Getting Comfortable With 'Business'

Many higher education professionals may be intrigued yet intimidated by the idea of starting their own business or doing consulting on the side. Yet, the world of business offers a spectrum of opportunities for anyone with an idea and a plan of attack.

March 18, 2011

Many higher education professionals may be intrigued yet intimidated by the idea of starting their own business or doing consulting on the side. Yet, the world of business offers a spectrum of opportunities for anyone with an idea and a plan of attack.

What most people don’t realize is that experience in higher education gives you a battery of diverse skills that can easily be applied to business, even outside your core subject area. At its foundation, higher education teaches patience, an understanding of the value of deadlines, and a certain tolerance for risk — characteristics that are all fundamental to the mindset of an entrepreneur.

Until recently, I’d never thought of myself as a businessperson. Indeed, I’ve always considered myself a writer and academic at heart. After all, I have a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Cambridge. Yet, in April 2010, after seven years working in nonprofit organizations, I left my full-time job as an education researcher to open a boutique content-focused consultancy.

One year into running my company, I cannot imagine doing anything else. I am constantly surprised by the number of business and consulting opportunities available for people with a variety of degrees. Yet, to me, it seems as if word has not gotten out. I feel like higher education professionals either are not aware of these types of opportunities or do not feel that their qualifications are suitable for the world of business.

While getting started is sometimes the hardest part, many people in higher education find a bigger roadblock, whether internally or socially, with the concept of bridging from the world of academics to that of business. In addition to our own misconceptions and fears about business, there is also a good dose of prejudice within higher education itself about the seemingly non-intellectual practice of those in business.

At times, there seems to be an invisible wall between those who study for business degrees and those who pursue other subjects. As a result, some higher education professionals may think that business is inaccessible, unpredictable, and full of specialists.

Yet this is far from the case. Business, like most things in life, is a hodge-podge of people from all levels of experience, training, and walks of life.

One of the bigger challenges that many people face when considering starting their own business or doing some consulting on the side is overcoming preconceived notions about business and the qualifications you need to be a part of it.

In my experience, a good portion of higher education professionals assume that business is either for (1) creatively minded people who opted to take a different route in life, not necessarily dictated by school; or (2) technical specialists with know-how and industry connections.

However, most of us have spent so long in school or in academics that we don’t realize all of the diverse skills that we have accumulated. It’s as if our academic training has somehow drained the life out of us. After all, many of us followed the long, tortuous M.A. or Ph.D. path from a genuine passion for our fields without much thought as to its practical applications or salience in the world at large. By the end, it sometimes seems a rude awakening to realize the limited possibilities of that degree that you spent so long pursuing.

Yet, I firmly believe that this is an outmoded and hopefully disappearing outlook for higher education professionals. By our very choice to pursue a higher degree, we become researchers, writers, and thought leaders who constantly seek to acquire knowledge, understand things around us, and interpret new and old ideas for the present and the future. This attentiveness to learning, innate open-mindedness, and simple ability to think outside the box is, in fact, the perfect preparation for entering the world of business.

Whether you want to try out some consulting on the side or start your own business, as a higher education professional, you’ve got all the skills you’ll need in hand before you begin. It’s just a matter of focusing yourself on what you want to do and what you have to offer your chosen market.

As I know firsthand, it can be a difficult decision to choose to consult or start your own business, especially with related worries of work-life balance and overloading your likely already booked professional schedule. Yet, I also know the rewards and the pleasures of doing work in new and unexplored territories, particularly ones that may interest you more than your day job.

Over the next few months, this column will explore different questions and issues related to higher education and the world of business, especially entrepreneurship, both to try to debunk myths and biases that we all have as well as to offer encouragement based on my own real-world experience as an entrepreneur.


Jessica Quillin is owner of Quillin Consulting, LLC, a consulting firm in Washington, and author of the forthcoming Shelley and the Musico-Poetics of Romanticism (Ashgate). She has a Ph.D. in English from the University of Cambridge.


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