5 similarities between academic careers and startu...

5 similarities between academic careers and startup life

Many current PhD students or early career researchers find themselves at a crossroads, considering alternate career options. For years we’ve known that the number of doctoral degrees awarded are far greater than the number of jobs for academics available. With numbers like the ones we’ve been seeing, any PhD student close to graduation not considering alternate career options is not very realistic. The growing interest in learning more about career options outside of academia has fuelled books, inspired articles, and is a hot topic at conferences. In fact, tomorrow I am speaking at the 3rd Annual Beyond the Professoriate, an annual career conference for PhDs (students and graduates). Those currently looking for other career options struggle with a multitude of questions, but some of them feed back to a fear of the unknown. What would a job outside academia look like? Would an alternate career path still be intellectually satisfying?

I’ve left the academic career track for a job in the private sector over five years ago. I spent five years at Papers, where the first two it was very much a startup. I’ve recently moved to Mendeley. It’s been a very interesting five years during which I was lucky enough to see many different aspects of business. Both from a startup, as well as a large corporate, perspective.

In light of this, and in honour of spending 5 years at a tech startup, I am rounding up the five ways working for a startup is similar to a career in academia. 

How to leave academia and not even feel the difference 😉

1. Creative freedom to experiment

In a startup you can go from initial idea to full execution in a matter of hours. Turning around ideas and testing them can be done quickly, because only a few people may have to give the go-ahead on your experiment. It tends to be similar in academia. Pretty much everyone I’ve spoken to over the years has had some level of creative freedom in their research. Whether to run a new experiment, or to broaden their knowledge in an area that wasn’t entirely within the scope of their work. Corporates move far slower than this. There are some things you can get done quickly, and it is not like you need permission for every single thing you do. However, launching a new product, or taking a radically different direction with your marketing campaign requires a larger number of stake holders to be convinced and affects far more than your direct team. As a consequence, these types of things run much slower. Depending on the company you work for you may have some freedom to experiment even when it is a large corporate, but everyone’s definition of what that really means is different. The two that are most similar in this regard are really startups and academia. Whether you are working on a new product/service or your research, you are trying to mold something new out of nothing.

2. Low salary

I’ve always thought of my PhD as a low paying job. While I received a stipend from the university, most of the funds were coming from my teaching assistant appointments. This means I was working for the money, quite literally. Beyond that, the research I was producing was skilled labour, which was compensated with a small additional stipend that together made up my full funding package. It would have been possible to live on this total amount, were it not that I had to pay about $8000 a year back to the university in tuition fees. You think undergraduate tuition is expensive? Think again. As a graduate student you may take 1-2 courses a year, and that’s a lot. My requirement was a total of 2 courses for my entire degree (5 years). So those are some of the most expensive courses you will ever take. Of course some of your tuition goes to university resources, library access, and your gym membership. Nevertheless, even your principal investigator or group leader may be paying for those same resources. He/she is likely paying for lab space, and other services provided by the university, so that is not where the graduate student’s tuition is going. By the end of it all, I was left with less than $13k a year. Let’s just say that I was earning substantially more than this once I started working. True startup life, if you start your own company, is not too different in the beginning from your graduate school days. You may have no salary for 1-3 years (much beyond that you need to rethink your business). This is compensated with the potential for a large payout down the road, if your company is successful. However, for every Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook story there are thousands that don’t make it. Every year. If you work for a startup, instead of having started one, you may draw some salary. Likely it will be quite low, and you may get some stock options to supplement this. In any case, startup salaries are not known to be generous. If the company is making money, most of it needs to be reinvested in the business to drive growth. Owners (and sometimes employees) have to gamble, and reap the rewards if things go well. Recently I was looking for a new job, and there were two startups that were interesting prospects. Both of them involved no salary for at least 6 months, pending a successful round of VC funding. In return, I would receive some equity in the company. I was tempted to go for it, but the reason I ultimately didn’t I’ll cover in another blog post.

