My dad got his PhD in the early 70s. He had a wonderful baritone lecture voice and more than anything else he dreamed of a quiet, intellectually gratifying life as a tenured professor.
In 1974, though, the market for newly minted history professors was saturated. So, my dad joined the US Foreign Service and worked as a diplomat for the next 20 years. He held onto the dream of a professorship for all of his working life. After leaving the Foreign Service, he held a few adjunct faculty positions, but the dream of a full professorship never materialized for him. It was, perhaps, the most difficult disappointment of his life.
There are a lot of talented people today facing the same particular disappointment my dad experienced.
They’ve paid their dues for a PhD or an ABD, but their chances of ever securing a tenured position are dim to non-existent.
- On the one hand, colleges are under intense pressure to reduce costs and stem tuition increases.
- On the other hand, colleges are contract-bound to honor salaries to professors already within the system.
The forecast for many emerging academics, then, looks like deferred dreams and student loan payments for as far as the eye can see.
Because I’m an unrepentant optimist, though, it seems to me that the same forces disrupting the hopes of tenure seekers also present an opportunity. New tools for online learning (like my own startup company) have created an explosive new knowledge market. Adjuncts, PhDs, ABDs, and even MAs usually have two key assets in this emerging market: specialized knowledge and a collection of instructional material.
With a little imagination, I suspect that even a fiscally useless-sounding degree like History has a market niche. My dad’s specialty was Africa. A lot of his focus was the theoretical stuff mostly interesting to other academics, but along the way, he picked up a lot of very current cultural and political knowledge. I suspect there are non-profits and business trying to navigate culture and politics in Africa that would welcome a way to tap a few relevant parts of my dad’s expertise.
The trick to creating a viable course is to start small and to target a very specific audience. Luckily, a number of really powerful market research techniques are freely available to anyone with an Internet connection. I describe a few of these in a course I created here. These techniques can help you gather real market data to understand your audience and build something that really meets someone’s needs.
Building a course for sale online is an entrepreneurial venture that involves risk and serious investment.
Mostly, it is an investment of time and a willingness to learn a few new skills. But when compared to the costs of starting most kinds of new businesses, the barriers to entry are stunningly low. And for those that stay the course, it holds out the tantalizing possibility of intellectual freedom, AND a real livelihood within the field of knowledge they love.
And there are the risks to consider, the risk that you won't nail your target market right off, the risk that building an audience will take longer than you thought... And maybe it was risk aversion that led you into academics in the first place. So if it's any motivation, you might also consider the risk of losing what you've already invested in your education. It’s like they told me in my English MA program, “I hear McDonalds is hiring people with your skillset.”