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In January, the American Historical Association’s Virtual AHA hosted a panel called “History Ph.D.s in the World of Entrepreneurship” about people’s pathways from graduate school to leadership in the private and nonprofit sectors. The panelists discussed insights about nonprofit leadership, how to assign monetary value to your work and the link between start-up founders and autodidacts.
As a recent humanities Ph.D. and an entrepreneur, I was inspired by the panelists’ candor and thrilled to learn that, like me, they have pulled threads from their doctoral research and methods into their entrepreneurial roles. At my company, Hikma Strategies, we help academics and other clients to communicate more effectively, attract funding and build partnerships. On the surface, our consulting, facilitation and training services appear to have little in common with my dissertation on medieval English literature. In reality, the deep and sustained thinking that I did around translation, cultural systems and the ways that language shapes the transmission of ideas continues to inform my work with academic and nonacademic leaders to drive change. My path has felt circuitous, but, somehow, the lines have smoothed out over time.
When I decided to start a business, the most surprising discovery for me was that I had already had a side hustle for many years. I had been writing -- and getting paid for -- sporadic but highly rewarding freelance articles. Those publications extended my professional footprint and taught me basic sales skills, such as how to write an invoice. As I look around, many of the new and emerging Ph.D.s in my network are tutoring, indexing or editing on the side. If this is you, make no mistake: you are a business owner.
In many ways, writing a dissertation leads us to the core competencies of entrepreneurship. Once you spot them, you can build an intentional system and position yourself for success in any professional context. Through the daily work that you undertake to develop courses, finish your dissertation and advocate for yourself, you are practicing core elements of entrepreneurship. The most effective way to translate those skills to new professional contexts is to reframe them as a coherent system through which you offer value. Lay this groundwork during your Ph.D., and you will be in a much stronger position to find or create meaningful work.
Articulating a value proposition. Graduate students know that they need an elevator pitch that quickly characterizes who they are and what they do, and many go so far as to enter Three-Minute Thesis competitions. Those exercises sound rather like what business courses might call a value proposition. But while the concision you learn from them will serve you well in any career, a humanities Ph.D.’s value proposition is more than a sound bite of your dissertation.
At its core, a value proposition is an argument that you make to persuade other people that what you are offering will benefit them. To create an effective value proposition, you need to first survey a vast, ambiguous context and identify a need that only you can answer. As Ph.D. students, many of us are told that, by the end of our degree, we will be the person who knows the most about a very specific sliver of a conversation. As the conversation shifts, we shift, too. We build not just vocabularies, but also methods and networks to help us re-examine our position as new ideas emerge. Our value proposition is not the thesis statement, but the system itself.
When I taught writing and rhetoric courses to undergraduates, I would tell them that every form of communication is an argument. Every social media post, every image and every conversation makes implicit claims about your audience, your knowledge base and what you stand for. As Ph.D.s, we learn to iterate on our arguments within evolving conversations where new research is continuously changing the game. Your process and adaptation over time, not to mention the track record that you establish while engaging in those conversations, is the core of your system. Your ability to thrive in contexts of change, uncertainty and ambiguity is a quality that you share with all successful entrepreneurs.
Cultivating resilience in the face of uncertainty. Nobody writes a prospectus knowing exactly where their dissertation will go, just as nobody writes a business plan for a new venture knowing that their market will respond as they imagine. We review the literature -- or do the market research -- to map out the ideas that have been offered and the ways we’ve received them. Once we have identified the gap in knowledge -- or the market -- that we will address, we think through the right questions to ask. We recruit mentors to help us understand the problem and the process.
As our ideas grow and change, we continuously recalibrate the elements that matter most to our argument. We learn to sidestep rabbit holes and gradually to invest in the pieces of our work that we know to be our most valuable contributions. Our ability as Ph.D. students to tolerate uncertainty and keep writing through it is, in my experience, almost unique in the professional landscape.
Entrepreneurs strive to create products and services that don’t yet exist. As a scholar, you create knowledge that doesn’t yet exist. In both cases, this process involves risk, self-determination and careful attention to the behavior of those around you.
Being responsive to market needs. While Ph.D.s may never actually use the word “pivot” like people in businesses often do, we certainly know how to make a hard turn. The academic context trains us to receive and respond to detailed critiques. When we are faced with three sets of reviewer feedback that seem equally thorough but diametrically opposed, we find the common threads, decide what is useful and determine the changes that will make our work most compelling to our scholarly audience, or target market.
When I started my business, many entrepreneurs advised me to steel myself for direct feedback and, specifically, for having ideas that I felt passionate about be shredded and rejected over and over again. That was my first indication that the leap from academe to entrepreneurship might be vaultable.
Learning how to learn. As a Ph.D., you should know that you have these competencies, regardless of how you choose to use them. Whether you land a tenure-track position, find your way to a new career path or launch your own start-up, your core values, resilience and agility will stay with you. Whatever you decide, make your choices with full knowledge of your competencies as well as recognition of all the things you have left to learn. Use your skills in research and analysis to seek out resources and find your footing in new conversations.
If you have ever worked across disciplines, you know that translating knowledge across contexts is a contribution in itself. Entrepreneurs do this, too, when they research new potential customers and look for ways that adjusting their offerings can bring value to new contexts. As you seek out new opportunities, use your intellectual curiosity to build a deeper understanding of the contexts that interest you most.
Any new career path, including a professorial one, will require new skills. In all likelihood, many of them will have to do with teamwork and the specific functions of your new office or department. As you take your next steps, read books about your new position and industry. Reach out to colleagues who know more than you, and approach them with humility and curiosity. Offer to fold the chairs, if that means you can attend an important event beyond the scope of your role. If you treat your career as a mode of discovery, you will always find new things to learn -- and new ways to succeed.