March 6

You don’t need tenure to change the world

What if you didn’t care whether or not you got tenure at a university? What if your impact on the world was so substantial and so flexible that the university held no strings on your research agenda? BUT, what if your research also had such impact that a university wanted to keep you on?

fire flame on black background

What would be possible for your research if you didn’t care what your tenure committee thought because you were actually an academic entrepreneur?

I began my professional life as an academic. I started a PhD program in sociology, fully expecting to get my doctorate, compete for a tenure-track position, and get a cushy job somewhere down the road. Long story short, that particular PhD program turned out to be a really bad fit for my research interests and my psychological health, so I left after I received an MA.

After a few years teaching college-level sociology, I embarked on the entrepreneurial path, and I’ll never go back because I have seen that the entrepreneurial mindset encourages broad horizons, opportunity, and world changing.

How does an entrepreneur think differently?

An entrepreneur:

  • seeks the intersection between what he is most passionate about and what is most helpful to the “market” (aka people in the world).
  • pursues her passion relentlessly – even if she has to start her business on the margins of a full-time job and family, she will rise early and stay up late, working toward a vision that exists only in her mind.
  • connects with other entrepreneurs with similar passions, fully believing that together they can have a more substantial impact than separately.
  • reaches out to his audience or clients or market, seeking to communicate her message directly to them.
  • sees opportunity where others don’t – she knows the pain points of her audience or client or market so well that she intuitively knows what would help them the most.
  • desires first and foremost to help others and is happy to receive value in return.

How would an academic entrepreneur think differently?

An academic entrepreneur:

  • Rather than seeking the intersection of his interests and the department’s interests, he would seek to combine his research topic with what would be most helpful to the people affected by his research. You’re studying poverty in the US? If you were an academic entrepreneur, you’d line up your research with what helps the US poor the most, not what your department chair or the editor of the journal wants to read.
  • Rather than competing with colleagues and forming political alliances within the department, the academic entrepreneur sees that there is enough to go around. She sees opportunity, where others see only competition. She believes in plenty, when others see only scarcity.
  • Instead of hiding behind jargon-filled papers and objectivity, the academic entrepreneur reaches out to the people he’s studying, seeking to communicate directly to them and to anyone else who is interested in helping them. Let’s say, again, that you’re studying the US poor. The academic entrepreneur is part activist, actively telling the story of the US poor in irresistible words, in YouTube videos, in blog posts, in Podcasts – seeking to talk directly to them and to anyone who would help them.
  • Rather than hoping for a cushy tenure-track job, the academic entrepreneur pursues change in the world on a massive scale. She knows that if she consistently causes a stir, opens up people’s eyes, and genuinely helps others, there will be more than enough reward for her – somehow – monetarily or otherwise, and that is the real dream.

If you began to think like an academic entrepreneur, here are some things you could achieve:

(I believe these to be possible with my entire being.)

You could create YouTube videos about your research that go viral. Imagine, a five-minute video, interviews with your participants, showing the field that you’re working in, displaying the graphs and numbers that you’ve uncovered – all pointing to the problem that you’ve spent years studying. Imagine that it goes viral on Facebook and that you suddenly have an audience of people wanting to talk to you and read more about your research.

You could create a Kickstarter campaign for your research. Grant proposals? Fine, but no longer necessary because that video that went viral. It was connected to a Kickstarter campaign, and you have complete strangers from all over the world monetarily supporting your project.

You could write e-books about your research that spread the word of your findings and pay for more research. The tenure committee would rather see you publish with NYU Press and sell all of 500 copies? Well, you self-published an e-book, and it’s been downloaded and shared 5,000 or 10,000 to 20,000 times – what’s that worth?

You could create a blog that sparks conversations with others in your research area. Having a hard time talking about anything in your department that doesn’t have to do with politics and who just back-stabbed who? With a blog, you can connect with people who actually want to talk about research gather, post comments, contribute articles, and genuinely support each other.

You could create a Podcasts, where you interview other scholars or people in your field to share stories with the world. Wouldn’t you love to get everyone who is interested in your research in one room, where you just let each person talk for 30-45 minutes, passionately sharing research, not trying to impress anyone? Even better if you can jump into that conversation whenever you want, on a commute or at the gym. Create a Podcast, and every conversation with other researchers or people in your field will be available for download from now to the end of human communication. You never know who might be listening.

You could give a TED talk – wouldn’t that be awesome?!

If you’ve gone with me this far, I hope you’ll agree – if all of these things could happen – and really did happen to you – would you give the flick of a wrist for tenure?

No. You’d be too busy changing the world, like an academic entrepreneur on fire.

What do you think?

Is there any part of being an academic entrepreneur that is appealing to you? If you had to choose between creating a video, forming a blog, or starting a podcast – which would you choose? Leave a comment below and provide inspiration for someone else!


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