Laura’s multipotentialite mother inspired so much in her life: a love of learning, culture, language, and academic achievement.
But a few years into her PhD in Victorian literature, Laura doubted that a tenured professorship was within reach. Or that it was the lifestyle she wanted.
Thanks to intensive soul-searching and working with a coach, she gained clarity into potential careers, finished her dissertation earlier than the bulk of her cohort, and began her transition to marketing.
Between working for a small nonprofit, a large professional services firm, and a few other employers, Laura has become a well-regarded content marketing strategist and ghostwriter for executives. When the pandemic hit, Laura struck out on her own for more flexibility, including time to augment her daughters’ online learning.
Laura’s future includes big plans for building a content marketing agency, working abroad for five or six years in Europe, and writing a novel. All ambitions her mother — her mentor — would surely be proud of.
Laura’s recommended books for a career switch
Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck
Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success by Adam Grant
Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath and Dan Heath
Secrets to Winning at Office Politics by Marie G. McIntyre
The Power of Bad: How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It by John Tierney and Roy F. Baumeister
H3 leadership: Be Humble. Stay Hungry. Always Hustle by Brad Lomenick and Mark Burnett
Laura’s recommended content marketing resources
Other resources mentioned
Where to find Laura & Sharp Storylines
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Hey everyone. Thanks for joining me for another episode. I'm your host, Jesse Butts. Today, I'm chatting with Laura Stef-Praun, a PhD in Victorian literature, with a focus on the history of disability in the 19th century, from the University of Chicago. Laura now has turned into a content marketing strategist and ghost writer. She owns her own small agency, Sharp Storylines, and she also offers career coaching for grad students, interested in transitioning to jobs outside of the academic world. Laura, welcome to the show. Thanks for joining me.Laura Stef-Praun:
Thank you so much, Jesse, for having me. I'm so excited to be here.Jesse Butts:
So glad you could make it. So Laura, before we chat about your move from that PhD in Victorian British literature to content marketing strategy, can you first just tell us a little bit about what you do? What exactly is content marketing strategy?Laura Stef-Praun:
Yeah, of course. I'd love to talk about content marketing. I like to talk about content marketing in general, not just strategy. And so maybe we start there. Content marketing is a type of marketing that is focused on creating, publishing and promoting digital content for a targeted audience. It can take many forms, such as articles, blogs, podcasts, video, you name it. But the important part is to reach and engage your audience. Engagement is really key, because successful content marketing speaks to a specific audience ,and it's very different from academic writing in that respect. When you write your dissertation or any kind of paper, you do have an audience, but you don't care so much what they think. You're also writing for your own purposes and to display your research and your expertise. Content marketing is the opposite of that. Right? So basically you want people to read your stuff, share it, promote it, stay on the page. That's one of the very important metrics for content marketing. So there are three sides you need to think of when you think about content marketing. There's content creation, one, which is the actual writing, editing, recording, filming, you name it. This podcast is content creation. We're doing that right now, creating content. Then there's the content optimization, which really thinks about, Okay, now I have the content, what do I do with it? How do I measure how it performs? How do I improve it? How do I make more people read my stuff, basically. And of course I left the best for last, but it should always come first. It's the content strategy itself, which is the planning before you wanna start creating anything, you really wanna think about why you're doing it, plan it, do the preliminary work, know everything you can about your audience, your competition, your market, what you're selling, the topics that you create content on, what are the best media to promote that content? Where is your audience? What channel, what do they engage in? Are they on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, whatever. You wanna put the content where people will find it and read it. And you wanna constantly think about that. So that's content strategy. So, you know, my day to day is actually nowadays mostly spent on creating content. So content development. And what I do is I focus on thought leadership. And what that really means is creating some form of content based on research. And I am a ghost writer. So that also means that I sell my brain power and let other people put their name on my work. And that's fine with me. As long as they pay me, that works fine for me. So I create a lot of content for other people, and that's what I do. And then they contribute to it. I often interview them. They have their own expertise, but I put it together. I create it, I package it, I give it back to them. They put their name on it.Jesse Butts:
For Sharp Storylines, your, your agency, what's that component of your business like?Laura Stef-Praun:
