The journey to obtaining a PhD degree is different for everyone. Nevertheless, to me these journeys share the same stem: You read related works in your field, find a problem and work hard to propose a meaningful contribution to the field by coming up with a solution or substrate to reaching one eventually. Your work is assessed by your peers when you publish and ultimately by selective examiners when you graduate.
Some PhD dissertations were able to create new or fundamentally change the field. However, most PhDs go unnoticed. Some of them are “blue sky”, purely theoretical work that haven’t (yet) found any practical application, others are applications that don’t solve real problems.
Today, many attempt to revolutionize the process and bring research closer to commercialization. I guess this partially related to recent advances in technology and overhyped successful start-ups which are implicitly forcing some traditional research institutions to ask the question: How can we reproduce these successes in the academic environment?
On paper, it seems, they have all the ingredients to do it: smart, award winning researchers, who are appointed to heads the lab. The lab is full of hungry and eager to prove themselves PhD candidates and often with abundance of resources. Evidently, this is not enough, it seems something is missing. So far the most common solution is to hire “experts,” people who have done it before, to show everyone the way. Some see success, but mainly on a small scale, no Facebook or Google has resulted from it, as far as I know. One can argue it’s too early to judge, perhaps; so let’s just wait and see :)
While we wait, I wonder if we could try a different approach. The way I see it, the whole entrepreneurial (this is vastly overhyped word nowadays) process is very random and adhoc. The world is very, very complex thing. I read a few books 1234 on the topic and was left highly affected by the message. Despite all the complexity around us, we hold a simplistic view of it in our heads. We presume and derive patterns from successes of others, but really the causality is rarely there. We simply don’t know the whole story and our brain is wired to believe a linear interoperation of it, e.g., smart guys locked in a basement equals great success! And even if do believe in the idea of randomness, we often act as if we can control it by looking for signals and being superstitious.
Recently, I was introduced to Marc Andreessen’s blog archives 5, where he shares his views and experiences on the entrepreneurial process. There are some nice insights to it and I heartily recommend anyone who is interested in the process to look at it. Having said that, you should be wary of interpolating his thoughts as a solutions or prescription to the innovation problem. I personnally see it as just another piece of a huge puzzle6. In the context of this discussion I would like to point to one specific post, “Luck and the Entrepreneur, Part 1: The four kinds of luck” which I found particularly interesting.
In it Marc recommends a number of questions that entrepreneurs should ask. To me these questions express a lot of what I found missing in the current approaches. I think every lab that seeks success or to put it more precisely a chance of a success in promoting and building new solutions (i.e., start-ups, ventures, companies, etc) should constantly ask itself these questions:
How energetic are we? How inclined towards motion are we?
Marc goes on to say: “Those of you who read my first age and the entrepreneur post will recognize that this is a variation on the “optimize for the maximum number of swings of the bat” principle. In a highly uncertain world, a bias to action is key to catalyzing success, and luck, and is often to be preferred to thinking things through more throughly.”
The way I interpret the above is: don’t be afraid to fail or if you the head of a lab, allow your people to fail. Failure is progress. One can obviously define failure in many ways. But basically, the more things your try the higher are your chances to actually stumble on something great. Experiment, iterate, discuss and repeat. In my mind, this should be a fun and thought provoking process, i.e., less standard meetings with agenda and projections to the future, more brainstorming activities, walking meetings and philosophical discussions.
How curious are we? How determined are we to learn about our chosen field, other fields, and the world around us?
This is really close to my heart. I am a huge believer in random interactions. As Nassim Taleb put it in his book:
“Go to parties. You can’t even start to know what you may find on the envelope of serendipity. If you suffer from agoraphobia, send colleagues”.
Often I tried to organize seminars and push people in my group attend seminars from others groups that have no obvious relation to their field. People don’t feel the need to attend. This is because in academia on average you publish papers in your immediate research discipline so naturally everything else seems like a distraction.
My supervisor was always encouraging me to broaden by horizons. You never know what you might learn and how things might click. Be curious and go to parties! Best way to be invited to a party is to organize one :)
How flexible and aggressive are we at synthesizing – at linking together multiple, disparate, apparently unrelated experiences on the fly?
Marc goes on saying: I think this is a hard skill to consciously improve, but I think it is good to start most creative exercises with the idea that the solution may come from any of our past experiences or knowledge, as opposed to out of a textbook or the mouth of an expert. (And, if you are a manager and you have someone who is particularly good at synthesis, promote her as fast as you possibly can.)
I agree – borrowing the taxonomy from Gladwell’s book7, these people are the connectors. They roam the organization, talk to people and are deeply fascinated by what everyone is doing. They feel pleasure when things connect. In my option, I might be bias on this, this should be highly encouraged, more often than not, in an academic institute, sitting or standing in front of your desk is directly associated with work.
How uniquely are we developing a personal point of view – a personal approach – a personal set of “eccentric hobbies, personal lifestyles, and motor behaviors” that will uniquely prepare us to create?
