Running an academic small business

I wrote a while back about trying to navigate tight budget situations as an early career academic.

While lucky enough to have been awarded an externally funded fellowship that covered my salary, I found myself struggling to get my research done. When my computer developed a mild case of seizures, I didn’t have money to replace it. When my students needed funding for professional development or journal publication charges, I was struggling to pull money together.

Since then, I’ve developed a whole new set of unexpected skills to help keep my project moving along smoothly.

In the end, I was unable to find any source of extra funding within the various levels of my university or affiliated organisations to help with my computer’s ailments, and long conversations with my research office made it clear that my grant wouldn’t be available for this.

So what else is there? I was lucky enough to have a couple of contracts come through with local government that could help fund a new computer. The work itself was rewarding and relatively straightforward, but I was unsure about how money actually changes hands.

I fired off emails to a few enterprising colleagues who have varied sources of funding for their work and received a suite of responses. Some colleagues ran registered small businesses that managed contracts separately from their academic work. Others used the university’s research offices and enterprise units to manage this work. Most went it alone as sole traders.

And so I went about learning how to be a sole trader. I registered for an ABN, learned how to send an invoice and how to file a more complicated tax return at the end of the financial year. In the end, I earned my new computer (yay!) and a whole new set of unexpected skills in small business.

In the years since I finished my PhD, I’ve invested in a whole portfolio of unexpected skills. Increasingly, I feel that being an academic can be likened to running a small business. While I appreciate that I certainly don’t have the same level of crippling responsibility as small business owners, there are some clear parallels.

In the past couple of years, I’ve applied for countless grants and prizes to keep my “business” ticking over. Without money coming in, my business (=me) will fold. I’ve learned how to manage a budget, how to best direct my time and energy, and manage my existing finances for maximum return.

While my PhD and Honours students are not staff, but valuable scholars in training, there are also some parallels with a small business. My work thrives when they do, and I feel responsible for ensuring that their work environment is happy and well resourced.

It’s also impossible to step away completely from the business. I have a salary for several years, but if I don’t make full use of this opportunity and work hard, the business languishes.

I’m about to go on a period of maternity leave and have spent the last 26 weeks sorting out how the business will proceed in my absence. Which tasks can I hand off to others and which should I continue to manage whilst on leave? Who should have my personal email address and mobile number?

Unlike other jobs in which an employee fills a role, and responsibilities are handed over to others during leave, there is no-one to manage my business for me. After complex negotiations, I have handed some tasks over for this period but have a long list of things to keep a watchful eye on. While not ideal, this is just part of the cost of running my business.

This list of new skills and experiences has been unexpected, but not unenjoyable. I certainly feel more capable and more empowered with each new skill that comes from navigating a new situation or obstacle.

This blog part of my business has had a quiet spell as I prepare for leave and will likely take a hiatus for the next 6 months or so, before recharging when I return to work. I’m sure I’ll post again then about how easy it is to balance work as an untenured academic with new parenthood and how great it is to have a baby who sleeps so well*

*Neither are likely.

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