Yeah, Sharp Storylines is my new project and baby and agency. I started it in the, during the pandemic. So, , it's an umbrella for my multifaceted interests. My long term plan is to build it into a full service agency. But at this point, I serve my clients as an independent marketer and freelancer. And I offer services that are primarily focused on content marketing packages. Again, with the focus on that thought leadership, which to recall for our listeners is content based on some form of research. Because I feel that that's where my skills, the ones that I acquired during my PhD really differentiate myself. So at this point, I can offer different kind of services. I can, you can hire me for content strategy, right, to think about the content that you need, why you need it, how do you create it best. You can hire me for content development, as I just explained where you come with the topic and an expert. I interview them, I create content for them. Or I can just serve as a consultant for your team. I can advise, I can train you. I offer career coaching for graduate students, or any kind of young professional that wants to break into content marketing basically. And my expertise of course, is advising on this transition from the academic world to the corporate world, to the content marketing world. You know, I even taught a class for graduate students at the University of Chicago last spring on content marketing and what it takes to understand the field, to break into the field. And I'll do it again if given the opportunity. Coaching is, is really something that I'm very passionate about.Jesse Butts:
So Laura, now that we have a really great understanding of, of what you're doing now, I'm wondering if we can dive into the backstory a little bit. So where I like to, to start with that type of thing is that I, I know that you, you have a PhD, obviously we mentioned that earlier. But I also know that you have an MA, and I'm kind of curious what prompted that first venture into grad school? Why did you decide that you wanted to go beyond undergrad in academic work?Laura Stef-Praun:
That's a, that's an amazing question. I, I think we have to take a step even further back. I have a very unusual story, I think. It's, it's really a story of love, love and passion for literature and foreign languages. I'm, I'm fluent in Romanian, English, French, And it starts in Romania, which is my, my basic, my homeland. And I was born and raised and lived in Romania until the age of 21. So I spent half my life at this point in Romania and half my life in the United States. And it all started with my mom and my family. It's it's interesting. I come from a family of engineers. My mom was in electrical engineering, and my dad was a civil engineer, so very folks, very focused on the sciences on math. And yet they allowed me to follow my passion for the humanities and they were two very loving and supporting parents. And my mom was my greatest fan. She has always been. She used to say that she was waiting for me to become the next Harry Potter author. I don't do creative writing, but she's always applauded me and helped me on and on. So she shaped my life and I owe her, owe her everything. And unfortunately she passed away last January during the pandemic. Yes, it was, it was an awful time. I miss her every day. She was a visionary and my beacon. Imagine this lady living in communist Romania, borders closed, but she came from a super highly educated family that absolutely loved learning with generations of women that were educated and went to college. Actually, my on my mother's side, my great-grandmother who lived with us until I was 14, so I actually got to know her, she was born in 1901, and she had a law school degree. So, I, I feel that I, I have the obligation and the honor to follow in the footsteps of all the women in my family. My grandmother, my mother's mother, she had two undergraduate degrees that she got right after World War II. One was in social work and one was in law. In Romania, law is an undergraduate degree. You go straight into law school from high school. And this grandmother spent her entire career teaching in a deaf and mute school. And her passion was teaching, and she passed on this passion and her pedagogical skills to her daughters, my mom and my aunt. So I, I kind of grew up with, in that environment. My mom was, was tutoring and teaching. She was an amazing mentor. She had her own small tutoring business. I started working with her and tutoring English when I was 14. She, she really was a polymath and the multipotentialite. She, she was amazing, inspirational and my life mentor. And she tutored me from day one to the day I left for college. When she finally gave up, she was like, Okay, I guess you're really going to pursue humanities path. Fly free. But you know, I went all the way to calculus. So , I could have taken a different path as well. She made sure of that. She, she was quite a force. And she influenced our life. You know, she loved literature, art, the opera. And she passed that passion on to myself. And because she was, as I said, a visionary. The borders were closed for 40 years in Romania, so nobody could exit or enter the country, just like the other countries in the communist bloc. And yet, when we were growing up, we were studying English and French. And oftentimes our, her friends would be like, Why are you, why are, why what's the point? But she hoped that one day the borders would open and that, that would serve us well. And, indeed, it did. The communist regime fell in 1989 across the entire Eastern Europe and the borders opened. And my brother and I got scholarships abroad at that point and left the country. I got a PhD from the University of Chicago with an undergraduate degree from Trent University Canada, where I also spent a year abroad in Nantes, France, and I got a full ride as well. So I have a, a lot of degrees and a lot of years in school. I love, I love being in school. And I loved being in school. I'm a professional student. I call myself a professional student. You know, I have three degrees, six years of undergraduate education in Romania, Canada, and France at four different universities. I have a two years master's degree from Purdue