The Academic Side Hustle: Supercharge Your Online Presence, Reach a Large Audience, and Create New Income Streams

academic side hustle

The idea of the ‘side hustle‘ is gaining traction these days and has been popularised by Chris Guillebeau in his 2017 book on the same topic.

A side hustle, as the name implies, is something you do on the side to earn a little bit of extra income while you do your day job.

But what about an academic side hustle? What options are available to you in your academic capacity to generate income and exposure to a wider audience?

In this post, we specifically look at ways that you can reframe and repackage your academic outputs and expertise into a side hustle.

Your website is your employee

When I first met Bill Sukala in 2011, he had just moved to Australia from New Zealand having recently finished his PhD. Bill is an exercise physiologist and health science communicator who is passionate about debunking health misinformation and conspiracy theories.

He had been blogging for nearly five years and had a large readership. He proudly showed me articles that were generating hundreds of thousands of organic page views, with reach far beyond most peer-reviewed articles.

By that stage, Bill was already drawing a passive income from his blogging site largely through advertising revenue and active income through consulting contracts and speaking engagements generated from his high online visibility. As of 2020, Bill’s website and blog posts have become one of his main sources of revenue.

Bill taught me some important lessons about websites, blogging, and particularly entrepreneurship. One of his philosophies is that rather than treating your website as a static online ‘brochure’, you need to see it as an asset – a loyal employee that works for you around the clock to bring you a return. That return can be directly financial, or indirect, through increased exposure and awareness of your brand or messages.

Too often, we develop a poor-quality website and post articles only to wonder why we’re not getting any traffic. Bill pointed out that, with a strategic view to the ongoing management of your website, you can have a low-cost asset which brings you a reasonable return.

The safe side hustle

Before you quit your job to lunge straight into blogging full-time, it is important to be up front and warn you that this is NOT a ‘get-rich-quick-scheme’.

In Bill’s case, his blogging side hustle developed over years and eventually became a significant and reliable income source.

In fact, there is a fairly good chance that you will not earn a great deal of income from your side hustle unless you have a particularly good niche and/or you invest a lot of energy in developing it over the long term.  

However, your side hustle is a relatively low-risk, low-cost way to test and develop your entrepreneurial flair while workshopping and improving the clarity of your messaging to reach new audiences.

Starting something small now might lead to something much more significant in the future. Every successful entrepreneur involved in blogging or podcasting reinforces the same messages:

  • Your first posts will inevitably be your worst (and may seem be cringeworthy at some stage in the future), but you have to start somewhere, and starting is the best way to learn
  • There is no room for perfectionism in blogging and podcasting – launch and improve over time
  • You can always come back and modify your material, and will inevitably want to update it to keep it current anyway
  • You need to produce consistent output to gain traction with your audience

Why an academic side hustle?

Your academic side hustle should be meaningful and intrinsically motivating to you. It’s the ‘why‘ behind your side hustle. If it’s connected to your passions then your messaging will come off as authentic and engaging to your audience(s).

Your academic side hustle can help you:

  • Increase the reach of your research messages and to communicate directly with those likely to benefit from your research
  • Create new opportunities in an increasingly uncertainty employment environment
  • Generate a passive income stream
  • Develop your entrepreneurial acumen in a low-risk, low-cost way
  • Package (or repackage) your expertise in a way that will reach a wider audience (your academic branding)

Types of side hustles

We are focusing specifically on repackaging your academic outputs into a side hustle. You may have other products or areas of interest which would also lend themselves to a side hustle, but we will only look at academic outputs in this post.

  1. Blogging – convert your expertise into plain English to reach a larger audience
  2. Online courses and masterclasses (e.g., Udemy) – convert your lectures and presentations into online courses for the general public or for other professionals who will carry your messages to a broader audience
  3. Writing books – synthesise your academic outputs into a cohesive book for mass appeal
  4. Other products/services – create and distribute tools for other professionals or the general public, such as online surveys, tools, guidelines or frameworks

How to get started in your academic side hustle?

  1. Identify and establish your personal brand and identity
  2. Set up a website (register your domain name, get a hosting account)
  3. Develop clarity around your offering – what difference do you want to make, to whom, how and why?
  4. Be clear about who your audience is and how to access them (and, just as important, knowing who is NOT your audience)
  5. Learn how to communicate your messages in a non-academic way that clearly gets your message to a wide audience
  6. Learn to understand the online environment and appropriate channels for communicating directly with your end users
  7. Understand the tools to monetise your outputs, whether or not you use them immediately
  8. If you are currently a university employee, check your employment contract to ensure that you are not in breach of your contract in any way. This is likely to include considerations such as the ownership of IP and your ability do consultancy. To maintain your intellectual independence and the integrity of your personal brand, we recommend that you keep your personal website distinctly separate from your institutional web-presence.

