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Chasing a Moving Target: What Ph.D. and Entrepreneurial Journeys Have in Common

An illustration of arrows attempting to hit a target.

Completing your thesis project can often feel like you’re chasing a moving target. With every positive and negative experimental result, the target moves, inverts, changes size or can even disappear. While your project’s hypothesis relies on experimental results, getting experiments to work can feel like chasing a whole different set of targets with their own challenges, failures and errors. Even when your experiments work consistently and your hypotheses are answered, publishing the results can present yet another hurdle. Therefore, the Ph.D. journey requires repetition, troubleshooting, input from experts and peer review.

Over the summer, I completed Innov8MD’s AddVenture pre-accelerator program for student entrepreneurs, and I learned this “moving target” dynamic is not unique to research or Ph.D. programs. It can also be seen (and felt) in entrepreneurship. The process of ideating, building and validating a startup venture is an iterative process, and a mature venture is a moving target that requires repetition, troubleshooting and feedback. Much like a thesis project, there’s no right time to publish your work.

Building a venture as a first-time founder feels like science. The process of entrepreneurship uses the scientific method and requires founders to ask questions, perform background research, generate and test hypotheses, analyze data and draw conclusions. Those conclusions, whether positive or negative, move the project in a direction fit for the target audience. If you’re thinking about pursuing a career in entrepreneurship, skills gained from your Ph.D. can and should be applied to your venture.

Parallels between Ph.D. and entrepreneurial journeys

Organized by Johns Hopkins University graduate Pava LaPere, Innov8MD’s AddVenture program is a summer pre-accelerator to help student entrepreneurs develop and launch their ventures. Through a curriculum focused on entrepreneurial basics, topic discussions and deliverable worksheets, students are encouraged to complete the program and earn a spot as a finalist in the Demo Day competition. Students are supported by mentors from universities across Maryland and have the opportunity win money to advance their ventures.

The more I thought about it, the more parallels I could draw between my six years of research experience and my summer experience ideating, building and testing my venture. Here are five similarities between the Ph.D. and entrepreneurial journeys:

  • Start with the problem/opportunity. Writing a grant requires you to understand the problem/opportunities your research is trying to solve or obtain. The entrepreneurial equivalent? Pitching your venture. Ideation requires you to understand pain points of potential customers and/or the opportunities for which your venture is best suited, and then to communicate them effectively to investors and customers.
  • Take it one variable at a time. You don’t change multiple variables at once when troubleshooting a failed experiment, and the same logic applies when testing a venture. Even when there are a hundred variables to improve, testing them one-by-one is a good way to avoid feeling overwhelmed (and confused) by the changes and the data.
  • There’s always more to do. There’s a fine line between sufficient and necessary, and if you’re a perfectionist like me, it is easy to confuse the two. There is always more work to be done to submit a paper or launch a venture. Don’t let the threat of imperfection stop you from making progress.
  • Write everything down. This seems obvious, but record-keeping can prevent future hassle and unwanted stress. Lab notebooks should be kept up-to-date with protocols, updates, errors, data and plans for future experiments. This applies to building a venture as well. Documentation of iterative versions of your venture will help throughout the entrepreneurial process and can be particularly useful when customer feedback points you toward previous ideas in the iterative process.
  • Mentorship is key. Choosing the right mentor is a crucial part of the Ph.D. experience, and while the entrepreneurial experience may seem more team-oriented, mentors can provide insights, give words of encouragement and share resources for startups. Many entrepreneurial mentors have started companies, so they serve as a valuable sounding board for first-time entrepreneurs and their budding ventures.

This list is not exhaustive or complete. There are also differences between the Ph.D. and entrepreneurial journeys, but with increasing awareness of nonacademic jobs for Ph.D.s, I believe it’s important to showcase career paths that value and use transferrable skills obtained during graduate school. The ability to chase a moving target is just one example.

If you’re working on a venture or looking to explore a career in entrepreneurship, the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine has a variety of resources. Check out the Professional Development and Career Office, FastForward U and other programs provided by Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures.

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1 thought on “Chasing a Moving Target: What Ph.D. and Entrepreneurial Journeys Have in Common”

  1. Dialogue and periodic peer evaluations are very helpful & insightful. Holding round table “talk’s”
    exposes issues and offers valuable critiques etc.

    Very impressive! Well thought out article.
    Can definitely relate, my Master’s thesis & doctoral work, were like starting businesses of their own.
    Continued success,
    Cousin Cindy 😍

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