Jul 17, 2020 | Can you marry research with entrepreneurship?
WHERE THIS QUESTION COMES FROM
One of the popular questions asked by PhD graduates, is whether or not it is possible to marry entrepreneurship with an academic career. It’s a perfectly valid question given that academics and entrepreneurs have very many things in common. For instance, they have the freedom to plan their working day, the focus on innovation, and the necessity to stand out from the crowd in order to develop a career. There is certainly no simple answer to this question, yet, this blog post lists some caveats and possible solutions.
COMMON ISSUES WITH JUGGLING RESEARCH AND ENTREPRENEURSHIP
To start with, many researchers get the idea of developing a company in daily life, and doing research as a side hustle. It seems so easy: you have a company (so that you can choose your own working hours), and you do your research in the evenings. Especially if you only do computational research, and you don’t need a wet lab or equipment, what’s the problem? — especially given that you can always contact people through Twitter, Zoom, or email?
Well, one thing can go wrong. Namely, the day only has 24 hours, while both entrepreneurship and research are intellectually draining. As a budding entrepreneur, you need to everything around the company: develop the actual product, conduct free initiatives next to it for promotion, be your own PR and sales representative, communicate through social media, communicate with the clients and leads, manage the company website, find new revenue streams, do the taxes, look for new opportunities, etc. Plus, there are no vacations or free weekends included. This, by itself, can lead to utter physical exhaustion. Having a company is like having an infant that you need to babysit, or otherwise, it will die. Even if you delegate a part of your work, you will need to supervise those whom you’ve delegated your work to. Plus, you’ll need to pay them and make sure that you have enough extra income on top of what you pay yourself — which generates an additional difficulty and source of stress.
To do research, you need to be able to put your mind in a particular, focused/relaxed state. And then, you need to burn a lot of energy on solving complex, specialistic problems. Without the daily routine, this is just hard. It feels like using a muscle that is not stretched enough: you can do this, but it will hurt or itch in some way.
So, once you start a company, you might soon see that your research manuscripts keep on piling up on your desk — there is never enough time left to wrap them up and send them out to journals. You always hope that you’ll find time tomorrow. Of course, there are some exceptional people out there. These people are able to intellectually engage their brains 24/7 and have that mental flexibility to jump from one topic to another all day long. But the vast majority of people don’t have this skill, or they lose this skill after they hit 30 or 35.
So, if you wish to combine entrepreneurship with doing something else, in general, entrepreneurship goes much better with a part-time, “steady, safe office job” rather than research. Many entrepreneurs hold part-time jobs to secure their income before their company becomes profitable. They usually use these jobs not only to pay their bills but also to rest for a while from the crazy ride that entrepreneurship provides in their lives.
Mind also that it can be a very frustrating situation if you are the only non-funded person on the project. This sounds like something that is not big of a deal but just give it a thought. If you write a research paper as an independent researcher, you need to burn time that you would otherwise use to develop your company. Thus, doing research on the side doesn’t increase your income in any way, or can even substantially harm it.
Now imagine that all the people whom you collaborate with on this project, are on academic contracts. This means that by working on the project and publishing your work, you are indirectly working on their salaries. Your work just helps them in getting their next academic contracts. This can be very frustrating in the long run — after all, you don’t want to work for free for someone else’s salary.
To sum up, marrying entrepreneurship with research is not the easiest thing under the sun. But, there are some ways, in which you can — at least to some extent — succeed at this. Please find a few life hacks below.
DO DATA SCIENCE AS A FREELANCER ON A GOOD LEVEL AND BY USING SCIENTIFIC METHODS
Data science contains the term “science” for a reason. It’s not always algorithmic and it can also require creativity and research mind. It all depends on you and on the types of projects that you choose to pursue. You can pitch yourself as a “high-class problem-solver who enjoys challenges” and price your work accordingly. And, you can be sure that you will be given much more challenging and personally rewarding tasks than fitting linear regression models. Of course, this solution only works if you don’t have any desire to publish your research projects under your own name. In this case, you are just a subcontractor of your client, you need to give your baby away and sell the IP. Freelancing solo can also be a very isolating and individualistic job (although in most cases, freelancers talk to their clients on a regular basis during the duration of the project). So, if ownership of the projects is important to you and you prefer teamwork over working solo, this solution might be frustrating in the long run.
2. BECOME A SIDE-KICK RESEARCHER
You can also become a freelancer or a small entrepreneur who occasionally pursues research projects on the side for their own satisfaction. Usually, it’s good to choose brief, fast-paced and timed research projects (e.g., Hackathon projects) as side projects. Otherwise, you’ll get distracted from your work too much. As mentioned above, dividing your time between leading the company and doing research over a long period of time can be exhaustive. Sprint group Hackathon projects also have this benefit that you can meet plenty of interesting people every time. This approach requires a lot of energy, but many people have stamina to do so. E.g., Piotr Migdał who holds a PhD in Quantum Physics, today works a freelance data scientist and still actively pursues research on the side. Usually, he achieves this by developing and leading brief Hackathon projects (that sometimes even get published). Some entrepreneurs who are former researchers, have a different approach and use to take 1-2 week vacations every now and then with a sole purpose to lock themselves in a cabin in the woods and carry out research sprints just for pleasure.
