From Research to Portfolio Career

“I would sit with one eye on the clock, counting down the hours and minutes until I could walk out the door.”

Image of Elaine Massung
From Research to Portfolio Career

Elaine Massung was wishing her life away in her previous role. After one pointless meeting too many, she hatched an escape plan, bringing together her passions, skills, and a solid financial safety net. Here she shares why her leap's taken longer than she expected, and the profound lessons she's learned along the way.

What work were you doing previously?

After earning a PhD in Archaeology, I worked in a postdoctoral research position for several years.

Then, I took a role working for one of the agencies that oversees the distribution of funding for research in higher education. I managed a portfolio of research areas, including one that was politically active at the time. This involved processing grants, organising workshops, delivering government programmes, dealing with impossible deadlines, and attending far too many meetings.

Throughout all of this, I was always doing something on the side. For several years, I ran a small online business for my parents; I developed an environmental charity within my community; I dabbled in greeting card production and gift design; and I launched a travel blog to showcase my writing and photography. 

What are you doing now?

I have gone from managing a portfolio of research to having a portfolio career.

My main income stream at the moment is running Blue Eagle Academic Services. I provide proofreading, editing, training, and consultancy services to students and academics in higher education. Blue Eagle allows me to capitalise on the skills I've gained over the past 15 years of working in academia to genuinely help researchers improve their written communication. Although my previous role was a bad fit for me, the network that I assembled while working there has been invaluable for getting this up and running.

As an American expat, I love to share my adopted country with the world, so for the past several years I've also run a blog that showcases my travels around the UK. I'm evolving this into a second income stream as I've been successful in getting published in print and online media, and I'm planning to develop additional income through my photography and digital designs.

I'm also using my newfound time and energy to relaunch my environmental charity and its associated blog so that I can directly make a difference to a cause I care about.

How did you feel in your work before you decided to make the change?

When things were at their lowest, I found myself wishing my life away.

I would sit at my desk with one eye on the clock, counting down the hours and minutes until I could walk out the door. Each day would get crossed off in a mental tally leading to those two blessed days of the weekend.

Perhaps even worse, I no longer felt like myself. I would put on a professional mask to go to the office each day, wearing the attitude and behaviour of someone who did care about the tasks at hand. I thought the 'fake it ‘til you make it' mentality would help, but the longer I tried, the more draining it became.

It got to the point where work no longer felt like reality, and I only felt completely myself when I was elsewhere.

I also knew I could offer far more to the world than what I was currently doing. Don't get me wrong, I was never going to cure cancer, eliminate poverty, or bring about world peace. But I knew what I was capable of, how my strengths could shine, and, perhaps more importantly, what it felt like when I was doing work I was passionate about. The feeling of flow, of doing exactly what I was meant to be doing, was like nothing I'd ever encountered within the confines of the office.

Finding an outlet for those talents, giving them the necessary space and time to develop, became my priority. My goal became to work at home for myself, using my strengths to do activities I enjoyed while making a positive impact on the world.

Bringing all parts of my life into alignment so that I felt whole 24/7, rather than 24/2, meant changing how I approached things – dropping the mask, reminding myself that I had a choice in how I ran my life, and deciding what I wanted my life to look like.

Why did you change?

The short answer: the job I was doing was a very bad fit for my fit for my personality, my strengths, and what I want to accomplish with my life.

The slightly longer answer: in his great book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us’, Daniel Pink writes about the importance of autonomy, mastery, and having a sense of purpose in your career. None of those needs were being met by my job. Instead, I found myself putting all of my energy into side hustles and other activities outside of employment that not only ticked those boxes but also allowed me to exercise my strengths.

Life's too short to spend years of it doing something that makes you miserable, so I turned my attention to developing skills and projects that interested me while figuring out how to turn them into an income.

When was the moment you decided to make the change?

I was two months into the job at the funding agency and I knew it wasn't for me.

I left yet another pointless meeting, and spent the return train journey putting together a two-year escape plan. In reality, it ended up taking four years, but I got there in the end!

How did you choose your new career?

I literally spent years trying to find the ideal job for me.

I wanted something that would allow me to be creative, use my love for communication, and bring real benefits to people and the environment. However, job application after job application went unanswered. When I did have interviews, the feedback was either that I didn't have the required level of experience in paid employment or the right qualification.

I finally realised that I could either continue to wait for other people's approval of my abilities and skills, or I could do something for myself. I'd always wanted to run my own business, I was a detail-oriented person who'd dabbled in freelance proofreading, and I'd spent a lot of time in the higher education sector, so a business built around proofreading, editing, and training seemed ideal.

