The other day I was thinking about what characteristics are need to be a successful entrepreneur and upon reading a random blog, it occurred to me that life as a Ph.D. student entails many of the same challenges and personality types that can be found in the Start-up world. Sounds preposterous I know. How could anyone liken the academic environment to entrepreneurship?  For one, being overworked and poor as a Ph.D. student is temporary, while this can be more of a long-term and miserable scenario for anyone kick-starting their own company. But upon closer deliberation a world of similarities opened up and enlightened me with courage for what I am currently doing and how I can transfer my skills over to the entrepreneurial space…one day… once I …well actually finish my Ph.D.. So here are the seven top characteristics in common with successful entrepreneurs and Ph.D. students (according to the aforementioned random blog and me)!


One of the most important traits of entrepreneurs is self-motivation. And this also rings true for Ph.D. students. The contact you have with your supervisors or research group might be frequent to begin with (when first shaping your research project) but very quickly, you are on your own and at the risk of sounding like a cliché – you will only get out what you put in. It is self-motivation that drives Ph.D. students to bury themselves in literature about their subject-matter area and tinker around with new methodology or just continue with the will to survive after having your work rejected by peer-reviewers. I would go so far as to say that self-motivation is the bear minimum trait you need as a founder or as a Ph.D. student. If you have not got that then I would stop reading right now…

2. Understand What You Offer.

So you are still with me? Well then- you self-motivated reader- you… the next thing an entrepreneur needs to know is what they offer. This refers to how their product or service fits into the market and solves a problem for the customer but also in those critical founder relationships, you often hear about. Such and such is a smooth sales person but terrible with numbers. Or such and such is so awkward in front of customers and investors but so brilliant in the invention of X, Y, Z. This is not as easy as it sounds as an incredible level of self-awareness is required to fully grasp one’s strengths and weakness’ in this context. This is also the case in the academic world. The sooner you, as a Ph.D. student, figure out 1. what you know and 2. what you don’t know, the easier it will be for everyone around you (yes, even the coffee shop dude will be relieved you got your shit together). To go a little further, Ph.D. students need to see the gaps in the research where they can apply themselves. No point slaving away on a hypothesis that someone else has already nulled? Right?

3. Take Risks…

A successful entrepreneur knows that calculated risks made timely and without hesitation can pay off big. So too does a Ph.D. student. Well there are not huge sums of cash floating around but the main tangible thing you risk in your Ph.D.  is time. As soon as you sign your stipend contract, the clock is ticking. How much time do you invest in learning a new software? Novel technique? Or even just reviewing the literature. What happens if that software, technique or literature review turns out to be a flop? When is the right time to give up on it and put your energies elsewhere? We face that risk every day as Ph.D. students.

4. Know How to Network.

A successful entrepreneur knows how to network and does it often. I once worked with a very entrepreneurially spirited manager who almost weekly would excuse herself for a “networking lunch”. I was always so impressed by how overtly professionally-social she was. Academia has caught onto the concept of networking and hosts speed-dating with industry and free sandwiches and beers after seminars, making networking for us Ph.D. nerds a piece of cake. But networking also extends to who you collaborate with during your Ph.D.. If you attempt a cross-disciplinary approach to your research questions, greater insight can be offered to the community at large.

5. Basic Money Management Skills and Knowledge.

Money matters in academia just as much as the Start-up world. When you start a Start-up or Ph.D you know you have x amount of time before x amount of cash/funding runs out. While there are some lucky ones who have their whole salaries funded for the whole duration of the Ph.D. (ahem…like me), others have to fund along the way and account for any expensive consumables, equipment or field trips in advance. These poor sods need to ensure that the money is there when needed and that the spending of said money is going to lead to some kind of publishable data.

6. Flexibility.

A Ph.D. is not a regular office job. You do not stop thinking about the research problems or questions when you leave the office. You rather just…keep thinking about them from the time you start until the time you submit your thesis. This comes with the territory. So in order to keep sane, survive and still have a personal life at the end of the thesis, the one trait you should harness is flexibility. Sure, you have to water your experimental plants on the weekend before the artificial lighting turns on at 7am. So do it. But why not have a beer with a friend on a Tuesday afternoon at 2pm – just because you can. Similarly, your job as a founder can easily take over the personal hours of your life but you can in turn take over the “working hours” for some good old fashion fun too.

7. Passion.

Love the problem vs love your research question. Need I say more?


About the author: Tina Koutouleas is a citizen of the world, plant lover, biologist and eternal optimist who is pumped to be a part of the REBBLS core team.



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