Why the PhD is the best preparation for becoming an entrepreneur

Venn diagram comparing PhD and entrepreneur skill setAs a small business owner, I’ve been asked to speak at an #altac event for graduate students. I’ve attended such events as student and presenter. And I’m usually the only entrepreneur in the room. That’s a shame, because the PhD is actually kick-ass preparation for starting your own business. Why?

I learned to think for myself

Undergrads study what’s known. But grad students are expected to go find a hole in the literature and fill it by publishing before anyone else does. The PhD is the only degree that demands innovation in every field. (In the business world it’s called market research, opportunity spotting, and shipping products ahead of the competition).

I learned to speak up for my ideas

Universities are filled with tough audiences: bored students in required classes, insanely busy dissertation committee members, peer reviewers, and grant application readers. After convincing non-specialists that my project on the metatopography of Roman monumental relief sculptures was worth spending money on, it’s pretty easy to sell just about anything else. (Grant applications = marketing. Surviving Q&A after talks = countering sales objections. Teaching, conference presentations = public speaking).

I learned how to learn independently

The PhD requires you to quickly map out the knowns, unknowns, and debates relevant to any sub-topic of inquiry. I use this skill all the time. There’s always something new to learn about the world of business and the niche I operate in (also known as staying current in the literature).

I learned key tech skills

Coding websites, making spreadsheets, troubleshooting digital projectors….More to the point, I learned when tools solve a problem and when they’re just a distraction from the real work.

I learned time-management and self-motivation

Finishing a PhD demonstrates patience with long-term projects that may not result in immediate rewards. The same methodical approach applies to building a business.

Professors further develop the ability to balance research (how status is measured; key metric for being hired / retained to do teaching and service), full-time teaching (what pays the bills), and service (admin).

Solopreneurs juggle a similar triad of responsibilities: working on the business (strategic planning, publishing a blog), working in the business (providing services/product), and working for the business (admin). If any of these are dropped, the whole enterprise suffers.

"The PhD is the ONLY degree that DEMANDS INNOVATION in every field."I learned to work in teams and manage teams

The PhD has the reputation of being a degree for isolated introverts. And yes, much of the dissertation writing was a solo experience. It’s easy, though, to miss all the teamwork that happens in academe because of the reputation that we’re all lone warriors. A few quick examples:

  • Working with fellow grad students to mail out lecture announcements, and then shop for, arrange, and serve post-lecture refreshments on a $50 budget.
  • Team-teaching a large lecture course (between two to twenty graduate student instructors working with a lead professor).
  • Doing small tasks towards the completion of multi-author volumes (bibliography formatting and fixing, image permission checking).
  • Identifying museum-based research projects suitable for undergraduates, and building a website (still extant!) to showcase their work.
  • Office hours mentoring, redirecting, and evaluating student work.

I learned to navigate bureaucracies

Applying for my LLC? Not nearly as exacting as passing the dissertation format check.

Figuring out business insurance? Not nearly as intimidating as figuring out how to get access to the deep-storage areas of the Louvre and the Vatican.

I lost my fear of experts

I have a PhD. I am an expert.



The Together Teacher

Are you starting to panic about the approach of the fall semester?

Maia Heyck-Merlin’s book The Together Teacher: Plan Ahead, Get Organized, and Save Time (2012) is chock-full of helpful ideas. It’s aimed at K-12 teachers, yet much of the advice is fully applicable to college-level teachers, too.

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