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The studENT - Navigating a PhD in Entrepreneurship

Navigating a PhD in Entrepreneurship

(post on behalf of @Sai Kalvapalle, ENT Division PhD representative)

Hello readers! My name is Sai Kalvapalle, and I am the new ENT division PhD representative, which puts me in the amazing position of writing bi-monthly blog posts for what I hope is a captive audience. With these blog posts, I aim to provide a student perspective into topics of interest for the entrepreneurship community. The beauty of such a community, I find, is how diverse, cross-disciplinary, and strong the scholarship is, both theoretically and empirically. Plus, we have the added advantage of being inspired everyday by how entrepreneurs learn, manage resources and relationships, communicate about their ventures, engage interested stakeholders, and, ultimately, make a difference to their communities. 

To begin, a little bit about me: I am currently finishing up my PhD at the Rotterdam School of Management (Erasmus University) in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, and prior to this, I completed my Master’s in Organisational and Social Psychology at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and my Bachelor’s in Psychology at the University of Waterloo. As you may be able to infer, I identify as a global citizen, having been born in India and lived in six countries.

I started studying entrepreneurship in the second year of my PhD. I am sure a lot of us can relate to the uncertainty of the initial years of doctoral studies. You know you want to do research, maybe you have a topic area that is interesting – but where do you start in earnest? Globally, programs are structured differently, varying in amount and type of coursework, whether you are assigned to a project or have to create one yourself, the number and involvement of supervisors… and a range of other factors. Moreover, and as someone interested in entrepreneurial processes, you can do this kind of work in different departments, disciplines, and research environments. I get a lot of questions on how aspiring PhD students should even approach the decision-making that accompanies committing to this research trajectory.

So in answering this call, I thought a good place to start would be to outline my own experiences, and then abstract outward into a few criteria that can serve as general elements to keep in mind while navigating this process.

First, it is important to identify what drives you intellectually, and what level of analysis that may be at. What is often taken for granted is that PhDs are themselves entrepreneurial endeavors, characterized by high levels of uncertainty, constant iteration and adaptation, and necessitating high thresholds for failure. Given this, it is important to stay resilient, and not ‘sprint the marathon,’ as the saying goes. One condition I would deem necessary for resilience is an inherent attitude that prioritizes learning over outcomes. To be like the bamboo that inconspicuously invests in its root system for years before any visible shoots are seen… and then it grows, relentlessly.     

What are you curious about? What is something that hasn’t made sense to you that you want to get to the bottom of? For me, this interest was piqued near the end of my undergraduate studies in Psychology. Fundamentally, I enjoyed learning about how social behavior enables us to work and organize ourselves meaningfully. More specifically, I wanted to understand how people deal with uncertainty, and this curiosity sent me down a learning path that I am still on.

The second important aspect of thinking about a career in research is to effortfully experiment and remember that learning tends to be cumulative. I started my PhD work in sensemaking and inference, and from there I moved into investigating how entrepreneurs can communicate in anticipation of certain inferences in pitching contexts. This question allowed me to read a lot of fascinating studies on funding pitches, which sparked further questions and research collaborations to answer them with. For example, I am now thinking deeply about pitching has become so synonymous with communication for resource-acquisition in entrepreneurship, and what that means for how we think about the prototypical ‘entrepreneur.’

A third area of consideration is trying to get more information about specific research environments. An ‘environment’ in this case largely includes faculty, PhD students, the research culture, teaching requirements, and departmental culture. What are the research areas in focus? Which faculty are accepting PhD students? What are they like to work with? Does the department/school/research institute organize seminars? Where do the PhD students who graduate go once they finish? Are collaborations encouraged during the PhD? What are the teaching requirements? I have had many prospective PhD students reach out to me to gauge their fit with the research program that I am in based on these factors (and more), and I know that myself and many colleagues are happy to share our experiences.

My fourth and final recommendation, once you feel reasonably confident that you have thought about the first three, is to take the leap. Like any entrepreneurial venture, you will face uncertainties and roadblocks, but the nice thing about a research career is that it is a long road where you can experiment and create many opportunities for yourself that beget further opportunities. The key is to increase the serendipity in the process by putting yourself out there in a variety of forms, be in attending seminars, reviewing for journals and conferences, teaching different courses, or taking an interest in the work of a diverse set of scholars.

Can you think of other steps I may have missed in helping current and future PhD students navigate a research career? Let us know in the comments below!