In this episode, Emily interviews Dr. Toyin Alli, a lecturer at the University of Georgia and founder of The Academic Society. Through her own blogging journey during grad school, Toyin found her passion for helping other graduate students excel in their programs. Two areas of particular need she notices were in productivity/accountability and side hustling. Toyin now teaches graduate students how to find their own perfect side hustles and gives several examples of side hustles that are well-suited for PhDs.
Links Mentioned in this Episode
- The Academic Society
- Side Hustle Mini Course
- The Productivity Accelerator
- Personal Finance for PhDs: Career Transition
- Personal Finance for PhDs: Podcast Hub
- This PhD Developed His SciComm Career Through Side Hustling
- This Online Entrepreneur Turned His PhD Research into a Thriving Business
- This Postdoc Epitomizes Side Hustling to Get Out from under $100,000 of Debt
- How to Make Money without Working: Credit Card Rewards and 529s
- This Postbac Fellow Saves 30% of Her Income through Simple Living and a SciComm Side Hustle
- An Unfunded Summer Didn’t Deter this PhD Thanks to Her Creative Side Hustle
- This PhD Side Hustler Maintains a Healthy Work-Life Balance
- This PhD Student Paid Off $62,000 in Undergraduate Student Loans Prior to Grad School
- Serving as a Resident Advisor Freed this Graduate Student from Financial Stress
00:00 Toyin: And how you don’t need to be an expert. You only need to be an expert about where you are. One of my favorite quotes from someone was what’s duh to you is mind blowing to your audience.
00:15 Emily: Welcome to the personal finance for PhDs podcast, a higher education in personal finance. I’m your host, Emily Roberts. This is season three, episode twelve and today my guest is Dr. Toyin Alli, a lecturer at the University of Georgia and founder of The Academic Society. Through The Academic Society, Toyin creates for other graduate students, the community and accountability structure that helped her succeed during her PhD in particular around productivity and side hustling. Toyin explains what kinds of side hustles are best suited for grad students and gives examples of highly accessible side hustles that early career PhDs can excel at. Without further ado, here’s my interview with Dr. Toyin Alli.
Will You Please Introduce Yourself Further?
01:02 Emily: I have joining me on the podcast today Dr. Toyin Alli and she is a side hustler, in fact, a side hustler who has now launched her own business, part of which is about helping other grad students, early career PhDs with their side hustles. Toyin, thank you so much for joining me today and will you please introduce yourself.
01:22 Toyin: Thank you so much for having me. I am Toyin Alli. I am from Mississippi and I’ve always loved math. I went to grad school to get my PhD in math. I went to the University of Alabama and I actually had an amazing experience at the University of Alabama in the math department. It was a very nurturing and supportive community. While I was in grad school, I started blogging towards the end and then over summer after I graduated, I put in a lot of effort into my blog and then I started my career. I’m a lecturer at the University of Georgia in the math department and I started The Academic Society to help grad students with all the things that I excelled at in grad school, as well as the things that I learned in grad school because I realized people weren’t really talking to grad students very much. I’m so happy to be here to talk to you all about what The Academic Society is about and my journey to get here.
The Grad School Exerience
02:26 Emily: When we talked before this call, you said something to me along the lines of “I kicked butt during graduate school” and that was such a completely different thing to say, righ?. That’s not the narrative that I usually hear, the self-conception that I hear from PhDs who are out of graduate school. It’s not the one that I have, certainly. So I just thought that was so refreshing to hear from you. And I assume that you bring that attitude of “I am competent and are too” to what you do with this work with graduate students. Is that accurate?
