Creativity and innovation. Flexibility and adaptability. Critical thinking and problem solving. Communication. These crucial skills are all part of the entrepreneurial mindset, and they can be used to augment wide-ranging careers. Multiple studies have shown that these skills are not only highly valued by employers across job sectors, but that they also correlate with academic and professional success.
Women in both academia and industry utilize these entrepreneurial skills every day. For example, Melissa Adrian, a graduate candidate at the University of Chicago, breaks down and solves multifaceted problems in the field of environmental statistics. Another scientist, Vivian Fu, PhD, has honed her communication skills to work cross-functionally and to coordinate research publications across different departments in her role as a senior publications manager at AbbVie. Kelly Perry, MPH, uses public health research insights to keep leaders informed as senior technical officer at the international nongovernment organization, FHI 360.
Yet another case in point is Chinasa T. Okolo, a PhD candidate at Cornell University, who, inspired by an immersive entrepreneurship trek to Silicon Valley, enrolled in courses at Cornell’s Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at the SC Johnson College of Business. She noticed a high degree of similarity between skills required for entrepreneurship and those required for scientific research, and she realized that this overlap could enhance her work as a graduate student researcher in computer science. Although Okolo does not consider herself to be an entrepreneur, she says, “Having an entrepreneurial mindset expanded my options for what I could do with a PhD.”
Not all entrepreneurs start companies, of course. Lynden Archer, PhD, the Joseph Silbert Dean of Engineering at Cornell University, has found that the entrepreneurial mindset is just as essential to his success as an academic scientist. “Being a professor is one of the most entrepreneurial professions I can think of,” says Dr. Archer. “In addition to designing the education experiences that shape future generations, you get to advance groundbreaking research that enables new discoveries, and in some cases, to start new companies to commercialize products based on those discoveries.”
Professor JoAnn Trejo, PhD and MBA, agrees. She leverages an entrepreneurial mindset to run a happier, more productive pharmacology lab at the University of California, San Diego. “When I think about ‘entrepreneurial,’ I think about it not necessarily as starting a company, but as utilizing knowledge [and] resources to achieve goals,” she says.
In fact, no matter what career path you take, an entrepreneurial mindset can help you grow and have a greater impact. The ability to learn from failure, convince others, take intelligent risks, and rally resources to solve problems and effect change will help in any career. (Fig. 1)
Key Skill Sets
Similar to what Drs. Archer and Trejo have found, many studies have concluded the skills, characteristics, and behaviors that drive entrepreneurial action are widely applicable, as well as extremely valuable, across industry and academic roles. What employer wouldn’t prefer to hire a team player who is able to identify and seize new opportunities, who can communicate persuasively, and who is a self-starter? Over years of research, the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) has divided these key skills into eight broad categories:
- Flexibility and Adaptability
- Future Orientation
- Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
- Creativity and Innovation
- Communication and Collaboration
- Initiative and Self-Reliance
- Comfort with Risk
- Opportunity Recognition
Indeed, top companies have put an increasing emphasis on such competencies in recent years. By and large, companies are seeking workers with well-developed entrepreneurial skills, including critical thinking and problem solving, flexibility, persuasive communication, and collaboration.
Scientists are typically trained to value their technical abilities, but their broader professional skills are equally important for success. In a recent survey, over 8,000 science PhD respondents from across workforce sectors agreed, specifically pointing to skill gaps around career planning and awareness, as well as to gaps in the ability to work on teams, to manage others, and to work with people outside their organization. Happily, all such gaps are areas where AWIS members are perfectly poised to help each other. AWIS members’ guidance is particularly valuable since the skills characteristic of the entrepreneurial mindset are not often taught in traditional educational settings. Groups like NFTE are pushing to incorporate this type of training into traditional curricula, but their efforts are too late for scientists who are already in the workforce — including in academia — who may have to seek their own education.
Thankfully, these skills don’t need to be learned from scratch. Using the NFTE framework, one can assess one’s own proficiencies and decide which areas to work on.
Although some people may be more inclined to think entrepreneurially, we can all learn these skills throughout our lives in both formal and informal settings. “There’s some part of it that, of course, comes naturally,” says Dr. Fu, in her assessment of the entrepreneurial mindset. “If it doesn’t, you learn it on the job. If it does, you still learn it on the job, because no two situations are ever the same.” Moreover, these skills can be practiced daily in scientific settings.
Young scientists — from undergraduate researchers to early career faculty — often begin an informal training in entrepreneurship without knowing it. Dr. Trejo says, “One of the most valuable experiences is coming up with an idea for a project and executing it.”
