How my PhD unexpectedly carried over to entrepreneurship

When first quit my research job, one of my biggest fears was that I was throwing away my PhD degree.

I had spent many years in graduate school studying computer architecture/systems, learning the process of performing research, and publishing at top-tier venues. When I graduated, my career trajectory made sense. I would continue building a research career at Qualcomm Research, a leader in the mobile space that has tons of interesting problems to work on.

Quitting my job to be an entrepreneur felt like a huge career shift. In some sense, it definitely was. But as I get further as an entrepreneur (to be fair, I’m not that far), I’m surprised at how much of my PhD experience carries over to entrepreneurship. There are an amazing number of similaries.

Unstructured work.

The biggest difference between a PhD degree and most other degrees is that the PhD is unstructured. There aren’t specific assignments to follow. There are no guaranteed steps. There is no one telling you exactly what to build, how to build it, what numbers to collect, how to analyze them, etc. (Some advisors micromanage but if you do your PhD with someone telling you all the steps, I’d argue you are doing your PhD incorrectly.)

Entrepreneurship is similar. There are so many things to do, and no one to tell you exactly what to do. Sure, you can read up on all the entrepreneur porn you want (Hacker News is a great source), but nothing will prepare you for the journey. And even if you read a good bit of advice, it is from one person speaking about their limited set of experiences. There is no guarantee that any of their advice meaningfully maps to your own venture. You need to figure out what will work for you and your venture as you go.

It bleeds into your life.

During a PhD, there isn’t a clear separation between your research and your life. It isn’t like you have a homework assignment that you can complete, and then move on with your life. Your research project, more often than not, bleeds into all areas of your life. Your research becomes that problem that burns in the back of your head at all times. You go to sleep thinking about the problem. You wake up thinking about it. You think about it in the shower, at the gym, etc.

Entrepreneurship, at least at the beginning stage I am in, is exactly the same. It isn’t anything like a 9-to-5 job. I don’t really get a break from the work. And that is as I’d like it to be right now. There is so much to learn and so much to do, I feel I need to be immersed in it.

The whole product matters.

If there is any one thing I’ve learned during my PhD, it is this.

Doing good research is one thing. Getting published is something else.

Of course your want to do good research. You’d hope that good research results in getting published well. But that isn’t necessarily the true.

The reason is that a good paper is a good product. If the product isn’t good, chances of being published are low. You need to succinctly summarize and sell your work in the abstract. You need to get the reader excited in the introduction. You need to communicate well. The reader must understand your problem, your approach, and why you are making a contribution. You need the right graphs that prove your point. They should be easy to understand, present only the data necessary, and have good captions. You need to polish the product by repeatedly writing, proofreading, re-writing. There is a whole lot that goes into developing a paper.

This training crosses over well, although not completely, into entrepreneurship. Thinking about your product, and all the pieces of it, is very important. The whole package matters. How do you reach your users? How do you get their interest? Is your landing page good? Is your about page OK? Is your product intuitive and easy to use?

The process and the tools are different, but having worked on papers has crossed over well to beginning to think about entrepreneurship.

Refining your evaluation of ideas.

One of the huge benefits of doing a PhD is that you get the chance to define a research direction and a research project. During this process you learn how to come up with ideas, evaluate the ideas, and choose a project to work on, or an experiment to try.

As you progress in your research, you get better at this. You learn how to spot large problems. You get a sense for what will work, and what is publishable.

Learning to think about and evaluate ideas is valuable as an entrepreneur also. The biggest difference is in your evaluation function.

As a PhD, the question to answer is: what is novel and has research impact?

As an entrepreneur, the question is: what needs can I solve and what is viable as a business?

Experimentation.

A large part of research is experimentation. You come up with a hypothesis, and run experiments to prove or disprove your hypothesis. You get good at coming up with a quick experiment for gathering data, looking at the data, and deciding if you should continue or you should change your research idea.

It is useful to think of entrepreneurship as experimentation also. Everything is an experiment. You try different things with your product. You try different ways targeting a specific niche of users. You try changing your niche. You try different methods of distribution. There is so much to figure out, and the only way to do it is to get something out there, give it a try, gather some data, and learn from it.

Related work search

During research, you get really good at keeping up with the state of the art. You learn to do background searches in an area, distill all the relevant works, come up with an idea, and then differentiate your approach from prior art.

This carries over to entrepreneurship to some degree. It is useful it have experience searching for related work, and thinking about how to extend that work, or differentiate from the prior work.

Entrepreneurship as research.

Paul Graham said it well in a recent essay on startup growth.

“Starting a startup is thus very much like deciding to be a research scientist: you’re not committing to solve any specific problem; you don’t know for sure which problems are soluble; but you’re committing to try to discover something no one knew before. A startup founder is in effect an economic research scientist. Most don’t discover anything that remarkable, but some discover relativity.”

There are many similarities between research and entrepreneurship. I’ve listed a few, but I’m sure there are a lot more. There are also differences, but that will be saved for a future blog post.

The point of this post is that initially, I was afraid that my PhD may have been a waste of time. Six months into entrepreneurship, I can definitely tell you that the whole experience was not a waste of time. There is a ton to learn, but the PhD experience has given me a great foundation to build upon.

Could I have learned the same lessons without a PhD, and in a shorter span of time? Surely it is possible. But that is a whole different question that I do not have a good answer to at the moment.

6 thoughts on “How my PhD unexpectedly carried over to entrepreneurship

  1. Very cool post! I’m very intrigued about the overlap in research and entrepreneurship.

    Looking back at your experiences both as a graduate student and entrepreneur, would you consider starting a phd as a way to do research on a potential start-up project?

    • Great question. I’ve been thinking of writing up a blog post related to this.

      I didn’t do it, but it certainly seems possible to use your PhD to pursue a startup. One thing to be aware of is that there are different values between academia and startups. From my experience, academics value novel and publishable work. Startups are evaluated by the market — you need to provide real value to people to succeed. There are some projects that fall within both categories, but many that don’t. I would tell anyone entering a PhD program with an interest in entrepreneurship to make sure they understand what they want out of their PhD, and to figure out what kind of problems they want to work on.

  2. The two biggest differences between academia and entrepreneurship | Alex Shye

  3. The graduate school startup accelerator | Alex Shye

  4. Thank you very much for this article. I am about to complete my PhD and am serious thinking of becoming an entrepreneur. In fact I was having the exact same doubt/ regret that will my PhD degree be a waste of time. Thanks for sharing your experiences – gave me lot of hope.

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