The Startup of Your Career: Grad School as Entrepreneurship
There Are No Normal Career Paths
There is no normal career path through graduate school and into the world beyond. Perhaps there used to be. I once attended a department seminar that was supposed to be about the department’s history. It turned into emeritus professors reminiscing about what it was like when they started out.
I got very little out of the talk except the impression that in those days you could defend your PhD on a Friday and start work as a professor the next Monday. Universities were hiring and there were very few people with PhDs. Things are not like that anymore. I just met a very talented scientist who landed his first tenure-track position after four postdoctoral fellowships. This is increasingly common.
This is the new normal, but I’m not freaking out.
There are the always the exceptions. Sometimes a young person starts working with the perfect supervisor (they didn’t know at the time) on the perfect subject (the latest, sexiest thing that has the whole field excited). If you work really hard, and maybe land a nice fellowship, and a university department just happens to be hiring someone doing research in that sexy new subject, you could well on your way to having your academic dreams come true.
I don’t say any of this to discourage you. The most persistent and hard-working will find their way through academia. It might just take a few postdocs and changing your mailing address every few years, but there is a path for the determined. To some, graduate school can sound like life-postponement. We hear their questions all the time:
- How much longer do you have?
- You must be almost done now, right?
- When are you going to get a real job?
- I heard it’s really hard to get a professorship. Are you worried?
And of course, our friends from college who did not pursue graduate school are making larger salaries and buying houses and starting families. Good for them, I say. The point is, I’m not focused on becoming a professor and starting “real life” on a university faculty list. My “real life” is right now, and that’s what I’m focused on.
On a good day, I love the crap out of my job. I share an office with a hilarious group of people and between us we’re doing research on everything from dark matter to galaxy evolution to early conditions for life. I get to mentor newer students and learn from people smarter than I am. I am writing this post from a hotel room in Germany because I just attended a conference of over 800 people and got to meet lots of brilliant folks and drink German beer and schnapps with them, forming new friendships and strengthening old ones.
Of course, there are bad days where I feel like my life is stalled and I’ll never earn any real money, and the academic career path looks dismal. But maybe a year or two ago, I started to see the path through graduate school differently. This wasn’t a ladder I was climbing; this was entrepreneurship.
The Entrepreneurship of Graduate School
There are very few real career “ladders” left. All the “safe” career funnels are flooded with people. Young people are desperate to get into medical schools, law schools, and business schools. Graduates are finding that some of these “safe” career paths were not so safe after all. Doing an MBA at a school that isn’t top tier may result in 100K of debt and no job afterwards. When I read accounts of what it’s like trying to make partner at a law firm, it sounds worse than trying to get tenure. The most competitive (and best paying) medical specialties accept maybe 2 or 3 candidates in any given program out of a pool of candidates ten times larger.
From my point of view, the only “safe” career path through graduate school that I can see is to take an entrepreneurial approach to everything I do. Here’s what I mean:
Invest in Yourself
You are an enterprise. The future is uncertain. Thankfully your income is steady (albeit small) and your job relatively secure for now, which is pretty good compared to many other job situations. Provided you maintain a good relationship with your supervisor and pass your qualifying exams, you can expect to be in graduate school for 2-7 years, depending on the type of program that you are in.
During these 2-7 years you will be taking courses, teaching undergraduates, reading a lot of research literature, and working on probably the single largest project of your life thus far. Take these opportunities to invest your abilities. It’s crucial. There is no more cruising through classes. There were undergraduate classes where I earned As without actually learning the material very well. I crammed for tests, took them, and then moved on to the next crisis. Not now. You have time now. The classes you take in graduate school relate directly to your work and you need to know this material, so take the time to do it well.
Maybe you hate teaching undergraduates. Being a teaching assistant is not very glorified work, even if it is vital at most institutions. Take this time to develop your communication skills. Ask the professor to deliver a lecture (they are usually very grateful). Since they’ve probably prepared the lecture notes ahead of time, you just need to teach from their notes.
If given the choice of course to teach, opt for the smaller seminar-style courses because you can then facilitate discussion among students and they will come to see you as a mentor. And when you are tempted to complain about how stupid and irresponsible your undergraduates are, remember that you were also once stupid and irresponsible and barely keeping it together. Maybe it still feels like you’re barely keeping it together…
When it comes to your thesis project, set milestones, meet your supervisor regularly, and have accountability for your progress. Demonstrating your ability to finish your PhD will signify to others that you have the grit to work on large projects and complete them on time. There are exceptions of course: there is no point sticking to a project that won’t work, or staying despite a toxic relationship with your supervisor. But otherwise, if you can, try to finish.
