Friday, June 14, 2013

How Being an Engineering PhD Student is Like being an Entrepreneur

Instead of giving tips or describing technologies that I'm familiar with, I decided to make a comparison. In many ways, being an engineering PhD student is like being an entrepreneur. Sure, I took my fair share of classes, and I was a teaching assistant four times (to date). Likewise, I certainly do my fair share of engineering research like other PhD students. With those things aside, however, I've found myself going things that entrepreneurs would do: writing grant proposals, throwing myself out into the world, and pitching my ideas.

I honestly don't know if PhD students at other universities feel the same way as I do, as it might just be part of the Carnegie Mellon culture. After all, CMU has created many startups including Ansoft (now part of Ansys), Ettus Research, BeatBots, Astrobotics Technology, and many more. (CMU has a facility specifically for help students and professors startup companies.) In addition, my PhD advisor has encouraged me to be proactive, creative, and independent from earlier on in my PhD. Furthermore, I have this drive to want to succeed and create my own legacy. I know that I can do this through my PhD because I feel my research is important and will greatly benefit society.

Like entrepreneurs, my life has a good sense of uncertainty to it. In some ways, this frightens me. I've written several grant proposals in the last month, but I don't know what the future will bring. I know that I have funds for the next few months, but to be frankly honest I don't know if my grant proposals will be accepted. However, this sense of uncertainty encourages me to be proactive, as I truly want to succeed because I love what I do with a passion. I will do everything it takes to succeed both in raising funds for my PhD and in completing my PhD. Instead of sending my proposals to venture capitalists and angel investors, I write grant proposals for government agencies. It is only recently that I've decided to follow a crowdfunding route and pitch my ideas to the world. I feel that I must do this, as it is necessary for my overall success because there are no guarantees that the government agencies will accept my grant proposals. It will also put me above and beyond other PhD students because I will have a unique experience under my belt.

Finally, I have an exit strategy to my PhD like entrepreneurs have exit strategies for their startups. Entrepreneurs might sell their companies or close shop after a given time. However, PhD students can exit their programs in one of several ways: failing the qualifying exams multiple times, leaving the program for industry, or graduating by writing and successfully defending their thesis. I intend to graduate, and I hope that I will graduate in a year. Of course, there is always uncertainty because graduation depends on whether or not my PhD advisor feels that my thesis is ready to be successfully defended. Luckily, I've found that I thrive in uncertainty.


Jonathan Becker
ECE PhD Candidate
Carnegie Mellon University