University, again in English literature and the PhD from the University of Chicago, which took me seven years to complete. And at the University of Chicago, I was the third to graduate in a cohort of 19 students. So to answer your question, what prompted me to enroll in graduate school after getting an undergraduate? Absolutely everything. I am a professional student. I have a love relationship with learning, with literature, with reading, with writing, with teaching... that was the way to go. So, I loved all the years that I spent in school really, especially my years at Trent University in Ontario, Canada and in Nantes, France were probably the best years of my life. I traveled, I studied, I visited all these amazing libraries, looked at rare collection books, artifacts, and I had no obligations. I was single and free. I had the small scholarship, but to me that was treasure. And I managed to manage my finances very well because I came from communist Romania, where my parents were literally earning $500 a year.$500 a year. So, that's kind of my story. That's how I end up at Purdue. And they made me after my undergraduate a great offer. It was a great school and I loved my time there.Jesse Butts:
Did you intend to be a professor? Or was it kind of a, I, I just wanna study what I love and I'll figure out what happens work wise after I graduate? What was your mindset like, especially as you were nearing the end of your PhD?Laura Stef-Praun:
Yeah. You know, it was interesting. So, when I went to Purdue, I had these two amazing professors. They were an academic couple and they were my mentors and advisors. Their names are Dino Felluga and Emily Allen. They're still at Purdue. They're amazing. And, you know, I, I was inspired by them. Their classes were magic, so, so I took everything they could offer. I, I chose to write a, a master's thesis with Dino. He was my thesis advisor at Purdue. And really everyone encouraged me to go and on and on from Trent to Purdue to the University of Chicago. You know, all my professors told me, Go on, get a PhD, be a professor, be like me. Right. I was so good. I was the professional student. I was aceing this academic life. And basically nobody told me to think about money. Look at the job market. You know, nobody told me that the academic profession was dying. Maybe they didn't even know it themselves. Emily and Dino were the only ones that kind of tried to bring this up. They were coming up for tenure. But you know, they didn't wanna be the ones stopping anyone from trying either, right. So, so basically what I'm trying to say is I went into the PhD program out of love. And then I discovered that it was kind of like bungee jumping. And I hate heights. I, I would never bungee jump. Okay. That's my oldest daughter. She's the crazy one. I am cautious and I like my feet firmly on the ground. So, there were no jobs when I graduated from my PhD program in 2010. And we were plunged in a recession. And by that time I also had a family. I had two little kids. And, I, you know, didn't think that a commuter marriage would work for me. I saw many of my peers and professors doing postdocs and looking for tenure track, while doing a commuter marriage. You know, I had professors at the University of Chicago that I saw doing that. I decided up front that it wasn't for me. I kind of started thinking about that at the three year mark in my PhD program.Jesse Butts:
Three of seven, did you say originally?Laura Stef-Praun:
Seven. Right. So about the end of, of my third year, I figured out, I, I kind of realized, Okay, I've dreamt enough. And I don't think it's gonna happen just because I can't sacrifice this much. You know, at that time I only had one daughter. I really wanted to have a second child. It would have, it would have meant making completely different life choices. And so, I tried to recalibrate. And it took me quite a, I think it took me about a year just to do a little bit of soul searching and figure out how I wanted to continue. Did I wanna finish? Did I wanna stop? And I started thinking really at that point, just like big picture. It's very hard. There's a grieving process when you start realizing that, you know, this goal, this dream that you've been working for for so many years, at that point, I was fully convinced up to that point that I was gonna make it. It takes you a while to kind of shift your mindset. So I started slow. First and foremost, I had to get used to the idea and convince myself that, you know, it's time to cut costs. In economics, there's this, this concept sunken costs. It means that at one point in business, if you've invested, invested, even though if, if you're gonna lose, you have to do it then rather than continue and keep losing more. I was gonna take basically the PhD as a sunken cost. But I did keep an open mind. So first of all, I started getting part-time jobs in administration because I, all of a sudden I realized that even though I had been teaching since I was 14 and I adored teaching, teaching experience would only get me teaching jobs beyond my PhD. So I started working in administration part-time at the University of Chicago. You know, I also, held a job in the writing center at Purdue, which was a teaching job, really. It was part of my teaching assistantship, but it was different than just being in a classroom and teaching. So. I leveraged that a little bit as well. I trolled the career services center. I became their best friend there at Purdue, not at Purdue, at the University of Chicago, and then I actually worked for the career services center part-time. I started reading any books I could find on transitioning outside of the academic world. I joined forums and discussion groups. In particular, The Versatile PhD, which at that point was founded and belonged to a PhD who had transitioned out of the academic world. Now she sold it, so it belongs to a higher education consortium. But