03:06 Toyin: Definitely. And I will say grad school was hard. I mean I got my PhD in math. It was not easy at all, but the experience was actually enjoyable. Not that I would want to do it again, but I actually had some great takeaways from grad school. I made some great friends and I realized that my department was very supportive. I think part of it was that I came in with a bunch of women, which is pretty rare in the math department and we all had the same fellowship. It was for underrepresented groups in your field. There were at least maybe a seven women who started with me in my grad program and we worked together. Just the whole community of my department was very nurturing and supportive, even if the program was very difficult. I will say, early on I realized that grad school was different from undergrad and my time was not structured anymore. I knew I needed to have structure, it’s a part of my personality, so I imposed my own structure on my grad school experience. I made a schedule every single semester, even if it was different and somehow setting up my organization helped me to be more productive in grad school and get stuff done. My advisor really advised me well and just a great experience. I just want every grad student to feel that way, even though I know they don’t, to just to have some sense of joy in grad school, which is pretty rare.
04:45 Emily: That definitely makes sense to me. We’re skipping ahead a little bit to talking more about your business, but I can see how you can help other graduate students learn those skills that you developed during grad school and that you found really helpful and around having a community because maybe they don’t have that built in community of like this great cohort that they’re coming in with. But hey, the internet, we can find that kind of thing online now.
Blogging as a Side Hustle
05:08 Emily: Okay, let’s not skip ahead too far. Let’s go back to your days in graduate school when you were blogging and I know you blogged about different subjects at different times. You were sort of casting around. Something that you told me before that I really identified with was that you had, I believe leading up to graduate school, lost all of your hobbies. You were so singularly focused on academics. I had that experience too. My hobby was sleeping. I told people that. I mean, I needed sleep, that was true. So tell me about these things that you were trying out as you were trying to find some things to do with your time.
05:40 Toyin: I was doing an interview or something and someone asked me, “What are your hobbies and what do you like to do?” And this was when I was well into graduate school and I said, “I don’t know. I was just a grad student. That’s what I do.” And I remember thinking that when I was younger, I had all of these things that loved to do. I was so into fashion. I loved beauty stuff. I loved hair, I loved different fandoms. I was super into movies and TV stuff. I don’t know, I just felt like I had more interests before I started grad school. And I was like, “Well, why should grad school change who I am that much? I need to have something outside of grad school.”
06:23 Toyin: I discovered blogging on Pinterest and I thought it sounded cool. I should try and start a blog. I didn’t really know what to talk about, so I just talked about my experiences in grad school and I kind of brought in the fashion element, writing about what I would wear to teach my classes, what I would meal prep for the week for school, how I organize my desk in my office and things like that. I really found a passion surrounding organization, productivity, as well as style and fashion and stuff like that.
06:56 Emily: Was that one single blog that you then talked about these different things? Or did you have different iterations of these side hustles/blogs?
07:07 Toyin: That was one blog. It was called Your Unfading Beauty. Me and my friends always joked because when you read it, it looks like “you run fading beauty” and it was just supposed to be about me. It was just one blog where I talked about all of these things. And then after grad school, I took a course on how to run a fashion blog. The thing that the person said was that the fashion or style niche is very oversaturated so you have to bring in something extra or be super niche and talk about one thing in fashion. I asked myself, “What am I uniquely kind of qualified to talk about and what am I interested in?” Here I was, a grad student, I had never really had a job before and it was the summer after I graduated starting my job as a lecturer. I didn’t know anything about personal finance but as a mathematician whose research area actually had to do with financial and economic policy. I found I was kind of qualified to talk about finance. My blog was fashion and finance for newly minted professionals. I talked about what I discovered regarding how to learn about personal finance because I never learned it before. I transitioned from talking about everything to talking about style and finance and how to manage a budget and things like that when you’re new to a career. Later on that got draining and then that’s when I started The Academic Society.
08:43 Emily: You really found like a crossover point that probably very few other people were looking at. Of course I love it and I would read that blog. Let’s step back a little bit because we are talking about side hustling during this episode. Did you monetize any of those blogs, before we get to the academic society, your current website?
09:01 Toyin: Just barely. I did a lot of affiliate marketing where you have a link to something that you like and that your audience may like and when your audience clicks your link to purchase, you may get a commission for that thing. I did Amazon Affiliates and I also did Shopstyle Collective, I think that’s what it’s called, for the fashion thing. I could like link to the different outfits that I wore and get a commission. I would not say that was very lucrative, but that’s where I started. That’s also what I did with my fashion and finance blog. Then I realized for affiliate marketing to be really, really profitable, you have to have a huge audience. You had to have a lot of people to click on these things. I really wanted to find something that I didn’t have to have a huge audience for. What I’ve learned since then is having your own products or service-based business is really helpful and you don’t have to have a huge audience to be profitable from things like that.
