Applying PhD Research Skills to Entrepreneurship

Mark Twain once said “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education”. Pop-culture entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg seem to have lent a little credibility to Twain’s romantic notion. So did Elon Musk, Larry Page, and Sergey Brin all waste their time by enrolling in PhD programs?

My name is Gary O’Keeffe and I am currently doing my  PhD in MACSI, in the University of Limerick.

In order to answer that question I decided to talk with two local entrepreneurs.Pic_1James O’Keeffe has a degree in electronic engineering from the National Institute for Higher Education (NIHE) at Limerick. James worked for Schaffner  Ltd. in the National Technology Park, Co. Limerick from (1983-1999) before setting up Anchorpoint Motorhomes.


Pic_2Ethan O’Brien has bachelor of Engineering in Electronic and Computer Engineering from the University of Limerick. He recently co-founded an education based start up company in Limerick.

Each entrepreneur was asked the following questions:

  • Did you always want to become an entrepreneur?
  • Why did you choose to execute your particular business idea?
  • If you were to pick one personality trait that makes you different to most people what would that be?
  • Can you give me an example of a big challenge that you faced with your company? How did you overcome this challenge?
  • If you could go back in time and give yourself advice starting off, what would it be?

While James had entrepreneurial aspirations predating their current business idea, Ethan did not. Interestingly the employment circumstances of both James and Ethan differed slightly when they started their respective companies. Schaffer had just closed their plant in Limerick and so James had to seek employment or create employment. Ethan had recently gained employment and so he had to create a balance between his two jobs. After completing a PhD it’s likely that you will be in a similar circumstance to either James or Ethan.

Doing a PhD sacrifices current income while increasing lifetime earning potential. Starting a business sacrifices current income with no guarantee of an increased lifetime earning potential.

While James accepted this financial risk, Ethan managed this risk by staying in his current job. There are advantages to both approaches, while Ethan had more financial security; James had much more time to dedicate to his business.

Both Ethan and James exhibit a remarkable ability to adapt and work in multiple domains. James originally founded Anchorpoint before it became Anchorpoint motorhomes. He pivoted away from business process engineering and towards motorhome sales. Ethan actively engaged in his educational experience by completing modules outside his degree. He supplemented his computer engineering degree with psychology modules, giving him a rare ability to solve engineering problems with people/users in mind.

As industrial mathematicians we embrace the opportunity to participate in study groups and modelling workshops.

I enjoy working in teams, meeting people from different industries, and using a variety of skills to solve industrial problems. Unfortunately opportunities to problem solve in a domain outside of mathematics aren’t always as obvious. While skills such as technical writing and presenting might seem generic and transferable, applying them to unfamiliar fields is not always straightforward. In November I was part of a team that developed and presented a business plan at this event. I would encourage any PhD student to find and attend events like this if they are interested in entrepreneurship or simply interested in broadening their skill sets.

Elon Musk, Sergey Brin, and Larry Page may not have achieved the delicate balance between extra curricular activity and PhD research. But without Larry Page meeting Sergey Brin, we wouldn’t have Google. Furthermore, Elon Musk has explicitly praised academia and the physics/applied mathematics approach to problem solving . Taking a more active approach to your professional development affords you the opportunity to gain a broader skillset. The more you put into your PhD experience, the more you get out of it in the end.



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