Academics As Entrepreneurs – Guest Post

Sophia’s alter-ego

By Sophia Donaldson, Ph.D.

Sophia Donaldson is a careers consultant for University College London (UCL) PhD students and research staff. After completing a PhD in molecular genetics, she worked as a post-doctoral researcher and then as a science communicator for several research charities and think tanks. Before joining UCL, she provided careers support for postgraduate students and researchers at King’s College London and The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Sophia writes regularly for the UCL Researcher Careers blog.


The term “academic entrepreneurs” often refers to researchers taking their work out of the literature and into the market. But this isn’t an article about taking your work to industry. This is an article for all academics, especially those determined to remain firmly within the ivory tower. Because making it up that tower takes more than just intelligence. It takes several traits more commonly associated with an entrepreneur than a pure academic.

But what are entrepreneurial traits and how can you channel your inner Steve Jobs? A quick google search returns millions of lists of entrepreneurial qualities. But I’ve narrowed it down to the 6 traits I think are most beneficial in academia:

  • Risk tolerance

Much like starting your own business, in the current employment landscape pursuing an academic career is risky. In the US between 2005 and 2009, 100,000 new PhDs, but only 16,000 new professorships, were issued. Similarly, an analysis of UK data from 2014-15 estimated 22,780 PhDs were awarded, but only 7,355 permanent research and/or teaching roles were advertised.

Unfortunately, risk tolerance isn’t a typical part of personalities drawn to academic research. Many of the academics I work with who wish to leave academia are doing so for precisely this reason. There is no guaranteed job for them in higher education, and they don’t fancy the gamble. One way naturally cautious academics deal with this insecurity is by exploring other options while still pursuing research. Perhaps counterintuitively, having a plan B, C, and D, can make it easier for some to give their all to plan A.

  • Confidence

Confidence makes taking a punt on an academic career easier. Data from the UK’s Medical Research Council shows only 20% of funding applications submitted to them in 2016-17 were successful. Anyone who’s drafted a funding application will know the amount of blood, sweat, and tears it requires. They are essentially your business proposal, but often longer and more thorough! Knowing the odds, those without confidence in themselves and their work (whether that confidence is justifiable or not), will find it extremely difficult to continually put themselves through this gruelling application process, and to have the resilience to pick themselves up after rejections.

Unfortunately we’re not all born confident. But there are ways to bring your confidence levels up. Start by identifying situations, achievements and successes that have built your confidence. Force yourself to remember those successes, dwelling on them more than on times that brought you down. And intentionally put yourself in similar situations in future.

  • Opportunity detection

Creativity and big picture thinking are qualities we often associate with great entrepreneurs – people with the vision to create products we don’t yet know we need. Researchers, however, more often display focused, methodical, logical thinking – an extreme dedication to the task at hand. But to beat the odds and gain funding, researchers need to look up from the detailed work they’re engrossed with, and survey the world around them. Moving from PhD/post-doc level to permanent staff requires a vision for the future far more than it requires specific technical skills, especially as in many fields successful academics will have their own PhDs and post-docs to take care of the detailed research work. A lead investigator’s job is to set the direction; to spot what’s hot in their field at the moment, or better yet, to dictate what will be hot in the future. Flexibility is key here, as the new big ideas may require a change of direction.

  • Cash-focused

A business needs to make money, so good entrepreneurs, even altruistic social entrepreneurs, always have an eye on the bottom line. Academics don’t tend to be as money-motivated. But successful academics have to be. Your research may have the potential to change the world, but if no one funds it, it ain’t going to happen. And when universities take on permanent staff, they need to know they’re making a good investment. You must show you have a plan for bringing money to the department; that you’re aware of the funding opportunities available, and you’ll make the most of them, ideally by presenting examples of the money you have secured in the past. And consider the money students can bring in. How will you help attract and retain students, and their money?

  • Sell, sell, selling skills

You know those episodes of Dragon’s Den (or Shark Tank, as I believe it’s called in the US) where the entrepreneur may have a great product, but they don’t sell it well? Where they’re simply not speaking the same language as the investors? That’s how it can feel working with academics sometimes. A part of me admires those clients who are such puritans, and have such belief in academic traditions, that they feel the quality of their work should simply speak for itself. But that part of me is not the one that’s good at getting a job!

No matter if you’re pitching for business funding or research funding, whether you’re marketing your product to customers, or yourself to academic recruiters, all are exercises in sales. And any good salesperson knows the customer is crucial in the sales process. Get to know their needs and motivations, and you’ll know your sales strategy.

You may find your work intrinsically interesting. But your ‘customer’ isn’t going to pay you to do something simply because you think it’s a good idea. Funders want to be convinced of the importance and the impact of the work they fund. And search committees are often very clear about what they’re looking for in exchange for a salary. So don’t just present your work, show them you can meet the needs of their department.

  • Networking prowess

Networking is a necessary skill for EVERYONE. Entrepreneurs must network to share their ideas, and to court funders, collaborators, employees, advisors and customers. And academics must do the same. Networking can spark ideas and collaborations, presenting more opportunities to publish and obtain grants. And I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen researchers applying for roles for which the recruitment committee already had a candidate in mind. Networking increases your chances of being that intended candidate. So get yourself out there. And start as early as possible, while you’re still just swapping ideas, rather than waiting until you’re desperate for a job.

About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.

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