PhD graduate became self-employed to achieve greater freedom and flexibility in his work life

Mads Lindholm
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Not everyone chooses to follow the research and career path once they have the PhD in hand. Mads Lindholm e.g. uses his to create a better balance in his work life as a self-employed psychologist. He did not want to work 60+ hours a week, but looked for employment that would give him flexibility, more of a say on the tasks at hand and job satisfaction.

Facts on Mads Lindholm

In 2007, Mads Lindholm obtained an MSc from Aalborg University and also holds an HD in organisation and management from 2008. In 2012, he completed his independent PhD on strategic planning at Aalborg University. He works as a self-employed business psychologist focusing on management, well-being, stress management and architectural psychology and, in 2015, he started the consultancy Wice. Mads also gives lectures on work life issues and, in addition to his PhD thesis, has authored a number of articles, books and book contributions on management and architecture, amongst others. Mads has worked as a freelance and has been self-employed both before and after completing his PhD. Here, he talks about the path from the PhD programme to his current position as an independent consultant.

How has a background in research shaped your working life in general?

When I've been out speaking about the process, I've often talked about thinking in several bottom lines. By that I mean that if you only set up an independent business to score the big profit, then it may not be for you, at all. What’s been crucial to me has been the fact that there were many things that could form a synthesis. I wanted to be happy to go to work, I wanted to be able to choose my own tasks, and I wanted a good measure of flexibility in relation to my family.

My impression is that some use the PhD degree to get a lot of recognition and fine titles and a career. Others use it to make a lot of money. Maybe I used it to the same extent - but to gain a measure of freedom. From the outset, I could see that, in most places of employment, I’d have to work 60+ hours a week, and I wasn’t prepared to do that. So it's not just about figuring out what you want in your work life, but also what you want in your life, overall.

How did you prepare to come out the other end of the PhD programme?

Maybe it was a bit optimistic but, when I started, I really saw the way from candidate to PhD and onwards into the outside world as a straight process. Therefore, all the way through my PhD, it was important for me to carry out activities as part of my teaching commitment which were important to that process. After all, I wasn’t supposed to teach like the regular PhD students were, so I had a great deal of freedom. I used the opportunity to write articles and create a blog that, at one point, had quite a few followers. I also gave lectures and did a lot of work in connection with the Danish Science Festival. In that way, I constantly tried to bring the research I was doing into play where it might be met with interest. That meant I had a lot of input on my work from people who were working in practice. But it also meant that I became established as someone who knew something about this subject. In this way, my teaching served several purposes of which I was quite aware.

The result was that I developed a fairly large network, both in and outside of academia. These are networks that I still use. Now, networking may sound a bit calculating, but it was also something that qualified my research and gave me new opportunities along the way if some of my cases dropped out. It also gave me a sense that, although I might be alone with the research project itself, I actually felt that I had many collaborators.

My impression is that some use the PhD degree to get a lot of recognition and fine titles and a career. Others use it to make a lot of money. Maybe I used it to the same extent - but to gain a measure of freedom.

How did you get the idea of becoming self-employed?

After submitting my thesis, my deliberations moved in two directions. I’d done a lot of freelance work in connection with the research I’d done. I either had to scale it up or join a larger consulting house of some kind. I wasn't really ready to make a decision straight after submission, so I applied for positions and attended interviews. In that interim period after submission, I had to make a living and just continued doing my own things. When I had done that for a while, I thought, "I wonder how difficult it would be to put a sign on the door and scale it up to full time?"

How is your PhD brought into play in your work as a self-employed psychologist?

I can very much bring it into play in my work as a self-employed psychologist. There are specific enquiries and assignments which I get, specifically because I am a researcher. It adds legitimacy to associate a researcher or someone with a PhD to a project.

At a very specific methodological level, I still use the qualitative research approach to case studies which I used during my PhD to collect material in the organisations. Moreover, after completing the PhD programme, I continued the work habits and the planning flow of managing projects in blocks of three months’ duration, which I’d already established. So, in a very concrete way, the PhD has trained me to set and achieve goals. At the same time, I learned that I can’t dwell too long on the individual tasks - and that sometimes you just have to discard something and move on.

Finally, I’ve also had a fair bit of training in communicating. This has also been of great importance because, although it’s not always about research, there are always complex matters that need to be communicated within an organisation. Being good at breaking down large amounts of data and drawing concrete and understandable conclusions are some of the things that take up a large part of my work life now.