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    A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online


Learn Like an Entrepreneur

How to apply entrepreneurial principles to grad school.

January 20, 2015

Justin Dunnavant is a PhD student in Anthropology at the University of Florida. You can find him on Twitter @archfieldnotes or at his blog AfricanaArch.

In my free time I listen to a lot of podcasts and read books about productivity, time-management, and general life hacks. But one thing that always strikes me is that the target audience for many of these books and podcasts aren’t students such as myself, but business professionals and entrepreneurs. Since I have no interest in business nor entrepreneurship, I was intrigued by this connection and began to explore it deeper. It turns out that business professionals are responsible for taking copious notes (mainly in meetings), working with strict deadlines, and collaborating with teams. At a very fundamental level, these appear to be characteristics associated with graduate students: we take notes in class, we collaborate on research, and we are constantly working against deadlines for our publications and dissertation. By simply adopting four fundamental lessons from entrepreneurship, we can create some real changes in our graduate school experience. These lessons include: treating our committee members like an advisory board, building our personal brand, managing our time, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

1. Have a strong advisory board and hire people who are smarter than you

Unfortunately, most of us aren’t in a position to hire people to help us with our dissertation—unless you work in a field where you hire field assistants, transcriptionists, or translators. Therefore, I would suggest instead of hiring people, you should hang around people who are smarter than you. They don’t necessarily need to be more knowledgeable in your subject area, but sometimes having a better understanding of university/departmental politics or English composition and grammar can be just as valuable. Colleagues with more experience in the department often have great tips for navigating the comprehensive exams and can offer insight into which faculty members you should and shouldn’t include on your dissertation committee.

With that said, it’s important to treat your dissertation committee like a board of investors; whether you realize it or not, they are investing in your education. As you go on to do good work and establish a successful career, they gain success and notoriety as well. As a result, you should keep them informed of your short-term and long-term goals and heed their advice. At the end of the day, you need your advisor and committee members to sign off on your thesis or dissertation to get the degree. Therefore, if they want you to expand on a section, move a paragraph, or delete a sentence, you should do it. You can always revise those changes after you get your degree in hand.

2. Build your personal brand

We often take it for granted, but it’s important to know the market and have a marketing strategy. I am constantly reminded by faculty about how the job market for academics used to be so much better, about how now there seem to be fewer tenure-track positions and the expectations of publication, research, and teaching seem so much higher. If there is a particular area of research in your field that is “hot” or newly emerging, you may want to consider steering your research in that direction. It may be easier to acquire funding, and your specialty in that area may be thing that differentiates you from other candidates when you apply to that tenure-track position. Forbes Magazine noted, “The best entrepreneurs don’t come up with great ideas, they solve market needs.” Successfully completing the dissertation is the primary goal. However, that’s not to say that you shouldn’t try to develop new and innovative research. The automotive tycoon Henry Ford famously stated, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Tied to this concept is the idea that you should also diversify your portfolio. A qualitative researcher with some experience in quantitative methods is invaluable at showing that you can advise a wide range of students and collaborate with your colleagues. As graduate students, we can demonstrate this by taking courses, incorporating mixed-method approaches in our research, and co-authoring publications with our colleagues in other fields.

3. Manage your time effectively

Some of the most successful entrepreneurs wake up insanely early. That doesn’t mean that you can’t succeed if you’re not a morning person, but the fundamental lesson is that we generally do good work when others are asleep and we lack the distractions of social media, text messages, and emails. This month I’m trying to regulate my sleeping patterns, as I’m tired of pulling all-nighters every other week. My ultimate goal is to wake up by 6:00am every day and dedicate an extra hour in the morning to a side project. At the moment my side project is a publication.

Other business professionals and entrepreneurs follow the Pareto Principle (also known as the 80/20 rule) for effective time management. The idea is very simple: identify and prioritize the 20 percent of activities that give you 80 percent of your results. As a graduate student, that may mean spending more time preparing for final exams and less on day-to-day homework assignments. Getting C’s on homework and an A on the final exam is much better than getting A’s on homework and a C on the final. I keep this rule in the back of my mind when I find myself against a deadline and I try to follow these steps when I know I’m going to miss a deadline.

4. Your health is your wealth

I can’t stress it enough: pay attention to your health. Every good company shows it values its employees by providing them with a good health insurance plan, and you should do the same. Healthy living and a healthy lifestyle is something that we constantly stress at GradHacker. Graduate school is stressful both mentally and physically, and it’s important that you manage stressors effectively. There were a number of great articles published for Mental Health Awareness Week that offered some important tips for dealing with emotional and mental stress.

Additionally, one of the worst habits that students and entrepreneurs share is depriving ourselves of sleep. We are constantly struggling to get the most out of our day and deny ourselves sleep with the false pretense that more time working equals more productivity. However, studies have shown that this is simply not the case, and that  sleep is important not only to maintain mental focus, but for burning fat as well. For our physical body, it’s important that we eat healthy, stay active, and sleep smarter. Little things such as practicing good posture and listening to music will positively affect your health and overall well being.

Have you applied any of these principles to graduate school? What sorts of results have you seen?

[Image by the author]


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