Thinking BIGGER: Freelance Consulting

Think BigI am thinking about starting a consulting business. Consulting appeals to me because I love controlling my schedule, managing projects, and taking on work that I find interesting and fulfilling. It seems like consulting would allow me to be the historian, writer, and researcher I want to be. However, to start a consulting practice, I need to figure out what skills and expertise I possess that other people would pay for. This is the stage where I have been stuck. How do I translate my academic experience into marketable, real-world skills?

Reinventing You

reinventing-youLast Tuesday, my writing group attended a talk given by Dorie Clark, author of [amazon_link id="1422144135" target="_blank" container="" container_class="" ]Reinventing You[/amazon_link]. The premise of her book: How can you get to where you want to go in your career?

Clark contextualized her book by telling the audience about her journey from laid-off political reporter to business expert. In between these two careers, Clark worked as a political campaign spokesperson, marketer, and filmmaker. After catching a break with the Harvard Business Review, Clark used her experience and reporting skills to generate a 3-step process for personal re-invention, a process that enables people to get from point A to point B (or even point C) in their careers.


Dorie Clark’s 3-Step Process

Step 1: Discover your personal brand. You need to know how your friends and coworkers perceive you. Clark suggested either working with a career counselor or asking half a dozen friends to describe you in 3 words.

Step 2: Discover your personal narrative. You need to find the thread that connects all of your different career and personal experiences. To find this thread, Clark advised the audience to write down their “war stories,” the stories that we often tell people. These stories form the cornerstones of how we perceive the world. If you can identify the thread that connects these cornerstones, you will understand why you have chosen to pursue the jobs and experiences you have, even if they seem unrelated.

Step 3: Manifest Your Brand. Don’t tell people about your brand, live it.


From Skeptic to Book Buyer

Think DifferentAlthough an inspiring speaker, Clark’s talk did not move me to buy her book. I have read a number of books on personal branding and I did not find her strategy for how to build a personal brand to be all that new and novel. Her strategy: be consistent with your message and promote it via social media, especially Twitter. However, the Q & A session changed my mind because the posed questions allowed Clark to discuss the contents of her book in more depth.

Clark urged the audience not to overlook and undervalue important attributes of their personality just because they can’t figure out how to connect their love of baking with their career interests. It occurred to me that my seemingly disparate interests, history, writing, marketing, organization, and technology (to name a few), all share a common theme: problem solving. (Perhaps problem solving constitutes a marketable skill set.)

Clark asserted that the economic crash of 2008 has affected the present and future job market in two profound ways:

First, potential employers no longer want to see how you conform. Instead, they want to know how potential employees (and consultants) are different and unique. They want to know about the valuable skills and special perspective you will bring to the table if they hire you.

Second, by 2020, 40% of Americans will be freelancers. People who set-up their freelance shops now are in the vanguard of this coming trend.

Clark counseled that freelancers need to mitigate risk for potential clients by creating a rock-solid brand that demonstrates a track record of reliability. Blogs present freelancers with a powerful tool for broadcasting their ideas to the world. They also demonstrate consistency if freelancers update them on a regular basis.


Imagining My Future

Yoga-DogI attended Clark’s talk more out of peer pressure than interest. However, I left her talk interested in her ideas and inspired to think more about what my “brand” can offer people. Appreciative, I purchased Reinventing You. I have not read it yet, but it is my next read.

Even without reading Clark’s book, her talk stimulated ideas and gave me hope that starting a consulting practice may not be a bad idea. Late last week, I sat down and listed the skills and knowledge I possess that others may be interested in making use of. It turned out to be an expansive list.

Over the next few weeks, I plan to think about how I can offer and market my various skills. I love the idea of offering my skills for hire, but I do not want to offer them haphazardly. I want to develop a clear business plan for how I would offer each skill, how each skill adds to the work I want to accomplish as a historian, and what I would charge for my services. Most of all, I want to create a plan that will enable me to expand my brand and still prioritize the project most important to me: writing my first book: America’s First Gateway: Albany, N.Y., 1615-1830.

As soon as I draft my plan of action, I will let you know.


What Do You Think?

Do you offer your historical, writing, academic or other skills for hire? If so, how are you going about it? Do you have a self-imposed guideline for the type of projects you take on? How many projects do you accept?