it still exists. And another fellow PhD mom told me about MentorCoach. And in particular all but dissertation coaching. So at that point I was really thinking, am I gonna finish or not finish? What do I do? Realistically, finishing for a job would not have got me much more than I already had basically in terms of qualifications or experience. So, , I found MentorCoach, and MentorCoach is a group of academic life coaches. Most of them also have clinical psychology PhDs. So it's very research focused, very research based. And I found a coach through MentorCoach, and I started working with that coach to establish my life goals, to work on finishing a dissertation in record time. Because at that point I was like, Okay, how many more years can I put into this? I need to really be focused and on point on time. And I also started taking classes later on to train as a coach myself. So. That was kind of a process. So once I, everything kind of fell into place and I had a plan, then I moved on at record speed. I actually got one of the three dissertation year fellowships in the department. I set the dates. I pushed my committee to return my chapters on time. I actually reshuffled my committee. I was like, go, go, go. And I did finish because, you know, I wanted to be done by 2010. Both my husband and I, my husband has a PhD from the, from Purdue University in computer science. At that point he was working as a researcher, an academic researcher at the University of Chicago. So in 2010, he left the research academic world and moved to corporate. And I graduated with my PhD and also started the journey towards corporate life and life outside the academic world.Jesse Butts:
So Laura, I'm a little curious about that coaching process. What are the things that the coaches did for you that, that would've been hard for you to suss out and, and come up with a plan on your own?Laura Stef-Praun:
Coaching really changed my life. That's, that's the truth of the matter. And it's a great question because a lot of people think, well, what is really coaching are, what are they doing for you? Are they even when you tell people, Well, you know, I have a dissertation writing coach. They're like, Are they doing the writing for you? That's plagiarism. No, not really. So coaches are not there to do anything for you. A coach is really a sounding board and the coach asks you three questions. What are you gonna do? How are you gonna do it? And how am I to know? These are like three typical coaching questions for a, a coaching session. And then you really apply them to what you're trying to do. I was, for instance, struggling to write a dissertation with, first, one young child, and then a second one and a spouse who was also a researcher and in the academic world. And, , it, it's all about trying to figure out one, What are your goals? What are your negotiables? What can you let go? And what are the non-negotiables? What, you know, you cannot let go. So it's very hard to figure out all this on your own. When you have a conversation with your coach, it's like talking therapy, but they don't really do therapy. It's more like career focused, life focused, goal focused. So I'll give you an example. When you are in the academic world, your committee, your peers, everyone's biased. They think that the dissertation is the only thing that is consuming your life. And it is. You don't wanna know how many Saturdays and Sundays I spent in exactly three hour chunks at the library while my husband was like taking the kids to the park. And when you're a mom and writing a dissertation, it's not like you can hang out at the library the whole day. No, no, no, no, no, no. You have from nine to 12, because then there's dinner and nap time. And so you better freaking get your act together and write in those three hours cause you don't have more. So, time management was another thing that I worked on with my coach, for instance. When I started coaching, I felt like I was sinking. There were not enough hours in the day. I couldn't get everything I had to do done. The research was infinite, right. And You feel like you have to cover it all. Obviously in order to be able to finish, you have to put a limit, you have to say, Okay this is enough. I'm gonna start writing, moving on. Coaching is really having somebody who's not biased and helping you move towards that goal and validate the fact that that goal is okay. So the coach will be someone who will be able to tell you, Okay, you've spent two years on researching this thing. There's no way you are ever gonna cover everything that's being said on this topic in the field so you can be able to put your hand on your heart and be like, Yeah, yeah, I covered everything. It's impossible. So at this point you just have to accept that done is better than nothing and move on, write the thing, you know, defend it, submit it, move on. And that's what I did. And I actually didn't even get comments. I was able to file or submit and graduate.Jesse Butts:
At this point, I mean, you you've had that coaching. You've finished your dissertation. You talked a little bit about goal setting. Did you have a goal of working in marketing? What was the gap for lack of a better term between finishing your PhD and landing in your first marketing or content marketing role?Laura Stef-Praun:
