Portfolio careers

Why settle for a single career when you could have six? Take a look at your skills, plan ahead and diversify

April 10, 2008

A portfolio career, whether made up of different kinds of jobs pursued successively or simultaneously, can sound like an appealing antidote to office life. But think hard before leaving or cutting down your hours if you are in a 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 practicalities.

There will likely be implications for pensions and life insurance and continuity of employment, which can affect entitlement to benefits such as redundancy and sick pay. Consider personal provision for income insurance and professional liability insurance.

Scott warns that it can 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.

A portfolio career is ill-suited to poor communicators and those wary of selling themselves, warns Nick Isles, a director of the Work Foundation. His advice for academics is to turn into a brand, ideally based on a key book, and incorporating consultancy services and/or public speaking.

“A book that mixes academic rigour with a populism [is] 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.

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.

“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.”

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.

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. 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.

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 pays nothing at all.

“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 making use of your local business link or enterprise organisation.

Isles has one further piece of advice: don’t be reckless. He warns against borrowing large sums 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 people who have pursued a similar career path. He says it’s about “knowing your limits and drawing on advice at the right time”.

Links:

Universities Personnel Association

Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services

The Work Foundation

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Reader's comments (1)

"Portfolio Careers" is a really interesting and popular topic now in "Jobseeker's universe". Some people dream about it but they are too conservative at least to try. You should be ready for changes.

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