Events · The PhD voice

Is doing a PhD like launching a startup?


Hi all! Since attending Web Summit the past November and working with startups directly as a volunteer, I have been thinking about writing a post comparing startups with PhDs. This idea first came into my mind after watching the talk with the very energetic and peculiar Gary Vaynerchuk on Youtube. I couldn’t watch this live since I was working during his talk, but I had never heard about the guy before. Seems he’s a huge startup and entrepreneurship rockstar. When I watched, one of his lines resonated a lot with me (cursive nonwithstanding that I chose not to include!).

Entrepreneurs get punched in the face 24/7, 365, for the rest of their lives

I thought a lot about my experience as a PhD student and a researcher in general. I have now being working in research institutions and universities for 5 years. I literally can’t believe I started my first full-time fellowship in December 5th 2011, where did time go? I can assure you that, even though I liked a lot all the projects I had thus far and still do, I felt punched in the face a lot of times by adversity. Whenever you’re trying to create something new, it’s not easy right? If you want to know a bit about those times I felt punched, you can move over to my post on academic rejection. So yes, I think that any PhD is an entrepreneur. You might not be an entrepreneur in the startup or business sense, but making it through such an extensive period of time researching about the same topic and accomplishing scientific contributions is a massive feat of willpower! You are an entrepreneur of life!

In order to start my comparisons between PhDs and startups, I looked for articles on tips to successfully launch a startup and wanted to make a “true or false” for each statement for the case of PhD projects. And who better than marketing genius Neil Patel to guide us through? I found an article on 10 tips to launch your startup faster and, since we all want to complete our thesis faster, does the advice on startups apply to PhD work as well? Let’s find out my take on this!

1. Just start

Neil Patel states, in this section, that it’s more important to start than to start right. I totally agree here. Often in your PhD you will find yourself challenging your methodologies but you have to start somewhere. There’s always the first article to read, the first lab experiment, the first line of code. And you are allowed to fail and learn…within reason of course. But don’t get yourself too beaten up if you don’t do everything right at first. I’m looking and you and also at myself, hoarde of perfectionist PhD students!

2. Sell anything

Here I don’t agree very much with Patel for the research applications and I don’t think we should sell anything, that is, make research about anything. I think we need to be more picky since the funding is limited and we really have to have a purpose to be good and inspiring researchers I think. However, what I agree, is that entrepreneurs are not selling anything new, they are selling it differently or better. This is quite questionable in the PhD field since factors as funding, journal acceptance and the reputation of faculties sometimes overcome good science that happens in smaller faculties and countries, but when you’re trying to stand out even with limited resources in a quite competitive area, those who do a new approach and can squeeze are those who we can keep our eyes on for future inspiration.

3. Ask someone for advice, then ask him/her to do it

One good thing said here is that you don’t have all the answers in a startup, like you don’t on a PhD. It’s always ok to ask for help and advice. However, I don’t think we should always delegate work. In some cases it’s ok, in others I think it’s borderline unpolite because that expert or your lab pal might be so busy. You always have to be sensitive with who and when to ask for help and to do some favor to you. If you do ask, never forget to pay back and be available for your colleague in case it’s necessary.

4. Hire remote workers

Oh, I wish this was so much easier in research! One thing that really breaks my heart is when I see and talk with my friends about people doing the same kind of work and competing instead of collaborating. Everyone’s life would be so much easier and science would have so much to gain…but if your group has collaborations that work relaly well, that’s awesome and use all these connections to help your work grow 😉

5. Hire contract workers

No way. Maybe can you offer a symbolic gift to this colleague who helped you so much? 😉

6. Find a co-founder

Change “co-founder” to “supervisor” and you hit home. The relevance of supervisors that are real mentors to you and that you can really trust is intangible! Before choosing your PhD topic, talk a lot with the possible supervisors and check if you can find common ground. I’m also not saying that you should become friends with the supervisor, but at least think that he/she is a good person with values you can identify with.

7. Work with someone who pushes you to the extreme

Here Neil Patel spoke about the paramount example of a CEO who pushed people to the extreme, Steve Jobs. I don’t like that style and I don’t think your supervisor needs to be aggressive with you to make you work harder. However, if you’re in the research world, you need to thicken your skin a little bit. Who would you prefer to have as a supervisor? Someone who always says your work is great, or someone who tells you that it’s not entirely ok and that you can think of this in a different way? I can tell you being motivational is great, but fair criticism is the way to go. If you’re always “doing great”, will you run that extra mile to make your work even better? Probably not. Then when the rejected paper comes, you will get the unexpected criticism from people you don’t even know who they are and it will hurt much more.

8. Don’t focus on money

I have so many feelings about this I don’t even know where to start. While I understand the point, I don’t agree. A startup also needs to focus on money and where it comes from, period. For the PhD world, first of all, paying a PhD out of your pocket is freaking expensive. Don’t tell me to not focus on money. Then, here in Portugal, we have an exclusivity contract, so we cannot have additional earnings outside the PhD scholarship. And who will fund your research? You need to sell your research to get that grant. But another thing that I also don’t agree is just doing a research that goes along with the funding trends if you don’t like it or you’re not good at it. Science can be so grueling and exhausting at times, it’s better to research a topic you really like. 😉

9. Spend time and money on marketing

Yes, yes and yes! For the PhD world, I would say spend a lot of time since money is scarce. Do a lot of training in how to properly communicate your research findings, either in the research field or science communication events. You can check my tips for writing abstracts for conferences too. Another good thing is to joing a public speaking group. I’ve been wanting to go to my local Toastmasters for so long and still couldn’t, how tragic! And when you present visual content, really spend some time in making beautiful and functional presentations and posters and clear plots and figures. Other thing that can also help to present your research is the use of infographics, which I really encourage you to give a try too.

10. Talk to your potential customers

“The sooner you learn about your customers, the faster you’ll be able to pivot and serve them better”. I won’t say this applies to all research areas but to mine I think it really speaks home. I like to think of science not only for advancing the knowledge purposes, but to have an impact on society and economics. Also important to talk about when trying to get your grant! The earlier you get people that the topic might be interested on, even with a PhD project, you will get a better feel of what is their need and opinion first hand. I am a bit culprit of this and I know I have to speak with more “customers” though.

So yeah, PhDs and startups seem to have quite some things in common and some analogies can be made! Be the science entrepreneur I know you are (not in the money sense again! In the sense that you have willpower for great things) and hustle your way through your PhD, we are in this together 🙂

What are your thoughts on the PhD and startup comparisons? Let me know in the comment section below!


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