not so different from pursuing an academic research career that increasingly depends on winning grants and in which you are responsible for the way and quality of work which you do quite independently. Also, in both cases you are the expert or only person who can do your work. If you drop out for a day or two, e.g. because you care for a sick child, your work is necessarily put on hold as there is usually no colleague who can cover for you.

The balance of being a philosophy scholarpreneur

As a philosopher I still ask questions to clarify complex issues. As a counselor I get the reward of seeing my work make a positive difference in the life of an actual person walking next to me. I use my personal PhD experience to recognize and empathize with my clients, and my knowledge of 2500 years of philosophical thought as a sounding board for their and my own reflections. As an entrepreneur I continue to learn new things, e.g. to show and value my work in a way that gives me the opportunity to grow and support what I value in life.

About the author

Dr. Claartje van Sijl is a philosophical career counselor & trainer. She assists early and mid career academics throughout the world with questions of purpose, direction, balance and confidence in life and career. Read more about her work at http://www.vansijl.com.

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