Exploring the Entrepreneurial Option for Sociologists

By Karina Butera [1]

Throughout my postgraduate experience I have operated within both the worlds of academia and commercial enterprise. I am perhaps a strange hybrid because I have entwined my ‘sociological imagination’ with  my interest  in a movement referred to as ‘positive psychology’ – in lay terms: life coaching. As I have worked through the various stag es of my PhD, I have also baby-step by baby- step, built a corporate wellbeing business, which is (I hope) positioned to take some thing of a quantum leap now that my thesis has been submitted. In this article, for ease of reading, I will refer to my research and teaching work as my ‘academic’ work and the work I do running my business as my ‘commercial’ work.


How I ended up an ‘academic’

Ten years ago I had no education higher than my high school certificate and a handful of industry-specific diplomas.  I had been working for a dozen years in various corporate jobs. When my second child was born, I was taking a break from paid work, but took on a volunteer job at a domestic abuse shelter. Each Monday night, I would leave the centre buzzing with energy. Working with those courageous clients opened my eyes to the social injustice experienced by these women and I gained an incredible sense of purpose and self-worth to realise I was able to turn tears to smiles, despondency to hope and social paralysis due to uncertainty into action. I had found my niche, but realised that if I was to get paid employment in this area, I would need some sort of qualification. So, off to university I trotted.

That was my initial motivation for attending university. Some thing happened between then and now, and I became addicted to sociology. I loved turning my personal observations of life into research to help me clarify the social forces behind what I experienced. Hence, my original idea of getting ‘some sort of social work’ degree grew to doing my honours in sociology and then, some how, my supervisor talked me into doing a PhD.

At the time I was hell-bent on starting a wellbeing centre that would offer personal training, nutritional consultations and life coaching. As part of my business plan, I had already commenced a life coaching course, which I felt would be important if I was to help people overcome obstacles, and set and achieve goals. The plan for the centre was put on hold, but I continued to work with life coaching clients (never more than a few at a time) so that when my PhD was complete I would have some practical experience to draw upon.

Along with this I also took on sessional tutoring, as is the usual practice for postgraduates in topping up their incomes.

Managing multiple roles in a postmodern life

Students in hallway

I am not about to claim that combining the PhD journey, teaching, developing a business and raising a family has been a simple endeavour. Success (or at least survival) required precise time-management strategies and the ability to adjust to multiple role changes throughout the day.

These changing roles were most extreme between my academic and business settings. Although the powers-that-be, in both the academic and commercial worlds, are driven by improving performance, results and profits, that is where the similarities end. Otherwise they have an entirely different language, culture and set of values that one must learn to adapt to in order to maximise effectiveness in each arena.

Further to that, in the business arena I have played the role of someone with a fair degree of experience and practical know-how, whereas as a postgraduate in academia, I assume the role of novice and am still a fledgling in the language, protocol and discipline of sociology. So my confidence levels tend to be stronger in the commercial than the academic arena.

In the business world my clients and colleagues have taken little interest when I say I am completing my PhD (I suspect some–like myself a decade ago–do not actually know what is a PhD), so I have tended not to share much about that side of my life with clients. In the academic world my peers and mentors have been somewhat curious about my business life, but I have tried to keep that side of myself hidden for fear that they may think I am not fully dedicated to my studies. As a result, I probably have created for myself some thing of a double-life.

Having these duals aspects of my career, however, has not been entirely problematic. There are times that my business experience come s in very handy in my academic life. For example, I have just put together an impressive book proposal with a bit of advice from a friend I made when I worked in the publishing  industry. My business side has also helped me immensely with managing my postgraduate journey from a time- and project-management perspective.

There are also times when my academic exposure is a true blessing in my business life. Being able to think critic ally and see beyond conventional assumptions has enabled me to challenge clients to think laterally, address complex problems and amalgamate abstract ideas with concrete reality. The benefits can be as simple as using my research skills in writing strong proposals or articles. For example, last week I was able to whip up a brilliant little article for a Corporate Wellbeing magazine in the space of a few hours because I was able to do some quick internet scholarly searches and access the university library database, some thing most life coaches have no training in or access to. All this me ans that in my business I am able to position myself as a life coach with sociological grounding. In other words, I can help my clients achieve what they nee d to achieve while being in tune with the social structures that they need to find ways to realistic ally overcome So, although the worlds are very different, they do not necessarily collide; rather, they complement each other due to the variety of skills and resources to which I have access.

Advice from the ‘coal-front’

If you are considering starting your own business, there are some things you will ne d to be sure of first. If you need to rely on a stead y income, do not do it! Although there is very good money to be mad e in the corporate world, you nee d to invest massive amounts of time, energy and money before you will start making a profit. If you do not have a sound business concept, plan and marketing strategies, also steer clear of this option. Finally, if your family and friends are not going to be 100 percent supportive of you building a business, rethink your options.

However, if none of the above aspects present problems for you, there are some real benefits in combining your sociological training with setting up a business of your own. If there is some line of work that you feel deeply drawn  to, even if it seems the polar extreme of your sociological training, there is likely to be a way you can combine the two. Here are some words of advice that might help if taking the entrepreneurial path appears to be calling you:

Start now

Student studying outside

Do not wait till you are wearing the silly-looking hat and holding your certificate in your hot little hands. Get started now. If nothing else, register a business name and begin to put together your concept, ‘branding’ (logos, key words etc) and a list of the services you can offer. You will also need a good website – my advice is, unless you are a total computer wiz, outsource someone who will build your site for you. By setting up your basic business structure now, by the time you have finished your thesis and you are ready to put some serious time into developing your business, you can already claim your business to have been ‘established’ for several years.