Yeah, that's a great question. I did consider marketing upfront because I was exploring various careers that I could have where I could use my transferable skills. And when you're in graduate school and you go to the career center, , you hear this term a lot, you know, transferable skills. But when you actually go in an interview, nobody cares about your transferable skills. What basically, basically what that means is, What can you do that can translate to a different industry, a different profession? In my case, I could teach. I could write. I could research. I could analyze complex topics. I could synthesize. And I could present. So, I wanted to go straight into marketing. And I looked at that and I figured out that I would be really interested in marketing research for instance. However, I didn't have the analytical skills for that. You really need statistics and... the social sciences are better suited to transition straight into that than humanities. So I'll be honest with the literature PhD, it's very hard to go into an industry. So because of that, I could not break straight into marketing from my academic world. My first job was in nonprofit because I got a job on campus working for the office of international students. I wrote some grant proposals for them to get funding, so that kind of part-time working administration helped me out because I had stories that I could tell in an interview. And higher education is nonprofit. So the transition was much easier. Looking retroactively, I realized that I got my first job with a small nonprofit because nonprofits, especially small ones, they don't have HR departments. The truth of the matter is that a marketing department for any firm, even a small firm, but mid-size, or a large firm, they, they will have an HR department, and a non-traditional resume of a PhD or graduate student, whether you are MA or ABD, all but dissertation, doesn't matter. You're not gonna make it past that first kind of screening. And, you know, your resume will go straight to the reject pile for various reasons. And so, I was lucky. The person who read my resume when I applied, who interviewed me was my boss. So really she was a one person show and she gave me a chance and, I did very well. I managed their grant portfolio. And I stayed in the nonprofit world, worked for two small nonprofits for three years. And then I kept like thinking, Okay, this is interesting. I'm somebody who always approaches something from a 360 point of view. So I was managing a grant portfolio, manager for institutional giving. So what that means really is that you write all sort of grants for the nonprofit to get money from foundations, government institutions, and corporations. And so I noticed that the corporations were the ones giving the least money to nonprofits. And I always wanted to understand, because I spent so many years in, in school, I was like, I gotta have a better idea about this money thing. How does it work? What motivates people to give? How do people use it? So, you know, I volunteered anytime I could. And part of my role there was actually to work with accounting department and fill out all sorts of financials for the grant that I was submitting. Because you have to do reporting, you have to justify how the money is spent. So that was a really great experience for me. I had never had to deal with money and budgets and things like that before. So I learned everything I could. And, I wanted after three years to move to corporate. I was like, I really gotta understand corporate thinking. And I transitioned because I was lucky to land a job in sales enablement, really proposal writing. So writing grants and writing proposals, I thought was pretty similar. And it was different, but kind of the same idea. And I was hired by Grant Thornton's non-profit practice. Thornton is an audit tax and consulting firm. They sell services. And I found a job on monster.com, but I didn't just make it past HR. As I mentioned, I also identified the friend who worked at Grant Thornton and I sent her my resume and I said, Hey, please look for the hiring manager and give her my resume. And that's, that's how I actually landed the interview. And, the rest is history. They hired me. And once I was there, I didn't stop. I kind of thought, Okay, I'm doing sales enablement now, as I mentioned, that was okay. It was interesting. I learned a whole bunch of other new things, like creating really highly designed sales proposals in Wo rd and working in PowerPoint. I worked with design for the first time at that point. Super interesting people, super fascinating stuff. I kind of got interested in that. I was like, Oh, it's not only about putting words on the page. It's also about how you present them. There's an art to that. So I started reading really on channels for marketing, media and audience engagement, right. And at the same time, I figured out that I moved, I wanted to move towards content marketing. So I identified the people who worked in that respect at Grant Thornton, because I was already there. I, I networked internally. I made sure I met the people. I talked to the hiring manager in the kitchen, and I patiently waited for, waited for a job opening. And when it came, I made my move. And I moved laterally. And that's when I started working on thought leadership. So on this content, research based content for the first time, and I knew I was home. I knew I found my niche with my research skills and my background. I was like, Yep, this is what I can do. I mostly spent time developing content at Grant Thornton. I also kind of started thinking about the strategy aspect, even though that was not part of my job. So I started reading, attending conferences, events. I volunteered whenever I could to do extra stuff, just to kind of dabble in what the strategy part was. And the rest is history. It was a serendipitous way that didn't go straight in, in a straight line to marketing, because I think it's very hard with an English degree to go straight for that from the academic world.Jesse Butts:
One, one question for you. You've mentioned reading and, and, and learning. And I have to admit that that's been helpful for me as well, but I was a little resistant at first. You know, so many business books in my experience, whether they're business in general or specific to marketing, they're poorly written or, you know, they're 250 pages when they could be 30. And it took me a while to get over that. And my mindset shift was kind of like, I just need to absorb this information. This isn't reading reading for me. This is just about meeting that end goal. Did you have to go through anything similar like that? Or were you pretty open to that from the get go?Laura Stef-Praun:
