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Innovation has become a hot topic in economic circles over the past few years. In March 2022, the United States’ National Science Foundation created its first new directorate in over 30 years: Technology, Innovation and Partnerships, or TIP. The passing of the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022 helped fund the directorate, the mission of which is to “advance U.S. competitiveness​ and societal impact by nurturing partnerships that​ drive and accelerate diverse innovation ecosystems, technology translation and development, and workforce development.” The U.S. is investing heavily in research and innovation—which you can take advantage of as a Ph.D. researcher working in academia or beyond.

Graduate students and postdoctoral scholars already contribute much to research and innovation in the United States through their work on a variety of projects supported by the federal government and industry partners. But despite that fact, few consider a career focused on the leading edge of innovation: entrepreneurship.

Being willing to push the boundaries of human knowledge and forge new ideas into products is essential for entrepreneurs. And to secure backing, entrepreneurs must also work to articulate the value they and their products bring to individuals, organizations and the nation. Fortunately, plenty of resources are available to assist in those efforts, although many graduate students and postdocs may not be aware of them.

To encourage more technology commercialization and entrepreneurship, in the latter half of the 20th century the federal government established two funding programs for academics and others seeking to either move full-time to a start-up company or obtain funding to develop and commercialize new technologies. The Small Business Innovation Research program supports the growth of start-up companies, while the Small Business Technology Transfer program is aimed at technology commercialization.

Both the National Institutes of Health and NSF fund grants from both programs, and both offer a variety of other mechanisms to foster an innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystem in the United States. In addition, NIH provides numerous resources to educate people about entrepreneurship and special programs like the Small Business Transition Grant for New Entrepreneurs (see a webinar on the program here), which helps researchers interested in transitioning to entrepreneurship via a mentor.

American universities also offer an increasing number of programs that either focus on training Ph.D.s for careers in the technology transfer space or assist them in learning how to commercialize technological and other innovations coming from their research work, as our Innovation Postdoctoral Fellowship here at Virginia Tech seeks to do. In addition, NSF’s Innovation Corps (I-Corps) provides a seven-week experiential training program that prepares scientists and engineers to extend their focus beyond the university laboratory and toward commercialization by engaging in customer discovery and other activities. Such programs can be a bridge between traditional academic research and exploring an entrepreneurial career or employment in the innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Many academics may mistakenly believe that entrepreneurial skills are only relevant if one is planning to run a start-up company. Yet most faculty members running research groups at large universities are effectively leading small businesses inside their institutions. They must articulate a value proposition to get hired and ultimately secure funding for their research. In addition, most faculty leaders or principal investigators are in charge of hiring those who work in their labs and must manage these individuals and their projects toward a larger, common goal. A faculty leader must create a vision for their group and think strategically about how the various projects align toward both short- and long-term goals. This is entrepreneurship in an academic research context.

And just as an entrepreneurial mindset is essential to a successful academic career, it is also extremely useful for any scholar looking to create their own company, independent of their institution.

Entrepreneurial Skills From Your Ph.D. or Postdoc

Ph.D. training offers graduate students and postdocs many experiences to help them navigate entrepreneurship and/or working in a start-up company, such as the following.

  • Project planning and management. Completing a doctoral dissertation involves extensive project planning and management skills, from ideation to execution and dissemination. This directly translates to the ability to plan and manage large projects as an entrepreneur.
  • Independent work. Ph.D. students, and especially postdocs, often work independently with minimal oversight, building the drive and accountability needed to accomplish tasks without rigid external deadlines—a crucial skill for entrepreneurs.
  • Networking and collaboration. Entrepreneurs thrive on networking. Similarly, Ph.D. students and postdocs benefit from building strong connections—engaging with industry professionals, attending conferences and collaborating across disciplines to enhance their network. Such connections can lead to job opportunities, collaborations and funding.
  • Thirst for knowledge. A core requirement for a Ph.D. is an insatiable desire to learn and expand one’s knowledge base. Entrepreneurs must constantly step out of their comfort zones and learn new skills, making this thirst for learning invaluable for Ph.D.s and postdocs looking to focus on entrepreneurship as a career.
  • Research skills. Doctoral training equips individuals with the ability to seek out, evaluate and synthesize quality information from various sources—a vital skill when navigating the unfamiliar territories of entrepreneurship.
  • Curiosity about the big questions. Starting a business requires asking and answering big questions about target audiences, value propositions and strategic direction. Ph.D.s are trained to take disparate information and craft cohesive narratives to address complex inquiries. Successful entrepreneurs do the same.
  • Problem-solving. Overcoming research obstacles and failed experiments hones problem-solving abilities in Ph.D.s and postdocs. As entrepreneurs constantly face new challenges, this skill is indispensable for finding innovative solutions.
  • Resilience and adaptability. Entrepreneurship involves risk-taking and overcoming failures. Ph.D. students and postdocs learn resilience by navigating setbacks. This adaptability prepares them for a dynamic marketplace for their products and ideas and the post-Ph.D. job market itself, where flexibility and the ability to pivot are critical.

In essence, the rigorous training and self-driven nature of doctoral programs and postdoc positions cultivate skills like project management, working both independently and collaboratively, learning agility, strategic thinking and problem-solving—all of which are invaluable assets for successful entrepreneurship. The key to honing these skills is taking increased agency in your projects so that you learn all aspects of the process of identifying a gap in knowledge or application, scoping out the current landscape of that area and working toward a solution. It is certainly not easy work, but it can help you in graduate school, postdoctoral training and beyond.

In sum, by embracing an entrepreneurial mindset in your job search, you identify opportunities in industry, start-ups, government or nonprofits or create your own position through entrepreneurship. And even if you don’t decide to go that direction, innovative thinking and treating one’s career development like a start-up can propel you to professional growth and success. The fact that cultivating the entrepreneurial skills I’ve described can also be significantly helpful for an academic researcher means leaning into them is a win-win for any graduate student or postdoc.

Chris Smith is the postdoctoral affairs program administrator at Virginia Tech. He serves on the National Postdoctoral Association’s Board of Directors and is a member of the Graduate Career Consortium—an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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