Why Some PhD Professionals Should Consider Starting a Business and Make the Entrepreneur Leap

PhD Professionals Should Consider Starting a Business and Make the Entrepreneur Leap

Before the COVID-19 outbreak, PhD employment statistics painted a bleak picture. Back then, studies suggested that 60% of PhDs were either in low paying postdoc jobs or were flat out unemployed. Contributing to the problem is a surplus of PhD graduates in comparison to the number of jobs available in academia. Now that the COVID crisis has wreaked havoc on the job market, there are likely to be even less positions opening up even while some disappear due to the ongoing lockdown.

This does not have to mean doom and gloom for you as a PhD. There are plenty of opportunities outside of the academy to make money and build a lasting career. Sure, job prospects are under pressure in the industry as well. But if you are a PhD, or working towards one, you may actually have an advantage when it comes on to entrepreneurship. Javier Garcia-Martinez, a PhD scholar who started Rive Technology in 2005, refers to PhDs entering entrepreneurship as a win-win situation in an article he wrote for

Not convinced this is a good move for you? Before you totally say no to becoming an entrepreneur, here are a few reasons why you should consider making the leap to entrepreneurship and start a business.

Similarity in mindset

If you think about it, the entrepreneurial path is not very dissimilar to being a scientist. In fact, the end goal is usually the same – create change in the world. Entrepreneurs looking to create products and services that solve a real-world challenge. As a PhD, much of your work writing academic papers will be geared towards offering ideas that have the potential to also solve problems people might be facing, or could face in the future. In addition, a lot of the activities of a PhD mirror those of an entrepreneur. For example, they both:

  • Are adept at conducting research
  • Face a high degree of uncertainty
  • Have the ability to recognize trends
  • Tend to juggle several projects simultaneously
  • Are motivated to innovate

Putting your leadership skills to use

Pursuing a PhD program can instill a number of leadership qualities that are also necessary for running a business. For starters, great CEOs tend to have a strong drive to excel in their respective fields and accomplish new heights. Many PhDs are also deeply passionate about their selected subject areas, honed over years of studying and research. Other leadership skills that are often developed through your work in academia include:

  • A strong ability to keep learning and adapting
  • Consistency
  • Decisiveness
  • Laser focus and discipline
  • Solution-oriented
  • Strong communication skills
  • Courage to go after results
  • Being a visionary

Having these qualities puts you on par with many CEOs and organization leaders in the industry. Starting a business allows you to fall back on these qualities while strengthening them in the process. On the other hand, many PhDs tend to spend years in the shadow of their advisors trying to stay in their good graces in hope of that association leading to a professorship. Moreover, the trend of hiring PhDs for low-paying postdoc and part-time positions also means that many are not able to expand on their leadership skills. It is even worse for those PhDs who remain unemployed for years.

The ability to make a direct impact

Many research papers have led to breakthroughs in science, technology, design, etc., and many scientists are celebrated because of the changes they have brought about. According to Justin Brown, who quit his PhD to launch Ideapod, a social media startup, “The purpose of education is empowering people to make a positive contribution to society.”

Many of the breakthroughs in academia are truly realized when applied to industry. This has been demonstrated in the use of a number of scientific discoveries over the years. For example, in the medical field, research on various substances and their effects on the human body has led to the creation of drugs and supplements by private firms that are then sold to the general public. Painkillers, vaccines, and penicillin are just a few examples. The discovery of electricity has also led to countless products being developed for commercial purposes. So has the invention of the internet. And these are just a few examples of how scientific work builds industry.

With all that said, becoming an entrepreneur gives you the opportunity to make a direct impact. It’s great to write a strong paper that gets published in the world’s best academic journals. This will generate revenue for the respective publishing companies and maybe even provide ideas for a big company or savvy entrepreneur. If you are lucky, you may even get hired by a firm that is interested in your work. However, if you took the leap and started a business, it is possible that you could translate your knowledge into bringing about change directly and in the way that you intend.

Removes career uncertainty

As hinted at earlier, there is a high level of uncertainty around the employment of PhDs, especially with many aspiring for the ultimate – professorship. One article by the Economist found that over a four-year period, more than 100,000 PhDs were granted, yet, a mere 16,000 professorships became available during the same period. This means there would be career uncertainty for more than 80% of PhD holders if they were aspiring for the same spot. Entrepreneurship, however, results in less uncertainty. Furthermore, being an entrepreneur comes with additional intangible benefits that are harder to realize in academia, including:

  • A sense of freedom from being your own boss
  • A feeling of fulfillment and accomplishment
  • Real-world experience of building something from scratch
  • A network of contacts that can lead to lasting relationships and opportunities

Earning potential

Loving what you do is one thing. But the harsh reality is that bills still need to get paid. You need money to go to the supermarket for food and to purchase medication when you get sick. With so many PhDs unemployed or in low-wage jobs, it means there is a higher chance that you will fall in this bracket instead of a role that rewards you adequately. Building a startup, on the other hand, can significantly increase your earning potential.

To be fair, many businesses fail within five years, so there is no guarantee of financial success. However, more than 50% of startups make it to five years and beyond. In addition, when compared to the median household income in the U.S. of around $52,000, entrepreneurs earn, on average, about $70,000. Of course, there is the possibility of earning far more or far less, but the reality is that there is a higher chance of making a livable wage from owning a business than from sticking to an academic career, a field that is getting more saturated.

While career advancement opportunities in academia appear to be dwindling for PhDs, focusing on entrepreneurship may open new doors for them. As the evidence shows, your training and experience could give you an added advantage to achieve results from owning a business.

Dr. Tina Persson | CEO | Career Expert | Author | Helping people to fulfil their goals

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