Yes, I agree with you, right? So coming, especially with an academic background, I have a very critical thorough lens. So, the one thing that I learned when I started doing this job, content marketing, is that as I mentioned, packaging, and really caring about your audience as even as human beings, right? Who wants to sit there and read a hundred and 30 page thing, right. So it's almost, creating great content, it's almost a matter of respect. Say what you have to say in the fastest way possible in the most efficient way possible and in the most engaging and aesthetically pleasing way possible. So I really kind of zoomed in throughout the years on that. And I take pride in saying that the content that I create has meaning, has depth, but it also tries not to encroach on the reader's time and patience. Right? However, coming from the academic world, for me, it was the hardest to lower my expectations of what could be done. And, you know, that's, that's one of the questions actually that shows up a lot in job interviews. You know, people ask, used to ask me, hopefully they don't ask me anymore now that it, because it's been a while, but they would say, Oh, in the academic world, you have all the time in the world, right? You have seven years to write the dissertation. Well, here we need to, you know, get an article done in two weeks. How are you gonna handle that kind of time, time pressure? Well, the answer is you kind of have to get yourself into the mindset that you have to do a job well done within the constraints that you have. And sometimes those constraints may be that you're not gonna get a perfect content asset out there. You do what you can with the resources that you have within the constraints that you have. Sometimes you have to let it go. Sometimes done is just good enough. And yes, ideally we would only put content out there that's the highest quality that has depth, that says something, that addresses the audiences, interests and pain points, that offers a solution. But hey, at the end of the day, all of us have to have a job. And I had to kind of get myself into that mindset. I wasn't creating my life work. And when you become a ghost in that, you don't put your name on stuff anymore, I found that freeing after the pressures of the academic world, where you have to be original. And I remember walking for my graduation ceremony. And it's pretty impressive. You know, you walk in this beautiful chapel at the University of Chicago. And there are these loud speakers that mention all the graduates name. But what struck me and stayed with me was this echoing, a repeated message that said, So and so is awarded this diploma for an original contribution to the field. And there's so much pressure to have that even slightly original contribution. When you move out of the academic world and you work a regular marketing job, nobody asks you to be original. Unless, you know, you are in that job. You, you know, you just do your job and you do the best you can.Jesse Butts:
And at what point did you strike out on your own and start your own company? What was the, the motivation for that?Laura Stef-Praun:
The pandemic really. I, I lost my job. And my mom was dying at that point and, it kind of, my daughters were struggling. You know, my, my husband lost that job. It was a terrible year. And it makes you kind of... situations like this kind of make you think where you wanna go and what you wanna do. So, one, I started it out of necessity. You know, I started thinking about it and researching, researching it in the pandemic when I was unemployed going through like tens of interviews and not getting a job. But also it's always been my dream. And I was like, maybe this is the time because I actually had to support my family a lot. I had to provide emotional support, as well as my daughters went fully online. And since we are an academic family, and my husband has a PhD and I have a PhD, we actually tag teamed and, and took over entirely the children's education because online learning was deficient and we couldn't allow our children to fall behind. And so, you know, I took over all the humanities and social sciences, and he took over the math. And, you know, we are talking calculus here cause our daughter was already the oldest at the calculus level. So, you know, we were, I was looking for jobs. He was working a full time job and we were basically homeschooling our children as well. And I started it with the idea that I should try it. And you know, my husband's very entrepreneurial as well. He has an MBA on top of his PhD in entrepreneurship. He went and got an MBA from Booth. Yeah, three quarters of our marriage was spent in graduate school. And we tag team in terms of like brainstorming and not being afraid to take risks in life. So I started it, I started researching it and then I fully incorporate in the pandemic and then I fully incorporated last year. And I enjoy the freedom with coming, that comes with being your own boss. Honestly, in the academic world, you have that freedom. And I always loved that. And to be independent. To do whatever I pleased. And I gave it up temporarily because when you get a regular job, that's the first thing that you have to prove to your first employer and beyond. That you can be part of a team, take orders, execute, and not just like annoy everyone with your questions and your attitude, right. Attitude is a thing. You have to be a good team fit. And the truth is the corporate game i s hard. And to be honest, that kind of game also exist in the academic world, which means, you know, understanding and obeying corporate hierarchy, taking orders from your boss, executing often without questioning why. Your