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.