I Never Aimed for Self-Employment, But Here I Am

I am officially throwing my hat into the self-employment ring from now through summer 2015 (at least). I never thought I would be at this point, but over the last six months I’ve found something I really enjoy doing, and I want to see if I can earn a living from it. Kyle and I are also still anticipating moving in the near future (destination TBD), so it’s not a great time for me to try to apply for full-time jobs, anyway. I guess you could say I’m being both pushed and pulled into working for myself.


Last fall, I was funemployed. I had a bunch of different projects and goals, and though I was working very hard and long overall, I wasn’t focused on building a business or earning money. For this upcoming summer, I am going to have a laser focus on building up my new business and evaluating if it’s something I can/want to do over the next few years instead of months. Mostly, that evaluation is going to be if I can earn sufficient money from the endeavor.


The objective of my business is to inspire and empower early-career PhDs to make the most of their money. It’s funny how this shift in audience has really ignited my passion. I’ve been into personal finance for a number of years, obviously, but I never wanted it to be my full-time thing when I was thinking of serving general audiences. But now that I realize that I could focus in serving my own community of grad students and postdocs, I love the idea of doing more of it.


flowers from Kyle upon my return from my first speaking trip

flowers from Kyle upon my return from my first speaking trip

The primary component of the business, which is the one that inspired me to get into this in the first place, is public speaking. I’ve now spoken about personal finance five times to people in my target audience (prospective stipend-receiving grad students, stipend-receiving grad students, and postdocs). I told you about how the comprehensive personal finance for grad students seminar that I gave at my university became my passion project for last fall. Well, I continued pitching it to a number of universities and was able to give it twice more and have high interest from two more universities for the fall.


However, I am having a bit of trouble consistently getting the fee I want. Professional public speaker fees are quite hefty, but unfortunately universities are accustomed to paying honorariums, which are not sufficient to sustain a professional (they are kind of more like a tip). This spring I gave discounts because I had a restricted schedule due to my fellowship and I was just getting started, but I’ve now determined that, yes, this is very difficult and time-consuming work (and I’m good at it) and I need to stay firm on my fee. If it turns out that I really can’t generate the fee or volume I need to, I will likely stop this kind of active work and get a job. So this summer is an evaluation period.


In addition to the speaking, I’m going to work hard on my online presence and offerings. A baby version of Grad Student Finances is now online, but I have plans to grow its content and audience substantially through the summer. I am also going to finally develop some products that I can sell directly to students and postdocs (I’d rather have the universities pay, but I won’t be able to reach everyone that way). First on the docket is the ebook I’ve been wanting to write for years, and I hope to follow that with some webinars or courses (I need to learn a lot more about this). I may get into coaching if I get requests for it.


I like this dual approach of pursuing active and passive income. (Well, I don’t really believe most “passive income” is passive, but this is what people refer to as passive income.) If it turns out that the speaking component, the active component, doesn’t work out and I end up getting a job, I’ll still have made the investment in the passive components, and perhaps those will continue to sell and I can eventually make up for some of the lost income.


I know early-career PhDs are an underserved audience with respect to personal finance. Lots of people have told me that they love what I’m trying to do and that there is a distinct need. The question remains whether there is any money in it for me, and that’s what I’m going to apply myself completely to discovering this summer.


Have you ever started a business? Do you have any recommendations for me? What are your summer plans?


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22 Responses to "I Never Aimed for Self-Employment, But Here I Am"

  1. Emily, the grad student finances website looks appealing. My advice is on flexibility. Chances are that your original idea will have to be modified. Being able to pivot and adapt to create what readers or customers want will determine if your business will fail or succeed. Good luck Emily.

    1. Emily says:

      Very good point. I’ve already had to adapt my goal from making money exclusively through speaking to trying to build up some additional income streams. I’m sure more pivoting is in the future, though I’ll have to decide how far it too far off the mark for my dream. For instance, I have been asked to speak about personal finance for a general student audience, which I’m not very interested in doing, though I may if it enables me to keep reaching my target audience at other times.

  2. Yeah, the unfortunate thing is that universities thrive on getting labor for practically nothing. They’re used to it and they don’t see much reason to change. I think holding firm on the fee you think is appropriate is the thing to do here; if you start negotiating you’ll never stop! Couching it as “either I will get this fee or I will do something else” is a good way to do it. You might try business schools, they always seem to have lots of cash sloshing around. On the other hand, they might not think their students need it. Out of curiosity, how much are you asking?

    1. Emily says:

      The huge amount of volunteerism in universities really hit me this spring… but it’s all within their closed system of TT faculty members being able to volunteer 20% of their time. As an outsider, it’s hard to make them see that their system doesn’t apply to me. Unfortunately, the initial flat fee I asked for appeared to be a high honorarium rather than a low speaking fee, so I’m going to have to find another way to approach it so I don’t get trapped within that way of thinking.

  3. Leigh says:

    Wow, that’s awesome Emily, congrats and good luck!!

    1. Emily says:

      Thanks! I hope by the time we figure out where we’re moving to I’ll have an idea of whether this is going to work out as a full-time thing. If not, I’ll just get a full-time job and keep pursuing it on the side.

  4. Fiby says:

    I think this is really cool! Hopefully it works out for you!

    1. Emily says:

      Thanks! Your university is one of my more solid leads for the fall. 🙂

      1. Fiby says:

        Hehe keep me updated!

  5. Eliza says:

    So if your fee seemed like a large honorarium instead of a low speaker fee there may be a solution here….raise your fee so it’s clearly a speaker fee.

    It’s a bit counterintuitive, but it may work to frame the engagement for the university and help with your personal branding. Plus, oddly, sometimes companies and people value things based on how much they are paying rather than the actual value received. Raising your fees might actually increase the number of universities that are interested in booking you.

    Take all of that with a grain of salt, because my career has been in the private and government sectors — I’ve no direct experience with the education sector other than as an undergrad.

    1. Emily says:

      Yes, I had intended the low fee to be a better hook but I seem to have ended up hooking the wrong types of groups in terms of their funding available for this sort of thing. I’ve been thinking of overhauling the fee structure entirely, which might help it be more clear that it is a speaker fee and also allow me to charge a bit more and raise the rates more gradually as I gain experience. But you are right that I want my time to be valued and that needs to start with ME valuing it enough to ask for a sufficient fee!

  6. Holy smokes I lost track of you, and this is the first thing I’ve read of yours in years! CONGRATULATIONS! That’s fantastic.

    1. Emily says:

      Thanks, Kathleen!

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  8. smh says:

    I’m so excited to see where this takes you! I hope it is very rewarding.

    1. Emily says:

      Thanks! It’s already been a lot of fun and hard work so I hope the investment pays off!

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