Impact Blog

Things I learnt in my PhD that I regularly use as a business owner

September 2020
Dr Richard Huysmans
Speaker, Author, Trainer and Business owner

Dr Huysmans undertook his PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, before turning his hand to research strategy and program development. In 2008, he established his own practice – simply called Dr Richard Huysmans P/L. He is driven by the challenge of helping researchers be commercially smart.

I was an entrepreneur before it was cool. Before being an innovator or agile was a thing. I was an entrepreneur when it was called owning your own business. Being self-employed.

So how did I transition from PhD graduate to owning my own business? There’s a lot of things I learnt during my PhD that I still use in my business today.

Being an expert – A PhD is about finding out new things. New information. New knowledge. By necessity you must become the world expert. It might be in a very narrow field or thing. But, nonetheless, you will become the world expert. This doesn’t stop when you start a business. As a research strategist, I am an expert in helping researchers get the best out of their training, their research and their career.

Having mentors – whether you want to stay in research or start your own business, having mentors is essential and the more diverse the better. My mentors have helped show me what to do, direct (aka pushed!) me towards goals and opened my mind to, or directly provided me with opportunities (and sometimes warned against others).

Developing networks – Developing networks is essential for any career and you should never underestimate the importance of your networks whether that’s in or out of academia. Whether it’s LinkedIn, Instagram or personal networks, spend time developing them as they all help along the way. My sport networks have been particularly helpful to bounce ideas around, make decisions, find and take opportunities I wouldn’t have otherwise considered.

Giving feedback – As a PhD student (but particularly as an academic) you’ll need to give feedback on (i.e. critique) other people’s research all of the time. This will come in the form of reviewing proposals, publications, grant applications and research projects. If you’re comfortable doing this (and the push back you might get) in a nice way, being a consultant might be for you. Providing critique is one of the core functions of my business. I do this with clients most days.

Being comfortable with failure – In a PhD failure abounds. In experiments you conduct. In proposals you submit. In the lack of progress you hoped to make. In business as in a PhD, failure is learning. If you don’t see failure, but instead see progress, then turning a PhD into a business could be for you.

Comfortable getting feedback – In some cases (not all) failure is accompanied by feedback. If you can take feedback, and act on it. And by act I mean change or actively discard the bad advice. A PhD to business transition could be for you. A career in academic research isn’t the only place where feedback is an integral part of a career. Academic feedback might be in the form of grant and article rejections – business feedback is in the rejection of proposals and tenders.

Technical/hard skills – In every PhD you’ll develop hard or technical skills. They’ll likely cover qualitative and quantitative research methods. Things like data collection specific to your research area, as well as analysing that data using various statistical approaches. Depending on your topic and field you might also learn to use new or specialised pieces of equipment such as microscopes, scanners and 3D printers. In a business you have to learn different kinds of hard skills – or pay someone to do a job for you. Building an online website and platform to suit your business is an example.

Research skills – In every PhD you’ll develop research skills. Beyond the technical skills above, research skills also include things like grant writing, scientific/research writing, research project design, and research project conduct. My knowledge of these is what my business is built on.

Soft skills – There are plenty of soft skills developed in a PhD and these include team work, self-discipline and organisation, motivation, determination, resilience. Resilience is a big one. You can’t run a business without it!

Transferable skills – Most, if not all soft skills are also transferable skills. Of course, in a PhD they tend to develop in a research context. Take collaboration as an example. In research, collaboration is the norm. Whereas in business, there’s a large amount of competition. Different businesses aren’t always happy to collaborate to achieve an outcome like they might in research. Other transferable skills include managing up, working with others, working on your own, project management, time management and (technical) writing.

Working in a team – Much research success relies on team work. As a PhD student you’ll need to work well as a team member for your own success as well as the success of the group you are part of, not to mention the projects and grants you are working on. Even as a consultant I’m often working on projects with various stakeholders.

Working on your own – But not all of a PhD is undertaken as a team. Indeed, much research is done on your own. Although teams develop and deliver projects, individual components of those projects are often conducted solo. Thus, as a PhD student you’ll be working on your own a lot. Being able to independently motivate yourself is obviously a must for a business owner.

Setting your own work hours – in a PhD you can mostly set your own hours. Most equipment is available 24/7. Most writing and analysis can be done on portable computers connected to cloud storage. Combined this means you can work anytime and anywhere. As an entrepreneur and business owner work can often be 24/7 but the good thing is you have full control over your hours.

Travelling the world – PhD’s often involve interstate and overseas travel. Certainly most (if not all) supervisors will support and encourage their students to attend international conferences held locally and overseas. And there are various grants that help support students to attend these events. As a business owner, you don’t stop going to conferences and travelling, but the topics will probably change. You might also have to pay for it yourself, but at least it’s often a tax deduction…

Continuing to learn – There’s no higher qualification than a PhD. If you love learning a PhD will help you develop new specific skills in your chose discipline, generic research skills as well as a range of self-directed learning skills. But this is useful well-beyond your PhD. In the current world, it is essential to continue to learn.

Solving problems – Maybe you did your PhD to solve a particular problem you see in the world. Or perhaps a widget that you wanted to see built or modified. A PhD is one pathway to making these things happen. But being an entrepreneur/business owner is another.

Making a difference – You may be inspired into a PhD to save the world. Perhaps you’ve had a life experience or got an awesome idea that a PhD will help bring to life. Or perhaps a PhD is the first step in making your ‘save the world’ goals a reality. Staying in academia isn’t the other way you can continue to do work that makes a difference. Many people go on to have more impact outside academia than they could have had within it.

I have been delivering high quality strategic advice to the education, research and government sectors since 2008. I have worked with Pro-Vice Chancellors, Vice-Chancellors, Directors, Research Directors, Department and Faculty Heads, Chief Allied Health, Nursing and Medical Officers. My strategic approach to collaboration and research translation has been making the impossible possible for more than eight years. While owning my own business certainly has many challenges, it is a highly rewarding way to apply all the skills and experience I’ve developed during my research career and continue to make a difference.

Photo by Hunters Race on Unsplash

1 comment

Thank you very much for your inspirational talk or views particularly for students completing their PhD studies. Currently, I have completed my PhD study and I have recognized many things from your article.
A) The most impressing parts of the article to me:
1. Being comfortable with failure
2. Comfortable getting feedback
B) your brilliant Motto:
“Making the impossible possible”

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