Find freedom as jack of all trades

April 27, 2007

If you are fed up with the day-in, day-out nature of your work, why not think about diversifying? Take a look at your skills, plan ahead and enjoy the variety of a portfolio career, says Harriet Swain

Variety, freedom and endless opportunities to say you're busy doing something else - who would settle for a single career these days when you could have six?

A portfolio career, whether made up of different kinds of jobs pursued successively or simultaneously, sounds the perfect antidote to mundane office life. But think hard before leaving or cutting down your hours if you are in a coveted permanent academic position, advises Helen Scott, executive officer for the Universities Personnel Association.

Your best chance of success in a portfolio career is if your expertise is in a vocational or professional discipline such as accountancy, law or music, she says, but even then you will need to think about the practicalities. For example, there are likely to be implications for pensions and life insurance and continuity of employment, which would affect entitlement to benefits such as redundancy and sick pay. You would also need to think about personal provision for income insurance and, perhaps, professional liability insurance, as well as what you would do if you were involved in a dispute about intellectual property rights. In addition, she warns that it could be hard to maintain contacts within higher education and to remain research-active if you are employed on only a part-time or fixed-term basis. You may need authorisation from an employing higher education institution to be engaged in other activities - and you would need to agree a basis for that permission. There would also be issues of tax and self-assessment to consider.

A portfolio career is ill-suited to poor communicators and anyone wary of selling themselves, warns Nick Isles, a director of the Work Foundation.

His advice for academics is to turn themselves into a brand, ideally based on a key book, and incorporating consultancy services and/or public speaking.

"If you can get a book out that mixes academic rigour with a degree of populism, that's where you are really on to a winner," he says. Having a core argument that more people than just your academic peers can understand can supply a platform from which you can then diversify and start building your brand.

But you also need to put time into building networks so that you are plugged into the key conferences and people organising them, Isles says. If you can, get yourself a column in a national newspaper or in the trade press, which is an excellent way of venturing a foot out of academia.

"These things build up momentum and serendipity that allow you to generate income and a profile," he says. "For most people, as for most successful businesses, it's about what your core competence is, and you then diversify on the back of that."

Graham Nicholson, president of the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services, says career planning should be based on four main factors: skills, interests, values and personality. If you have a wide range of skills and interests, then a portfolio career is likely to work better than if you prefer to focus on one particular area, he says. But the planning should not stop there. "It is all about trying to review where you are and giving yourself formal targets," he says. These targets must be easily measurable so that you know whether you've reached them.

Research carried out by Peter Totterdell, senior research fellow at the Institute of Work Psychology, and others has shown that people who are optimistic by nature seem to be better protected against the strains of a portfolio working lifestyle. Totterdell's research also found two groups tended to report increased wellbeing: those whose work was more varied and creative and those who were able to engage with problems were less reliant on one client and who transferred work to and from colleagues. The research found that having control over when and how one works is helpful and suggests developing safety nets, such as a fund to cover periods of low income, or having one regular and secure form of income.

Alan Cayless works as a scientific and technical consultant in the medical imaging industry, teaches physics and astronomy with the Open University and takes part in public outreach and education programmes through his local astronomy society. He says that this kind of portfolio working is not the best option for those who need financial security. The least enjoyable of his jobs pays the most money, he says, and some of the most enjoyable work he does pays nothing at all.

Cayless advises getting an accountant, ideally through personal recommendation. Then make sure others are personally recommending you.

"People can only think of sending work your way if they know that you are available," he says. "Sometimes an invitation to work on a project can come from someone you spoke to many months earlier." Cayless also counsels using your local business link or enterprise organisation, which will have advice and contacts for people starting to work for themselves and may even offer grants or retraining.

Totterdell's research suggests that portfolio workers need to make up for lack of regular face-to-face contact with others by obtaining social support outside work and developing professional support networks. He recommends considering carefully which tasks you take on and keeping a log of your work.

Isles has one piece of further advice: don't be reckless. He warns against borrowing loads of money to launch yourself and, while you need to be passionate about what you are doing, you also need to get practical advice from a broad selection of people who have pursued a similar career path. He says it's about "knowing your limits and drawing on advice at the right time".

Further information Universities Personnel Association: www.upa.ac.uk

Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services: www.agcas.org.uk

The Work Foundation: www.theworkfoundation.com

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