I’ve been pretty vocal on this blog about the importance of public engagement and science communication, but I’ve also said that I want to stay in academic research long-term – so why did I decide to build a business whilst doing my PhD, and why should you consider it too?
My reasons for starting Science On A Postcard were pretty basic – I wanted a creative outlet, and I was frustrated after a stranger in an airport said that I didn’t look like a scientist. Before I’d even boarded my flight home I’d set up Instagram and Etsy pages for Science On A Postcard, and I’d decided I was going to create science-related merchandise that people could use (notebooks, tote bags), wear (pin badges) or send (postcards), to show that they were scientists. The whole point was to normalise science, but looking back on it this little business has actually taught me an awful lot.
Why build a business?
PhD students and people working in academia more widely are often criticised for staying in academia and failing to gain any experience ‘in the real world’. Personally, I think that notion is ridiculous – just because I work at a University doesn’t mean that my job is any more or less difficult or unrealistic than any other. Even so, that criticism is still common, and setting up your own little side hustle is one way to demonstrate that you are more than capable of thinking on your feet, innovating, managing your time and taking a leadership role.
Not only has my business taught me more than I ever imagined it would, it’s been incredibly rewarding. Do a PhD can be pretty slow at times; data can take a long time to collect and analyse, and you can very easily find yourself slipping into a routine of plodding along pretty slowly. Some people are fine with that, but honestly, I find that to be one of the most difficult parts of the research process – the rewards (i.e. results, papers, conference presentations and collaborations) can be few and far between, and I work best when I am able to thrive off smaller successes that happen more regularly. Science On A Postcard gives me those very small, very frequent rewards – as I write this I have processed 507 orders through the shop, and I do a little squeal of excitement every time I sell something, whether it’s a bulk order or an order for a single postcard.
All of the excitement and learning involved with building a business would not be worth it if I didn’t absolutely love and believe in the products that I’m designing and selling. I’ve talked before about how important it is (for me at least) to have a creative outlet, and having a commitment to that creative outlet – i.e. customers messaging me on Instagram, Twitter and Etsy telling me that they love their products and they are eagerly awaiting new releases – means that I have to switch off from work for hours at a time. During my PhD that was incredibly valuable, because it meant that I was forced to draw, to design and to think creatively about things that were not linked to my research project in the slightest; those hours were significant breaks that I used to manage my stress levels and reduced my anxiety because I still felt like I was being productive.
You don’t need to design and sell products to get that stress relief, you could do anything – freelance writing, teaching, blogging, photography, you could even set up a little baking business! It’s not about making money – you probably won’t have time to invest to grow the business to such a stage that it’s actually making you any real income, at least during the time that you’re studying – it’s about forcing yourself to take time away from your work, giving your brain something else to focus on whilst your research plans take a backseat.
A few words of warning
That said, one of the biggest shocks for me was how much work having this tiny tiny little business would be. I’m working full time at the moment, and that means coming home from work to spend an evening packaging and posting orders at least every few days. I’ve also had to get an accountant because I’ll need to pay taxes at the end of the year – something I was entirely naive about before I realised that I very much needed to get my head around that sort of thing (…just a few months ago).
I’ve noticed patterns in how busy I am which helps me to manage my time and get organised, but it’s still all on me – I design the products, find suppliers, figure out how much stock I can afford/will sell and then place orders, photograph, price and list my products on Etsy, advertising and marketing (hey follow the shop on Instagram and Twitter for updates!), and then sorting out packaging and postage so that customers get their orders in pristine condition. Even then, there’s lots of customer service involved if/when the postal services screws up and orders are lost or delayed!
I realise that a lot of what I’m saying comes from a position of privilege – I am lucky in that my PhD was funded, so I didn’t have to pay fees and I received a tax-free stipend that allowed me to pay rent, buy food and have an ok social life. Setting up a business is not for everyone, but if you are in a position that allows you to do something like that and you’re not sure whether to go for it, I would very much recommend that you do.