Are you thinking about offering your skills for hire? If so, what is your plan of action?


Why Join a Professional Historical Association?

dollar-sign Being a historian can be expensive. In addition to all the costs we shoulder (research trips, journals, books, reproduction fees, computers, software, etc.), we must decide whether to spend money on memberships to professional historical associations. If you can swing it, I believe you should join at least two professional historical associations: the American Historical Association (AHA) and the primary organization for your specific historical field.  

Why join the AHA? 

The American Historical Association is the organization for our guild, even if you work outside of academia. The organization advocates for government funding for archives and historical research, and it keeps tabs on legislation that has the potential to either benefit or hinder our work. Basically, they focus on and monitor potentially important issues so we can concentrate on our historical pursuits.

The AHA also facilitates the largest discussion forum for issues relating to the profession. Non-Academic historians should particularly care about this work as one of the organization's main conversations is about how to dissolve the gap between academic and non-academic historians.

AHA BlueAside from this advocacy work, I find that the AHA has 3 practical benefits that makes membership worth the cost:

1. Subscription to Perspectives on History: AHA's publication about the guild, Perspectives provides short, concise articles about technology and software that can improve our productivity, how other historians work and teach, happenings we should be aware of, and updates on the organization's advocacy work.

2. Fellowship and Prize Board: Historians need fellowships and the AHA makes it easy to search for them on their website and, as the association for the guild, most prize-granting organizations advertise through them.

3. Reduced Admission to the Annual Conference: The annual conference focuses on the profession not a specialty. The conference features many networking opportunities, panels where historians from different fields make connections across time and place, and a plethora of panels that discuss methods to improve the way we work or techniques we can use to market ourselves to potential employers. Read Kenneth Pomeranz's Perspectives article for more on why the AHA offers a great conference.


Why Join an Organization for Your Specialty?

Specialty-focused organizations provide journals and annual conferences that keep their members abreast of the work and conversations going on among historians of the same sub-field. Membership in these organizations is particularly important for non-academic historians as we work apart from the scholars who drive the historiography. As it becomes more difficult for historians to formally publish their work, especially for those of us who lack institutional affiliation, we must keep abreast of the conversations in our field so we can keep our work relevant and know how to pitch ourselves to editors.


Leaving the Academy: How To Become an Independent Historian

Do I want to be an academic historian? I began having doubts about my career path during my last three years in graduate school. I had applied to grad school to become professionally-trained version of David McCullough. However, in my first quarter I replaced that goal with a desire for an academic career. No one forced this ambition on me per se, but my seminars, department workshops, and training were all geared towards preparing me for a tenure-track job. After imbibing on this academic dream for seven years, I found it difficult to confront the fact that I did not want to be a traditional academic. Ivory_TowersAt first, I pushed my doubts from my mind by focusing on my dissertation. As my dissertation neared completion, I turned my attention to academic job applications. I told myself that getting a job would vanquish my fears about an academic career. Last year, I opened rejection letters and e-mails from nearly every university I had applied to. Even the two campus interviews I went on did not pan out. Through it all I remained surprisingly upbeat. Rejection, my positive attitude, and a job opportunity for my partner in Boston made me address the fact that I was pursuing an academic job for all the wrong reasons.

It took me over a year to admit that I really wanted a non-academic career. With all of its promises for intellectual stimulation, I found my decision to leave the academy a hard pill to swallow. Moreover, I want to be a historian. I yearn to produce original, high-quality scholarship that will be accessible to a broad audience. I also desire the opportunity to earn the respect of my academic peers. Although all are lofty goals, the latter will be the most difficult to achieve; many academic historians shun outsiders and view non-tenured or non-tenure-track historians as amateurs little deserving of their time. Still, I am up for the challenge.

Presently, I am working as an independent historian. I am revising my dissertation into a book, writing articles for academic journals and popular history magazines, and working to improve my writing and editing skills. I plan to use this blog as a forum: a place to share my successes and failures in figuring out ways to get paid for my work, methods for getting around the various barriers that come with being unaffiliated with an academic institution, my passion for history, and any tools and/or techniques that improve or hamper my ability to research and write.