Rich academic, poor academic? Making an academic living in Covid times


Many people – me included – start their career in the so called academic hunger games ‘gig economy’. It’s common to try to cobble together some kind of living wage from multiple jobs – most of them paid by the hour or extremely short contracts. Some people call this a ‘portfolio career’: but this always seems to me an attempt to put a positive spin on what it really is: uncertain, precarious work.

This situation is a result of under-investment by successive governments of both left and right persuasions. Consider this graphic, drawn from a recent AMSI report by McCathy and Wienk, which shows the growth in academic jobs vs PhDs granted:

There are now 9 times more students in the system than when I entered as a baby architect in 1989, but there are not 9 times as many academics to teach them. Governments have forced academia to be ‘more efficient’ by squeezing public funding. Although universities get more money year on year, this does not match the growth in outgoings. In order to just run the business, universities are forced to use ‘seasonal labour’ so that people are not paid in the semester breaks.

20 years ago, a period of casual teaching and RA work was seen as the start of an academic career. Now a significant number of people spend entire academic careers working as a casual, or ‘adjunct’ as they are called in the USA. (I hate the word ‘casual’ by the way – these people are anything but casual about their work! They are passionate and committed.)

Academic work seems much ‘nicer’ than being a cleaner, so rarely is there a direct comparison made between our industry and other ‘gig economy’ workers, but the conditions are not dis-similar. People who work in cleaning companies, nursing homes and meat packing works are accused of starting Covid clusters, which is unfair because they literally cannot afford to miss work and not get paid. Casual academic work is no different. At one point I was working in six different universities and I definitely never took a sick day. Casual academics could easily be ‘super spreaders’: if it wasn’t for Zoom, our campuses would be ‘hot zones’ too.

Navigating this career stage / reality is difficult and there is precious little guidance. It feels like a trap – and in some ways it is. Your academic mentors might tell you the way to escape is to write papers. But a CV full of papers doesn’t help in a system that’s shedding workers. Given the current crisis, it’s likely that precarious work will be even more precarious, for a while at least.

One option is to leave of course, but what if you want to stay connected to academia and wait out the bad times? One option is to explore ‘non-academic’ sources of income to help make ends meet. Making money with your academic skills via the internet can be done, but it is a challenge and most people don’t know how to start. Take this letter I received from PhD student Juliet, late last year – here’s the gist of it:

I notice how in your blog you are super-careful to explain to us how commercial interests/opportunities intersect with your work. For example you explain in detail how you spend the money from your Amazon affiliate page. You refrain from advertising on your site, despite I assume receiving lucrative offers?

… as public funding for universities is being withdrawn, and we are being exhorted to be more enterprising and develop our own brand/social media identities? … how are we to navigate the increasingly blurry commercial/funding/public service landscape. (Along with blurry personal/professional disruptions…perhaps that is a whole other post).

How do you do it and is it just a case of a strong internal moral compass, what beliefs or principles underpin the decisions you make when navigating these issues and how were these principles formed?

In trying to answer to this student’s letter I found myself talking about an academic-commercial model, elements of which might work for those of you wondering how to multiply your income streams now.

In this lengthly post I lay out what has worked for me. Your mileage may vary: some strategies might work, others won’t. I certainly enjoy some privileges that others do not – but hopefully some of these ideas might be useful and perhaps start you thinking.

1) Consider developing a ‘mission’ focus in your work

I sincerely believe research can change the world. PhD students are smart, creative people. They are needed to solve lots of the world’s problems: but they are often stuck and confused about what to do next. My job is to support them in any way I can.

That statement above is my mission. All the work I do – paid and unpaid – flows from it. Articulating this mission is useful, and not just because I find it personally motivating. A clear mission gives my work focus, which, over time, has made me more visible and legible to others. This visibility results in opportunities.

I do a lot of things related to helping PhD students. A lot of it free – some of it paid.  Over time, by focussing on this mission, I have created a digital presence and a body of work that makes me into a recognised expert in the field of research education. When you are mission focussed, you become the person to call when others have problems related to your area of expertise. Some of these people may be in a position to pay you to solve some of these problems.

This is just a theory, but I think this mission focussed approach works better as a money maker if you make a set of problems your focus, not a tool, technique, or (dare I say it) knowledge in an academic discipline. So, ask yourself: what can I do with what I know? What problems can I solve and for whom? Who might pay me to solve these problems?

Remember: the person receiving the service does not have to be the person who pays you to provide it, which brings me to point two:

2) Make things people can use and put them out on the internet for free – just remember that working entirely for free, long term, is just not sustainable.

There’s no doubt that putting free stuff up on the internet builds your profile and can result in you being in the enviable position of the ‘go to’ problem solver in a specific area of expertise. The Thesis Whisperer blog has been a great way of ‘unfolding’ my problem solving expertise over time. I’ve been blogging for just on a decade and all this ‘free’ work has lead to heaps of opportunities, for example, the job I have right now.