boss doesn't always wanna hear, Why do I have to do this? They just want you to do it and just do it. Guessing, assessing, and following the many unstated corporate rules. Tolerating group think, which is really hard for a, for a graduate student and the PhD. Oh, we're just doing this because everyone's doing this. Well, why really? So I will be honest, the first years I had a little bit of trouble. Because I, I, I would like ask too many questions and people would take that as, um, you know that I was being antagonistic and was trying to be confrontational. I really wasn't. I was, that was, this is the academic environment. You ask questions. Sometimes you play devil's advocate. It's all to the purpose of making the work better. But really that is not what works in corporate. So I had to really learn to shut up, ask questions at the right time, observe more, you know, kind of try to get the feeling for the corporate culture. I had never thought about that before. It's very real. And all of this, when you have your own business, is, is not as much there, but it is in the background because the best clients come from connections. Networking is everything. And indeed, I get my work mostly through word of mouth from people that I worked with during the past 10 years, that know me, they know the quality of the work that I can do and they appreciate me for that. So it's not like I go online and answer an ad for freelance work. That pays very low and it's, it's not the way to build an agency.Jesse Butts:
For you personally, do you need to love a job?Laura Stef-Praun:
That's, that's a fabulous question. So yes and no, you, you know. When you think about that, let's, let's take a step back and maybe talk a little bit about what you read in a lot of career advice books. You know, calling the idea of having a calling versus having a career, right. And, and many people say, and, I'm thinking about my, my daughter's high school counselor. They do all these assessments to figure out your, your career, and they kind of push this idea on people that your calling has to be your career. And that is very much true in the academic world, right. If you love art, be an artist, just go for it because you have to love what you do. Yes and no, not really. I listened to an amazing coach at one time and what she said really spoke to me. She said, In fact, actually, people have many skills, interests, and the possibility of following several careers. And if you think of my mom's story as a polymath and multipotentialite, that is so true. And that is so true for my entire family. And that's what I tell now, my 18 year old daughter who is going to Purdue into mechanical engineering this fall. And I'm very proud of her. But she's as well following in the footsteps of the family, a multipotentialite. She could have gone for a degree in creative writing, for instance. Point is, figure out several potential career paths and just sequence them. That's what I do. My first career, my first love, my first life, was a calling for me, teaching and following this academic path. That was the thing. I followed what I loved. My mom would have liked me to become an engineer, but she gave up. And then what happens, right? What, what happens if you follow your calling as a career and then something happens and that goes away? You just have to have plan B and C and D, and that's what that coach said. And it really spoke to me. So, you know, at this point. Work is work. Life is life. You know, it would've been great to become a professor. I didn't, that's totally fine. Something really spoke to me, and I wanna share it. When I attended the MLA conference, during my PhD, it's the Modern Language Association conference. It's the largest conference for humanities in the field. And I attended this panel that was called Labor of Love and was really a panel about adjuncts. And so the panel was talking about all these PhDs waiting for the tenure track unicorn position and adjuncting in the meantime, and hoping that for instance, if the university they were adjuncting at had a tenure track opening, they would get a leg up. They would get first pick for that tenure track position. And the panel was so surprising to me because they were basic, there were three people. I remember them even though now, and they changed my life really. They revealed the fact that, Actually, the university will go shopping somewhere else. If you're already working for them as an adjunct, they have you already. And they think that they can do better, find a better person for their tenure track to become a professor. So they were literally talking about how this becomes a labor of love, where you're poorly paid. You don't get out of it anything. You don't even get that tenure track. So you're, you're doing it for love for the love of teaching, for the love of students, for the love of the academic life. You're basically just lying to yourself, I think. So I decided then and there, One, I would never adjunct. Ever. And that influenced the choices that I made, the career choices. So I wanna talk, go back to this idea of labor of love, and I wanna unpack that a little bit. First, labor should be remunerated and paid, ideally well paid, not bare minimum wage. You can still enjoy it, but labor is labor. It should, it should get remuneration. Love, you should reserve that for hobbies, past times. And, you can pay for your quote unquote loves with the money gamed from your labor. So, with that in mind, I fully decided to choose a career that would meet a financial threshold, meet my financial needs, and also, allow me to have some time to pursue my other passions. I think this is something that graduate students really have to consider because the majority of the ones that I've talked to are really set on this idea that work really has to be what you love. And I, I, I beg us all to kind of, , just reconsider that and unpack that.Jesse Butts:
