Starting Out at a Start-Up

It allows you to use the same Ph.D. skills in a different genre, write Annie Maxfield and Thi Nguyen.

February 17, 2020
 
 
Istock/sorbetto

“Start-ups aren't all corporate soul-sucking machines for sell-outs. Once in a while, they can be quite ethical.” -- A humanities Ph.D. student who spent the summer at a start-up working on racial equity in the community.

Entrepreneurship and the humanities may feel like worlds apart. Start-ups have become somewhat synonymous with Silicon Valley, and the images they conjure don’t align well with values commonly held among humanists who aren’t typically motivated by helping businesses profit. However, after working with humanities Ph.D.s for more than 10 years, and, critically, understanding their work and training, we see more commonalities than differences. If you’re curious about the similarities between humanists and entrepreneurs, we invite you to keep reading.

The Value of a Humanities Ph.D.

Humanities training is probably one of the most entrepreneurial fields for doctoral students. Think about what you have trained for and are required to do. As a Ph.D. in the humanities, you pursue your own research project by identifying a gap in knowledge, determine what needs to be researched and decide on methods for completion. You then pitch (read: persuade or sell) the idea for that project to your adviser and committee. Not to mention the inherent need for resilience built into this process -- from discovering a needed text that requires learning an entirely new language to navigating multiple stakeholders who may have strong opinions about your direction. In many ways, such activities mimic the way an entrepreneur builds an organization, manages competing visions from founders and funders, and plans for the highs and lows of business.

According to an English Ph.D. currently working at a STEM social impact start-up, "I didn’t realize how helpful it would be to feel confident figuring things out as I go along. You don’t have to know everything up front when you are resourceful and accustomed to learning on the fly. At a start-up you start small in terms of the team, so everyone has to be willing to work outside their comfort zone. I was surprised that being able to say, ‘I’m not sure, but I’ll go figure it out and get back to you tomorrow’ was a skill!"

Working in any nonfaculty role will require you to use your academic training in a new way. At a start-up or in business, the skills that you learned in your doctoral program are useful in marketing, communication, research and innovation. You must be able to read through vast amounts of information, digest it quickly, ask great questions to find out more information, write about it, talk about it and maybe make graphics and a website. (Yes, you’ve got a ton of transferable skills!) And you must do all of this while working with others.

At start-ups and other entrepreneurial organizations, you also need to refine a product, do research into who might use it, research competitors in the market and then develop messaging to fit your multiple audiences. As Claire Ross, a Ph.D. in German languages and literature, said in a course planning meeting to prepare grad students for internships at community-based start-ups, “It’s the same skills we use in academic research, just in a different genre.” It uses your Ph.D. skills to answer a different set of questions.

How Start-Ups Are a Lot Like Academe

Humanities Ph.D.s consistently prioritize independence, creativity, intellectual challenge, impact and community as values they seek in professional environments. Data we analyzed from ImaginePhD, a career exploration tool for humanists and social scientists, show that users most frequently save these three job families to their profile: higher education administration; advocacy; and writing, editing and publishing. In contrast, entrepreneurship is consistently the least-saved job family. Although that wasn’t surprising, we want to highlight similarities between academe and start-ups that Ph.D. holders may miss. And sure, we acknowledge the pros and cons in both as well.

In 2019, “stability” rose significantly as one of the top five saved work values for humanities Ph.D.s on ImaginePhD. One of the more common downsides to working in a start-up or starting your own business is the lack of stability and the dependence on contingent funding, which is something to absolutely pay attention to when considering this kind of work. But one similarity, and upside, is the professional environment where founders find inspiration in solving problems -- which are often social problems -- and are motivated to share their ideas with the world and make an impact.

Demystifying Start-Ups

As career advisers to Ph.D. students, when we hear concerns or assumptions about a career field, we encourage grad students to do research into them by talking to professionals and doing informational interviews. To demystify some common assumptions about start-ups, we asked for guidance from Mary Brice, a humanist Ph.D. and M.B.A. who works as a mentor to start-ups in St. Louis. Here are some assumptions people may make about start-ups, followed by our and Brice’s sense of another way to frame them.

Assumption: Start-ups are corporate-driven moneymakers and can be unethical. Also, Ph.D.s don’t want to make widgets.

Reality: A start-up doesn’t necessarily mean a tech company -- a start-up is simply a young, smaller company. There is a start-up out there for everyone. Look for a small business in the community, a small publisher or magazine, or perhaps a social entrepreneur working toward the greater good. There are also start-ups in education, food, pets, travel. If you’ve got an area of interest, there is a start-up for you.

Assumption: The main role a Ph.D. holder would have in a start-up is as the founder.

Reality: Start-ups also need supporters in different roles, including market researchers; product developers; project managers; technical writers; those tasked with communicating about the start-up’s mission and vision, finance, and partnerships; and more. Interns also play a crucial role in start-up companies, completing foundational work to move forward an organization’s goals.

According to Tyler Gahrs, a Ph.D. student at Washington University in St. Louis who is developing an inclusive curriculum to prepare graduate students to work at community-based start-ups, “At an internship, the perception is that it’s small scale and you’re a cog in the machine. But as part of a start-up team, the contribution may far exceed what you may expect.”

Assumption: All start-ups are unstable.

Reality: That can be true, depending on the size of the start-up and how much funding it has. If this is your concern, look for a start-up that has existed for longer, is larger or has significant financial support. Also, look at their staffing and turnover -- as with any company, that will tell you a lot about how stable the work environment and funding are.

Assumption: Working in a start-up won’t be as intellectually challenging as scholarly research.

Reality: In many ways, working in a start-up is even more intellectually challenging, demanding a wider range of skills from each of its team members and a need to work quickly and efficiently to turn ideas into actionable decisions to move the organization forward. We’ve never met an entrepreneur who described their work as easy or not intellectually challenging.

In addition, start-ups can allow you to work a flexible schedule and wear many hats if you’re open to learning new skills. And satisfyingly, you’ll get to directly impact the foundation of the organization and future, because you are often making the decisions and working closely with decision makers.

Tips for Exploring Start-Ups

Have we piqued your interest? Here are a few ways to explore start-ups in your area.

  • Use location-specific resources. Look at your region or city’s chamber of commerce or local start-up landscape. Find a small business that attracts your interest and talk to the owners or founders about ways to contribute to their organization.
  • Look at job and internship openings specifically at start-ups on f6s and Idealist.
  • Find a list of companies recently funded by venture capital firms, government organizations or foundations.
  • Learn about start-up culture and entrepreneurship from trade magazines such as Entrepreneur and podcasts.
  • Conduct informational interviews, which is a formal term for talking to people about their work.

You Are an Entrepreneur

Believe it or not, you already have entrepreneurial skills. At every stage of your career, you’re making things up as you go and finding creative solutions to your roadblocks. So if you’ve given a little head space to thinking about how you want to be creative, write for diverse audiences and build community, start-ups could be another option where you can work and make an impact.

Bio

Annie Maxfield (she/hers) is the director of graduate career and professional development at Texas Career Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin and design and development lead for ImaginePhD. Thi Nguyen (she/hers) is a career coach, speaker and workforce development professional based in St. Louis. They are both members of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.

 

Back to Top