Thursday, July 23, 2020

Train PhD Students as Enterpreneurs

This week I attended a presentation from an early career academic on the challenges of having a family and a research career, even before COVID-19 made it much harder. Also this week I was welcomed to the Canberra Innovation Network's Virtual Co-workingonline community. It occurred to me that the approach which the entrepreneur/startup community takes to mutual support may be of use for training doctoral students and supporting early career academics.

From one point of view entrepreneurs are business people all competing with each other, but on the other hand there is a lot of sharing and support. There is also an emphasis on learning from failure, as at least 90% of startups fold. With the usual face to face events closed, this support has moved online.

Part of the stress and frustration for new researchers may come from too high expectations during their training. If they do well, they hope to be funded as a post-doctoral researcher and then, in time, a secure tenured position. However, there are far fewer post doctoral positions and even fewer tenured positions, than PhD graduates.

Even a supposedly permanent university position is dependent on funding from student fees, research grants and other variable sources to pay a salary. This can come as a shock to a new graduate who has worked for years in the expectation of a career in research. PhD students could be instead encouraged to think of themselves as entrepreneurs, with conducting research being just one skill they need to succeed.

Doctoral training could be changed to incorporate features of that provided for entrepreneurs. This emphasizes any one project has only a very slim chance of success and you should be prepared to learn from repeated failed projects. Skills in identifying what makes a project appealing to funding bodies can be taught. Also the ability to "pivot" can be nurtured: take a small sliver of potential from a failing project and run with that. Lastly, students can be provided with a broad set of skills useful for industry, as that is where 90% of them will end up working, not in research.

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