Philosophers who work outside of academia – part 4

A couple of weeks ago Helen de Cruz conducted in-depth interviews with philosophers who work outside of academia. She published the complete interview series at the New APPS: Art, Politics, Philosophy, Science group blog: part 123. The interview series has also been featured at the Atlantic. I have been posting selections from the interview she had with me (here, here, and here). Below I elaborate on some of the points and add some answers that did not make it into the original series for reasons of space.

How do you combine philosophy, counseling, and self-employment?

Being self-employed is a great format for my work as a counselor. Clients feel safer to talk to someone outside their university circles about quite confidential and sensitive topics. Plus, it allows me a lot of freedom and flexibility to plan work around my family. Being self-employed comes with mainly financial risks and a lot of responsibility, but I find that this is not so different from pursuing an academic 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.

As a philosopher I still ask questions to clarify complex issues and situations. As a counselor I get the reward of seeing my work make a difference in the life of an actual person sitting next to me. As an entrepreneur I continuously 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 care about in life.

How would you compare work/life balance, also in terms of raising children, between academia and being self-employed now?

From my perspective, the most striking resemblance in terms of work/life balance between academia and self-employment is the great amount of autonomy and flexibility. Nobody really cares when you work (except for meetings and teaching obligations, of course), provided that you deliver qualitative output in a timely manner. On the flip side of that autonomy and flexibility there are a lot of unwritten rules (like my own and other’s expectation of prompt respons to email during evenings and weekends)* and the difficulty of separating work and private life. Unspoken expectations can be very restrictive and burdensome. To illustrate: I once had a client, a successful postdoc, who told me she lied to her boss and colleagues when she left early to pick up her infant son from daycare, because she felt she needed to prove that nothing had changed in her priorities since she became a mother.
On separating work and private life: in academia as well as in self-employment you are never done. It is easy, and silently expected, to work continuously and at any minute you can find. This is not a healthy strategy, especially if you hold yourself to high standards and are intrinsically motivated, as most academics and many self-employed people are. Ever tried to write that one email, place that short phone call, or just read this article on your day of parental leave while your child takes a nap? Especially instead of napping yourself or doing some overdue laundry? Then you know what I mean. Office workers usually don’t do that sort of thing.

Furthermore, the work/life balance in academia and self-employment are similar in that the work depends on one person: you are the expert or only person who can do your work, so 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. It depends a bit on your PhD system (whether you receive a salary, a stipend, or nothing), but usually a big pro for academia is that you still get payed when you are on sick leave (or holiday, for that matter). There is no such thing when you are self-employed.

What steps did you take to start up your company? What were the initial challenges of this endeavor?

To begin with I sat down and defined really precise who my target group was going to be and what kind of questions I wanted to help them with. I learned that focus is key in business: clearly defined problems and clearly defined ideal clients. I have seen people adrift with ill or undefined target groups. Some people that I told about my plans to become a counselor for PhD’s and postdocs thought my focus was too narrow, but after 3 years in business I can only say it is not, not at all. I have even been asked whether I ever considered focussing on humanities PhD’s and postdocs in particular!

I have met people who were a lot more savvy about starting a business than me. I hardly new a thing about marketing and did not ask around too much among coaches and trainers for tips and tricks. I love the satisfaction of doing meaningful work, but it turned out I had a lot to learn when, after a month in business a client asked whether I was doing this for work or as a hobby on hearing my price. Let’s say this is my example of applying one of my PhD transferable skills, my capacity for learning new stuff quickly: allow yourself to be a novice and make a lot of mistakes. Writing this down again serves as a good reminder to hold myself to my resolution of doing some personal and professional development in business and entrepreneurship the upcoming academic year.

* As a side note: the interview was conducted via email during the weekend late in the evenings.
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