Updated March 10, 2023
I did a PhD, and it pretty much felt useless. Honestly, what can you do with a PhD?
For some of us (I’m looking at you, fellow humanities grads) it feels like a waste of a degree.
But the real question is, how can you commodify knowledge? Especially esoteric, abstract knowledge that you get during a PhD.
Most people think of a three-letter word, J-O-B, but that’s not always the best way to turn your knowledge into money. After all, usually, it turns you into a cog in someone else’s machine, and unless you get the right machine, your specific knowledge may be worth little.
So here are five ways to make money off of your knowledge that don’t involve working for someone else. Who knows, with a little creativity those brains may pay big bucks!
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1. Create a patent/IP
In the year 2000, Yahoo had a problem. It was being overwhelmed with spam and didn’t know how to fix it. Even though users were limited to 500 emails a day, spam programs were created to send millions of messages to users.
PhD student Luis Von Ahn heard a talk by the chief scientist at Yahoo that identified this problem, and he immediately started working on a solution. His answer, a Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart—CAPTCHA for short.
And he gave it to Yahoo, for free.
He later started another little platform with 300 million users called Duolingo. (You can hear him tell his story here.)
There might be something in your research that the world wants, or that can be converted into a patent or some other form of intellectual property (IP).
If you have to research that is in demand outside of academia, it might be worth trying to take an idea to market. And you don’t have to give it away for free.
This is easier said than done, but there are new grads who are creating tech startups with their research.
At the very basic, even if you don’t have a company, if you have a provisional idea that seems promising you could take out a provisional patent for it while you explore it.
If you can own your research as an asset, as in, turning it into a patent or a trademark, you might be able to sell it. This might not even mean that you have to manufacture something if that’s not your thing. You might just license it to a company that would create it.
This process does have some red tape and is not for the faint of heart.
The good news is that your university may have an office dedicated to helping you. If you want to explore this idea with your research, talk to your university’s technology transfer office.
More and more universities also have incubators attached to them, whose job it is to help build baby companies out of research that happens there. You could also consider an independent incubator for PhDs like Tandem Launch or ConceptionX.
Do start learning about business and Intellectual Property (IP) basics as well.
An initial conversation with a patent or trademark lawyer is usually free at first to get a sense of what it would be like to work together, but even if it’s not, it would be worth getting professional advice dealing with intellectual property.
It’s definitely one of the coolest things you can do with a PhD.
2. Build a non-profit
I’m differentiating not-for-profit here because non-profits are funded differently (at least in North America).
If you have a research area that focuses on some social good, like solving world hunger, building diverse workplaces, or affordable housing, you can establish a non-profit to support it and apply for funding.
There are differences between non-profit and for-profit enterprises, but one of the most important things about a non-profit is that it doesn’t make shareholders or owners money in a conventional sense (if you have the cash flow, you can still draw a good salary—non-profit doesn’t inherently mean “poor”).
Being a non-profit opens up a whole bunch of funding you can apply for, for example, a lot of foundations fund non-profits exclusively. And in case you’ve never noticed, even a lot of national agency grants are open for non-profits to apply.
If you’re driven by a desire to see change in the world, to create a social good, this might be the path for you.
You can read more about how funding works in this post.
3. Start a consulting business
The future belongs to consulting, with more and more companies hiring consultants all the time. If you have finished a degree or have a research specialty, there may be a place where you can make money consulting off of it.
This will require defining a clear value proposition to a customer—what do you bring to the table that they need. This is vital! Since consulting is customer-focused, you need to know what it is you do that people will pay for.
In another post, I’ve advocated working a job first, since many of us may not immediately know what value proposition we bring. (Here are some great research jobs.)
I meet a lot of humanities people whose go-to consulting gig is writing or editing—while there’s not anything wrong with this, some time in a workplace can help you clarify and develop new areas of expertise.
Read this post on what you need to know about consulting with a PhD.
Read my guide on the 7 easy steps to launch your consulting business this week!
Pro Tip: Another great way to get into consulting is to join a consulting firm. You won’t be an entrepreneur per se, but you will get a fantastic introduction to the wide world of consulting. Check out McKinsey, Bain, or Boston Consulting Group (BCG). There’s a great overview that compares these firms here.
4. Build a blog or social media platform
I was interviewing for a senior position when I told the interviewer that I had a blog.
“That’s nice,” she said. “We all need a hobby.”
I’ve realized since doing this that most of the world has no idea what blogging is. And almost nobody realizes how powerful it is. This blog reaches around the world—in under a year, it’s generated hundreds of thousands of views.
People think blogging is cute, and a nice hobby.
Tell that to Brian Clark, the founder of Copyblogger which made $35.1 million last year.
If you can create something that turns your knowledge into an internet-based venture, either as entertainment, education, or to sell a product that helps people in some way, you can create a valuable asset.
YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, there are a whole bunch of mediums you can use (oh yeah, Medium!). Build something great, and it can change your life!
For inspiration, check out It’s Okay to Be Smart, with Joe Hanson.
Check out the post I wrote about how to build a blog people can’t stop reading.
Check out my guide to making money blogging.
5. Start an E-commerce shop
E-commerce is huge right now and for the foreseeable future. Amazon has shot to new levels during the pandemic, unfortunately erasing a lot of local businesses.
So what if you created an E-commerce shop?
What’s the difference between this and a blog or social media platform?
Well, there will be a lot of crossovers. But the main difference is that an E-commerce shop exists to sell a product, while a blog usually exists to share knowledge or information. Now, a blog can have a store and sell information products. An E-commerce site can have blogs explaining the benefits of their products.
This is not a perfect science.
So, let’s say you did a degree that involved lab work. You know all the best lab equipment. So what if you opened an online store selling it?
It takes work to learn how to do all this plus operate a digital platform, but it’s actually never been easier, especially with the ready-made platform of Amazon.
Or, you can use Shopify to build your own space!
Why not try it?
You can monetize your knowledge.
What can you do with a PhD?
You get to decide the best way to make money off the stuff you know. But be really creative about doing this. If you are able to think bigger than just a job, you might end up in one of the above pursuits. Let me know if you do!
Now Read: Why I Don’t Regret Leaving Academia After a PhD