Career Options

Finding a career in start-ups after your PhD.

A PhD will equip you with a range of skills that are well suited to careers in start-ups. Similarly, they provide a host of new opportunities that academia can’t offer. This posts outlines whether working in start-ups could be exactly what you’re looking for.

From the academic world of a PhD, it’s easy to overlook the opportunities start-ups and other new and growing organisations have to offer. To begin with, it’s going to be a world away from academia. PhDs are slow, rigid, and enforce a lot of red tape. After all, you’re doing a PhD, so an element of rigour is needed, it is academic research at the end of the day. When we think of start-ups, we usually think of those hipster companies where everyone is in their early twenties and ride scooters to the office. In some places that’s true, and besides, riding a scooter to work is cool. However, the bit we really overlook are the skills needed, or to be more precise, the diverse skills needed to really thrive in a start-up.

Start-ups in their infancy are extremely fast paced. There isn’t necessarily a system or framework for ‘how things should be done’ and a lot of it requires significant trial and error. In addition to this, a lot of things that occur in start-ups are ‘firsts’ – things that haven’t been done before by that organisation or an employee within that organisation. In essence, problem solving is a skill that’s being utilised daily. Figuring things out, being adaptable, trying things out for them not to work, for you to only change and try something new. Sounds familiar right? Well because it is. If you’re used to research and doing a PhD, the need to be innovative, creative, to think outside the box and to solve novel and complex problems isn’t new to you. The natural ability to be able to navigate these challenges and still produce high results is like gold dust to start-ups. Being able to get things off the ground without much supervision or guidance is what we as PhD students do best, and in turn, enable us to have a significant amount of impact and purpose within this setting.

Alongside the speed and novelty start-ups have to offer, it also means roles or positions are quite ill-defined. Not to say you’ll just be at a loose end in a start-up, quite the opposite in fact. The boundaries on what is and is not your responsibility are still being figured out. Considering the stage the organisation is in, it means there’s an ever-growing need of tasks that need to be complete that haven’t necessarily been allocated to a specific role or function just yet. This again is where you as a PhD student can thrive. Taking on a variety of projects and deliverables is second nature to academics. Managing projects, writing publications, analysing data, taking on additional responsibilities, presenting at conferences, you name it, the list is endless.

Not a bad morning commute if you ask me.

Having such a varied list of responsibilities is often what PhD students really enjoy and without it can sometimes be the source of post-PhD blues. Doing a task or job that’s repetitive or familiar over time can begin to feel lack lustre. The need to have a challenge and be stimulated on a frequent basis is what can really make the PhD experience enjoyable or provide a sense of purpose. This similar dynamic can also be found in start-ups, creating a sense of familiarity and enjoyment in the workplace. Expanding on the ill-defined nature of roles also means you can get exposure to a wider variety of things you haven’t done before. If you’re leaving a PhD and still figuring out what you want to do or how your skills are translatable, it’s a perfect opportunity to dip your toe in the water with lots of different tasks. This can help you figure out what you do and don’t like further, whilst also giving you an opportunity to up-skill and acquire new ones – contributing to your overall career trajectory and employability in the long haul. Joining a number of start-ups could be the prefect steppingstone to give you a breather to figure out what it is you really want to do, gather industry or ‘real world experience’ and then leverage it into a new career all together!

The final highlight for working within start-ups is the opportunities for progression and promotion. Traditionally in academia, promotions are far and few in between. It can take decades to reach a tenure position or attain professorship. That particular career tract in academia requires a significant amount of sacrifices which can go un-noticed for years to even be in for a chance of being rewarded. This is completely different from how start-ups operate. As a start-up organisation will be in its infancy, as it grows a natural need to have a more established hierarchy or structure of people will become inevitable. In turn, this creates a significantly high number of opportunities – not to just move upwards, but to also move across the organisation into different departments as the needs for the business constantly evolves. When you combine the accelerated need for jobs to be filled with the diverse set of skills and tasks you’ve got involved with, promotion just becomes that much easier. The hard work, the extra responsibilities, the problem-solving actually do have a means to an end. A tale that seems unheard of when you’re conditioned by academia and the PhD experience as a whole.

All in all, start-ups provide a fascinating opportunity which leverages a lot of the advantages and skills you’ve attained during your PhD whilst offering a unique set of circumstances which may support and enable you to thrive beyond your PhD. Start-ups themselves are a challenge, but one that is often rewarded both in the short term or in the long term. We’re so used to the red tape and longevity of academia, don’t overlook what the new kid on the block has to offer.

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