PhDs and entrepreneurialism

During my doctorate I worked occasionally as a freelance researcher and administrative assistant for a few small consultancies. After I defended, my plan was to continue doing this but on a more consistent basis, in the hopes of growing my client base or workload, and thus make more money. Well, that didn’t work out and over time I figured out a few things about myself and what kind of environment I thrive in. When I first talked to Hillary, my career coach, in October, she gave me a little homework assignment: fill out a short quiz about entrepreneurialism. If I answered “yes” to most of the questions, it meant entrepreneurship suited me. You’re probably not surprised to know that, yes, there were lots of yesses.

That quiz helped me clarify my goals, and over time I realized that running my own business really was what I wanted. No wonder I’d never applied for any jobs, in any formal way: I intuitively knew what I wanted long before my intellect caught up. Since then I’ve worked to narrow my focus to determine what kind of work I’d like to do.

My grad school experiences scream “future business owner,” even though I didn’t realize it at the time. And I think the entrepreneurial bent is common among PhDs, certainly in the humanities and social sciences. Like running a business, doing a PhD isn’t the norm. Working solo on a project for years at a time isn’t the norm. Organizing and carrying out all aspects of that project, from brainstorming to research to final editing, isn’t normal. And doing it without, in many cases, strong supervision, oversight, or financial success, is certainly out of the ordinary. Doctoral students are incredibly self-motivated and driven: to plan, research, write, present, teach, apply, report, submit, budget, edit, navigate bureaucracy, and manage their own time and their supervisors’ expectations. The ability to do all this is a pretty strong indicator to me that they’d be successful later in life as entrepreneurs. I loved setting my own schedule (mostly) and doing my project my own way (also mostly).

It’s not just fierce independence, determination, all-round competence, and high level organization skills that tell me many of us could be successful entrepreneurs. It’s also that we’re smart, creative, and excellent communicators. Sure, there’s much to learn about the world beyond the academy—but hey: learning’s what we do best!

Have you thought about running your own business, setting up as a freelancer, or joining a small start-up firm? Or maybe you already have! I’d love to know more about what you’re doing or what you’re thinking about.

18 Replies to “PhDs and entrepreneurialism”

    1. I would have said the same thing in the past… but I love blogging and the Twitter community (and talking!), and that’s a big chunk of what marketing/selling is all about: letting people know what we’re up to. We are good at that! (You might still not want to do it, of course.)

  1. Great post, Jen. I’m trying to pitch myself as a consultant and was interested to read that you worked as a freelancer in this area. Could you say a bit more about why it didn’t work out? Was it just the culture of those particular consultancies? Did they not let you express your ‘fierce independence’? Would you ever consider starting up your own consultancy? Thanks.

  2. A few diff reasons, including ones to do with the nature of the consultancies I worked with, but more importantly: I didn’t yet know what I could really offer, what I really wanted to work on, and etc. So that made it hard for my clients to use me in ways that I would have preferred… because I didn’t have the confidence or clarity to express what I wanted to them. I’m getting much closer to feeling confident and clear… we’ll have to talk about this when we meet!

  3. You know about my entrepreneurial journey by now… but really, one of the big reasons I ended up not hiring you is because you should – and will – be the boss of your own biz. 😉

    For the thread: one thing a lot of people misunderstand about becoming an entrepreneur, though, is that it doesn’t necessarily require “salesmanship” in the way it’s traditionally thought of. You need to be an advocate for yourself, yes, and you need to be comfortable with reaching out to others with what you’re offering, but you don’t need to sit there cold-calling or using high-pressure tactics. Most successful entrepreneurs I know started by using the network of people they already knew, or were connected to, and got the word out about their services by doing high-quality work for initial clients, who then referred others. By the time you’re big enough to really need to do a lot of business development, it may even be feasible to hire someone to do biz dev for you.

    Also, think of people like Karen Kelsky of The Professor Is In. She isn’t a “saleswoman”. She writes a blog and gives out excellent advice for free, which makes people want to work with her. Same with Alison Green of Ask A Manager. They’re selling their services, but in ways that work for them.

    For me, 95% of my business has been word of mouth, and I’m doing really well. I don’t think I’ve made a single cold call. I’ve gotten clients from everything from family connections to secondhand referrals to someone who overhead my conversation with my assistant at a coffeeshop and hired us to work on a project!

    1. Yes! I’ve learned / am learning this. What seemed scary and potentially unethical about business and marketing isn’t really at all. It’s hard work but if you’re passionate about what you’re doing and believe in your own value, it’s no big deal letting people know about what you can do for them.

      I love that last example… overheard coffeeshop conversation! Awesome 🙂

  4. I love this post Jennifer (well I love all of them), it has been very helpful and inspiring to find (and read) this blog, I’m at the end of my PhD (awaiting for my VIVA) having worked as research assistant and lecturer I only know one thing: I don’t want a career in academia, trying to figure out what to do next, if i’m honest the thought of being my own boss makes me happy but I guess I’m scared…

    1. Thanks! It is scary… but in an exciting way instead of a terror-inducing way. Yay to being our own bosses! I’m still working out what exactly I want to do. Good luck, let me know how it goes, and thanks for reading!

  5. Hello Jennifer,

    My name is Shawn Warren. I have just left a comment on your Jan 12 post on Vitae introducing you the work I am doing on an entrepreneurial model for higher education.

    The model is original and specifies academics offer their expertise as formal professionals do – such as attorneys, physicians, accountants, etc. This is the provision of higher education independent of exploitive institutional employ as university and college faculty. It is a model that substantially improves the condition of HE, which is the primary reason I am developing and promoting it – as a civil and professional responsibility.

    I hope you have time to review the model and find some use of it your own work. I recommend as initiation this post –


  6. PhDs & PhD students have a great capacity to learn new skills and apply themselves to challenging tasks and projects.

    Here’s a different perspective on sales:
    do you regard sales as:
    1) a set of skills that can be learned (like learning a new language or technology – we weren’t born knowing English o blogging and yet we know something about those areas now)
    2) a fixed “genetic” quality that cannot be learned.

    I am in the “set of skills” camp, especially as I see the value of sales in growing a business.

  7. Hi Jennifer,
    I work in an association that helps PhDs in their professional reconversion and I’m preparing an article about entrepreneurialism. You mentioned a quiz, do you have a reference for that? I found a few on the internet but they’re quite bad… : )
    Thanks in advance!!! And thank you for your blog, I find it very inspiring!

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