Along the way, develop ancillary skills that you think will be useful: writing, programming, statistics, visualization. Learn some Python, some SQL, and maybe some Tableau.
Invest in Others
I don’t believe in “networking” the way many people understand it. When I was an undergraduate, I would walk past the parties being held on the outdoor patio of the Columbia Business School. Everybody wore suits and ties, which I thought was odd. Sometimes I saw undergraduates wearing suits to class because they wanted to go to business school, and perhaps somebody told them to dress the part. At a school like Columbia, this meant that you could have seated in the same classroom a hipster sporting shutter shades, a girl in sweatpants and Ugg boots, and a B-school hopeful in an ill-fitting suit. Interesting times.
I always pictured those business school patio parties as one big schmoozefest where people wore fake smiles and exchanged business cards. It probably wasn’t like that at all, but I was prejudiced and stupid, and I thought networking was like that.
To network now means to form relationships with the people around me and investing in them. Not for personal gain, but because it will make you a happier person.
It means helping somebody out with a project even if you’re not a collaborator and won’t get any credit for their project’s success.
It means welcoming the new students when they arrive on campus and can’t even find the washroom or the secretary’s office because the brutalist architecture of our university science departments means every hallway looks the same.
It means staying in touch with the people you meet at conferences. It means forwarding a useful article that you come across, because you think it might pertain to their research.
It probably means joining the softball league, even though you hate softball. (You’ll never get me to join, Aaron).
And from these relationships, good things tend to follow.
Take Care of Your Health
Startups, admittedly, are designed for short-term explosive growth. Your personal development should not be viewed this way. I prefer the goal of long-term benefits, even if it means slow, steady growth in the beginning. You are developing your body to be in good shape for the long haul so that you can continue your productive output for decades if possible.
Mental health is something that people don’t talk about enough. I hear and read so much bad news about the state of mental health in graduate schools. Ahead of my qualifying exam, I was under so much duress that it took one or two drinks to relieve the tightness that would form inside my chest every other day.
I was doing everything I could to take care of my health: weightlifting, going for walks, taking a Sabbath rest day, meditating. It was still brutal. And others don’t fare as well. After the exam I was emotionally spent for weeks.
On the whole, one of the best things you can do to preserve your long-term productive capacity and happiness is get 7-9 hours of sleep per night. All-nighters are for undergrads. Add to that a clean diet with more leafy stuff and protein than sugars and starches. Pick up heavy things 2 or 3 times a week.
Take walks. When I read about the daily habits of creative intellectuals, I am shocked by how much they walk. Afternoons and evenings. Long walks. As though their whole life and creativity depended on perambulation. Maybe it does.
Look for Opportunities
As a scientist-entrepreneur, you are looking for opportunities constantly: a new topic that nobody was studied, new projects to start with interesting collaborators, new opportunities to develop a particular skill that will help you solve an important problem, and an awareness of what’s happening beyond graduate school and how your skills might be able to solve bigger problems.
The only thing that people really care about is what skills you have and what you’ve done. This is true within academia and beyond. Educational pedigree is nice, but secondary to skills. The only way that you are going to get paid for anything is if you solve somebody else’s problems.
The idea that within academia you can have total and complete freedom to pursue only your own ideas is garbage. Even if you are a tenured professor, you still need the support of granting committees in order to get your projects funded. If you can’t convince the committee that you have a worthy project and that you have the skills to deliver, then you don’t get paid.
Governments began funding scientists with public money around the time of Isaac Newton because they believed that scientific progress benefited everyone. And historically it has, to a wild degree. You still need to convince people of this every day. A little salesmanship comes in handy here.
You must be able to convince people that your work delivers value and that you have the necessary skills if you want to make a living. Additionally, people will want to collaborate with you if you can bring the right skills to the table. People will fund/cite your work if it solves a problem that they care about, which accelerates your career.
Unfortunately, you probably didn’t know any of this when you started graduate school and you relied on supervisors and others to guide you in this process. Maybe now you realize that your project isn’t helping anyone, or advancing humanity, or whatever. That’s fine. You know better now. You can use this opportunity to develop your skills and being thinking about what kind of work you’d like to do next.
Finish your project if you can, because finishing a long project is a difficult skill to acquire in its own right, and one that people care about.
After starting graduate school, I began to wonder whether universities were really the best vehicles for solving the world’s problems. The work done at universities is invaluable to many causes, but universities move slowly. Rigor takes time. Many of society’s problems don’t have the luxury of time.