I'd always loved writing and designing but had always been told that it wasn't a 'real' job. However, developing my blog has shown me that it is possible to leverage these skills to bring in an income, so this is something that I'm working to develop even further.

Are you happy with the change?

Indescribably so!

It's only been two months since I made the shift, so I'm still pinching myself. In speaking with others who have gone the self-employed route, they say it usually takes about six months to fully sink in.

What do you miss and what don't you miss?

There are so many things I don't miss.

The early morning commute; the open-plan office (as an extreme introvert, it was like kryptonite); the steady stream of we-need-this-by-yesterday deadlines that made it difficult to take pride in a job well done because there was never time to do a job well; the unproductive meetings; the acronyms and indecipherable governmental jargon; the feeling of being a glorified Google; the mental exhaustion that I came home with every day.

However, although I'm an introvert, I do miss my former colleagues. The organisation I used to work for attracts great people, many of whom became good friends. While I no longer see them on a daily basis, I'm making sure to keep in touch via email and the occasional get-together.

How did you go about making the shift?

Trial, error, and a lot of planning!

I'd tried running my own business before and hadn't succeeded, which put me off trying again for many years. But once I took the time to recognise how much I'd learned in the intervening years and that now was not the same as then, I was able to move on.

I tried a lot of different activities I enjoyed to see what could be developed into a viable income stream and what should remain at the level of a hobby (although this is one of the reasons it took four instead of two years to get out of my previous job).

Once I found something that was feasible, I did several dry runs during periods of annual leave to make sure I could make a go of it. After convincing myself, I finalised my plans: how I was going to notify my network, what my daily routine would look like, and how I would ensure that I didn't lose sight of the other activities I enjoyed, such as my environmental charity.

What didn't go well? What 'wrong turns' did you take?

I spent a lot of time focusing on activities that ultimately didn't help me reach my immediate goal, which was to get out of my job.

For example, I spent a year immersed in the world of greeting card production and the gift industry, producing cards based on my photography and keepsake gift tags. I sold them at local stores and craft shows, but discovered that the margins were so tiny at this level that it was difficult to make a living out of it. Expanding it to a viable level would have taken an investment of far more time and money than I was willing to spend.

One of my biggest regrets is not taking the time to learn a proper website builder from the start. I was so concerned about the steep learning curve it required that I jumped into a basic, easy-to-use system. While it was fine for a few years, ultimately it couldn't do what I needed and I had to switch everything over to the proper one… which actually wasn't as difficult to learn as I'd built it up to be in my imagination. This meant a lot of time went into designing my various websites twice, dealing with reformatting, and sorting out broken links.

I also dealt with a period of burnout that led to poor mental and physical health: my full-time job was so overwhelming and stressful that I threw all my energy into trying to find a way out of it, but the result was that instead I felt constantly stressed and anxious. I had to learn how to look after myself, how to conserve my energy, and how to prioritise my activities.

All that being said, I don't know if I would necessarily describe some of these as 'wrong turns', but rather detours. I certainly picked up a lot of new skills along the way: my graphic design and programming skills have increased in leaps and bounds; I got a lot of practice cold pitching in person, on the phone, and in email; and I got used to stepping outside of my comfort zone.

How did you handle your finances to make your shift possible?

There are a lot of jobs available online for those who want to work from home – some good, some not-so-good – but the money is out there.

I took one of these so that I could bring in an extra income while preparing to shift; this meant I had a financial cushion when I did leave my job. It also continues to mean that I have a safety net if it looks like my other income streams are not going to bring in the desired amount for the month.

What was the most difficult thing about changing?

There are three things that I found most difficult throughout the entire process:

1. Ignoring the voice of fear in my own head: It's so easy to talk yourself into a bad situation for the sake of security (which is how I ended up working in a job that was a poor fit in the first place), as well as to talk yourself out of expanding your comfort zone. Over time, I learned to pick out what was a genuine concern from what was needless worry.

2. Ignoring other people's voices: Telling people that you're planning to start a business is a great way to introduce even more self-doubt into the mix! People who don't have much experience with self-employment see it as a very risky move and their comments can make you question your own judgement. I had to remind myself that their perceptions were not my reality… and make sure to have regular chats with people who had been there, done that, and had the successful business to prove it.