How do you earn money from your side hustles?

Starting out with any of the online approaches listed above will take you into a busy market.

For some real-life inspiration, take a look at these bloggers (more blogger profiles) who have cracked the formula and earned significant income for their efforts.  Pat Flynn from Smart Passive Income makes a living from the selling the idea of how to create passive income for a living. He is highly strategic and incredibly successful. He manages to structure a healthy, if manic, work-life balance around his online presence (which, incidentally, is at least a full-time job).

The main sources of income from these sites are advertising, affiliate marketing, and the sales of proprietary products and services (particularly courses, books and podcasts).

There is some valuable learning from these sites:

  • Most (but not all) have been blogging for several years
  • They know their market intimately and have clearly focused on a niche or specific market
  • The importance of branding: They are clear about what their products are and, in every case, the blogger is an integral part of their own brand
  • They use multiple strategies and take a multi-channel approach to reach their markets
  • Most have multiple income streams from their website

1. Blogging

blogging as an academic side hustle

Blogging isn’t just for millennials in yoga pants sipping kombucha martinis at sunset. It’s become serious business and, if you do it right, it has the potential to generate a significant income.

Some of the highest earning bloggers have published their monthly income and expense figures (see Pat Flynn’s detailed income and expense data). While it is difficult to accurately compare these because of inconsistency in reporting, incomes to expense ratios are extremely high.

The data from the highest income earning sites suggest that their expenses range from less than 10% to no more than 25% of their revenue. In other words, they are taking home a whopping 75% profit on their earnings. This needs to be seen in the context of the time invested to develop the site, the idea and the audience, but once the owner has the formula right, their income grows rapidly and exponentially.

Expenses are largely professional services, including writers and virtual assistants and, for some, their own affiliate marketing. It is fair to say that if you want to grow to the size of the well-established bloggers, you will probably need a team of people to support your content development and curation.

If your goal is to monetise your blog, then you should have a monetisation strategy right from the outset and work on establishing your email list. Building up an audience and then trying to retrofit a monetisation approach may prove far more difficult.

2. Online courses and master classes

Online courses as an academic side hustle

One skill that most academics have is the ability to teach and the knowledge of how to structure and present high quality information.

Developing online content is not a ‘quick win’, but it has the potential to reach a wide audience quickly and, if done well, can generate a high return.

First, it is important to differentiate between online, non-accredited courses (which you can develop and deliver yourself on a wide range of platforms) and Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs.

Normally MOOCS are delivered by universities, training organisations and large companies or businesses through a third party MOOC provider such as CourseraUdacityEdX and FutureLearn. They have fairly structured entry criteria and are likely to be brokered by your university, not you as an individual. It is possible to negotiate a proportion of the income split on any MOOCs that you deliver, but this needs to be negotiated with the organisation delivering the course (probably your employer). This is a useful article about MOOCs.

To create a MOOC as a side-hustle would require you to approach a recognised and credible training institution with a proposal to write a course in your specialised area and negotiating to deliver the course under their brand with some form of income sharing arrangement. This is most likely to be effective if you have a very strong reputation in a particular subject area that will bring benefits to the host institution and result in strong sales.

We will focus here on non-accredited training because it has a lower entry threshold than MOOCs and is therefore easier to include in your side-hustle (at least initially).

This is where your specialised content knowledge and innovative teaching approaches can create opportunities for you. Perhaps you have a conference presentation that showcases your niche expertise and could form the basis of an online course.

  • Do you teach in a field where everyone struggles with the same complex issue that you can simplify in a new and novel way?
  • Have you developed a more effective or efficient way of dealing with an issue that many people face?
  • Are there new or topical issues that need to be addressed right now (for instance, as a result of COVID).

Our Academic Entrepreneur Portfolio will help you unpack your specialised expertise and develop marketable products from this. Once you take a look through all of your work you will be surprised at what opportunities have been staring you in the face all along.

There are numerous different ways to set up online courses, ranging from third party sellers (such as Udemy) to hosting them yourself through your own website, and delivering them face to face.