Other Side Hustle Experiences During Grad School
10:19 Emily: That’s setting us up really nicely for the next phase, but before we get there, did you have any other side hustles during graduate school, maybe unrelated to the blogging stuff?
10:30 Toyin: Actually, no. Math departments are very much a service department. Almost every major comes through our department, so we need a lot of people to teach. Grad students taught, so along with my graduate teaching assistantship, I would teach two classes and I had a stipend from that. Math grad students are actually pretty well paid so I didn’t think that I needed the extra income. I didn’t really have to do any side hustling and I didn’t other than my affiliates.
Conceptualizing The Academic Society
11:05 Emily: Okay, so you’ve had these couple different blogs, you’re talking about fashion and stuff, but then you had this realization affiliate marketing wasn’t the best fit for you. I know that’s a really tough field to get into, so you were looking more into service-based businesses, creating your own products. How did you hit upon The Academic Society, your current business?
11:25 Toyin: I discovered the world of online course making and I took a course on making a course. The instructor of that course, Mariah Coz, she’s really big in the course-making industry, said typically the people you teach are where you were six months to two years ago. At that point I was trying to monetize my fashion and finance blog and I was going to create a course related to that. Then, when she said that, I asked myself, “Where was I? I was actually in grad school applying for jobs.” I actually got offered three positions really early and I thought, “Oh, I did a great job applying for jobs. That’s where I was. Maybe I can help grad students apply for academic jobs.” My first course was how to build an amazing application packet to apply for jobs. I said to myself, “This is not fashion and finance, but I’m interested in this. Maybe I like to help grad students and I actually did amazing in grad school, maybe I should help grad student.” Thus, The Academic Society was born.
12:39 Emily: I love that tip of looking to your recent past because I think a lot of people get scared off of creating courses or even blogging and putting their knowledge and perspective out there because they think “I’m not an expert,” but as you just said, you don’t really have to be, it all depends on where your audience is. If you can find an audience that you’re just a few steps ahead of, that’s going to work out really well. Kind of like teaching a course. You don’t need to necessarily be miles and miles ahead of your students, you just have to be a few chapters ahead in some cases
13:15 Emily: This summer I’m putting forth extra support for PhDs undergoing career transitions – into grad school, a post doc or a real job. If you’re moving onto the next stage in your career or thinking about it, please visit PFforPhDs.com/next to check out my articles, webinars and coaching program. Allow me to come alongside you during this transition to ensure that you set yourself up for financial success.
Monitizing A Blog Through Courses
13:44 Emily: That’s how you discovered who you wanted to serve through The Academic Society. Now your business is a little bit more developed. What are the different income streams and what are the different ways that you make money through The Academic Society?
14:01 Toyin: Before I do answer that, I do want to go back really quickly to what you said about like teaching and how you don’t need to be an expert. You only need to be an expert about where you are. One of my favorite quotes from someone is “What’s duh to you is mind blowing to your audience.” Even when you’re teaching, I’m always only two days ahead of my students.
14:22 Toyin: The Academic Society was pretty tough to monetize. Luckily I have a job where I don’t have to have the extra income because I realize trying to sell to grad students is really difficult because grad students don’t make a lot of money and I wouldn’t feel right charging a lot for my products and services to grad students because I know the struggle is real as a grad student. I had some pretty cheap things. I learned from the course model of business. I started with courses. I had my job application crash course, as it is known as now. I also had the grad school toolkit where I taught graduate students how to use Trello to organize their life and grad school experience. They were very cheap products, but I ended up making them free and using them to build my audience. I decided to not be instantly profitable in The Academic Society because I was so passionate about helping grad students. I decided the profitability will come later. I think it’s really important to help grad students. I just decided to make all my content free at first until I built my audience. Now, my email list is over 600 and is big enough. I know exactly what I can help my grad students with and I can create things that they really, really want.
