Grad Student Researchers: Thinking Like an Entrepreneur


By Steven Zhou

For many students here in graduate programs at Mason, research is a defining feature of the program curriculum. Whether in a Master’s or PhD program, what you’re probably expecting or have experienced are years of deep study, advanced analysis, and pages upon pages of writing to produce the polished peer-reviewed research articles you need to succeed in academia. Certainly, these skills and competencies are critical to research success.

However, as a PhD student in organizational psychology just starting my own academic career, I’d argue that there’s another often-forgotten skill that’s vitally important: thinking like an entrepreneur.

Students standing at Mason Arlington Campus in business attire.

I realize that this is a bit counter-intuitive. Most of us are aware that academia is very different from start-up businesses: it’s slower, more bureaucratic, and a lot more risk-averse. Maybe you even started graduate school to avoid having to play the “game of business,” so to speak. And if you’re in a graduate research program, you’re probably not here to start a business, you’re here to find answers to important research questions.

Actually, I’d argue that yes, you are in fact here to start a business. That business is your own research portfolio and your areas of expertise. You may not be selling any goods or materials, but you’re selling your ideas and your research.

Your customers? Again, you may not be collecting any money for your work (most likely, you’re spending your own money on it…). But your customers are still faculty members and other students, and although they aren’t paying you money, they “pay” you in the form of citations and views/reads on academic databases. This is the currency of academia, and these citations are ultimately one of the greatest factors in determining your future success in academia.

So why does this matter for us, as graduate student researchers?

Thinking like an entrepreneur requires a vastly different set of skills and abilities compared to doing high-level academic research. Research requires obsession with details, strong written communication skills, comfort working with numbers, and a sense of always questioning everything in search for the “right answer.”

Entrepreneurship, on the other hand, requires strategic communication (often verbal), interpersonal networking, sales and marketing, and a pursuit of a broader vision, without fixating on minute details. It means putting yourself out there and sharing widely the goods and services you are selling, and networking as much as possible to find business partners and customers. I worked in a start-up for a couple years, and even though I was doing similar tasks as I am now in graduate school (data analytics), the context in which I worked differed wildly.

I’ve found that my work in that start-up actually was incredibly helpful as I started this PhD. I’ve learned to share my research on social media (Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram), network as much as possible with other colleagues, especially from different institutions, and strategically “sell” my research agenda to generate interest from others. I’ve found that applying for grants, finding research gaps to fill, and recruiting co-authors is a lot like interviewing for a job, conducting market research, and developing business partnerships.

Unfortunately, I don’t find this side of academia emphasized or taught enough. Our training in Master’s and PhD programs primarily focus on research methods, analysis, and writing. In my opinion, we also should receive training in social media, networking, and sales. These critical skills, while seemingly unrelated, would be incredibly helpful in preparing us for future careers in academic research. Even writing skills are different: the writing style found in academic journals is filled with jargon, incorporates citations that span multiple lines, and uses far too many long sentences with passive voice. It works for academia, but it doesn’t work for public-facing writing.

To all my fellow graduate students: I encourage you to start thinking like an entrepreneur and training yourself to be one. Go get some training in social media and networking; there are many free options such as LinkedIn Learning through Mason. Practice networking; go to events and reach out to colleagues in other institutions. Learn how to write for public audiences; practice writing op-eds that take your research and publicize them in newspapers and non-academic journals.

You may not get rewarded right now for pursuing these experiences. But I’m confident that the reward comes later, when you’re applying for your first academic job or going up for tenure and promotion.

Steven Zhou is a PhD student in organizational psychology at George Mason University. His research expertise is in leadership, teams, and psychometrics, and he writes regularly on data science policy and higher education.