Did that title confuse you?
Most of you are probably wondering how in the world pursuing a PhD in a research field is anything like launching a start-up. After all, academia is not exactly known for being entrepreneurial: it’s slower, more bureaucratic, and a lot more risk averse. It is likely you are pursuing a PhD to conduct research rather than starting a business but for me I worked in a start-up business before beginning my PhD in a research-intensive psychology program and have found there are overlapping skills and mindsets between being successful in a PhD and in launching a start-up.
I share these in the hope that they help other students find their own “success”, whatever that may look like and perhaps prepare future students for some of the unexpected challenges they may face when starting a PhD.
Selecting a research topic is like determining product viability.
One of the first challenges PhD students face is determining what research area they should pursue. Sometimes your supervisor may have a few projects already in the pipeline that you can support, but as you begin your first first-authored study, it becomes your responsibility to determine a research topic that is feasible yet novel enough to have potential for publication.
This is similar to the process of market research in determining the product viability for a start-up. Entrepreneurs spend countless hours researching the market, figuring out what the competitor products or businesses are, benchmarking against them to calculate the viability of success of their idea, and gathering data and feedback from potential customers.
As PhD students we should take a similar approach. I have far too many projects that I’ve started, only to realise later that they weren’t viable or someone else has already done that study. Had I conducted more “market research”, I may have saved myself a lot of time and effort on unsuccessful projects. Unfortunately, we’re taught as PhD students to read research articles to learn from them, but not to do so with a mindset of understanding the “research market” and assessing the viability of a study before investigating it.
90% of new start-ups (research ideas) fail.
Even if you’ve done your due diligence in market research, 90% of start-ups fail. Entrepreneurs have to be used to failure and willing to learn from it and try again. It can take dozens of failed start-ups before one of them survives the brutal market and grows into a successful, profitable business.
Academia is just as brutal. Many project ideas never make it to completion. In our program, we’re required to submit one first-authored paper to a prestigious journal before taking comprehensive exams. To get there, most students begin two or three first-authored projects, knowing that many projects fail at some point (e.g. challenges in data collection or analysis) and in the hope that one eventually gets submitted. Even then, at the top journals, the majority of articles are rejected.
PhD students have to adjust quickly to “failed” projects and learn to view them not as failures but as learning opportunities. We can learn from the classic “fail fast” or “fail forward” mentality found among many entrepreneurs, rebounding quickly when things inevitably go wrong, learning from our mistakes and trying again and again until something works.
Marketing your product (study) is essential.
Let’s say your study does get published. Congratulations! But with thousands of studies being published each month, how will you get others to read and in turn, cite your work? It is unfortunately not enough to produce an excellent research article; PhD students also need to learn how to market this to build readership.
I wish that we all received training in marketing techniques, just like those used by start-ups to promote their new product. Let’s face it, academic journals are not known for having modern websites and social media presence to attract readers. We as the authors of the study have to do all the legwork in promoting our study and expanding its reach. We have to learn how to share our article on social media, talk about it at networking sessions, and create engaging visuals to stand out among the barrage of so many other studies being published.
Moreover, I would emphasise the importance of science communication. To effectively share our work, we need to learn how to communicate it to others, especially those outside of our field. This can be writing for popular press (e.g., op-eds or blog posts), public speaking engagements, and artistic visualisations of study results. However, most importantly, it requires avoiding pedantic and overly technical language, which is an important and rarely trained skill in “translating” academic research for public audiences.
Writing and speaking for public audiences differs greatly from writing research articles or giving a research presentation. Unfortunately, it’s not a skill set that PhD programs provide training in. Students will need to seek out opportunities to practice and develop these skills themselves. Many academic conferences have started offering workshops in op-ed writing or public speaking.
Don't do it alone: Find partnerships and collaborators.
In business, networking is everything. In academia, networking is, similarly, almost everything. At academic conferences, the most important activity is to meet other researchers in your field. Whether it’s at a happy hour, during a workshop session, or casually walking by in the hallways, these are vital opportunities to form connections that are crucial to an academic career. Too often, PhD students feel like they have to do everything themselves (or maybe themselves plus their advisors). In reality, the most successful researchers are the ones who collaborate often, helping each other out with studies and accomplishing much more as a team than one could alone. Think of it like building business partnerships: Now that you’ve got your start-up business (i.e., your research study), you need to find business partners (i.e., research collaborators) to work together on future research. Moreover, for those going into academic careers, networking is just as important for landing a job as it is in other careers. Who knows, that researcher you met at a symposium could be the chair of a hiring committee for the job you really want in a year’s time!
There is more than one path to success.
Academia is often discouraging because of how strict the career path seems: Finish your PhD, get an Assistant Professor job, get tenure, get full Professor, then eventually retire. Moreover, at each step in the process, any number of deeply ingrained flaws and biases in the system could result in major disappointments and setbacks. More recently, it’s become evident that there’s more than one path to have a “successful” career after finishing your PhD. Many go into industry and “alternative-academic” roles, landing well-paying and highly regarded jobs in private or public companies. Others find academic research positions in non-traditional environments, like think tanks or private research firms.
In general, people are starting to understand that these jobs are just as valuable and indicative of “success” as a traditional tenure-track professor job. Successful businesses come from all sorts of different backgrounds and paths. There is no one set way to create a successful business (though there are best practices). Similarly, PhD graduates have access to, and should consider, a variety of different paths forward.
I’m not entirely sure where I’m going to end up next. It might be a traditional tenure-track position, it might be a teaching-focused job, or it might be an administrative faculty position but by thinking like an entrepreneur, I’m hopeful that I’ll eventually find my own path to “success”, however I end up defining it based on my own values, goals, and interests.