15:55 Toyin: Last winter I was saying, “okay, what do my people really need?” I have a Facebook group for Grad students and upon entry I asked them what do they struggle most with grad school? All of them say time management, productivity and motivation. What can I offer them that will help them with this? That’s when I came up with my program, The Productivity Accelerator and it’s a two week program. I called it a productivity program, but it’s really more accountability. When students join that program, I pair them up with another grad student to be accountability partners because in my business, I actually do have an accountability partner who also owns a business. I’ve grown so much just from being in that partnership. I think this will be helpful for grad students and I remember when I was in grad school, I had all of those women that I could work with, they were my accountability partners. Other grad student need accountability; I can give them accountability partners and then we can work together. I decided virtual coworking sessions will be part of the program and we would do Pomodoro method, where we work for 25 minutes, take a break for five, work for 25 minutes, take a break for five. That’s The Productivity Accelerator. You join the program, you get partnered up, I do a couple of group coaching sessions, and we just work every day in the afternoon and at night. I also have grad students who facilitate the coworking session so it’s not just me, you really get to know the other grad students in the program. Even I was the most productive I’ve ever been in The Productivity Accelerator. I am currently running a free mini course to help grad students and academics start their own side hustle. When they finish the mini course, they have the option to join my program, Side Hustle Summer School, which is a little course on how to take your side hustle idea to market. Now I’m currently writing a book, A Grad School Survival Guide and I will have a book as part of monetizing The Academic Society as well.
18:03 Emily: That is so fun and I love that you listen to your audience and were trying to really tap into what they were telling you that you needed. I love that idea of having the, the productivity, especially the accountability. Even within personal finance, accountability – people don’t want it, but it’s so effective, if you can get it in a good way. So, yeah, that sounds really fun.
Different Types of Side Hustles for Grad Students
18:28 Emily: Let’s talk more about Side Hustle Summer School and side hustling in general. Aside from blogging, you were not a side hustler during your grad degree, you didn’t have a need for it, but if someone either does have a need or just once extra income or something to do, what are some ideas for how they can side hustle during grad school?
18:49 Toyin: I definitely think a decision needs to be made if they want to be instantly profitable or have a slow build and become profitable later. What I did with my business was a slow burn. It took two years to become profitable. That was because I was passionate about what I was doing and I was okay with waiting, I had a job. But I would say if you want to be profitable immediately you should have a service-based business where you provide something for someone else or you do something for someone else and you only need one client to make money instantly. You don’t need a big audience and it’s probably someone you know that can be your first client. I actually wrote a blog post called “Nine Cheap and Easy Side Hustles for Grad Students and Academics”.
19:35 Toyin: It doesn’t have to cost money to start a side hustle. You don’t need a website. You just need to let people know what you’re doing. You probably just need like an email address and a PayPal account. Something that grad students and academics can do is tutoring. By being in grad school, you are an expert in your field, especially to undergraduates or high school students, so you can tutor them. Something that’s really interesting is being a virtual assistant. I know you have a virtual assistant and you can help someone else who owns a business by doing a little task for them or being a social media manager. If you’re great at social media and you know what kinds of posts perform on different social media platforms, you can help a business who doesn’t know or doesn’t have time to invest in learning all about that. Especially old brick and mortar businesses, they don’t really know how social media works, so you can help them.
20:33 Emily: I want to jump in and say my virtual assistant is actually a grad student. Hey Jewel! I went to my own email list when I was looking for someone to help me with my podcast editing and a lot of grad students responded and ended up working with Jewel and it’s been amazing for me and I think it’s been good for her too.
20:53 Toyin: That’s so awesome. I think it’s really awesome to work with someone who has a business because you can learn from them and figure out what you might want to do for a side hustle or business and become an entrepreneur yourself, just from that experience. There are multiple ways, especially living in a college town. If you’re in grad school, you’re probably in a college town, so your professors are maybe going on sabbatical or leaving for the summer, going on conferences. They may need someone to house sit or pet sit or nanny their children. There just so many creative things that you may not think about that you are uniquely qualified to do as a side hustle and providing a service for someone else.
