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    A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online


Start a Side Gig

How having a side gig can enhance your graduate school experience.

January 29, 2015

Adam Fajardo is a PhD candidate at Indiana University and Instructor of English at Georgia Gwinnett College. His website is www.adamfajardo.com.

Graduate students: start a side gig.

I know this goes against all of the typical advice we get from colleagues, professors, and advisers. How many times have you been told to focus your efforts on attending conferences, developing seminar papers or dissertation chapters into publishable articles, serving on professional committees, or organizing conferences? Yet as valuable as these experiences are—and just to be clear, I do believe they are essential to graduate-level education and professionalization—I want to recommend spending some time on a project that might not make it onto your CV.  

About four years ago, I started taking on the occasional copy-editing job. As an English PhD student, I found the work relatively easy to do, and at the time, I just wanted to earn a little extra “fun” money. The stipend I received from teaching freshman composition paid my rent and bought my groceries, but there wasn’t much left over for guilt-free spending. So I’d edit a paper or someone’s cover letter and resume and give myself permission to buy something I normally couldn’t afford, like a nice bottle of wine (and by “nice” I mean one with a more refined pedigree than Two Buck Chuck). And then I’d go back to sifting through my dissertation research or grading stacks of essays on racism in Do The Right Thing. What I discovered, however, was that I enjoyed the work itself, and the more I did it, the easier it became. I began working with repeat clients, many of whom recommended me to friends and colleagues. The “Editing” file folder on my desktop grew and sprouted multiple subfolders.

If you’ve spent any time reading the Chronicle of Higher Ed or any other number of professional publications, you know that tenure-track professorships are on the endangered species list. This is a structural problem in higher education, but for me, and for many other ambitious graduate students, it felt like a personal problem: if I wanted to land one of those jobs, I needed to publish, to get grants, to attend conferences and network. Of course, doing those things meant I dealt with a lot of rejection (like everyone). Even though I wasn’t earning very much money with editing (it has never paid my rent, though now it does buy a larger portion of my groceries), I found that doing the work—building relationships with existing clients and reaching out to new ones, blocking out time to finish each project, and delivering a quality product on schedule—became a bulwark against feeling like a failure when rejection notices came my way.

Even more, it opened my eyes to the ways that my graduate training had prepared me for careers outside the academy. Modernist literature, it turns out, wasn’t the only expertise I gained in my program. Grad students in the humanities may be more susceptible to the anxious belief that the only job a PhD prepares one for is a professorship (STEM degrees have more visible relevance for the private sector or public service), but the truth is that many of the skills cultivated by our degrees are highly valued outside academia. (If you have any interest in these possibilities, go check out the wealth of experience housed at VersatilePhD.) While I still desire and still seek a career in higher education, just knowing that alternatives exist buoys me from drowning in the doom-and-gloom headlines that dominate conversations about the state of academic jobs, especially in the humanities.

Your side gig doesn’t have to be related to your degree, and it might not become anything other than a source of “fun” money, but it could lead you to new and exciting possibilities. Whatever you do, bring the same level of professionalism, intelligence, punctuality, and imagination that makes you a successful grad student. My experience as a freelancer has been one of floundering in the dark and making-it-up-as-I-go business practices (I am an English major, after all), so I only have meager advice to offer, but I do want to end with a couple of caveats. First, before you dive into anything, test the market. No matter what service or good you want to sell, make sure that it meets two conditions: 1) that there are people who want to pay for it (most of my clients are non-native English speakers employed or studying at U.S. universities, for example) and 2) that these people are able to pay for it. How do you test your idea? Start by seeing if you can make $100 doing whatever it is you want to do. If you can, then you can probably make more.

As enthusiastic as I am about side gigs, there are some good reasons not to start one. Many stipends, grants, fellowships, and other funding sources stipulate that the recipient is not allowed to receive other income during the funding period. So if you’re interested in a side gig and you have a grant or fellowship, add checking the fine print to your to-do list—you don’t want to endanger your main source of income. Another concern is extending your time to degree. Developing a side gig, especially one you enjoy, multiplies your opportunities to justify procrastinating your research or writing. Stick to your work schedule and be careful not to let your side gig distract you from finishing. The ideal side gig, I think, stays fun, manageable, and expendable.

Grad students: what are your side gig stories? Leave a comment below and let us know what I missed and any advice you have.

[Image courtest of Flickr user Nic McPhee and used under the Creative Commons license.]


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