Career Options

Becoming an entrepreneur following your PhD.

Becoming an entrepreneur requires a broad set of skills that are complimented with incredible determination, resilience and motivation. Completing a PhD gives you all the core ingredients necessary to become a successful entrepreneur.

Being an entrepreneur often feels like a big risk or even like a fairy tale. But really, what even is an entrepreneur? A lot of people maybe have a slight misconception that entrepreneurs are inventors, crazy scientists, mavericks, or any other term that sounds a bit chaotic. However, the term ‘entrepreneur’ is actually so broad it means almost all of the previous, but also everything at the opposite end of the spectrum. If the term entrepreneur is a bit too wishy-washy for you, terms like ‘business owner’, ‘CEO of a small start-up’, ‘free-lancer’, ‘self-employed’ feel a bit more concrete – because ultimately that’s what an entrepreneur is.

In its most simple form, an entrepreneur is more of an all-encompassing title that can capture those individuals that don’t fit into a conventional job title. Specifically, for those who work independently and for themselves. And with that ambiguity and vagueness comes fear, as one would expect, especially for academics. PhDs and academics typically don’t like ambiguity. Researchers, and scientists alike have a desire to explain, understand and frame real life concepts in a coherent manner that feels tangible. In doing so, the idea of living in the world, or completing work outside of a respective framework can feel daunting and almost too intangible. “If I can’t name what I do, does it exist?”. Alternatively, however, being an entrepreneur should be seen through a slightly different lens. With this ambiguity and lack of structure, unlimited opportunities and possibilities emerge. You have no rules. At any point you can pivot, change ideas, explore something new, and continue to evolve both as an individual and as a creative.

It’s actually rather difficult to expand and talk around what an entrepreneur is, because it can look completely different between two different people – as mentioned previously, it’s a broad term which encapsulates a lot of different things. However, what can be certain is that being an entrepreneur, irrespective of what in, usually converges on a core set of skills which are typically found in PhDs or honed during a PhD programme. When we think about what an entrepreneur does, or even what a business owner does, it usually revolves around creating something. Not necessarily in an art form, although lots of business ventures can be considered an art form, but in a way that provides and adds value to others through novel solutions.

When we think back to what a PhD programme is, it’s essentially working on something new and innovative in an area or niche that hasn’t been examined in enough detail previously. In this PhD context, you’re learning as you go, letting your experiences (i.e., new knowledge) guide you, and cultivating a path or coherent story around what it is you’re researching. This is what entrepreneurs often do. They don’t have it figured out, but they are constantly evolving and developing a niche product or service – similar to a PhD project. This is one of the core skills all PhDs possess, having the ability to learn quickly and consolidate novel concepts into your thinking is necessary in becoming a good entrepreneur. It’s the true embodiment of appreciating your ability to learn.

Additional core skills other than exploring the unknown also overlap with what an entrepreneur does on a regular basis. As mentioned elsewhere, PhDs have excellent problem-solving skills which is typically why they are drawn towards consultancy careers outside of academia. When thinking about entrepreneurship, being able to solve problems is the foundation of finding success and the ‘creative solutions’ process. If you run your own business or are self-employed, you can’t just ring up someone else within your business or team to ask how things should be done. You have to decide that for yourself – you call all the shots.

Of course, this is maybe where a lot of the fear around entrepreneurship resides. Not having a framework or guidance to follow might make us worry about ‘getting it wrong’ or ‘not doing it right’, you know, that classic imposter syndrome voice in the back of your head. But when we think about it, because there are no rules, because you are free to do what you want, you ultimately can’t get it wrong. The only person who can decide whether the work is good enough or not is you. Feel free to move the goal posts however you want, the vision is yours, take ownership and trust your judgement. After all, the vast majority of entrepreneurs do not have PhDs – so if they can figure things out and navigate these murky waters, so can you.

The other core skills that come with entrepreneurship is planning and project management. Of course, nothing primes you better for project management and hitting deadlines like a PhD. Juggling publications, peer-review, collecting data, reading articles, doing data analysis, you name it. PhDs know how to fit it all in. Maybe even additional teaching and conferences on the side. Once again, as an entrepreneur you’re the owner, the director, the HR person, the administrator, everything. Being able to manage all these different workflows and deliverables will ultimately feel very familiar, if not identical to your PhD.

This also ties in quite nicely with the interpersonal skills that help facilitate project management. To do all of these things requires a significant amount of motivation, optimism, resilience and self-belief. If you take those attributes and apply them to anyone in any other context, what could they achieve? Or even, what would get in their way? – not much. This perfect combination of being able to juggle everything and the interpersonal grit to allow you to persevere and remain consistent should not be taken for granted. These are the core ingredients for any entrepreneur. It’s also one of the reasons why most people aren’t entrepreneurs – it’s difficult, if not extremely rare, to possess all of these attributes at one time. Luckily for you, you’ve got all of them.

Visual representation of juggling a PhD.

If we take a step back for a moment and think about these attributes and skills, there really is no limit. We haven’t even discussed the other skills such as writing, time management, being able to network, and more! This broad set of skills is what underpins the future of your success as an entrepreneur. Being an entrepreneur is ultimately being able to do everything and anything, you don’t limit yourself to one particular career path, or job title, or task, or future plan. You accept this will evolve as time goes on and you learn to adapt, absorb new information, and implement it into whatever it is you’re trying to create and build. This ambiguous journey is much of what a multipotentialite does. Taking all these different talents, or multiple potentials, and applying them in a way that is broad, inclusive, and impactful. A journey that could be more fulfilling and satisfying to you. Especially if learning, creating, and developing new skills are core life values for you.

Identifying and accepting these broad transferable skills is not only imperative to your long term career success outside of academia, as this will enable you to communicate this to others through a CV, cover letter, LinkedIn profile, or at a job interview, but it’s also the combination of these transferable skills that allow you to become an entrepreneur.

The transferable skills can be applied and carried over to any context you want, just when it comes to entrepreneurship, you’re the one deciding the context or contexts – not somebody else.

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