There are lots of options for making shareable, useful content and become known as a ‘gun for hire’ problem solver in your chosen domain. I’ve done a lot of Youtube videos because I like mucking around, drawing and explaining things. And you don’t have to work alone! I recently launched a podcast with my friend Jason Downs called ‘on the reg’ where we chat about academic work and the various tools we use, what we are reading and so on. The format is still evolving as we go, but it’s amazing how energising it can be when more than one person is invested in the making process.

For ethical reasons, I like my internet content to be free. I know what it’s like to do a PhD while having uncertain work and a whole bunch of other challenges, like parenting. I don’t want to add to your problems by demanding payment for content.

While the Thesis Whisperer is free for you, I need it to pay for itself somehow. In a non-Covid year, it costs me upwards of $15K AUD to ‘be @Thesis Whisperer’. I use a lot of online tools and equipment to make content and manage communications. Subscription fees must be paid, books and computers need to be bought; sometimes the site needs design help and specialist coding. I used to get generous support from ANU to go to conferences, this that did not cover all the professional travel I felt I needed to do. (This is a cost I am not paying at the moment, so my 2020 account books will look quite different).

ANU gives me nothing towards the cost of maintaining the blog. I’m not accusing them of being mean – far from it. They have always been super supportive and appreciative of the work (and the profile of the blog is an asset for them too I suppose). But I don’t want them to pay for it.

The reason is simple: if ANU don’t pay, they have no say in how I run the blog. I learned the importance of creative independence very early on. When I started the blog at my previous place, the marketing department wanted to filter comments to make sure no one was saying anything bad about the institution. I had to lawyer up to fight this interference (that year ‘being Thesis Whisperer’ was really expensive!) and I’ve avoided a repeat of this trouble by keeping ANU at a friendly arms length. In fact, I had this functional separation written into my original contract.

Creatively and financially staying independant can make a lot of sense and I would highly recommend this approach for someone doing a side hustle as a working academic, as well as people who are casually employed.

Freedom has a price tag though. I’ve actively looked for ways to generate income over the years. At the moment I do this through affiliate dealsrunning workshopsselling books and, lately, Patreon. I go into more detail below, but it’s worth noting while I’m on the topic, my income comes from multiple sources and countries. Dealing with different countries in terms of working visas and tax is … interesting. I’ve had to get familiar with things like Swift codes and IBAN numbers.

It costs money to make money and systems are important: when you have 5 or six different streams of money that dribble in constantly, you need a way to track it and record it in the event you get audited. I pay a good accountant to do my tax and have software to manage it all. I like finding technical solutions to these challenges. I use Xero to manage my books, which costs $25 a month. I have a ‘Square’ credit card machine to sell books at my workshops.

Splashing the Thesis Whisperer card about can be fun, I’m not going to lie. I buy people dinner when I travel – when you’re a blogger everyone is a potential client! I go to all the museums and galleries – when you’re a writer, everything is ‘research’!

The list of ‘extras’ I can and do claim on my tax goes on and on, but I won’t bore you. Suffice to say, I hope this small window into my financial affairs shows that if you have any ambition to have public profile like mine, you need a good accountant. Which leads me to my next point – ways to make money to pay for it all.

3) Your money making activities will be more effective if they are ‘brand aligned’…

…when it comes to monetisation strategies,  I never put a commercial arrangement in front of my academic judgment.

Advertising is an obvious answer to the cash flow problem, but I think it pays to be careful about how you integrate it into your online presence. Google ads put weird content on your pages. I tried it for a bit, but decided they were distracting and largely pointless if no one clicks on them anyway. I’ve resisted many offers for paid advertisements for over a decade. Sadly, all the serious approaches have involved endorsing products or services I either ethically disagree with (essay mills) or just are not ‘brand aligned’ (random banking services – why?).

I’m open to advertising in the future. But if I had ads, I would want them to be the sort you click on and say “I’m so glad Inger showed me that”. I would be happy, for example, to host ads for a fabulous software publisher like ‘Literature and Latte’, who make Scrivener (hint hint!). I’m certainly promoting the product we designed to help PhD graduates find jobs: PostAc  via the blog (although, as is the way with commercialising anything via a University, it will be many years – if ever – before I will personally see a financial return on this work).

Remember that partnerships can be a way of creating opportunities, rather than generating cash directly. Recently I signed a deal to have my content translated by Ulatus, a global translation company servicing places like Korea, Japan and China. The deal is solely for mutual benefit. I make no money from this deal and, while Ulatus own the translations they make, they can’t sell my content. We each benefit from the deal in different ways. My work gets a bigger audience. I can’t reach readers who do not, or cannot, engage with me in English. In turn, Ulatus have a store of good content which showcases their skills in translation.

I agonised over this deal with Ulatus. I did a lot of due diligence, luckily assisted by people I know in the translation business in south east Asia. I wanted to make sure Ulatus was reputable and did not write essays or dissertations for people. A brand association with an essay mill would be death for my credibility. I’m interested to see what this relationship with Ulatus will bring over time. I’ve learned that sometimes the benefits are only clear in retrospect. I guess my point here is that when it comes to how profile translates to income, you have to focus on the long game.