Get outside your own world

Most of us are privileged when doing our PhDs because we are studying a topic of our choosing that we are intrinsic ally interested in. However, your knowledge needs to have a practical application to someone outside of academia if you are going to be able to market it in the commercial world. What angle can you lead from to make your research commercially alluring? For example, my PhD was on the gendered  aspects of  friendship interaction–I am now using that knowledge to work with executives to help them cultivate healthy friendships and gender relations in the workplace.

Set your topic accordingly

When you choose your research topic, choose one that will provide answers to questions that people in your target market will have. If there are topics you are interested in, but  other people will not be, still put these ideas into  your research plan, but ensure you have aspects covered that will give you some thing relevant to people willing to pay you to share that information.

Cultivate your image as a specialist

Once you have completed your PhD, you should be an expert in whatever it is that you have studied. Do not be afraid to throw that piece of information around in appropriate conversations. If you are speaking to an editor of a magazine who may be interested in your research, make sure you advise them that ‘nobody else in Australia / the world’ can offer quite the perspective that you c an from a well researched position. This puts you in a very powerful position, and you will have to do very little else to sell yourself once that fact is understood.

Ask Questions

This is some thing that we do as part of our research work, but do we do it in our own careers? Do not be afraid to ask questions to those established in your field of interest.  People love telling you about their own careers, experiences, contacts and ideas. You will gain an enormous advantage by simply asking questions:

  • Who do I need to talk to?
  • Who can help me get published?
  • Is it more important for me to be published in journals, books or popular/ business articles?
  • How do I get introduced to this person?
  • How did you get to where you are now?

The more questions you ask, the better advised you will be on what the next best steps are for you in your business planning and implementation.

Do not expect your PhD to get the business for you

I have been surprised and disappointed to find that some business people actually think that academics are out of touch with reality. To counter these stereotypes, in your marketing literature make sure you pitch to the bottom line first (what can you do for ‘them’ that is what ‘they’ need / want) and then tell them about your credentials. Your credentials will impress them, but more importantly, they nee d to sense that you know what their day-to-day issues are and how you can help provide solutions to these problems.

Learn how to present well

Female college students in a computer labIn academia, we tend to be more interested in, or critical of, the content than the quality of a presentation.   In the commercial world, however, the expectations of a highly polished presentation can me an negative judgements are made before the peak of the argument is even fully reached. You will need bells, whistles, pitches, angles, counter-angles, graphs, bold fonts, professional images and catching colours, smoke, mirrors, gidgets and gadgets, not to mention, a charming smile and good ‘close’. Make sure you can put together a great written proposal and a good visual/ verbal presentation before even attempting to pitch your goods and services in the corporate arena.

Open your eyes to opportunities

They are everywhere! Do not limit yourself to one income revenue. It might be that you can call upon others to help you build your business as sub-contractors, or there may be another business in existence that you c an ‘piggy-back’ off or ‘align’ with. Just as a pool player reassesses the lay of the table before taking each shot, always observe all the options before plunging ahead with the next action in your career. For example, my original idea of opening a wellbeing centre morphed as I realised that there is better money to be made by taking the practitioner (myself or one of the other specialists who have joined my team over the years) to the office of the client. I have saved myself massive costs in rent and salaries by adapting and growing the business in this different direction.

Surround yourself well

Seek out people who are doing what you would like to be doing. Spend time with others who will support you in your decisions and help introduce you to the right people. Also, make sure everyone in your network knows the type of work you do. Do not ram it down their throats, but make sure that they understand what you offer so they know when to refer you to others.

Remain an active part of the academic community

Once you have completed your degree, do not lose touch with your academic roots. Stay attuned to the latest developments in your area of interest, attend conferences and continue to foster academic relationships. By doing this you will continue to learn from your counterparts who are full time within academic institutions and you will hear about research being conducted in areas that you may wish to be involved in. You can also relay information to your counterparts in academia from your experience in the field that will help them identify hot research areas that need exploring or consideration in their own work.

Be resilient

Academics are good at taking criticism – in the commercial world you do not necessarily have to handle criticism, but you are likely to get avoided, knocked back, let down, lied to and even hung upon. Do not let that faze you. Take a ratio approach to your work – for example, decide in your  mind that for every successful business transaction, you will have to make 50 phone calls, send out 15 quotes or proposals, give six presentations, 20 follow-up em ails and calls, and maybe shout a drink or two. Take the attitude that each knock-back is getting you one step closer to your goal, and you will maintain momentum and soon be achieving with confidence.

Do not doubt yourself

People in the academic world may not understand your ‘commercial’ side. People in the commercial world may not to understand your ‘academic’ side. Get used to people not quite ‘getting’ you. But do not allow this to erode your confidence. By bridging these worlds you are doing some thing unique and innovative. Establish strategies for standing firm when others do not appreciate you, or worse still, attempt to cut you down.

I hope this has given some insight into a somewhat different career option for budding sociologists. If this article has peaked your interest, feel free to shoot me an em ail or seek me out at the next conference and throw any questions you may have my way. I’m more than happy to help however I can.

Exploring the Entrepreneurial Option for Sociologists


Bio at the time of first publication (2008):

Karina Butera currently divides her time between tutoring/conducting  social  research at Deakin University  and  running a corporate wellbeing business: Project Balance Pty Ltd. She is eagerly awaiting the results of her PhD thesis, which she submitted in March this year.


[1] This article was first published by Nexus in June 2008. Original Citation for this article: Butera, K. (2008) ‘Exploring the Entrepreneurial Option for Sociologists,’ Nexus June 20(2): 11-13.


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