Becoming a self-employed writer is a dream career for many academics, particularly those in the humanities. Writing is what we do, after all. Surely we can claim that particular expertise after all those years spent alone with a laptop? And having your own business is tremendously appealing because we're not used to working for someone else or being in an office for the traditional 9-to-5 shift.
Susan Geib has worked for herself for 20 years, gradually shaping her writing business into a marketing-communications consultancy, based in New Hampshire and focused on serving colleges and universities. The skills she learned while earning a Ph.D. in American studies at Boston University serve her well in her work. But, in an interview, she offers a few important caveats to graduate students and faculty members who are considering a professional writing career.
Q. Why did you decide to go to graduate school?
A. I loved analytical reading and writing and had become interested in history and material culture while working at the Plimoth Plantation, an ethnohistorical museum, immediately after college. Having grown up in an academic family, I thought I was well-suited to a career of teaching, research, and museum consulting. I chose my graduate program for its emphasis on material and visual culture. As an undergraduate, I was an English major and art-history minor. My interest combining the verbal and the visual formed the bridge to my career outside of academe.
Q. How, and why, did you decide to leave academe?
A. It was a gradual decision arrived at during the years I spent researching and writing my dissertation. Revising my dissertation for publication would have required still more time, and I was eager to think about something new. I enjoyed teaching, but I knew that as a fledgling academic, I would likely be confined to teaching survey courses for quite some time. The solitary nature of academic research and writing also took its toll. But ultimately it was the realization that I could not choose where I wanted to live that pushed me over the edge. With the scarcity of teaching positions, I knew I would have to go wherever I got an offer, and I could not cede such a personal decision to a search committee.
Q. Now you run your own marketing-communications business. What's involved in that?
A. For 20 years, I've operated Written Work, my one-woman, marketing-communications business. In the beginning, I called myself a writer and took almost any assignment I could find. Over time, I began to specialize in higher education, and today I work exclusively for colleges and universities, research organizations, and some independent secondary schools. And while I do still write, the label "writer" is now much too narrow to describe my work.
So what is marketing communications? And what do I actually do? I help organizations tell their stories so they can reach certain goals. Colleges and universities must attract students, raise money, develop good town-gown relationships, and increase their stature among peers if they are to fulfill their missions, or even survive. To tell their stories, they require marketing products, including Web sites, print publications (such as viewbooks and case statements), and, increasingly, social media. But first they have to know what their stories are, or, in industry jargon, what their brand is all about. That's my job, but I don't do it alone.
Marketing communications is a highly collaborative field in which writers, designers, photographers, videographers, and technologists form teams to serve clients. In that environment, I interview administrators, students, faculty members, and alumni to get at the heart of the institution. I collaborate on communications strategies and plans. I develop concepts and messages that form the basis of marketing campaigns appearing in both print and online. Then I write the copy—the story itself. What I love most is combining my verbal way of thinking with a designer's visual approach to create something far beyond what either of us could do alone.
Q. What kind of work experience did you have before starting your own business?
A. All through graduate school, I worked with history museums on special exhibitions, and I also had a wonderful but temporary job on a major public-history project sponsored by the city of Boston. I undertook some public-history projects on my own, after I finished my degree, but I quickly realized that I was not ready to support myself as a solo researcher-writer. I also wanted the collegiality and stability of a "real" job.
I got an extremely lucky break through a graduate-school friend who had married an exhibition designer in Manhattan. Her husband was looking for someone with research, writing, and organizational skills to join his company, which specialized in large-scale, corporate-sponsored exhibitions for world's fairs and science and technology centers. My friend recommended me, and a deal was quickly struck.
It was an enormous change for me—serving corporate clients, entering a for-profit business rather than a museum, and moving to New York. But I knew such opportunities wouldn't come often, so I just closed my eyes and jumped.
