Graduate School as Entrepreneurship

This is a guest post by Mikhail Klassen, a PhD candidate at McMaster University. He writes about work and life within and beyond academia at The UnStudent Blog.

When I speak to other graduate students, they tend to say that they love doing science, but that they are anxious about what they’ll do after graduation. In the darker moments, the anxiety can turn to dread. When we began graduate school, it was for the love of astronomy and to answer the big questions. But at a certain point we realized that the climb was going to be a lot harder than first envisioned.

Last year, the graduate students at one well-known department received an email that caused a scandal across the astronomy community about what a normal working life at institutions should be. The controversy and heated debate erupted from the pressure that most graduate students and postdocs feel concerning the scarcity of positions in astronomy, and just what “it takes to succeed”.

Considering this scarcity, I began to think about graduate school a little differently. I could see it as a long series of hoops to jump through, with boxes to check and gatekeepers to satisfy, or I could take the approach of career craftsmanship. I was introduced to this view after reading Cal Newport’s blog, Study Hacks. More recently, an article over at the 80,000 Hours blog challenged readers to view their careers as a startup.

Inspired by these ideas, I wrote a long piece about them in my own blog, The UnStudent, which I’ll summarize here:

  1. There are no normal career paths. Some come into a junior faculty position straight out of the first fellowship. Maybe it takes the right fellowship, with the right project, and the right track record. For others, faculty opportunities come later, after other fellowships or science positions within industry. Still others discover that they get to pursue their love of science outside of academia, channeling their skills into exciting jobs as software developers, data scientists, or teachers. Your career path is your own. It will probably not resemble your supervisor’s or even the person sitting next to you in the office. Don’t see your career as a ladder. It’s more like a garden that you cultivate. See what grows.

  2. Invest in yourself. During graduate school, your employment and pay are stable and secure. Use this opportunity to develop the skills that interest you. Developing rare and valuable skills is what distinguishes you as a scientist. Grad school also affords a lot of opportunities to hone soft skills. My science outreach work at McMaster’s McCallion Planetarium afforded me incredible opportunities to practice my speaking and presentation abilities. Teaching assistantships provide opportunities to develop abilities in lecturing, facilitating discussion, and conflict resolution.

  3. Invest in others. Some might consider this “networking”, but offering your skills to help others and build relationships just seems natural to me. I’ve experienced remarkable collegiality among astronomers, and I’m grateful for that. Graduate school is hard enough, so lend your help to others, particularly to the new students. These small investments in others have a way of bringing good things back into your own life.

  4. Take care of your health. Mental health is something people don’t talk enough about, but it’s a serious issue. It’s easy to neglect your health when under a lot of pressure to deliver on so many expectations. Remember though, this is your career and nobody else’s. You want to enjoy productive, fruitful labor for many decades, which requires taking care of yourself. Sleep 7-9 hours a night, go for walks, lift weights, eat real food, and spend time with friends and family.

  5. Seek opportunities. Entrepreneurs are distinguished by their ability to see opportunities where others do not: untapped markets, new business ventures, creative collaborations. Apply this mentality to your work. Talk to people outside your field. What tools or techniques are they using on their data that you could carry over to your work. Conversely, if you choose to leave astronomy, what skills that you’ve acquired can be applied to problems outside academia.

  6. Write stuff down. Writing things down is a way of forcing you to process your thoughts, making you think more clearly about your work. Keeping a lab notebook is a great idea, and useful tools include Evernote and WriteLaTeX. The more you write, the better your writing becomes. Good writing gets noticed, which leads to more opportunities.

Ditch the idea of career ladders. You’re in science because doing science is awesome and valuable. Building a diverse range of skills will help you succeed whether you remain in the field or not.

How are you investing your time as a graduate student? What are the most valuable things you can learn on the way to finishing a PhD? Let’s hear it in the comments.

3 comments… add one
  • NaN Aug 28, 2013 @ 4:26

    “During graduate school, your employment and pay are stable and secure.”

    No… they’re really not. Many schools have guaranteed support for the first year. That’s it. After that, you’re on your own. Maybe you’ve been lucky enough to immediately find an advisor who’s rolling in grant money. Great for you. But other advisors might not have that, or something expected falls through (say STIS or ACS breaks… you don’t think a lot of expected money didn’t arrive when those things happened?). Maybe you can fall back on a TA. Or maybe you’re at a school who’s budget is being cut, and there are fewer TA slots.

    You might find yourself without support for the next year. It happened to me. And you could fall back on your savings… oh, wait, you’re a grad student, what savings? There’s always unemployment insurance… except you’re a grad student, which in many (all?) cases means you don’t qualify for unemployment.

    I was lucky at that point. I found something local, educated-related, got back on my feet, back on track in school, and wrote successful grant applications to fund the rest of my time in grad school. But stability and security, not so much.

  • Nick Aug 28, 2013 @ 18:50

    Nice article, thanks.

    Does this mean that all scientists must now be entrepreneurs? From my reading of careers literature, e.g., “What Color Is Your Parachute?”, this is a very specific personality type that by no means covers most people. It seems like a disheartening and restrictive future for science.

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