3. SET A STARTUP BASED ON R&D
This is quite a popular approach in IT and biotech. New products in technology often stem from scientific research or from a scientific concept. E.g., Menten AI, a successful startup funded by Y Combinator launched by PhDs, is based on the concept of designing new proteins using quantum computing. Your company can be based on your own research, on your research concept, or on a patent stemming from your research. In that case, you will be close to research at each stage of the company’s growth.
4. INVEST IN R&D-BASED STARTUPS
In the future, once you build some level of personal wealth, you can also invest your private capital in new startups stemming from research. In particular, you might look at startups in the field in which you have your research background. For fresh entrepreneurs, acquiring the capital in the early stage is always the biggest problem. Thus, such private investors are highly valued and respected. As a private investor, you will be in touch with young and ambitious people who do the actual projects. You can supervise and advise them with both the R&D and the business side of the project, steer them in the right direction marketing-wise, and connect them with people in your personal network. A role of a private investor has much in common with a role of Principal Investigator in academia. You sponsor more junior people, mentor them, share your contacts with them, brainstorm with them, help them every time they pack themselves into trouble, and get a piece of the pie in an exchange. And, you can mitigate risks by having multiple mentees at a time.
This solution also solves a problem mentioned before, namely that it’s draining to do entrepreneurship and research at a time. Namely, once you have your own startup, you take full responsibility for it just as if it was a baby. You’ll go to any length to make your startup work, and you’ll have that additional boost of energy to do research if it means helping your startup.
5. KEEP THE ACADEMIC POSITION AND START A LITTLE, HOME-BASED BUSINESS AS A SIDE-HUSTLE
In such a business, you can monetize on your hobby such as yoga, fitness, or creating artwork (jewelry, paintings, sculptures, etc.). You can then sell your work online or launch courses/retreats in your free time. You can also get educated as a coach, offer online coaching, and help others—this can be a nice counterbalance to everyday grind around research manuscripts. Mentoring and coaching others has a great positive influence on mental health. Thus, it can even help you in dealing with everyday struggles.
6. DEVELOP A CONSULTANCY COMPANY ON THE SIDE AS A RESEARCHER
Many researchers develop a company related to their research field, e.g., a company that analyzes data for other companies. This is an option available primarily for senior researchers who already established their name in the research community. This is because you’ll most likely need to be the face of the company and delegate the actual work within the company to your employees. As mentioned before, doing data analysis after working hours would probably be too intellectually absorbing. Some senior professors develop such a consultancy company on the side. They sell their services with their name and face, while their employees do the actual job.
7*. CREATE A COMPANY THAT PROVIDES SERVICES TO ACADEMICS
*If you would like to do business and still stay in academia with one foot, but you don’t feel like doing active academic research anymore, you can still create a company that provides services to academics. It can be coaching, education, soft skills training, mental health consultancy, IT services. Universities have budgets for hiring external experts and companies, and they work with lots of subcontractors! This is a neat solution in case what you value in academia the most is people. In this way, you will still be working with academics but on different terms than before.
8*. SET A STARTUP THAT CREATES AN INFRASTRUCTURE FOR ACADEMIA
*Let’s now assume that you’re not interested in pursuing active research anymore but you would still like to actively contribute to building a better academic system. You can then think of setting a startup that creates an infrastructure for academia, e.g., new practices for academic research. E.g., Liberate Science is a startup that aims to democratize science, for instance by building platforms that allow for sharing research in real-time. There are hundreds of similar projects running around the globe at the moment. They are all about building online environments to better collaborate, share and/or present research, and store and/or share the datasets. And there is still plenty of room for new solutions in this space.
HOW IT IS DONE IN WELCOME SOLUTIONS
In Welcome Solutions, the aim is to merge strategies (3) and (7). Namely, the company provides services dedicated to researchers and research institutions (#7) but at the same time, has the ambition to conduct systematic research of the job market (#3) — a merge between psychometrics and machine learning — however crazy that sounds. As mentioned in the blog post, “The nosedive,“ it’s very hard to research the job market as it’s not rocket science. There is no transparency, there is a little amount of hard data. What we know about the job market so far, mostly comes from street knowledge. But, Welcome Solutions aims to change this situation in the future!
So, to anyone who thinks about merging research with entrepreneurship in their professional lives: it’s not going to be easy, and it’s definitely going to be a lot of hard work. You also need to remember that academics and entrepreneurs are two different cultures that speak different languages and value different qualities. It can lead to many mental traps and cultural clashes. But, if you have an intuition that this is the direction for you, then perhaps some of the strategies mentioned above will work for you. Good luck!
And if you consider going in the entrepreneurial direction as a researcher, the main differences between the entrepreneurship and academia are covered in the book, “What Is out There for Me? The Landscape of Post-PhD Career Tracks.“
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