The purpose of a Ph.D. is not just about producing an original piece of excellent research. Neither is obtaining a degree certificate. Instead, it’s about driving changes in society through the conclusions of 3 (in the best case scenario) years of hard research.
As an entrepreneur, to enroll in a Ph.D. program one must be a little bit crazy. You’re giving up the possibility to have a traditional steady job with a steady and real salary. Instead, by enrolling in a Ph.D. you agree to 3 years ( again best case scenario) of limited (see precarious) salary that is far from being aligned to the amount of work involved. And what is worst is that, depending on the field, once you obtain your Ph.D. you are likely to be too qualified for a job outside academia. Certainly, money is not the (sole) ambition.
As an entrepreneur, a Ph.D. Candidate must truly believe in his thesis (idea). To achieve successfully your dissertation, you need to be intrinsically motivated towards your research problem. You need to be confident about your skills for fulfilling the thesis requirements and you have to be extremely optimist about the outcomes of your research. Without intrinsic motivation, self-efficacy (confidence in one skills) and optimism you’ re likely to drop out from your program and pursue easier (traditional) paths to the active life.
Being a Ph.D. means not having any boss. Yes, you have your supervisor and the scientific committee board that guides you (when you are lucky) and evaluates your progress, but no one will be there to tell you what to do, and what it’s more no one will tell you how to do it. You are on your own to figure out the business plan, set your agenda and milestones. You don’t get any reward for having figure-out your research question, for achieving your sample quota or finishing your first chapter. Moreover, you are likely to lack family and friends understanding. Usually, they don’t understand why you keep studying and the continuously will ask you when would you finally start working. And, let’s not talk about what they think (and how much they care) of your thesis subject. If you are not doing your Ph.D. just because it’s enjoyable for you, you rather stop losing your time.
Doing a Ph.D. means doing everything from statistic analysis, sample reach-out, reviewing theory, methodology design, writing papers…Of course, you are likely to not know how to do everything when starting but you should be confident enough to think that somehow you’ll be able to manage all.
During your Ph.D. you’re likely to encounter several challenges and unexpected situations. You can find yourself at four months of your dissertation and acknowledged that your model doesn’t work as you expected. Or that you are far from reaching your minimum sample target to get reliable and exploitable results. You are all the time hoping that the paper you sent to the journal or conference gets accepted even when you already know that there are enormous methodological or theoretical issues. If you don’t hope for the best and keep the optimist you are likely to crash down.
The thin line between Academia and Entrepreneurship
Likewise, as an entrepreneur, you have to be able to convince consumers (your students and practitioners), investors (research funds and grant foundations) and key partners (academicians, colleagues, practitioners) that you’re solving a relevant problem (research question) and that your solution (thesis) has sounded value proposition (implications) and business model (applications).
But for doing that you have to able to tell the story and keep it simple, appealing and clear.
Today, researchers, as entrepreneurs, are facing wild competition and changing dynamics. More and more, to be competitive — to be accepted to conferences, doctoral consortium, journals, fellowships, and jobs (inside and outside academia) — one must build a reputation. Other than writing scientific papers, Ph.Ds have to be able to blog, pitch, teach about their research (and more) to any kind of audience. There are more and more challenges and competitions for researchers to pitch their thesis in no more than 3 minutes so that any “normal” person understands what it’s about.
As entrepreneurs, Ph.D. Students need to be creative. We have to produce ORIGINAL and EXCEPTIONAL research pieces. We have to find the way to (sometimes) say the same things but with a different perspective. Or find a new methodology for measuring the same thing. Or conceiving a new model to explain known phenomena. Anything we do has to come from a creative process. Even raising founds sometimes relies on creative sources. Many PhDs are now relying on crowdfunding to gather financial support.
As entrepreneurs, Ph.D. students don’t make a distinction between work time and personal time.
We sleep, eat, date, and do everything with our thesis.
It is not that you can’t have family or friends, it is just that they will be as well submerged in your Ph.D. journey. Your significant (or not) others will have to listen to your pre-dissertation presentation, read every chapter and answer your questionnaires. Your baby story-time will have to do with the five papers you have to review for the conference where you have submitted yours. Any superficial chat between friends will end up in profound conversations and think tanks. And nights and weekends will be like any work hour.
So what differentiates entrepreneurs from Ph.D. candidates?
Well, I’ll say is vision.
The problem when you enroll as a Ph.D. is that the ultimate goal for your university, your supervisor, your family and friends, and therefore yours; it’s to submit your thesis and defend your dissertation.
While there is enough evidence of the important role of university scientific research for innovation, entrepreneurship and global economy, the incentives given by states and universities are not aligned for this.
PhDs are potential entrepreneurs, potential innovators. If from the beginning the vision of a Ph.D program was to create a marketable product (service/method), the number of spin-offs and patents will increase enormously. But everything has to change starting from the business model and mindsets of academia.
We cannot continue to measure research impact solely from publications, we have to be able to generate new production units and give the right incentives to researchers, institutions and companies to bond in this new Business Model.
Only then we will be wired for entrepreneurship.