The Hardest Part of Starting a Business After a PhD

The Hardest Part of Starting a Business After a PhD

I’ve been asked a few times recently about how I started a business after finishing my PhD.

There are things that I expected would be hard, but weren’t. So I’ll start with these, and I hope they’ll give you encouragement that post-PhD freelancing is possible.

Then I’ll talk about the hardest part of running a business and what you can do right now to make it easier for yourself.


It’s easy … to learn new hard skills


During your postgraduate career you’ve written in-depth essays, papers, and theses on topics that you knew nothing about until a few months ago.

This is a key skill. No. More than that. This ability to quickly acquire new knowledge is your postgrad superpower!


Because you don’t need to be a world-class expert on a topic to begin selling your advice to clients.

Just like in seminars, when you stayed ahead of the class by reading a few extra books, in business you can help your clients by knowing more than them.

Don’t underestimate how valuable you are with your knowledge-acquisition skills. Because your client now doesn’t have to go away and work out the specifics of her problem, generate a reading list of appropriate texts, and then take the time to read it, you’ve added value to that client’s business.

You can give valuable advice that saves them time and (you should make sure) saves them money or makes them money.

So don’t worry about not knowing enough to persuade people to pay you. Just pick the top 5 books in the business area you’re interested in and go from there. Just like your supervisor told you: keep reading.


It’s easy … to run a small business


Another question I’ve been asked a few times is about the process of starting and running a business.

A common refrain: “I’m not entrepreneurial”.

Ok. But you were able to navigate the university bureaucracy to secure your degree. Which leads me to believe that you can also register as self-employed, create a basic invoice in Word, and keep track of your expenses.

I’d argue that running your PhD is very similar to running a business. In business, it’s called ‘burn-rate’ – how much money your business has until it goes bust. In academia, it’s called ‘revert to baked bean diet’ – you know how much cash is in your bank and whether you can afford Zygmunt Bauman’s new book.

Your ‘project management skills’ aren’t just a meaningless line you can put on your CV. You did actually complete a massive project with loads of moving parts, incredible stress, and setbacks throughout. Getting that beast over the finish lines tells me that you can run a simple service-based business.


It’s hard … to start a new network


This is the hardest part – by a looooong way – of starting a business after your PhD.

You’ve spent your time building an academic network. They are unlikely to need your services, and unlikely to know many people who do.

This is a problem.

Your business will only survive if you are able to regularly meet people who,

  1. recognise they have the problem that you can solve
  2. want to solve that problem right now
  3. have a budget to pay you

How do you meet people like that? Well, certainly not at academic conferences. There’s no easy answer to that question. You just need to get comfortable putting yourself in situations where you have a hunch that you’ll meet those types of people.

My strategy?

I don’t lean on any one particular group for networking opportunities. You’ll meet the same people over and over. This won’t expand your network.

Instead, I trawl through MeetUp and Eventbrite and look for interesting local events that align with some aspect of the services I offer.

The PhD ability of lateral thinking helps here. Remember how you would twist your thesis topic to fit some weird conference theme? Do the same thing with your new business.

I’ve found some great clients by going to an industry conference that initially seemed really off-topic. But that meant that there were hardly any people like me there, so I stood out.

The number one piece of networking advice I can offer is: put away your fucking phone!!!

You must must must get used to standing around awkwardly in unfamiliar rooms with unfamiliar people.

You think that you look like a total loser and just want to go home right now. But the people around you think “there’s someone else who doesn’t know anyone here, they aren’t messing about on their phone so are open to talking. I’ll go say hi.

If you’re at all interested in starting a business post-PhD, get used to networking and start doing it right now. Knowing people will never harm your career, but not knowing anyone certainly will.


Is it possible to start a business without a network?



Listen. Networking is just knowing people. You need to know people who trust you to the point where they’ll pay you good money to perform services for their business – or refer you to people who will.

You get people to trust you by being honest, authentic, and nice i.e. a human being. There’s no shortcut to building a network. (Oh. And randomly following people on Twitter, or shotgun LinkedIn connection requests do not count as networking.)

If you are still doing a PhD, the best thing you can do right now is to go out and make friends with people outside of academia.

You can learn hard skills later and work out how to run your business on-the-go (hint: bill people and don’t buy loads of office equipment).

Any questions? Contact me.


4 replies
  1. Fatimah
    Fatimah says:

    Networks are key! Having a network was the biggest contributor to my ability to start a viable and growing business. Many of my contacts looked for ways to hire me on projects because they’d seen my work and work ethic in other areas. They helped me establish a track record in consulting.

  2. philippe barr
    philippe barr says:

    I agree. Networking is very important to transition out of the academia. The only reason my transition was easier than others was that I had a strong non-academic network that I had built while being on the tenure-track. And just a quick personal tip for people who find networking awkward: I found that networking became easier as soon as started to think about what I could give others instead of what I needed from them. This shift in perspective made it much easier for me.


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