According to Dr. Trejo, every individual who undertakes a scientific project uses entrepreneurial skills to achieve their goals. Dr. Fu agrees and describes her graduate school training as “being very self-directed and self-starting,” which has translated into an entrepreneurial mindset. Dr. Fu has also found that abilities like problem solving, which she describes as finding and then filling the gap in knowledge, have directly translated into success in her career in the medical writing field.
“I use all of these in my daily life,” Melissa Adrian says, referring to her position as a graduate student researcher in environmental statistics. For Adrian, keys for accelerating problem solving are communication and collaboration, especially when working outside one’s field of expertise.
In a public health setting, Kelly Perry uses the entrepreneurial mindset to focus on growth and to maintain flexibility. “An entrepreneurial mindset reminds me to be flexible, view the process of improvement as essential to growth, and find the sweet spot of realistic and ambitious standards for myself,” she says. “Such a mindset has also allowed me to appreciate the breadth of the human experience more deeply, hopefully paving the way for me to be a better mentor and colleague to others, as well as to view scenarios from multiple perspectives and to understand how interconnected our world is.”
Chinasa T. Okolo sees correlations between her entrepreneurship experiences and her current PhD research, in which she focuses on writing code to improve global health. After taking business and management courses, as well as talking to faculty and other students involved with the entrepreneurial ecosystem, she highlights flexibility as one of her most-used skills. She believes that her open-mindedness and adaptability while undertaking her graduate field work will easily transfer to a fast-paced start-up environment as well.
Dr. JoAnn Trejo learned some entrepreneurial skills from the Rady MBA program at the University of California, San Diego, but she notes that “not everyone has an opportunity to do that.” Dr. Trejo says that before working on her MBA, she improved her entrepreneurial abilities by “working with colleagues, particularly senior colleagues who have a lot of experience, and by asking them questions, learning from them, and probing them.”
Finally, opportunity recognition is a key skill defined by the NFTE. By assessing and accessing the resources around you — either by recognizing opportunities to enhance your academic, professional, or personal progress, or by recognizing opportunities to enhance your entrepreneurial skills — you can easily develop an entrepreneurial mindset (see Fig 2.) Many academic institutions and companies offer formal training in the form of courses and workshops, but informal training is equally important and can be sought out in the form of mentorship. Trejo says that in the academic setting, it is critical to emphasize mentorship and that “even just making [people] more aware [that they] can become a better mentor [can help] people be more successful.”
AWIS members can find mentors of all genders through the organization’s membership directory, which allows you to search for members by degree, general field, location, and more.
You can also seek more formal education in entrepreneurial skills via courses online, at local universities, and at career centers. Additional resources are available through professional societies and NFTE websites.
Developing and applying an entrepreneurial mindset is a continuous journey. Re-evaluating your skills, and then seeking out more opportunities to develop them, is a part of maintaining the entrepreneurial mindset; improving these skills can assist in career advancement and boost your daily life, from science communication to lab management. Spending a few minutes looking into potential resources is all that it takes to start!
As Kelly Perry says, “Everyone can adapt an ‘entrepreneurial mindset’ in a way that best suits them — there is no blueprint … you’re free to cultivate what such a mindset looks like for you.”
Helen Wedegaertner is a PhD candidate in the Biomedical Sciences Graduate Program at the University of California San Diego. Her research is focused on identifying signaling pathways that can be exploited for cancer treatments. Outside of the lab, she is slowly working on checking National Parks off the list and likes to attend cycling classes.
Rikki Serafina Laser earned her BS at the University of Iowa and is a graduate student at Cornell University. She studies how ambient temperature affects parental behavior and neonatal development in a biparental rodent. When she is not in the lab, Laser enjoys searching for tadpoles and fish at the local state parks and crocheting shawls and animals.
Bhaavya Srivastava is a PhD candidate in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior at Cornell University. Her research centers on understanding the role of chemical signaling in sexual selection and speciation. Outside of the lab, she enjoys reading science fiction and fantasy and writing about science for all audiences.
Susi Varvayanis is Executive Director of Cornell Graduate School’s Careers Beyond Academia. After many years at the bench in virology and cancer cell biology research, as well as managing a flow cytometry core lab, Varvayanis pivoted toward workforce and business development. In her current role at Cornell, her research involves experiential learning in graduate education to ensure alignment of skills, experiences, and aspirations with employer needs without contributing to the length of time needed to complete the PhD degree.