3. Focus and prioritising: There is a reason that there are three things on this list and not one – I'm not good at focusing or prioritising (one of the many reasons my writing website is called miss-elaineous.com!). This dilution of time, energy, and effort is one of the reasons it took longer for me to shift than otherwise.

What help did you get?

I read a lot of self-help books, books about productivity, and books about how to start your own business.

I cruised websites dedicated to helping people make the jump from employee to self-employed. These reinforced the notion that I was not alone – others felt the same way and there was nothing wrong with wanting to do a job I found rewarding.

Others who were self-employed were also a godsend. Talking to them helped me realise that the roller coaster of emotions I felt once giving my notice (which ranged from jumping out of my skin with excitement to scared witless) was perfectly normal. My husband was one such person who'd made the leap to self-employment several years previously and it was great to have someone who understood exactly what I was going through under the same roof!

What resources would you recommend to others?

I must have read several dozen books while preparing to make my shift, but these are the ones that made such an impression on me that I've since revisited them:

Marianne Cantwell's Be a Free-range Human: Escape the 9–5, Create a Life You Love, and Still Pay the Bills was the very first of these types of books I read, and it's still my favourite. I found it incredibly insightful, with steps that are easy to put into action. Everyone I've recommended it to has loved it as well.

Brian P. Moran and Michael Lennington's The 12 Week Year is an incredibly helpful, practical support for thinking about how to organise your days, weeks, and months, throwing out the old twelve-month system. Both my husband and I have started using it for our respective jobs and household management, and we've found it makes a big difference to what can be achieved.

Bob Burg's excellent Go-Giver series provided a real boost to my motivation and wrapped up some powerful business lessons in a novel format (literally – three of the four books are written as fiction).

Jen Sincero's You Are A Bad Ass was a much-needed kick up the rear end to get my act together and shed the limiting beliefs I'd been holding on to. When coupled with Susan Jeffers' Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, I felt practically unstoppable!

And last but not least, Stephen Guise's Mini Habits takes the idea that we are the sum of our habits to an extreme. However, his idea of a consistent approach coupled with habits that are too small to fail is a powerful way to achieve whatever you want to accomplish.

What have you learnt in the process?

Over the past four years I've learned so much about myself – what motivates me, what I want from a career, and what I don't.

I've learned that I'm capable of achieving what I set out to do, but that it takes planning, perseverance, and constant, consistent action.

I've learned not to be afraid of failure, but to pick myself up, learn from what went wrong, and move on. I've learned to celebrate wins, no matter how small. I've learned about limiting beliefs and worked to eliminate them. I've learned that the only person I can control is myself, and that I always have a choice in any situation.

What would you advise others to do in the same situation?

Know thyself / to thine own self be true: Both the Oracle of Delphi and Shakespeare himself have gotten to the heart of this – if you're not happy in a job and you have that little voice in your head saying that you must get out of it: listen. Figure out what it is that you do want so you can move on.

Practise gratitude, meditation, and mindfulness: There's a reason these tend to be common recommendations – they really work! Focusing on gratitude helps you to see opportunities rather than dwelling on negativity. Meditation can allow you to calm the brain, and mindfulness can help prevent ruminating on the past or worrying about the future. All three were absolutely invaluable when I was feeling stressed or overwhelmed.

Make an escape plan: The last six months at my job were probably the least stressful because I had a mental end date in mind. I found it much easier to roll with the punches when I knew I would be getting out soon(ish); it's the idea of being trapped in the same situation without a light at the end of the tunnel that can be incredibly soul-destroying.

Take yourself (and your business) seriously: If you're serious about growing your own business, show your clients-to-be that you're a professional. Good headshots, a decent website, and business cards can go a long way towards not only convincing the world that you are legit, but convincing yourself too. Once you start investing in yourself in this way, it becomes much easier to imagine the career shift becoming a reality.

Start before you plan to start: I can't remember where I first read this piece of advice, but it's something that I've found incredibly helpful. If you're planning to run your own business, experiment with it before you leave full-time employment so that you can start building routines and get yourself into the right mindset. Work out any problems before you take the plunge so that when you do shift, you have less of a learning curve to contend with.

To find out more about Elaine's academic writing services, visit www.blueeagleacademic.com, and for her personal writing, visit www.miss-elaineous.com.

What lessons could you take from Elaine's story to use in your own career change? Let us know in the comments below.

Plus, if you know someone who's made a successful shift into work they love, we'd love to hear from you. Drop us a line at hello@careershifters.org. and you could win a £25 / $35 Amazon voucher in our monthly draw.