All I Need to Know About Being an Entrepreneur, I Learned in My PhD Program

Wait, what?

That was my father-in-law’s facial expression when I told him about the title of this piece.  PhD programs — and academia as a whole — are not exactly known for applicability to the real world. In fact, when people call academia the ivory tower, by definition they are referring to “a state of privileged seclusion or separation from the facts and practicalities of the real world” (thanks Google Dictionary!). My father-in-law, a retired professor, rightfully questioned my assertion, suggesting that I include all the ways my PhD program didn’t prepare me for entrepreneurship. Perhaps that will be an article for another time.

For now, let’s go on this counter-intuitive journey into the top 5 lessons I learned in grad school that I apply to my business every day.

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1.  The path to freedom is through structure, discipline, and solid boundaries.

The comic (by PhD Comics’ Jorge Cham) at the top of this blog says it all. When you can work whenever you want, every day can be a Saturday or you can end up working on Saturdays. Without external structures and with few “real” deadlines, it can be hard to get motivated to start, and equally hard to give yourself permission to turn off at the end of the day. PhD students typically lean towards overly ambitious. In a world where there are more PhD graduates than academic jobs, the pressure — internally and externally — to be working all the time is immense.

When I started my PhD program, I committed to treating my education like the 9-5 job I had just left behind. I was worried I would struggle with motivation, rather than with overworking, so I made sure to arrive at my office around the same time each morning, independent of when I had meetings and classes. And then I tried to turn off most evenings. I also chunked different activities into blocks so that I wouldn’t procrastinate on menial activities, and so that at the end of the day, I would see I’d gotten a lot done. For instance, I blocked out hours of the day when my office door was open to students or fellow grad students wanting to chat, and had other hours when my door was closed so I could write or analyze data. There were busy times where I worked on weekends grading papers or writing my dissertation, and there were times my PhD advisor messaged in the middle of the night wanting something, but for the most part, I was able to maintain balance and sanity while accomplishing a ton during a very intense period of my life.

I now take the same approach to my business. I set regular hours for myself and chunk my time — sometimes even full days or weeks — for different types of tasks. I don’t wait for the “spirit to move me” in order to work, nor do I work endless hours. I set aside time to specifically evaluate how I am managing my time so that I can feel great at the end of my work days, even if everything didn’t get done. Even though I have created good structure for myself, I still sometimes feel “behind” and like my goals could be achieved faster if I worked harder. I remind myself that I have evidence from my PhD years that sticking to my structure and boundaries will pay dividends in the long run.

2. Rejection is a chronic state of affairs. I can choose how I respond to it.

In academia, rejection happens exponentially more often than acceptance. Entire grant applications are declined funding, and academic journal articles are declined publication. In my field (psychology), anywhere from 70-90% of articles are rejected from the top journals. Furthermore, theories, ideas, and conclusions from data are often rejected by peers, sometimes in official or public settings.  

Rejection in academia (as in life) often looks and feels like a personal attack. After all, if someone rejects an idea you found brilliant, what does that say about your intelligence, capability or worth? Making matters worse, some academics are less than tactful about their feedback and do engage in personal attacks. Constant rejection on this level can be soul-crushing. In fact, during my first few years as a grad student, I found myself wavering between soul-crushed and outraged at the feedback I received on my work. Fortunately, my PhD advisor had a habit of looking on the bright side and he often snapped me out of my negativity with a few encouraging words.

Later in my graduate career, I made a huge mental shift — I adopted my advisor’s mindset of looking for nuggets of legitimate feedback while ignoring personal attacks and feedback that did not resonate. Developing the muscle for knowing the difference (legitimate feedback vs. not) took me several years, and is now something I have to strengthen again in the realm of entrepreneurship. (Perhaps that topic is worth a separate article!)

As an entrepreneur, rejection is also constant and pervasive. Customers say no to products and services constantly. Sometimes it’s an active no (e.g., verbally declining a coaching package), but more often it’s a passive no, with people falling off the map at various levels of exposure to me and my business. Instead of taking it as a rejection of me, I choose to get curious. What made the person say no? Is there something I can improve, or was the customer just not a right fit? What I have learned from this approach is that it’s never about who I am as a person. And surprisingly, there are even times I am glad that a person “rejects” what I have to offer.

