A career in a start-up company is more than just risk, discovers Idil Cazimoglu.
This piece was one of two winners of the Science Innovation Union writing competition, Oxford.
My housemate, now in the final year of his PhD, had a one-word answer to my question “Would you consider working in a start-up company after you graduate?”
Intrigued, I posed this question to fellow PhD students in various disciplines over the following weeks, and received similar answers including “I don’t want to live in uncertainty,” “No job security,” “Academia is more stable,” and, memorably, “I’d rather go bungee jumping.”
Finally, one of my ‘respondents’ said “Yes, why not? I’ve been following only the safe path so far. It’d be interesting to do something a bit riskier.” He paused, asked, with a suddenly worried face: “What’s the estimated percentage of start-ups that fail?”
Now, this micro study was done on my limited circle of PhD student friends, but it was still surprising to see all of the responses converge on one factor: risk.
True, working in a start-up company is an inherently risky pursuit. The company may fail to receive enough investment, to create what it promised, to expand quickly enough, to pay your salary. Or it may just fail in unimaginable ways. While these risks cannot be completely eliminated, they can be minimised by a truly innovative product or service with a strong market demand, effective ways of pitching to investors, a powerful marketing strategy, and, perhaps most importantly, the right team of people.
Risk factors aside, a start-up environment is different from academia in several ways. One major difference is the ability to plan. As an academic, you can expect a reasonable amount of freedom in determining your schedule for a given day and anticipate that it will go as planned. In a start-up, things change fast, and so should you.
Last week, my close friend’s start-up company went into chaos because a larger company had just put a competing product on the market. My friend’s company is now looking to change its product to fill a different gap in the market. She says “It’s not easy, but it’s thrilling.” If you adapt to new situations quickly and work well under pressure, you may enjoy working in a start-up company. If you want to have at least a decent idea of what to expect before arriving at work each day, you may appreciate academia more.
The impact of your work can also be different in a start-up company than in academia. I once asked an academic friend how he felt about the impact of his work. “I’ll let you know if I hear anyone’s read it,” he said.
While I would hope this statement is an exaggeration, it does contain some truth. Twenty-seven percent of papers in the natural sciences are never cited. There’s a common rumour that only 1.6 people, on average, read a PhD thesis, and that’s including the author. Even when a paper or a thesis is read widely, its ‘impact factor’ does not necessarily correspond to a tangible impact on society. For many scientists, following their curiosity and doing science for the sake of science is a satisfactory endeavour and direct impact is not a priority. The main goal is to publish papers in order to get the information out there. Other scientists prefer that their research makes an immediate difference in others’ lives. In a start-up company, you may have opportunities for quicker and more direct ways of translating research into applications with visible impact.
Your personal preference between focused or wide-ranging research might also influence where you find a more satisfactory career. As an academic, you have the flexibility to tackle a few problems at once, or leave those problems aside for a few months to explore a new problem, and come back to them with fresh eyes. In a start-up, you have a single problem, and you have to solve it fast. There is little room for sidetracks. With this tightly focused approach, you have less freedom to explore, but can acquire deep knowledge of your problem and solve it quickly.
Above are just a few examples of the differences between joining a start-up company and working in academia based on anecdotes shared by my academic and start-up friends. My limited micro study revealed that PhD students (in my immediate circle) perceive start-up companies as representative of “risk,” and overlook other challenges and rewards associated with working with these companies.
I would like to encourage my fellow PhD students to extensively research the start-up companies where opportunities are available, talk to as many people as possible, and employ a balanced consideration when deciding whether to join a start-up company.
Start-ups aren’t for everyone. Neither is academia. In order to find the right place, we all need to consider a multitude of factors, and risk is only one of them.