I think this last point ties everything together nicely. It all comes down to who we are and what drives us. We should remain curious, energetic and fascinated by what is around us. We shouldn’t sit in the room and think what is next big thing but rather focus on how to master important to us skills and create supporting and encouraging space where ideas are shared and discussed on merit on how we can make things better.
This above maybe somewhat romanticized description, but I strongly believe that even if in terms of current success metrics (e.g., 1B company, jobs, products, papers) “nothing” comes out of it, you will still end up with an environment where people grow both personally and professionally. You enhance their curiosity and their will to make change. These people might leave you at some point and find a way to do all of those things, probably from yet another random interaction over drinks in a party. It’s a win-win situation for me.
New PhD lab
Finally, I wonder, and this is might be a bit far fetched, if we can recruit those who embrace the above questions in their everyday activities (as a mantra if you will:) for a new type of lab. I am pitching for a lab which by itself is a start-up with all the risks but also opportunities and rewards. It will provide a unique PhD program, where PhD candidates build start-ups or part of them. This is a huge risk, so maybe some universities need to be persuaded to provide a safety net, so if things don’t work out (they often won’t) you can defend your work and awarded a degree. I personally, see a huge benefit for someone who ultimeqnatly wants to build a company to utilize his time in a PhD program in an effective and more focused manner.
In other words, let disturb the PhD awarding system! I see a lot of symmetry between doing a PhD and building a start-up (at least initially). In both you need to find a problem to solve. You work hard, for little pay, and faced with many rejections for your ideas. Similarly, you need a mentor and a great team to ultimetly successed. Yes, this lab is not for everyone, pure academic wouldn’t like it8. But this is my point, most labs are trying to lure academics. So, you end up with researchers/students that are pushed into two very different directions, publish papers and work on a product. These are two different things, and if you are not interested in one of them, the other one suffers. Don’t get me wrong, this new lab is also a much risker deal for everyone, but this is the point. People going into it should know the risks, but also rip the rewards. It would be much harder for them to get into academia afterwards, but if you pick the right people, they typically wouldn’t want to do it anyway.
Many academic/industry organization are founded to promote academic research, so start-ups and everything else has piled up on top of it. It’s essentially patchwork. So you get people, very smart people, who think they joined a research institution because they want an academic career and suddenly they are told that they need to start companies. This is not easy to process, so they fight it but not openly with contra arguments or suggestions. Often it’s a quiet rebellion. For example, a supervisor will advise a student not to attend any commercialization brainstorming session and insist on focusing on writing papers. These things go unnoticed and can be easily be masked by something that shows progress towards the original goal.
I think at this point, I should stress that I am not against the traditional academic process. It has its place and also flaws but that’s a separate discussion which is outside the scope of this post. I am simply arguing that current research labs should consider new approaches that are better aligned with the (new) reality when it comes to commercializing their research.
So let’s get more specific:
As I write this, it might seems that above is too simplistic and maybe even naive. I do realise that in practice it’s very hard, as with everything it is very complex and many factors are involved. More so, it will be hard to know in advance if it actually works. You need funding for it and this means the process needs to be evaluated by someone. How can you evaluate it? In my opinion, this is not the right question. PhD is not an exam. It’s a journey. Your ultimate goal should be changing the world; the lab is there to assist you with mentorship, advice, connections. This might resemble an incubator for start-ups, with one crucial difference, the main focus is on YOU rather than spinning off companies, which are just by products. A great example of that is Computer lab in Cambridge, UK9. This is one of the most successful labs when it comes to innovation. Ironically, in my brief time in the lab, I didn’t see much push to spin out companies and yet as you walk into the build you are faced with a stand full of companies that came out of the lab. The lab just provides people with a great environment to learn and cultivate their talents and skills. It is also a great place to brainstorm ideas.
To sum up, there is no real formula and pretending that the current (academic) approach can be adjusted to fit a new reality doesn’t really make sense to me. There are no experts on this — at least in my mind. This is a random and unpredictable process. Ultimately, we might just get lucky a couple of times, so we should at least enjoy the ride.
Disclaimer: These are my personal views. I am by no means an expert or am considering myself as one. I haven’t built a multimillion dollar company nor I successfully founded a lab that had a huge success in commercialization. I presume a lot of the following thoughts are based on my personal experiences as a PhD/Postdoc in academia and as a graduate student in a research lab with focus on commercialization. You don’t need to agree with me and you might be right to do so. The point of this write-up is to summarize some of the thoughts I had in my own head and promote discussion on the topic. This topic fascinates me and I am learning new things everyday.
Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan, 2011. ↩
Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. The black swan: The impact of the highly improbable fragility. Random House, 2010. ↩
Taleb, Nassim. Fooled by randomness: The hidden role of chance in life and in the markets. Random House Incorporated, 2004. ↩
Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers: The story of success. Hachette UK, 2008. ↩
We might never see the whole picture but it’s nice when pieces connect. Continuing this analogy, sometimes even if the pieces connect they are not meant to be together in the context of the bigger picture. This is sometimes harder to admit. ↩
Gladwell, Malcolm. The tipping point: How little things can make a big difference. Little, Brown, 2006. ↩
Ironically, this type of “lab” might produce better academics. ↩