Learn to Think Like an Entrepreneur

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 7, 2014

If someone were to ask you to describe an entrepreneur, you’d probably think of someone in a suit making high-stakes deals, or a tech guru in Silicon Valley developing the latest app and getting it out on the street. Or maybe you stayed closer to home and thought of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln students who founded the wildly successful sports start-up, Hudl

You probably didn’t think of a scientist in a lab coat, someone writing a grant proposal, or a teacher working with undergraduates. That’s because we tend to think of academics as solitary thinkers who are tucked away at the bench or in the library, working long hours on a small part of a problem. This imaginary academic discovers information that other people apply to solving real-world problems. 

You may think that you have to choose to be one or the other, when you can take some of the positive characteristics of the entrepreneur and apply them to being a graduate student. Successful entrepreneurs find a market niche, are agile in how they present themselves, are resourceful when approaching new problems, and are innovative in solving problems that others couldn’t identify. An entrepreneurial mindset will help you as you embark on your career—whether you want to work in a non-profit, in industry, or in academia. 

Think ahead. While an entrepreneur is good at taking action in response to immediate issues, she’s also great at thinking in terms of long-term pay-off. Entrepreneurs look to grow their careers and widen their influence over time. As a graduate student, think about what you’d like to be doing in ten or twenty years. Identify the problem you want to solve, and position yourself to study and find a solution for those problems.

Work across disciplines. In graduate school, you’ve learned to identify problems and study them closely. Think about the big picture too. Seeing the big picture and how your work fits into it takes special skill. This type of thinking is increasingly in demand in academia and beyond. For example, the National Science Foundation asks grant applicants to consider the broader impacts of their research. They want scientists to make interdisciplinary connections with their work that will benefit society. Similarly, the National Endowment for the Humanities asks scholars to propose projects that “are of value to humanities scholars, general audiences, or both.” The knowledge you create has the potential to influence how other fields conduct research. Your research may have a variety of applications. No matter your discipline, an entrepreneurial approach to your work will help you discover how your research makes a difference, or how your research offers new insights into old problems.

Develop transferable skills. The skills you develop as a graduate student can help you succeed in your future career, whatever you choose to do with your degree. We call these skills transferable skills, because a skill developed in one arena has a number of applications, or can be applied in other areas.

Identify skills you have and think about their applications. For example, if you’re good at managing a research project, you have project management skills. These project management skills are valuable in industry and other non-academic jobs. Next, figure out abilities you want to develop for your future career. Be resourceful about how you develop those skills now as a graduate student.

Make connections. Take advantage of opportunities to meet people from across the university, in the community, and beyond. You never know when you’ll make connections between your own work and someone else’s or learn about different ways your skills can be applied to a variety of jobs.

There are a few ways to make connections and meet new people. If you’re interested in politics, working on a campaign for a couple of hours a month will introduce you others who share your passion. You’ll also have the opportunity to develop new skills.

An informational interview is another great way to make connections with people who have careers you’re interested in. Ask mentors if they know anyone in your target field, or see if there are alumni who you could interview. You can ask interviewees how they got into their fields and what they recommend for you and others just starting in their careers. Not only will you have the wisdom of your interviewee to draw on, but you’ll also have a new contact in the field.

Find mentors. Good mentors both during and after grad school can help you think about your career in new ways. Career paths are rarely straight, and it’s important to remember that one experience builds on another. A mentor can help you see where you are and where you’re headed. And when you need the perspective of someone who’s “been there, done that,” a mentor can recommend other possibilities you might not have considered.

Be an agent. By thinking ahead, developing competencies, making connections with people outside of your field, and taking charge of your career now in graduate school—you’re determining your course, not the other way around. Entrepreneurs adapt to their circumstances and they’re agile when it comes to finding solutions—whether to a problem that their project takes on, or finding the next step for their careers.