Why You Should Build a Portfolio of Side Projects

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3 min read

If I could go back in time and give my college self some career advice, I’d tell him to focus more on internships and side projects. 

In college, I was so concerned with my GPA that I ignored going after real-world experience. Fortunately, I built an educational website as a side project that eventually helped me land my first corporate job. This helped me realize the power of side projects.

More importantly, this helped me see that proof of work usually trumps credentials. A degree shows that you’re capable of accomplishing something, while actual work shows what you have already accomplished.

Whether you’re looking to get hired by an employer or a freelance client, it’s important to be able to point to work you have done in the past.

If you’re a college student looking for your first real job or someone looking to transition to a new field of work, then building a portfolio of side projects is a great idea.

Best of all, it’s free. You don’t need someone to hire you as an employee for you to gain experience. Thanks to the internet, you can learn most skills for free and use them to build a portfolio of work.

Here are some examples of ways I have built my own portfolio of side projects, which have all helped me increase my income:

Building a statistics educational website

I built statology.org while I was still in college. The site is rather clunky and information-dense, but it still proved to my first employer that I was capable of taking initiative and learning the necessary skills to build something from scratch.

Stats tutoring

Last year, I started tutoring students in statistics. Finding the first few clients was challenging, but as I tutored more and more people, I built up a little referral network. Most students I helped would often refer me to someone else in their class. When new students asked for references, I had a list of people I could point to that I had previously helped.

After a long hiatus, I have decided to get back into stats tutoring this month. This past week alone I made $90 through tutoring.

Starting a blog

I started this blog in August 2016. I began taking it seriously last summer when I decided to start writing every day. Since then, it has generated a few hundred dollars each month in revenue, but more importantly it has helped me establish a little brand for myself.

I don’t currently write for any publications, but if I wanted to pursue freelance writing I would have some examples of work to point towards. 

Creating my personal website

I currently have a day job as a data scientist, but I would love to transition to a data visualization role. This is why I created my own website with my real name as the domain. There, I have a list of data visualization projects I have worked on in my spare time. I simply grab public data (i.e. from the Bureau of Labor Statistics) and create some visualizations.

I have recently been applying for data viz positions around the U.S. using this portfolio as an example of some of my work. 

How You Can Build Your Own Portfolio

If you’re looking to build your own portfolio of side projects, here’s my advice:

1. Recognize that you don’t need permission from anyone. You can just start creating work and doing projects without anyone’s approval.

2. Get your own website. If possible, use your real name as the domain name. If your name is Tom Smith, try to register the name tomsmith.com. That name is probably taken, but you could always go for a name like tomsmithwork.com or some other variation.

I personally use and recommend Bluehost for your domain and hosting. Full disclosure: I receive a commission if you sign up using that link.

3. Create your own projects. They don’t have to be massive. If you want to get into the field of data analytics, download some public data and do a little analysis using R, Python, or whatever language you prefer. Display these analyses on a single page where potential employers or clients can view them.

If you want to become a freelance writer, create a blog. Start churning out articles. You can use these articles as proof of work to land writing gigs with publications that will pay you to write for them. 

Stand Out

The biggest barrier you face in landing any job, whether it’s freelancing or working for a corporation, is proving that you’re someone who deserves to be paid for your work. Thanks to the internet, though, there is now a permission-less way to build up a portfolio.

You don’t need to be hired by an employer to get real-world experience. You can create your own experience through side projects. 

It’s incredible to me just how powerful these projects can be, how much they help you stand out from the crowd, how easy they are to create, and yet how few people actually do them.

To stand out, start working on side projects in the evenings, weekends, or whenever you have time. Display these projects on a website. This is one of the best ways to land new sources of income.


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3 Replies to “Why You Should Build a Portfolio of Side Projects”

  1. Good blog! I really love how it is simple on my eyes and the data are well written. I am wondering how I might be notified whenever a new post has been made. I’ve subscribed to your feed which must do the trick! Have a great day!

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