21:37 Emily: Thanks so much for pointing out. The way to make money right away – this month, this week – is to go for something service-based and I think that is really accessible for a lot of grad students. The examples that you mentioned were great. It’s just important to realize that developing passive income streams, which is some of the kind of things that we’ve been talking about, like developing courses or something like that – the “make money while you sleep” billing that you sometimes see in online business – that can be a great route, but it’s not immediate. It takes a long time, as you were just saying in your own journey, to build that audience that you need before you can get to that point. So, that’s not “pay your rent” money, that’s “I want to have a long-term vision and I enjoy this thing and if it makes money later on, that’s amazing”, that’s that approach over there.
Advice for Starting Your Own Side Hustle
22:30 Emily: What advice do you have for a current grad student or an early career PhD who wants to develop a side hustle? What advice do you have for them for figuring out what is going to work best for them?
22:43 Toyin: I like to start with three things: coming up with an idea based on your why, like what you want to do; figuring out who you can help; and also knowing your financial goals. I think those are the top three things you need to be able to come up with a great idea that will work for you. In my mini course that people take before Side Hustle Summer School, I always ask them, what are the things that you are good at? And also, to go out to their friends and family and ask them what do they come to you for? It may surprise you. I actually did this exercise and asked my friends and family, “what do you think I’m good at, what have you come to me for it?” and I was blown away at their answers. They were very kind and they pointed out some things I actually never thought about.
23:32 Toyin: Figuring out what you’re good at, figuring out if that thing that you’re good at can help someone else, and then figuring out, okay, who would actually want this thing that I could offer and who could actually afford the thing that I could offer? And figuring out how to price it based on how much you actually need to make. It determines how elaborate and high level your product will be. You can make something that could be pretty cheap or you can build up the client experience to make it more expensive to fit your needs as well. But yeah, figuring out what you’re good at and how you can help someone I think is the best way.
24:14 Emily: I think, as we were kind of talking about earlier, grad school can take a toll on your mental health. This imposter syndrome, obviously is totally widespread. I just want to say, grad students, you are good at something. Definitely. Even if it’s primarily academically related, like you have found with your own business. You are good at something. You can offer things to someone else. If you go through these exercises that Toyin is talking about, if you take her mini course, etc., you will be able to discover something in this area that will be an effective side hustle for you. Toyin, please tell us where people can go if they want to jump into this mini course, maybe even prior to taking Side Hustle Summer School?
24:59 Toyin: I have a mini course that has a five lessons. You can do it in five days and it takes you from getting your idea to coming up with a way to monetize it. If you want to just go to my website, it’s theacademicsociety.com and you can go to theacademicsociety.com/side-hustle-cheatsheet, you will get a cheat sheet full of all of the logistics of starting a side hustle as well as the workbook for all of the lessons in the mini course and you’ll be invited to the Facebook group where the mini course is hosted. You can find all of this at theacademicsociety.com.
25:43 Emily: We will also add all of those links into the show notes as well as you know, I’ve already done several podcasts episodes on people who have side hustled during graduate school or after psi or after graduate school, so we’ll add links to those previous episodes as well so you can get even more ideas for what to do next. Toyin, thank you so much for joining me on the podcast today and for lending your expertise in this area.
26:06 Toyin: Thank you so much for having me! I really enjoyed this.
26:10 Emily: Listeners, I’m so glad you joined us for today’s episode. PFforPhDs.com/podcast is the hub for the Personal Finance for a PhDs podcast. There, you can find links to all the episode show notes, a form to volunteer to be interviewed, a survey, and a way to join the mailing list. I’d love for you to check it out and get more involved. See you in the next episode! The music is stages of awakening by Poddington Bear from the Free Music Archive, and it’s shared under cc by NC. Podcast editing and show notes creation by Jewel Lipps.