From that job, I moved to a marketing-communications company, also in New York, as a project manager and writer on print projects, primarily corporate brochures and annual reports. I had terrific mentoring there and learned how to manage a creative business. Then I returned to Boston as an account supervisor at an advertising agency, where I got the equivalent of a degree in marketing and branding. I moved to a boutique spinoff of that agency, which ultimately imploded. When I lost my job, I decided to go out on my own.
Q. Which of the skills you learned in graduate school are useful in your work today?
A. Most valuable was the sheer ability to persevere—to sit down and put ideas together and write, no matter what. Next was getting to know my way around academe, which helps greatly now.
Q. What lessons have you had to learn and what skills have you had to acquire to be successful in your own business?
A. Some of the lessons were interpersonal: how to work effectively in a collaborative environment; how to present and defend ideas diplomatically, and then back off if necessary; how to use client criticism constructively. I also had to acquire basic business skills: writing proposals, developing cost estimates, negotiating, and managing budgets and schedules.
On the creative side, I learned to write differently. As an academic, I prided myself on my ability to compose beautiful sentences that were both complex and clear, and often long. My sentences are, I hope, still beautiful and clear, but they are now short, even when they convey sophisticated ideas. I've had to forgo the elegance of multiple clauses and construct brief sentences that nevertheless flow. And now it's not all about sentences anyway: One of my proudest accomplishments in marketing consisted of two words.
The best way to develop those skills and build a professional portfolio is by working for someone else. Graduate students who find the notion of becoming a self-employed writer attractive, beware: Establishing a viable business bears little resemblance to taking on freelance assignments while in school. Going solo directly from academe virtually guarantees going out of business soon after. A good rule of thumb: If you don't know how to "ask for the order," handle "scope creep," and chase aging receivables—and if you don't know what those things mean—you're not ready.
Q. What advice would you give graduate students who are considering careers outside academe?
A. Most important, rid yourself of any academic arrogance you may have acquired during graduate school. People with professional degrees, or without advanced degrees of any kind, are not intellectually inferior. They simply have taken different paths and developed other skills. They are often very, very smart, so learn from them. My own mentor was a CPA/M.B.A.
At the same time, be confident of your ability to make the transition. As a Ph.D., you know how to gather, evaluate, and synthesize information. You can see the larger implications of individual ideas or decisions, and place those ideas in context. You know how to write and teach. Such skills are incredibly valuable and increasingly rare.
If you want to make the big break from academe, start by defining your essential skills and interests. In my case, that was writing and working in a creative, highly visual field. Do some research on industries that need what you have to offer and then network relentlessly.
How? Start by telling family and friends that you're thinking of making a transition out of academe. Do they know anyone in the corporate or nonprofit world—or on the administrative side of higher education—who uses skills like the ones you've acquired? Can they refer you to that person for an informational interview?
Don't overlook people within your own university, starting with research librarians, who may be able to point you to specialized government or industry databases. Remember that many university administrators are Ph.D.'s or A.B.D.'s—seek them out.
Then look for people, inside and outside of academe, who have jobs related in some way to your discipline. For example, market research could be a good option for a psychologist, sociologist, or anthropologist. Set up an informational interview with the professionals in the institutional research office at your university. Find out what they do and ask for referrals (for information, not employment) to outside market-research companies they hire to carry out projects.
If you're in languages and literatures, you could explore educational travel or cultural tourism. Meet with your study-abroad office; ask the staff members about their work and also for referrals to tour organizations with which they may have partnerships.
If you're drawn to my field, introduce yourself to the communications office. Again, ask the staff members about the office's scope of services and for referrals to writers, designers, and other creative professionals they work with.
A simple way to get some experience is to inquire about taking on freelance work for the alumni magazine, which is often looking for freelancers to write articles. Consider pitching a story of your own if you've had an unusual experience in research or fieldwork. That kind of writing pays little, but it's a good way to meet professionals and to generate samples for your portfolio.
Finally, keep in mind: Most people want to be helpful, especially if you are genuinely enthusiastic about exploring a new field. Be gracious, and thank those who take the time to guide you. Leave room for serendipity, and free yourself to take risks. And keep learning: A Ph.D. is only the beginning.