Earlier you were talking about, There's always more that you could be doing for your dissertation or the research. And your coaches helped you compartmentalize a lot of that so that you could focus and get the dissertation done. And I'm curious now that you're, you've been out of academia for a little over 10 years. How would you describe your relationship to work now? How large of a role does your work play in your life?Laura Stef-Praun:
Work... define work. You know, paid work?Jesse Butts:
Yeah, let's stick with paid work.Laura Stef-Praun:
Right? I love to work a limited number of hours. And my goal ever since I graduated was to work a certain amount of hours a week, my ideal is 30 hours, and reach a financial threshold. Now, sometimes that works. Sometimes that doesn't. Following the corporate path, you know, the corporate hierarchy and make it to the director level. And there were jobs that I, where I worked 60 hours a week. Now that for me is unsustainable. I don't want that because that doesn't, like you said, then that doesn't live any room for, for living, right? And I'm realistic. I work to meet a financial threshold and the role that work has in my life, I enjoy work. I want to work. And if it's meaningful work all the better. But I do also keep an open mind. I honestly try to find something enjoyable in anything that I do. And for me that means learning something new. For instance, if I'm just working on a really basic webpage copy, that's not very exciting. But maybe I can just learn more about search engine optimization for that page. That's not something that I'm an expert in. So just for instance, trying to optimize the page and work with a team member or like incorporate that or make the page perform better. That for me is interesting. So it becomes enjoyable. So if I learn something new, anything, for me that is a game. And that's how I keep myself and my mind active. It's really a mindset. If you are thinking, Well, I shouldn't be doing this because I have a PhD. Well then, you're in trouble. You're not gonna enjoy it. You're gonna be bored. You're gonna feel like you're spending time doing things that you shouldn't be doing. But I always try to find something. And, you know, I enjoy a flexible schedule and, living life in a different way. And what I acquired working with my coach and on my own afterward are amazing time management skills. So I can do the work anytime, anywhere. I can do it fast. I know how much time it's gonna take me. And then I dedicate my life to my interests in my spare time. And I, I, used to have very limited time for a lot of things when I was doing my dissertation and I was a mom. Now I have much more time than that. So it's amazing, you know. I parent my two daughters with love and passion. And it's the same love and passion that I would have used if I had become a, a professor and teacher. But I didn't, but I am one for them. I'm present in their lives and I'm an involved parent. And in this respect, I hope I'm honoring my mother and following in her footsteps. You know, my mom used to say that the best gift you can give to your children is the gift of time. Of being there, present for them, of having time to just spend with them, not even doing something special, just being there. And when I worked those 60 hour jobs, and you know, I was traveling and ...no. It was awful. It made me, it made me feel like I was missing the best years of their life. You know, I hope that I'm a role model and a mentor to them. And I, my husband and I together, actually, we're trying to model that life is unpredictable. Change is unavoidable. Life doesn't turn out the way you hope it will. Neither one of us became a professor. But you should always keep a zest for life and the passion for learning, which is really our, our culture and our background. And my current work arrangements allow me to homeschool my youngest daughter part-time. We started doing that during the pandemic. And you ask me what my business brings, that's what it brings. I have continued and I will probably continue. So I'm tailoring really unique curricula and learning opportunities for her, just like I would have created amazing classes for my undergraduate student. She's my undergraduate student of one, and she's 13. I read extensively on things that interest me and that I love, marketing research, all sorts of marketing aspects. I'm very passionate about positive psychology. I can read any kind of literature that strikes my fancy. You know, for years and years and years, I only read the stuff of the 19th century because I was writing my dissertation. I didn't have time to read anything else. I keep up with my French. I've watched all the French movies, probably, that came out for the past decade. I didn't have time to watch even one during my PhD. You know, I practice yoga. I'm considering getting a yoga certification. I keep building my business. I wanna certify as a coach, so slowly but surely I'm, I'm keeping up with the coaching training. And I'm planning my next career move. Like I told you, you have to have something else. What am I gonna do when I'm 60? So, I wanna write a novel, probably, when I retire. And once my daughters go to college, I plan to return to live in Europe and work remotely. That's where my business, hopefully by that time, will have picked up even more. And I dream to live in various countries, one year at a time. With my husband, we can both work remotely until I get bored and tired and I wanna settle down. So one year in France, one year in Italy, one year in Spain, one year in Greece, one year in the Netherlands, why not? I think the sky's the limit. All we need is health.Jesse Butts:
I think that's a really great, aspirational note to end on. Thank you so much for this, this interview, Laura. It was really a treat talking to you.Laura Stef-Praun:
Oh, Jesse. Thank you so much for having me. It was a pleasure.