“Stop being so committed to the people who aren’t ‘assigned’ to you. By focusing on those people, you are limiting the attention you can give to attracting those who are.” - Coach Sean Smith

3. Failure is inevitable, and grit is the best way through it.

Though failure can happen in many different arenas in grad school — in taking courses, teaching undergrads, and writing papers, to name a few — it was most salient in my own research. Psychological research is primarily based on gathering data through experiments and surveys to understand how humans think, feel, and act. Quite often these studies “fail”. An experiment may show no differences between a test and control group, or a survey may find no meaningful relationships among the variables in the data. Studies can fail for a variety of reasons, and it’s often not known what caused the failure. Was the experiment not set up optimally? Was the concept being studied not a real phenomenon? Was it the end of the semester and all the undergrad participants were in a sleep-deprived haze?

Early on, when a single study of mine failed 20 times, I realized that I needed to get really comfortable with failure. I learned quickly that not all failure was about my abilities, and that a “gritty” attitude was, for me, the only way forward. Coined by Professor Angela Duckworth, “Grit” is a psychological term for passion and perseverance for long-term goals. According to her research, there are 5 characteristics of grit: courage, achievement-oriented conscientiousness, follow through, resilience, and striving for excellence rather than perfection.  

When it came to my PhD program, I mostly needed conscientiousness, follow through, and resilience to get through failure; as an entrepreneur, I now need all 5 characteristics to push past my fears and limiting beliefs, try bold new things, weather the lulls, and manage uncertainty. And because I have developed my grit muscle over the last 10 years, I now believe that if I’m not failing regularly, I’m not pushing the boundaries of what is possible for me and my business.

4. Experiment, experiment, experiment.

On top of gaining very deep knowledge about humans, I became an expert in rigorous experimental design during grad school. When I moved into a corporate role after graduating, I was surprised to learn that experiments are a hallmark of business. Before making changes to apps and websites, companies will try them out with a small percentage of users to see how those changes might impact key business metrics. Advertisers will test out multiple versions of ads to see what resonates with which audiences. In some way, shape, or form, all of us are currently participating in experiments with the apps, services, and products we use today.

Even though I am a very small business and the amount of data I can collect is not enough for me to create truly rigorous experiments, I apply an experimental mindset to all areas of my business. For instance, I experiment regularly with how I describe what I do to others (fun fact: I often don’t use the word “coach”). I also test new approaches to inviting someone to a free, powerful coaching conversation, and different questions to ask clients at the beginning of our sessions. As I build out new programs and offerings, I will continue to apply this experimental mindset, logging what works along with what doesn’t, so I can iterate and optimize in the future.  

5. Collaborate with people who inspire me.

One of the best parts of academia is that most published research is the result of a multi-contributor effort. The collaborative nature of research brings unique skillsets to the table, pools resources, and fosters innovative ideas. Oftentimes, it allows researchers to explore topics of interest that are slightly out of their main area of expertise. In grad school, I worked with inspiring professors and grad students on several projects outside of my main research area. Those experiences were not only the most memorable, but also the most rewarding.

Knowing that I relished those collaborations in grad school, I have committed to collaborating on at least one project with another entrepreneur at all times. These collaborations are meant to be pure passion projects outside of my core business. As I write this, I have three potential collaborations baking, and though they may not come to fruition anytime soon, they give me an extra boost of motivation and creative flow.

While these are my top 5, this is not an exhaustive list of lessons I learned (and that someone else might also learn) in a PhD program. That being said, let’s be clear, I am not recommending that people with entrepreneurial ambitions get a PhD. But, I do believe that people with entrepreneurial ambitions can lean on their previous life experiences for guidance. For me, that just happened to be a PhD program.

If you are an entrepreneur, former PhD, or even someone who has applied some cool lessons from their past to their current work, please share your experiences, so we can learn from each other.

And just for fun, since this article is a play on the title “All I Really Need to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten,” I’ll leave you with a great quote from the book:

“It wasn’t in books. It wasn’t in a church. What I needed to know was out there in the world.” - Robert Fulghum

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