My hands shook as I deposited my first consulting pay into my business bank account. It was a lot of money, I mean, not more than I’ve made in my life or anything, but a good chunk.
And I said to myself, in that moment of pure ecstasy, “I never want to do anything else!”
Then the low points came. There was that month where I earned $64.
“How’s it going?” friends would ask.
I’d fake smile. “Great!”
But I didn’t stop. I didn’t envy their 9-5, and I never again wanted to go back to riding the commuter bus into the city.
Entrepreneurship isn’t easy. But for some of us, it almost feels like it’s in our blood.
I’ve met a lot of graduates of advanced degrees who have gone towards entrepreneurship. Some have founded startups. Many more have gone the consulting route, and built a one-person consulting gig.
As I hang around people with advanced degrees, I often think that there are things about them that translate well into entrepreneurship. And, as I’ve learned personally, there are some things in our training that are massive hurdles.
6 Ways Graduate School Prepares You for Entrepreneurship
1. It nurtures big dreams
Students of advanced degrees dream big. They’re often hungry and want a lot from the world.
This is good!
The problem that people with lofty dreams occasionally have is that it can be really hard to fit big ambition into someone else’s company.
I remember banging my head against the wall watching the leaders of one company I worked for.
“I could do it so much better!” I said to myself.
And a little voice said, “So why don’t you?”
So I did.
And I realized it was harder than I thought.
But I still get to dream as big as I possibly can and work hard to make my company match my dreams.
So if you have a dream that you think an employer will stifle, maybe you need to give it wings yourself!
2. It prepares you for uncertainty
“Will I be living in Budapest next year, or Tokyo?”
These are the questions that students of advanced degrees get to ask themselves. They’re okay with a level of uncertainty that would throw many people into panic.
In the world of careers and jobs, people rely on the all-important pension and benefits for their survival. Students, like entrepreneurs, don’t get to have that level of comfort. They can quite happily go without for a while.
And that ability to stomach uncertainty is vital if you want to be an entrepreneur.
3. You become a creative problem solver
Do you have the unique ability to define a problem, identify the parts of it, then try to figure out what would solve it? This is something grad students do.
It’s also something entrepreneurs do.
4. You learn to make stuff happen
I mean, it’s not true for everyone. There are grad students who sit and wait to be told what to do.
But to excel in grad school, you need to learn to take initiative and do things yourself. If you want publications on your CV, you have to take the initiative and publish. If you want to teach a course or win a fellowship, you need to apply for it.
And if you’re creating a project or a thesis, you need to have the drive to push it forward and make it happen.
And entrepreneurs need it too. Nobody is going to hold your hand. If you wait for someone to tell you what to do, you’ll be bankrupt before you start.
Entrepreneurs make shit happen.
5. You learn to pitch ideas
Ever written an abstract? How about a research proposal?
This ability to put an idea on paper and sell it is vital in the marketplace. It’s not something that everyone can do.
You can take what’s in your head and translate it into something people will get behind, and even fund! You literally learn to make something out of nothing.
This is the basic component of getting a business off the ground (making it successful is a different story).
6. You learn to iterate until it works
Like an experiment or research project, in entrepreneurship, the thing you intend to do will not always be the thing you end up with. You’ll need to change direction as you go, to iterate.
There’s nothing wrong with this. It’s a natural part of learning and growing into business. And it’s basically what you did as a grad student.
4 ways it doesn’t
1. It doesn’t teach you to think about money properly
Our attitudes about money are usually inherited, and they translate into how we run a business.
Money is evil.
Selling is sketchy.
Entrepreneurs don’t care about their families, they only care about money.
This was all stuff I heard people say, a lot. And I actually believed it.
If you want to hold these beliefs, it’s fine. But you’re not going to make it as an entrepreneur.
I’ve met a lot of students who think this way. Many of us were raised by working-class or middle-class parents, and as a result, we repeat a lot of old adages about money.
Grad school won’t correct this. It often makes it worse.
Then there’s the stuff grad school teaches about capitalism.
Capitalism most certainly needs some work, and I’m a firm believer in a solid social net. (I’m from Canada, so I’ve always just taken health care for granted. Capitalism in my context has always come with universal health care. And Canada’s capitalist, not socialist . . . for the record.)
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want completely unrestrained capitalism.
But all I heard around university campuses, especially in my humanities courses, was that we need to smash capitalism.
If you hate capitalism, don’t become an entrepreneur. Because sooner or later you will need to leverage your capital to make shit happen.
2. It makes you too independent
Okay, this might seem like a pro—and it is!
But at some point, when you’re an entrepreneur, you need to recognize that there’s some stuff you can’t do.
You’ll need to hire someone, for legal advice, for bookkeeping, for graphic design, for advertising, for sales.
As students, we often dig in and solve problems. In the case of entrepreneurship, there are some you can’t solve. You need professional help. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Do what you’re good at, and as you are able, hire others.
Now there’s one silver lining here. Being too independent isn’t just a grad student thing. Every beginning entrepreneur does it.
So your learning curve here is no more difficult than anyone else’s.
3. It doesn’t (usually) teach about business
This isn’t a grad school problem. It’s a society problem.
I was not taught anything about entrepreneurship growing up, and I certainly learned nothing in grad school (the obvious exception here is if you did a business program).
This really stinks, because I want to be good at business. And I had to start from the beginning.
Considering my country apparently thinks that, “Small business is the backbone of the economy,” you think they’d spend a little more time in schools training people how to start them.
AND make it mandatory, so everyone has to learn it.
Anyways, I digress.
If you didn’t learn business basics in school, you might be starting at square one. You can learn it, but not in a weekend. It’s a lifelong journey.
The great news is that business is often best learned by doing.
4. It doesn’t (usually) expose you to entrepreneurs
Do you know one of the hardest things about being an entrepreneur?
Your friends and family don’t understand you. In a world of people worried about what their boss thinks of them, worried that their pension won’t be enough, worried about getting to work on time, and just generally framing their entire existence around a 9 to 5, entrepreneurship is lonely.
Workers say “TGIF.”
Entrepreneurs say, “WTF is F?” If something needs to be done on Saturday, I do it. If I need Tuesday off, I take it.
You need to find some friends who are entrepreneurs. Get around some people who think like you, or who think like you will think in the future.
BY THE WAY, you can help this process by listening to and reading stuff from entrepreneurs.
Let me plug my new favorite podcast here: How I Built This with Guy Raz. It’s amazing.
If you want to become an entrepreneur, grad school did teach you a few things. But now it’s time to become your own teacher, and to jump in and get your feet wet.
It’s a beautiful, lifelong journey, with a lot of ups and downs. Get ready to hurt a lot, and don’t be afraid to stand back up when you fall–which you will.
I do all the time.
Let me know what happens! I’m excited to hear about it. And don’t forget to read the related post on building a consulting business.