Academia is entering uncharted territory, and many of us will find ourselves wholly unprepared for it. Working in a university is not like it used to be, and I doubt it will ever be the same again.
Fifty years ago, virtually all professors were either tenure-track or tenured. This was the “golden age” of academia. We enjoyed job security, academic freedom, and considerable autonomy. Then, something started to change. The rise of the adjunct professor, casually employed with minimal compensation and benefits, displaced many of the tenure-track positions. A dual academic labor market began to emerge: 1) a growing academic precariat of sessional lecturers and 2) a shrinking pool of full-time academics with permanent contracts.
Today, even the tenured academics are losing their jobs, as COVID-19 wreaks havoc on university finances across the world. To be clear, tenure never meant a job for life, but it did make it difficult to fire us. This is obviously not the case anymore. All a university needs to do today is to say that a particular academic subject is “no longer in our strategic plan” and, voila, it can easily jettison as many tenured professors as it wants.
Given that everyone, from adjuncts to tenured professors, is precariously employed today, this begs the question of whether everyone should have a “side hustle,” that is, a means of making a little money alongside one’s primary role.
This could be a smart way of hedging against the prospect of unemployment, but it is not for everyone, I suspect. For starters, a side hustle isn’t recommended for people already struggling to perform in academia. That time would be better put into bolstering your publications, grant success, or teaching scores. But for many academics, a side hustle could very well be the smartest career choice you make.
In the event of sudden unemployment, it will be useful to have a small stream of money coming in. But even more useful will be the entrepreneurial skills you develop in conjunction with your side hustle. The way things work outside the Ivory Tower are very different to the way things work inside. A side hustle will enable you to build a network of potential collaborators and a set of skills you can use to grow your business.
“In the event of sudden unemployment, it will be useful to have a small stream of money coming in. But even more useful will be the entrepreneurial skills you develop in conjunction with your side hustle.”
Best of all, your university can actually benefit from your side hustle. This is especially true for academics (like me) in a Business School, but also those in STEM. We are encouraged to “commercialize” our ideas and “transfer knowledge” from academia to industry. Starting your own business, preferably one centered around your expertise, can tick that box. As long as your side hustle is not negatively impacting your academic work, your university will likely be supportive.
The key question, obviously, is: what should I do for a side hustle? Again, you should play to your strengths. Many academics do consulting on the side. Some do corporate training and development. Others build websites (such as Dire Ed!). You could commercialize a piece of technology. You could create and sell your own art. You could even start your own small business and employ a handful of people to do the heavy lifting. Whatever route you take, you should seriously consider a side hustle, given the current instability of universities. I’d love to hear about your side hustles below in the comments!
Professor Andrew R. Timming
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