From the Simply Do Ideas Blog

What's Up, Doc?

By John Barker on March 18th, 2019

Attending the recent EEUK day, Stimulating PhD Entrepreneurs, which focused on growing entrepreneurial qualities for PhD candidates allowed me to reflect on two questions;

  1. How is Enterprise Education within HEIs supporting the expansion in the number of graduate PhD entrepreneurs?
  2. More fundamentally, as a PhD student myself, how do I become more entrepreneurial?

The first is strangely harder to answer than the more personally reflective question because the simple fact is that UK HEIs are generating plenty of doctoral candidates, but not a great deal of spin-out or start-up activity from this community.

Since 2010... the number of spin-off companies has reduced significantly. BEIS, 2016

Now, this must be balanced with the success stories like Harry Destecroix's Ziylo which was bought by Novo Nordisk for £623m after spinning out from the University of Bristol and SetSquared stable. A more present challenge for the sector is how to generate more doc-prenuers within the fields like arts and social sciences fields. Generally, there seems to be a chronic shortage of start-up/spin-out activity from research in this field illustrated by the number of AHRC funded PhDs that convert their research into commercial activity;

Impact of AHRC Research

The Impact of AHRC Research April 2015 - March 2016, (2016, p. 45)

But the issue with graduate destinations for doctoral students is a lot more fundamental than just inserting promising PhD students into incubation programmes. I think the issue is perfectly summed up by my attendance at a doctoral induction workshop where a group of around 30 PhD students were asked "Why they wanted to undertake a PhD?". At least 27 members of the group put their hands up when the facilitator made the suggestion of becoming academic. Unfortunately, the truth is that there aren't enough jobs to go round with only just over 200,000 existing academic contracts (Universities UK, 2018) in the UK, versus the 100,275 new doctoral students (HESA, 2018) that enrolled in 2017/18.

The 3 Ms

The issue here is the mindset, motivation, and mentorship. Firstly mindset, most doctoral candidates want to do research, or teach, and aren't necessarily focused on commercialising their research. Changing that mindset is partially about revealing the opportunity of an entrepreneurial journey, potentially through induction activity/skills week, or more aggressive interventions from the usually passive careers service. A plethora of options for spin-out subterfuge was suggested at the EEUK event, but the simple fact remains that the mindset change is personal to each individual and is easier to encourage than to enforce.

Motivation, in this case, speaks to the individual motivating factors of not just the PhD student but more importantly the Director of Studies (DoS). Alignment and transparency of the goals of each stakeholder should be outlined clearly, and diversity welcomed. Realistically for most project investigators and doctoral supervisors the pressure to publish and death by REF is key to their agendas. They are steeped in a meritocratic academic system that puts the focus on journal papers, political influence, funded-research, and intimate subject knowledge. So the world of pitch-decks, VCs, and Unicorns is more Blade Runner than Boolean logic and leaves them feeling ignorant and uncomfortable. For this reason, some academic members of staff may shy away from mentoring their students towards an entrepreneurial route because of these historically-embedded routes through academia.

This mentorship is important and widening academic support from the DoS/Second Supervisor relationship to potentially including an industry-relevant professional, or entrepreneur, would circumvent some of this inbuilt academic agenda. Easier said than done, I hear you say, but if we want more spin-out then academic institutions are going to have to embed more entrepreneurial mentoring into the PhD process. Make the mentoring targeted to need, or enhance the supervisory responsibilities of industrial funding partners to drive towards more commercially focused outcomes to ensure low resource implications.


In reflecting on my own journey as a PhD student thus far, it became obvious to me that my entrepreneurial and intrapreneurial skills need to be refined. Being opportunity driven, having resilience and an almost zealotry work-ethic are all skills that PhD students, like entrepreneurs, need. But I think one of the great attributes of entrepreneurs is the ability to combine hard work with working smarter.

Can-can on the Kanban

A lot of people would say a PhD is a marathon, not a sprint. I disagree actually, I think I have actually benefitted from focusing on task and finish activities in a more sprint-stye function. Adopting Scrum-style mechanics to switch between literature review, data capture, and dissemination activity in two-week sprints targeted towards supervisory sessions is key to success in this space. I also believe that focusing on dissemination and impact as drivers to the study helps motivate researchers towards more goal-oriented outcomes, rather than the waifs and strays of exploratory research. Report on the failures of your research, deep-dives into microcosms of literature, and early-findings. Promote, present, and produce has become my mantra. My research might not be particularly ground-breaking when my thesis is completed (although let's hope so), but I'll have a built a network, have a track record of conference and paper presentations, and sought opportunities to teach, research commercially, and transfer knowledge to the business and research community.

Tech for Good

The ability for research students to utilise the best elements of digital technology is the key to working smarter. The use of tools like Trello to manage activities within the project helps, but smart search functionality and literature organisation within bibliographic cloud-based software, like Mendeley, revolutionalised and mobilised my literature review. This kind of software has been around for a while, but utilising speech to text technologies to save time, money, and mental effort on transcription should be considered by students. I also assume that alongside algorithmic suggestions from Mendeley and Research Gate around literature that I should read, that we aren't far away from AI that thematically analysing literature allowing the user to build on its findings for the purpose of critical analysis. Plagiarism or pragmatism? One for the Industry 4.0 ethicists to run their eye over, but as a time-poor PhD student I know which one I'd opt for.