How to Develop a Portfolio Career in Academia

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The term portfolio career is increasingly used to describe a work-life in which you do two or more part-time jobs for different employers. This article will help you to consider how you can build a successful career by combining separate contracts, either within academia or across sectors.

Why develop a portfolio career?

Increasingly many of us are actively choosing to develop our career by building a portfolio of experience in line with our interests, preferred ways of working and lifestyle considerations. Many portfolio careerists report that they enjoy the variety, freedom and the flexibility of their work-life.

You may also be using part time work and temporary contracts as a stepping stone to a permanent post in academia. This is often a necessary short term solution due to the competitive academic job market and limited availability of full-time permanent posts.

Whatever the reason for portfolio working, be clear about your motivation and see it as a positive step in your career development.

What does it take to build a successful portfolio career?

1.       Clear goals

If your goal is to get a full-time post in academia then develop a portfolio of contracts aligned to the jobs you are applying for. Use short-term contracts as an opportunity to build your networks and develop your track record. Keep your research interests active, even if it means doing this outside your paid work remit.

If on the other hand you want to build a permanent portfolio career take a long term view and prepare well for the journey. Whilst a portfolio career gives the scope for creativity and flexibility, this is best supported by a plan with short and long term goals and milestones to aim for.

2.       Focus on your strengths, skills and what you enjoy

 Developing a portfolio career takes commitment and energy, so it is important to enjoy your work. Build on your strengths, skills and interests to realise your potential and maintain motivation. If doing research is your passion, then think creatively of ways in which you could use your subject knowledge or research skills in contexts outside of academia. For example, combine a part time lecturing post with consultancy work in the private or public sector.

3.       Organisation and effective time management 

You need to be a good project manager, with the ability to switch focus and multi-task. Often there are spells with multiple deadlines and you will be required to manage your time well. Self-discipline is essential for success.

4.        Business development and networking

 Be proactive and develop contacts particularly in the early stages of building your portfolio. Confidently market yourself and develop a personal brand. Complete all contracts to the best of your ability and think strategically to plan for successive contracts.

5.        Creativity and alignment

This is the fun bit! Be creative and think of exciting ways to diversify. Follow your areas of interest and use your success in one field, for example as a lecturer in academia, to deliver services in another environment, such as training in the corporate sector.

Is a portfolio career right for me?

Reflect on what you have read here. If you enjoy change and variety; if you are self-motivated and organised; and if you have multiple interests, then the likelihood is that portfolio working might well appeal to you.

Consider also:

  • How well will you cope with the potential lack of stability?

A portfolio career requires resilience to manage the cycles of change and element of risk. But remember that a portfolio career can also be a way to spread risk in an uncertain job market. 

  • How will you manage potential fluctuations in your income?

Assess your financial situation and needs. Try if possible to keep one main, regular income stream. Also be aware of a potential loss of employment benefits, such as pension and paid holidays. It is important to weigh up the pros and cons and what this means for you. 

  • How will you manage your career?

Control, independence and autonomy are potential benefits of a portfolio career. It is important, however, to consider what you may miss out on, for example the status, career progression and sense of belonging, which full-time employment can bring.  Build a like-minded community of people around you and take responsibility for your personal development.

What next?

If you are interested to find out more about how to develop a portfolio career, here are steps to consider:

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