Advice from an entrepreneur: A PhD is not always worth it

Dr. Anonymous

Was getting a PhD worth it for you?

The PhD was not worth it for me. It required a lot of time and energy, and needed 5 years to complete. My career would have been better served if I had invested this time towards acquiring entrepreneurial skills that I use today.

A student might decide to pursue a PhD for a range of different reasons. What are examples of wrong reasons and good reasons to get a PhD?

If you are planning to pursue a PhD because you think it will make you a lot of money and become rich, then re-consider your options. The reality is that a PhD does not make you a lot of money compared to other career paths. This was one of the early pieces of advice I received from my PhD advisor and it is absolutely true.  Another wrong reason is to seek some kind of social status or simply to show off the degree and title. 

The main good reason to pursue a PhD is if you have a deep passion for research. A PhD is about pushing the boundaries of human knowledge. That goal does not come easily. You will need to spend long hours and late nights working very hard, sometimes with very slow progress, and only incremental advancement in understanding a certain topic. To be successful, you need to be truly passionate about research and put in the hard work.

As an entrepreneur, what non-technical skills did you learn from your PhD that help you succeed in your work today?

  • Problem solving. I learned how to take a step back from a large problem and dissect it into smaller simpler problems in order to achieve piece-wise progress. This has been an incredibly useful skill, both professionally and personally.
  • Structured thinking and writing. It is very important to be able to make a logical presentation or argument going from point A to Z, in a natural flow of steps through B, C, and D… In particular, writing a manuscript or thesis really refines this way of thinking.
  • Objective analysis of the data. Research teaches you to make rational and objective conclusions based on data. This is also an important skill when analyzing the performance of your product in the market. You need to set aside your emotions and preconception, and analyze what the result is, not what you want the result to be.

Conversely, what skills did you have to learn on your own, since they are not part of a traditional PhD training?

My main passion is for business, so I had to independently learn a lot of skills that are relevant to general financial literacy, business, marketing, sales, persuasion, personal finance, the basics of investing, and how the economy works, as well as other skills such as leadership.

As I mentioned earlier, I learned a lot during my PhD, but it also cost me a lot of time. My career would probably have been better served by pursuing a business degree to begin with.

What advice would you give to PhD students in STEM fields who are interested in learning more about business and finance?

If a STEM student is interest in these topics, my first recommendation is to start reading popular books such as “Rich Dad, Poor Dad”, “The Millionaire Fastlane”, “Think and Grow Rich”, and “The Choose Yourself Guide to Wealth”. More specialized books on finance are “The Intelligent Investor” by Ben Graham or “The Permanent Portfolio” by Harry Browne.

Secondly, there are lots of accessible courses on platforms such as Udemy, or even YouTube channels with tons of details and advice.

Learning business and finance would benefit any person, especially STEM PhD students.

What advice would you give to students who are considering starting their own business when they graduate, but are worried about the risks? 

  • One difficult but useful advice is to set aside some savings during the PhD such that you can survive for ~12 months after graduation while you pursue your business idea. Your personal business will need more time to take off. If you did not set aside emergency funds, you will be tempted to give up on your business after one or two months and fall back unto another job.
  • Realize that business is an iterative process. It is very rare that your first idea works. You will need to improve and refine your product as you evaluate how the market responds. You will probably experience many failures before success.
  • Also, do not be cheap or hesitant or afraid to invest money in your personal business. Pay for the tools that your business needs to succeed such as branding or advertising or web design or securing copyright protection. Of course, investing is a risk, but if you are hesitating from the start, then success will be difficult. Believe that your business will succeed and approach it with a winning mentality, then give it the time and money it needs to grow.
  • Remember that starting a business is not the only risky career path. Other PhD careers and employment in the private sector are also risky. You might get laid off or the company might go under.

Many PhD students have the perception that dropping off and leaving their program without getting a PhD is a big failure, even though in some cases it is a more sensible decision (financially, mentally, family-wise…). What advice would you give them? 

Maybe we can talk about two broad categories…

Suppose you are three or four years into your PhD program, and you realized that you do not want a career in academic research. However, you are still interested in the STEM sector or working for a STEM company. In this case, it is probably better to stick it out and get your PhD. The higher degree will give you more value in the market and be a good launching pad for your career, even if you later transition to another type of job such as management or marketing.

Alternatively, you might realize that you do not want a career in research, do not envision yourself working for a STEM company, and feel more at ease with other career options. In this case, it is the correct decision to drop out from your PhD program and start your own venture as soon as possible.

What is a career mistake that PhD students tend to make?

The biggest mistake is persisting with a career you do not like, simply because you do not want to “waste” your degree. For example, after getting a PhD you might realize that you do not like research as much as you thought, and instead learn that you are more business-inclined. Be bold enough to change your career trajectory, and work in finance or pursue an MBA or find a job in business consulting…

If you do not like it, change it.

Dr. Anonymous holds a PhD in a STEM field, and is a successful entrepreneur

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