Perhaps issues like global poverty are better addressed through a change in culture at development banks. Perhaps going to space and seeking out new mineral resources is better handled by visionary private enterprises such as SpaceX and Planetary Resources. A university lab may develop a better photovoltaic device, but maybe it takes an ambitious young person to build a solar generating station in his state that can turn a profit.
Both are solving important problems in different ways. The university is not the only place where smart people can make a difference. I used to have the prejudice that academia was a “pure” pursuit whereas business was only concerned with selfish gain. There are huge economic opportunities doing work that solves real human problems. Profit will go to those who took the time to develop the skills needed to solve those problems and take risks by trying.
Maybe your skills won’t solve poverty and climate change, but maybe you’ll develop a piece of technology that helps other people connect and communicate over the web. That’s fine too. Those guys seem to be making lots of money. Remember, the reason they made any money at all was because the need was already there before their technology existed.
Write Stuff Down
Writing is an undervalued skill. Few people graduate from college with the ability to think clearly and put clear thoughts down on a page. I have no idea why. Here’s why you should write:
- The more you write, the better a writer you become. Reading helps. Writing helps more. Your early stuff will be crap. But from this crap, better things will blossom.
- A well-written journal article means that your audience understands your message, which means more citations and perhaps conference invitations, if your work is good. There is some excellent science out there being hamstrung by bad writing.
- Keeping a log forces you to process what you are learning and write down your ideas. Later, when you revisit these ideas, you will have an easier time pulling together your next journal submission, or your thesis.
- Writing things down on a blog gives more people an opportunity to notice your work. If you blog about your research field, then you can attract more attention to your work than you would otherwise receive just through publishing papers.
- If you keep a blog and you start to get some traffic, then you can begin to pull people together who feel the same way about things as you. This is what Seth Godin calls your “tribe” and tribes are valuable. I write this blog to share my thoughts and to help people struggling with what to make of graduate school. And it’s lead to a several very neat relationships and opportunities.
Many of the thoughts I put down in this blog were inspired by the authors I read. These are people like Seth Godin, Chris Guillebeau, Cal Newport, and James Altucher. I would never have started doing any of this if I hadn’t been reading the thoughts of insightful thinkers.
Books (along with a few blogs) have helped me understand the state of our economy, the state of graduate education, psychological barriers, habit formation, entrepreneurship, and skill development. I would love to meet these authors and pick their brains over coffee or a beer, but that might never happen. Instead I have their books. Maybe I’ll get to meet them one day.
Reading a $12 paperback that opens your mind to understanding new and powerful ideas is one of the cheapest investments you can make in yourself. To get you started, I’ve picked a few books:
- Choose Yourself by James Altucher, on thinking entrepreneurially about your work, health, and career.
- So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport, on why passion is a poor career guide and skills matter most.
- “So What Are You Going to Do with That?”: Finding Careers Outside Academia by Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius, on why a PhD is more powerful education than you think and is good for more than just academic pursuits.
Try to commit to reading one useful book per month. Fiction is great, too! Good fiction helps you empathize with people in very different spaces, times, and circumstances, and as a result of reading it, you will grow as a person.
The Startup of Your Career
You cannot expect to have a long-term plan for your career. You can have a long-term vision of what kind of person you’d like to be, but your goals need to be short term. The whole Lean Startup movement championed by Eric Ries tries to dispel the myth that we can plan out our future and predict our success.
The only way to know whether something will work is to test it and be open to new market opportunities as you find them. In this case it happens to be the career market. I know that if faculty positions are not forthcoming, I have developed enough peripheral skills to be able to pursue other paths that are equally exciting to me.
Therefore, ditch the career plan. Forget goals. Think along themes instead.
The theme of my graduate education is to acquire valuable and interesting knowledge, apply it to challenging problems worthy of scientific attention, and develop useful skills to solve these and other problems.
And along the way, I’m meeting lots of fantastic people and having fun. That’s enough for now. In two years, the theme of my work will likely shift, but that’s precisely in the nature of startups to do. When conditions change, or something no longer works, you adjust.
- Pick one good non-fiction book that will get you thinking differently and commit to finishing it within a month.
- Pick one useful ancillary skill that you’d like to develop that benefits both your current work and work you see yourself doing in the future. Clear a weekend and figure out the basics of the skill. It only takes about 20 hours of hard work to become better than most people at a skill.
- Post your 1 book and your 1 skill in the comments below.