3. Constant fundraising

Whether you are writing a grant proposal or pitching your product to a VC firm, you are constantly pan handling for money. Entire PhDs and careers can get stalled when the next round of funding does not come in, and thousands of startup companies go belly up every year when they can’t get the funding they need to get off the ground. I’ve discovered that while I may be good at writing grant proposals and I can pitch almond milk to a dairy farmer, it is not necessarily something I love to do when it directly affects me or my team. I am better at it when I can be at arm’s length, and more of an objective party.

4. Emotional rollercoaster

An experiment can fail, or a grant doesn’t come in. Your product launch may be a disaster or you didn’t land that next round of funding. These are some of the ultimate lows we feel whether in academia or in startup life. They are always countered by the highs of a new discovery, some amazing (very statistically significant) data, and scoring your first X-thousand users for your product. The emotional rollercoaster you are on during a PhD and your early academic career are not very different from riding the startup rollercoaster.

5. You’re both janitor and CEO

You have to get your own coffee, clean your office/workspace, and you definitely do not work 9-5. Sound familiar? If you’re asking PhD students or startup founders, you will get the same answer. You are both CEO and janitor, whether of your company or your research project. I’ve often thought the academic track requires a certain entrepreneurial spirit. You need to drive the research, the funding, and manage your team (when you get one). None of these skills are things we are taught during our PhD, but we are expected to execute them and be good managers once we get into a post doc or tenure track position. There is a golden tip hidden in this last statement for anyone looking to leave academia for an industry job…

None of these things we are taught during our PhD…but we are expected to acquire good management skills. 

Think about that for a second. If there is any transferable skill you can communicate to a potential employer, this is one for sure (provided you did learn this of course). Chances are, you’ve had to write grant proposals, defend your research project (this is not unlike pitching a product/service/company/idea), and manage resources (other students, physical lab resources) and projects, and think critically about your work.

The good news is that while so many PhD students and academics who want to leave academia for the private sector are worried about being able to do so, we are in fact trained in a diverse set of skills that are highly desirable. That’s the good news… the trick then is how you communicate having these skills when making your career move. 

While I am drawing from personal experience, I am also drawing inspiration from friends who work in a variety of startups. Not every single point above applies to everyone, and as a consequence not all of them have been applicable to me personally.

Christine Buske is a former academic who left science at the bench, and now considers herself a woman in tech. She is a frequently invited speaker, and enjoys talking about career transformation (particularly leaving academia for the business world), tech, issues around women in tech, product management, agile, and outreach. She is a proud Canadian resident, and qualifies as a "serial expat".


  1. Sandra

    7 May

    I can absolutely identify with the emotional highs and lows. Did you ever get into such a low that you wanted to quit, and if yes how did you handle it?

    • I think that everyone who has undertaken a PhD gets to a certain point where quitting runs through their head. It certainly did for me. However, it was never really an option I seriously considered. I just objectively looked at how far I had already come, how I could turn things around to still finish my PhD, and gave myself a good pep talk. Leaving a PhD may be the right choice for some people, but for me it wasn’t the right choice. It’s a complex issue but definitely a decision that has to be made carefully (with guidance if possible) and not based just on emotion. Hope that helps!

  2. David

    9 May

    Sad to see the fundraising never comes to an end. It’s the part I dislike the most about academia.

    • That really depends… a startup can also grow well and be bootstrapped. If you work in industry (not a non-profit) then you are on a salary that doesn’t require any fundraising or grant applications. Even if you do work for a non-profit, you may not be doing any of the fundraising yourself, depending on your role. In contrast in academia there are precious few scenarios where you are not expected to raise grant money.

  3. MCI

    4 August

    Another great article Christine!
    For the next twelve months, MCI ( will be running a blog article writing competition aimed at PhD students and Post Docs who have a particular interest in technology and techniques in the neurophysiology lab. We’ll have monthly and annual prizes up for grabs, plus the opportunity to get wider exposure for your writing, if you’d like to find out more please follow the link

    • Thanks Sophie! Hopefully lots of people will enter the competition! It looks pretty exciting 🙂

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