I am happy to introduce our second alt-ac workshop writer, Claartje van Sijl (Ph.D., Utrecht University).
Dr. Claartje van Sijl is a philosophical career counselor & trainer. She assists academics throughout the world with questions of purpose, direction, balance and confidence in life and career. She is a licensed Working Soft® coach. Read more about her work at on her personal website.
How to create an Alt-Ac Philosophical Company and do work that you love
“What are you going to do with your degree in philosophy?” Every philosophy student sooner or later hears this cliché question. Perhaps even more widespread is the assumption that a PhD in philosophy narrows down your remaining work opportunities to the academic job market. Go figure.
Fortunately, as you know, academic skills are transferable, and so are philosophical skills. In a previous entry in this series at the Philosopher’s Cocoon, Calvin Warner already identifies a number of interesting skills of academically trained philosophers. My personal story of my transition from academic philosophy to an Alt-Ac career as a self-employed philosophical counselor is essentially skills oriented, too. But the interesting part of the transition begins only after you have identified the skills that constitute your craftsmanship…
Going Alt-Ac as an independent philosophy professional: why, when and how?
I did my PhD on Stoicism in its social and cultural context. About half way through my PhD project I realized I did not want to continue in academia. I struggled with the personal process of doing a PhD, for which I sought an external coach. I worked very hard to complete my PhD, but it depleted me more than having two children around that time. I could no longer see the meaning of my work and think as clearly and creatively as I used to. I had no idea what to do after my PhD. All I ever pictured in my post-PhD future was a happily-ever-after life as an academic. And so did almost everyone around me. Since then awareness about the reality of the academic job market has changed, fortunately. Marcus’ and Helen’s workshop here at the Philosopher’s Cocoon testifies to the widening scope of options for philosophy PhD’s.
After obtaining my PhD I was determined to use my talents to do meaningful work that did not drain me. In my PhD work I was mainly involved in academic discussions with people who have been dead anywhere between 20 and almost 2,500 years. I felt lonely and my work felt meaningless. But I still loved philosophy — as I do today. I am fascinated with the way philosophy helps to elucidate complex problems by questioning assumptions and suspending judgment about “self-evident” views. With more than 10 years training in academic philosophy, unsurprisingly the core of my craft is the ability to wonder and to ask questions from a fundamental position of not-knowing. My Alt-Ac path has enabled me to make a living of this craft in a way that is more energizing and satisfying, and that appeals to more of my talents than I ever imagined possible during my PhD.
Even if I did not fancy a future as an academic philosopher myself, I do love the passion, integrity, and curiosity with which researchers strive for knowledge and excellence in the face of failure, criticism, uncertainty. But I also look behind the scenes, at the personal struggles. Working hard is the norm in the academic world. I see how long-term career uncertainty confines academics and makes them doubt their worth. How they make their life’s happiness dependent on the critical judgement of a supervisor, peer reviewer or grant committee. How the pressure to perform inadvertently disconnects them from the meaning of their work. These personal tragedies hurt. Hence the plan to combine the two and become a philosophical life and career counselor for academics. Since starting my company I have helped hundreds of researchers to connect reason with their heart’s wisdom, to move forward harmoniously towards fulfilling their vision with enthusiasm and confidence in life and career.
But I am getting ahead of the story. When I defended my PhD thesis, this was not clear at all. I distinctly remember telling my former colleagues over drinks after my defense that I did not consider ever becoming self-employed. Within a year I had founded my own coaching and training company. Why? Because during that year I had realized from conversations with fellow PhD candidates and from my temporary gig as a student advisor that I am able to let people feel safe to open up and have deep, helpful conversations. I decided to professionalize these skills by enrolling in a coaching and training program. There I learned that self-employment is a common and convenient working format for coaches and trainers.
How to become a philosophical entrepreneur
There I was, highly educated as an academic philosopher, with a solid professional training as a coach. But I hardly knew a thing about starting a company. I have since met many people who are a lot more savvy about running a business than me. At the time I was basically clueless about marketing and initially did not take any business or marketing course. I made almost every mistake I could as a start-up entrepreneur. But looking back I realize that I did at least one essential thing correctly that made my enterprise viable: I sat down and defined really precisely what my niche was going to be. Whom was I going to help? And what exactly could I help them with? Some people doubted my plans to become a counselor for PhDs and postdocs, thinking my focus was too narrow. In hindsight, I can say it is not, not at all.
So this is my first piece of advice for you, if you consider starting your own philosophical company. Focus is key. Figure out who already loves what you are doing. What are their problems? What keeps them up at night? What golden future are they dreaming about? What solution do you have to offer them?