Is A Portfolio Career For You?

You may never have heard of it, but it may be just what you’ve been hankering after. On several occasions, I’ve been able to “name that career” to the joy of postgrads and research staff who’ve been trying to put into words what they really want to do:

  • Use their eclectic bunch of skills, often including experience gained over a varied career, prior to signing up for a postgraduate degree.
  • Maintain lots of variety and the chance to work with lots of different people.
  • Be their own boss.
  • Fit their work around what’s important in their lives – which may include focusing heavily on work when appropriate,  but may also include extended periods doing something else.
  • Retain (or gain) a feeling of being in control – or at least of not being controlled by someone else.

The answer may be to stop looking for the ideal job, and figure out how to mix and match a number of income streams from part-time, temporary, consultancy and freelance work, some of which may be sequential, but which may also overlap. Professor Charles Handy, the most humane of management gurus, described this as portfolio working.

You can read more in “The Elephant and the Flea” – dates back to 2001 but it’s still a great read.

What’s your fall-back?

It’s more likely to be feasible if you have some core skills or experience which you can rely on to keep you afloat most of the time, to enable you to take on more sporadic work. If you’ve got in-demand professional experience or qualifications which can provide you with a fall-back, it could give you the freedom to take more risks with your career. This works most obviously for professions such as teaching (in areas where supply work might be possible), health professions (locum work for nurses, pharmacists, dentists etc) and accountancy (particularly at the end of the tax year).

However, you may just need to build a good reputation for being reliable and available for routine work which is regularly available. One of our research fellows bridged the year between the end of his PhD and gaining the fellowship by using regular exam invigilation work as his “banker” – tedious perhaps, but once they know you can be relied upon, it comes up remarkably frequently.

Know-who, as much as know-how

Once you’ve identified your core or fall-back work, you need to be adept at building networks of contacts who know you for the work you’d ideally like to be doing. If a new piece of freelance or consultancy work is on the horizon, you need to know that it’s coming up – and those commissioning the work need to know that you exist and are available. This type of career isn’t an option for shrinking violets or those who’d rather avoid all that networking. You’re running a business – the business of retaining control of your life whilst keeping yourself afloat.

But what about the mortgage?

Which brings me to the other critical aspect – this type of career is not for you if you’re looking for traditional “job security”. If you have monthly outgoings, you’ll need contingency plans to help you keep a roof over your head, eg. a couple of lucrative, if boring, bits of intensive freelance work each year, or a part-time job which you stick with just to, literally, keep food on the table.

However, paradoxically, a portfolio career may make you more secure overall. How come?

No job is for life now, and to quote Dr Peter Hawkins, “To be employed is to be at risk, to be employable is to be secure”. If you have a reputation for delivering good work with a range of people (who could pay you), even if one line of work dries up, you’re well placed to find alternatives. Compare that with someone who has worked for the same employer for 10 years – but the employer goes bust. (Or someone who’s worked for the same research group on successive short term contracts, and the funding dries up…)

Your supporters club

Interestingly, Peter Hawkins has his own portfolio career strategy, aiming to spend a third of his life on corporate work to bring in the cash, a third on less lucrative educational or third sector work (he speaks, writes and develops resources on careers topics amongst others) and a third on unpaid work. This is hard to do in isolation, so he needed a good mentor – Charles Handy (you can see the influence).

Is it for you?

If this all seems far too risky to you, don’t panic, as lots of us still have traditional “one job at a time” careers (at least for the moment). A 2008 article from the Times Higher discusses the pros and cons of this sort of working, and acknowledges plenty of cons.

However, if you’ve always fancied, for example, doing chunks of academic research (part-time or on contract), plus some commercial consultancy work, plus time out to write books or create other works, and manage it all around your abiding passion for a cause or charity, you’ve now got a name for it – your portfolio career.


7 comments on “Is A Portfolio Career For You?

    • And thanks for inspiring me to write it!

      Sometimes I need to be reminded about stuff that I take for granted which others will find useful. If you end up happy in a portfolio career, promise you’ll write me a guest post for this blog.


  1. I’ve fallen into this career pattern by accident – it’s so nice to know there’s a proper name for it! It’s ideal if you have two (or more) separate job types that you want to pursue – for me personally, I enjoyed marketing, writing and research but had trouble finding one job that would combine all three.

    It has also been really useful for me in terms of building a good reputation and getting experience in new fields, like social media – I don’t think there are many large organisations that would take an untried wannabe on for a full time job, but working freelance on small, start-up projects means that you can learn the processes while building success for yourself and your clients!

  2. I could not agree more with your rationale but then I am somewhat biased as I have just written a book on portfolio careers, “And What Do You Do?: 10 Steps to Creating a Portfolio Career”, A&C Black. What my co-author, Katie Ledger and I have found from interviewing a large selection of portfolio workers is that hardly any would even consider returning to what I call a single track career. They actually report feeling more secure in a recession as they are not reliant on only one job. Attitudes towards this growing phenomenon amongst employers are proving fascinating. Even the CBI in a recent report say that our concepts of work and employment are going to have to change with organisations relying more on a small core workforce supplemented by an army of temporary or project workers. Portfolio workers typically are self motivated, self starters and reliable. They have to be as they will not survive unless they are excellent time managers and organisers. They will be increasingly attractive as employees. We are just beginning a programme of interviewing a wide range of employers to check out their attitudes to this growing group of workers. We reckon that there are already over a million of us. Yes – we are portfolio workers too! Follow our project on

    • Thanks Barrie – spotted your website when I was doing a bit of research before writing this post, so can recommend it.

      I was also about to recommend your recent post on the HECSU website on Portofolio Careers ( – so I’ll do it here!

      This sort of career often seems to appeal to those post-docs who want their independence and are used to “little separation between [their] work and the rest of [their] lives” (as you put it in your article), but have decided against chasing the traditional academic career. I also think this group might be fertile ground for further work or research?

      I’ll follow your project with interest.

      Best regards

    • Thanks – get it while you can, Tracy. There’s a whole blogging revolution at Manchester on its way … (though this blog will remain visible, and I might steal some posts, like this one, for our new “uber-blog” – once I’ve finished setting it up!)


Comments are closed.