The advantage of a third-party seller is that they take a lot of the pain out of billing and hosting and can give you a lot of exposure, however they take large fees. Udemy also offers large discounts on the sale of many of their courses. While the ‘cover’ price of most courses is around $200, they are regularly discounted and sell for around $10.

As with blogging, there are a lot of people making a fairly small return on their course, and a small number of people making a large return. If you are considering offering courses, it is at least worth looking at the Udemy model to see what sells well, to understand what people are looking for, and the kinds of prices being asked. If you become an Udemy instructor, you will have access to a wide range of market insights and tool that can inform your course development.

This site discusses the likely range of earnings for an Udemy instructor.

Given that it is likely that you will have a fairly niche offering, promoting and selling your online courses through your own website is likely to be effective if you have a strong web-presence and have developed robust online marketing strategies.

For example, Mark Douglas is an academic entrepreneur who now runs Ethos Consulting, providing governance and leadership services directly to the Australian higher education sector. They run a range of Zoom based courses specifically for the higher education sector.

The return on your course will depend on the price you can charge and the size of the audience you can reach. More specialised and niche courses have the potential to attract high fees. The return on an average Udemy course is probably comparable to mainstream book publishing, unless you have delivered one of the top-selling courses (in which case, the return is significantly higher than the equivalent in book royalties).

However, arguably, the preparation required for developing a course is far less than that for writing a book, and you can also modify the course over time as knowledge changes. Udemy instructors argue that even with a small financial return they still benefit in terms of the high levels of professional exposure and credibility.

Udemy was the first to market online courses, but other competitors in this space include Bitdegree and unAcademy (in India only at present).

3. Books

writing books as an academic side hustle

Books are a great way to claim your academic niche, and a tried and tested approach used by academics. Again, on their own, unless you write a best-seller like Brene Brown or celebrity physicist Brian Cox, they will be a small, supplementary income, not something to rely on.

Typically, traditional publishers pay up to 10% royalties on the published price of the book. Given the amount of time it takes to write a book, the financial return on investment is very poor, unless you have written a best seller.

Self-publication is becoming increasingly popular, particularly with the option to enter the market with an e-book. Unfortunately, self-published books still tend to have a credibility gap in the academic world. While the return per book tends to be higher for self-published books than traditional publishers, the upfront costs of self-publishing a high-quality book can be high.

A book can be a valuable component of your side hustle and is increasingly used as a tool to bring in business. For example, entepreneur and performance coach Brendon Burchard published his book High Performance Habits and advertised the book free across multiple social media channels, but buyers had to pay for postage.

This is a way to create a high volume of traffic for your book while drawing people into your core brand and message. His book was a high-quality hard cover book, but others make their e-books available for free or at very low cost to create engagement with their audience.

One opportunity that academics have is access to a large amount of written material, such as reports and journal articles. An e-book or self-published book may be an opportunity for you to curate some of your older work into a single publication which can showcase your work, put a new perspective on older material, create another opportunity for passive income (obviously ensuring that you do not breech copyright or intellectual property rules).

Alternatively, if you have been blogging for some time, there is an opportunity to curate your blog posts into a book.

Similarly, leveraging your online presence can be an effective way to promote your book. Podcasting and blogging, delivering workshops and training are an excellent opportunity to increase the sales of existing books that you may have published.

4. Other products or services

online resources

We’ve talked about blogging, online courses, and books, but you might have other intellectual property that would have value to your fellow colleagues or the general public.

If you have developed validated surveys or questionnaires and you hold the copyright on them, you can develop these into online tools that you can offer for free (for exposure) or for a fee to generate revenue.

With web technology, you can also create online interactive tools that, if genuinely useful for solving common problems, can help generate significant website traffic.

For example, the Diabetes Trials Unit at Oxford University has developed an Homeostasis Model Assessment (HOMA) calculator for estimating steady state beta cell function (%B) and insulin sensitivity (%S), as percentages of a normal reference population. You can check it out here and see that they have created multiple versions of the calculator for online and offline use.

Take home message

An academic side hustle will take some planning, time and commitment. You will also need to invest in a decent website.

Spend the time, go back through your hard drive, and look at every academic output through the lens of creating your academic side hustle. Think about who your audiences are and what will benefit them. What problems can you solve? Are there similar products or services already out there? How are yours different and/or better?

Like all new ventures, the set-up will take time and energy, but with a clear, long-term strategy, your side hustle can be a way to grow your academic profile and audience and build new income generating opportunities.

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