Academic entrepreneurs

BlogHer Original Post

Leslie Madsen-Brooks also blogs at The Clutter Museum and Museum Blogging.

I've been thinking a lot lately about the relationship between academia and entrepreneurialism.

In the sciences, the relationship between research and profit is relatively well-defined. For example, at the University of California, where I work, all staff and faculty must sign an agreement stating that the university owns the patent rights to any innovation made by the staff or faculty. The UC's patent policy grants 50% of royalties and fees to the inventors and their labs or campuses. This policy, I imagine, provides a special incentive to scientists, who may already use their university affiliation to secure grants and funding for research facilities.

In the humanities and social sciences, however, the opportunities for profit are far less obvious. Those of us who do wish to supplement our meager paychecks are more likely to freelance as writers, editors, or consultants under our own names instead of setting up sole proprietorships, partnerships, or god forbid, corporate entities.

Grad students are famous for getting second jobs. I've known grad students who sold their plasma or stripped for extra cash. I wonder how many of us have sold our ova or sperm or even worked in the sex industry?

But those of us who are too old (31!) to donate eggs or who are squeamish about needles or pole-dancing still must find ways to make ends meet. I read a few marketing and business blogs and over the years have digested quite a few books about freelancing and small business. A few years back, I even secured a business license with my husband for an editorial and graphic design firm that affords us some extra income.

But such interests are my secret shame. After all, a Ph.D. in the humanities who doesn't secure a tenure-track job has somehow failed, right? Such an idea gets transmitted to us, implicitly or explicitly, almost every day. And so, as I finish revising my dissertation and set out once again on the academic job market, I'm preparing not only a CV but also a resume, not only a teaching philosophy statement but also a business plan or two.

Does that make me a bad academic?

I'm not the only one confronting this issue. Profgrrrrl explains that

I used to jokingly write about my "conslutting" projects, because at times I did feel a bit like I was whoring out my intellectual skills for money. I mean, the mundane projects were, at least initially, all about the benjamins for me. I've managed to turn some of them into more meaningful ventures (into a few practitioner-oriented publications, examples I can share with students, etc.), which helps, but the drudgery sometimes makes me wonder what I'm doing and why.

But, as she reflects on one project, she points out that some consulting is worthwhile:

I feel so alive when I'm doing the work on this project. Yesterday was just a non-stop rush for me in so many ways. Oh, I totally know what I'd do if I quit the tenure-track.

Missscarlet is less confident about the ways she earns extra cash. In "A Crack Whore Just Called and She Wants Her Professional Integrity Back," she writes,

Who needs integrity when you can have a job writing advertorial copy for a Restylane distributor? I laugh at my former self with all her "standards" and "ambition". Am I being sarcastic? A little.

She continues,

Because my professional standards have decreased in inverse proportion to my accrued loans, and I need that mad sell-out cash a lot more than I need to know that I'm keeping the dream alive. And then I'll be rolling in money while I write about "Deals From the Deep!" for the Red Lobster newsletter and laughing all the way to the bank where Lisa from VISA will be like "well, I stand corrected." Sea you in the 2-4-1 shrimp entree night ad circular, landlubbers!

Limon de Campo over at Not a Folk Singer has also been mulling over the merits of corporate life versus academia:

After doing this freelance thing for a corporate entity, I started thinking about the differences between academic employment and industry employment (I've done brief stints outside of academia before). I used to be wholly opposed to corporate employment, but I'm starting to refigure the benefits of it. In terms of money, I just made in three weeks what I will make teaching a course for the entire summer. Money doesn't mean everything yadda, yadda, yadda, but sometimes money is important.

Check out her post for some good reflections on time, identity, self-worth, and expedience.

ArticulateDad has been wrestling for some time over the all-too-common dilemma of being an interdisciplinary humanities Ph.D. without a tenure-track job. He has considered trying alternate career paths or starting his own business once again, yet he's deeply, passionately in love with the life academic:

I know that this is the path I have chosen, the path of the academic. As I've written before, I've lived half of my life inside the university. I've measured time by the cycles of the school year. I don't need this. But it is my choice. As hard as that is, it's really good to know. It is the truest sign of love to recognize the dispensibility of something or someone, and yet to choose it anyway, to hold on firmly, to embrace. That's me with the academy, with the world of ideas and books, contemplations and criticism.

I admire ArticulateDad's dedication and perseverance, but not all of us have his mettle. I think it's time for many of us in the humanities to start accepting that the job market for faculty is really quite awful, and thus we need to nurture in our graduate students (as well as in undergraduates who are considering grad school) the idea that if they decide to work outside the academic, they're not being whores for money. Similarly, accepting a job with a nonprofit should not be considered a failure. As grad students, we should be given every opportunity and encouragement to follow through on ideas and innovations that might provide us with a comfortable living and enrich society as well.

I'm not talking about just freelancing to earn extra cash between stints as lecturers at local colleges and universities. I'm proposing programs that prepare grad students--some of whom have very little employment experience outside of the ivory tower--for full-fledged entrepreneurship or for leadership in business.

Is a tenure-track job still my first choice of employment? You betcha. But such a position is a longshot for someone with my training, so I need to keep my options open. Earning a Ph.D. in the humanities should not be the equivalent of taking a vow of poverty.

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