Books are crucial to my work, so I’ve had an Amazon affiliate page for ages – it was one of the first things I hooked up. I get maybe $30 a month which goes directly back into buying more books! Remember, not all rewards land as cash – there is swag too. I get a lot of books to review for instance, but I don’t review, or recommend, books I don’t think are good. (Some people have criticised me for this approach, saying I should point out what to avoid too, but I don’t believe in trashing the hard work of others, even if the product is not great.)

My blogs have 100,000 reach on social media, so if everyone who read the post paid a dollar on Patreon every month…. well I’d make 80,000 a month and I wouldn’t need a day job! The promise of these ‘tipping’ sites is great, but in reality even with a large follower base like mine it’s hard to make a living from it.

At the moment I make about $200 a month. I don’t offer ‘extras’ on Patreon – I found I couldn’t sustain making these on top of everything else and I felt discomfort at making things that were not free.I really, really appreciate my Patreons. Their willingness to help brings in enough to pay for all my web subscriptions with some left over for extra gear. Most recently I was able to buy a fancy iPad stage with Patreon help:

My assumption is that most people choose to be a Patreon because they feel they are able to make a small donation. Some even donate more than the $1, which is lovely, but no pressure! If you’re a regular reader and feeling guilty about not signing up, please don’t. I know literally every dollar counts at the moment.

Book royalties form a nice chunk of my ‘side hustle’ income. Self publishing is a way to monetise content by repackaging and reworking the free offer of the blog. Basically, people will pay for convenience and books are handy (and sometimes lovely) packages of information. Of course, there is no academic ‘win’ in self publishing, but there are lots of other benefits to a cash flow. If you’re going to do it, think about what will be useful first and foremost – well written ‘how to’ content sells well online.

I could bore for Australia on the ins and outs of self publishing, but for anyone who is interested, I recommend becoming a member of ALLi: the Alliance of Independent authors (thanks to Helen Kara for the recommendation). I get royalties from my other books via my publishers. There is more income from conventional publishing, for me, than self publishing, but not as much as you might think. Last year from all of my publisher owned books was around $3000.  The most prolific academic author I know makes about $10,000 a year and has over 17 books. I really don’t think you can make a living off academic publishing, sadly.

Where I really turn my profile into cold hard cash, is giving workshops. Of course, I have to find ways to manage around my existing commitments, often taking leave from my day job, so I don’t do a lot of these gigs. I make sure to be good value and I have repeat customers who get me in every year. I spend no time on promoting this activity: I just put information up on my Workshop page and see who calls me. All my gigs for the year were cancelled in the pandemic, but increasingly people want me to deliver online. To my surprise, teaching these online is relatively easy and the feedback has been really positive.

I’m pretty sure I will never go back to being completely in person workshops – it’s more sustainable on lots of levels to not fly all over the place. Other people I know have launched online courses via Udemy and the like – some of them have made astounding amounts of money. I don’t do this as I think there is a conflict of interest with my job, although it’s the first thing I would do if I found myself unemployed!

If you do teaching as a side hustle, consider the ‘freemium’ model, where you give a little away for free so people can decide if they like the goods. It can also be a way of giving back and meeting your internet audience face to face. Long ago I decided to do lectures and keynotes for expenses only, which means I can get out and about, meet people and share my research in progress. At the moment I am doing heaps of Zoom sessions of ‘So, you’re graduating in a Pandemic, what’s next?’ as a community service. Your teaching skills, thoughtfully leveraged, are probably your best asset.

There are lots of options – choose what works for you.

As I shared, it’s expensive to be Thesis Whisperer, but all my little income streams added together are a tidy ‘side hustle’. I’m fortunate enough that I can use this money to invest in my creative side projects – and give to charities. I donate some $200 a month from general Thesis Whisperer revenue to causes I am passionate about: UN WomenPeter MacCullum cancer instituteThe Australia Institute. I also save a lump sum to donate to whatever disaster relief is most needed that year (sadly there is always something). For example, our bushfires were just catastrophic. I donated all my Amazon royalties from my self published book ‘How to Tame your PhD’ — roughly $1000 AUD — to the bushfire relief effort. I figured many of my readers wished they could donate more – I was in a unique position to pass along some of their money to a good cause.

I couldn’t live on my side hustle alone, but it does act as a base that I could build on if I lost my job. Years of being a casual honed my survival instinct: it’s always good to have a back up plan. If I lost my job I would put serious effort into building a social enterprise around my Thesis Whisperer work – a business that exists to help people and also pays me a living wage.

Thanks for reading this far – I’m slightly surprised at how much I have to say about the side hustle.

I’ve been thinking for a little while on how this kind of commercial/academic approach could provide some casual academics more financial comfort. I’ve wondered about whether it’s worth doing some workshops via Zoom, or writing a self published book (putative title: ‘rich academic, poor academic’!). If you’re interested in hearing more, please get in touch. Comments are still off – but I’m interested in your thoughts and questions, so feel free to drop me a line or talk to me on Twitter.

In solidarity, especially to those doing it tough in lockdown – wherever you are.