Add a Slice of Startup to your PhDGo out and get industry experience on your own terms

PHDs and startups

So you’re doing your PhD. You may have a clear idea of where you expect to be in 3–5 years time. However if you’re like I was when I began, you might have more than a touch of uncertainty.

For the first few months, I swear I spent more time online searching things such as ‘PhD job prospects’ and ‘is a PhD useful for industry.’ One particularly depressing afternoon I stumbled across ‘PhD Degree — include or remove from resume?’ (if your assuredness of your choice to do a PhD is shaky, I do not recommend searching google for phrases like this).

I did far too much of this and it got me nowhere except leading me to second-guess my decision — and waste a lot of time that would have been better spent on actual PhD work, otherwise known as ‘getting shit done.’

A doctorate degree is almost a necessity for a career in academia, but not so for industry. I’m not sure what the proportion of PhDs who go into industry versus academia is, but I’m guessing it’s high. There’s simply far fewer jobs in academia for a start. My guess is that approximately 50% want to go each way, but maybe 10% end up in academia given competition is tough with the amount of academic jobs available. So let’s assume that approximately 90% of PhD-holders work in industry, in some form or another.

A recurring theme in forums and debates such as those mentioned above is the difficulty PhDs are having in attaining jobs in industry, apparently often due to a lack of industry experience (other reasons are cited, such as a perception that PhDs may use a job as a mere ‘stepping stone,’ but I won’t go into these). It is a harsh reality that if you are someone who has left school and gone straight through to college and then on to a PhD, in many cases you are less attractive to an employer than someone holding a Bachelors or a Masters degree with just a few years of experience under their belt.

So do you compromise your ego and decide that you will initially settle for a lower level job? Or perhaps aim to complete a couple of unpaid internships?

I was not at all interested in settling for the first, and internships are few and far between in New Zealand, so I was fortunate when I stumbled across another possible route.

Entrepreneurship may hold the golden ticket for you.

There are very few rules in entrepreneurship, and this strange world was not going to stop me from putting my hard-earned skills into practice. I co-founded a startup company with two recent university graduates. Between the three of us, our different degrees and attributes covered a decent-enough portion of the skills and know-how we required to make a go of it. Being very ‘green’ to the startup game, we immersed ourselves in lean startup methodology, networking events and [even more] caffeine.

We were hell-bent on providing a product that people really wanted and it truly was a very exciting time. Despite knowing the low success rate of startup companies we believed we could make it happen and there was the real chance (well, it felt very real to us at the time…) of our company hitting the big-time. Throughout this we were not only picking up invaluable business nous, but importantly we were utilizing the skills we had learnt within the constraints of our university walls, and naturally becoming more and more proficient in these daily.

Our startup company was unsuccessful. After 12 months we painfully and regretfully conceded that the fairy-tale was over. Despite this, I had just spent a year learning, progressing, and practicing some extremely valuable skills. In the meantime, I was steadily chipping away at my PhD research in the background (though I admit, progress was slower) and had been receiving my standard monthly stipend payments, enabling me to sustain myself with food and sleep under a roof at night.

A month after our startup had bitten the dust I was offered a position at an up and coming technology company. The fact that I had co-founded a startup company was seen as highly innovative to my new employers, and the fact that I had genuine experience implementing skills and tools in the real world was key for them. You can see the appeal to an employer. You now have actual industry experience in your field, experience collaborating in a multi-disciplinary team, plus a better understanding of how business works and the bottom line. Tack on a doctoral degree (or one in the making) and you have a lethal combination.

A PhD can be the ideal time to do try your hand at entrepreneurship. You have a level of flexibility that you may never again have in your life. I didn’t have to quit a stable job and forgo a weekly wage. As a PhD student you can be highly valuable to a startup company. You have formidable research skills (user research is typically a BIG part of startups) and are likely pretty damn switched on in general. Furthermore you are, or are becoming, an expert in your chosen field.

The very worst a startup venture can give you is a bunch of indispensable experience (career plus life), improved job prospects and an absolute roller coaster ride — albeit possibly ending with a bruised ego. At best, you create a Fortune 500 company. While this isn’t going to happen for the vast majority of us, the aforementioned benefits alone are nothing to scoff at.

I do not pretend to be an expert here, these are just thoughts and findings borne out of my own experience of a PhD. Situations are bound to be vastly different for many other PhD students. Ultimately though if something in this article can help someone who was at a similar point to myself when I began, then I am happy.

Now, bearing in mind the unique situation a PhD puts you in and the “very particular set of skills” that you (like Mr L. J. Neeson) have, consider how you can set the wheels in motion, found your own company, and properly kick start your career.

This article first appeared on Medium and has been republished here with the author’s permission

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Kyle Wilson is a lecturer at University of Huddersfield, member of the Applied Cognition & Cognitive Engineering (AC²E) research group and a PhD candidate in Psychology, human factors. You can follow Kyle on Medium, or on Twitter