The most underrated career option for PhDs

This month we welcome a guest post by Courtney Danyel, who is a course creator, business writer and anthropologist.

As a former academic, I know the struggle PhDs have trying to find work in competitive job markets or adapt their skills to whole new professions. But one thing has always confused me: 

Why do most PhDs want to pursue traditional careers, completely overlooking the opportunities with freelancing?

I left academia and joined the freelance world 6 years ago and I’ve never looked back. Over the years I’ve also learned just how well-suited PhDs are for freelancing. 

Here’s why freelancing offers more potential for success than any other post-academia career choice out there. 

PhDs Have Many Skills Relevant to Freelance Work

When I first started freelancing, I thought I’d have to learn a whole new trade before I could get any gigs. But I quickly realized there were lots of jobs I was already qualified to do. 

Here are some examples of common freelance jobs that most PhDs are qualified to do right out of academia: 

  • Grant writing
  • Literature review
  • Editing (in academia, science or other fields) 
  • Writing (on topics related to your PhD area) 
  • Data management or analysis 

There are also many freelance research assistant positions available online. You can help other academics in your discipline or a related one with their research without ever having to step foot inside their office. There are entire online platforms devoted to helping academics and organizations find PhD freelancers to hire. 

When I first started out, I tried to land any freelancing gig I was even remotely qualified for. As an anthropologist, I had taken one statistics class and done some basic statistics in my thesis. So I applied for lots of data management or analysis gigs. I was shocked to discover how much businesses would pay someone without a stats degree to do simple regression analyses for them. 

Ultimately I ended up narrowing my work down to writing and editing. I started out working on projects only relevant to my academic field (e.g. I wrote for a human rights organization). But eventually I got this client that wanted me to write about marketing topics. I had never taken a marketing class and knew nothing about it. But I used my expert research skills I gained in academia and figured it out. Now 6 years later I call myself a marketing expert and nearly all my clients have me write content in this space.

Here are the takeaways: 

  • You already have plenty of transferable skills to earn money as a freelancer right now. 
  • You have the research skills, discipline, and attention-to-detail to enter new freelance niches. 

The possibilities are endless. 

Let Freelancing Serve Your Personal Goals 

Another great thing about pursuing a freelance career post-PhD is that you can adapt it to fit your personal goals:

Supplement Your Salary

Most PhDs graduate with debt, and if you’re lucky enough to join a career right away, you’re probably still not paid very well. Freelancing on the side is a flexible, lucrative opportunity to fill your income gap and pay off debt early in your career.

To this day I’m kicking myself for never freelancing in undergrad or grad school, let alone after graduating. I always had a job, an RAship or a TAship, but those never paid enough to do anything with. Instead of sitting in my office hours every week waiting on students that would never show up, I should have opened my laptop and freelanced to earn extra income. Then I could have graduated with zero debt.

Hold Off For the Right Opportunity 

The truth is, your dream job post-PhD is out there somewhere. But it’s likely not available right when you need it after graduation. All the PhDs I know in recent years who got the jobs they really wanted had to wait several years for the right opportunity to come by. They had to fill that gap in low-pay/low-reward postdoc positions or working jobs outside their field altogether. 

Why not freelance until your dream career comes along? Freelancing can keep your pocket full while you search for the perfect job. It can also help you flesh out your CV. Freelancing allows you to work on several projects simultaneously, giving you more experience and credentials that can help you land the perfect job in the future. 

Do What You Want With Your Life

If you decide you want freelancing to be your full-time career (like I did), there are even more added benefits. Because my work is 100% online, I have the freedom to live and travel wherever I want. And I never really had to stop being an anthropologist in order to do this. 

I currently live in my current field site (Ethiopia). Fieldwork was always my favorite part about being an anthropologist, and I get to do more of it now than I ever did when I was actually in academia. 

Picture of Courtney Danyel on a farm in Ethiopia in 2014.
Visiting kids on a rural Ethiopian farm after I first started freelancing in 2014.

Full time freelancing gives you the flexibility and freedom to pursue the passions, hobbies and dreams of your life. 

Freelancing Can Earn You Great Money

The one thing that scares PhDs away from freelancing the most is the myth that you can’t make good money as a freelancer. It’s true that a lot of freelancers are underpaid and underemployed. But PhDs are almost never a part of this category. That’s because less than half of freelancers today offer skilled labor and services. The vast majority of freelancers are offering unskilled labor for a very low price. Not only are PhDs a part of the skilled labor category, they’re ultra skilled. PhD freelancers are rare and sought after, which is why they can charge the highest rates for their services. 

I earned six figures for the first time in 2018, after 4 years of freelancing. I don’t know when I ever would have done that if I stuck with a traditional career. Freelancing gives you the opportunity to scale your income that no other job-type can. For my first few years freelancing, I was able to grow my income 30% year-over-year. What kind of career gives you a raise like that? 

And the truth is, I could have grown my income even faster if I understood from the beginning exactly how to apply skills from academia to freelancing online. It took me a few years to learn how to market myself and land high paying clients. But you can skip the learning curve if you want to. 

After years of advising former colleagues and other PhDs how to enter the freelance market and succeed, I decided to create a course to walk people through the whole process. You can check it out here (affiliate link):

Course Logo - How to Turn your Liberal Arts Degree into Endless Freelance Income

To get more tips and advice on how to apply skills from your PhD to earn great freelance income, check out my blog at Academia to Affluence

Author Bio


Courtney Danyel is a course creator, business writer and anthropologist, in that order. She can teach you how to build a successful freelance business using your existing skills at Learn more about her writing services at Twitter @danyeltravels. 

Read this note about affiliate links on the Jobs on Toast website.

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