Zakiya Qualls: The Entrepreneurial Scientist

Current position: Ph.D. Candidate, Immunity, Infection, & Inflammation (I3) Research Track; Freelance medical writer & blogger
Program start date:  September 2011
Institution: Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences

I chose to pursue graduate training simply based on my love of science, the desire to understand all aspects of the biology around me, and the hope of contributing meaningful solutions to real world problems. At first, there was nothing that enticed me more than the idea of graduating, completing a post-doc (or few), and working as a research scientist publishing groundbreaking papers in my field. However, as time progressed my entrepreneurial objectives and goals grew as I realized I wanted a more independent work life that I controlled. Furthermore, it didn’t seem likely that I would be one of the few graduate students able to develop a technology in lab novel enough to start a biotech company. I started to become a little disappointed with my chosen educational route because while I still wanted to be an entrepreneur, I didn’t think I was prepared to do so! With a little digging around however, I came across articles like Scientists Working Outside Their Fields Are More Likely to Become Entrepreneurs published in the Harvard Business Review, and my opinion slowly started to change. In time, I learned that not only could scientists become successful entrepreneurs, but that with proper utilization, our Ph.D. training basically prepares us to run any type of company imaginable. I was no longer envious of the private practices of medical doctors and dentists, because I now understood that my training didn’t limit me to just one type of business, but opened the door to limitless business opportunities if I used my lab developed creativity to envision them. Let’s review a few of the skill sets developed while pursuing a life science Ph.D. that are invaluable to business acumen and running a successful business.

  1. Time management- During your time in graduate school you successfully juggled class, research, writing, extracurricular activities, mentoring, journal clubs, life, and even teaching. You mastered the ability to prioritize the order in which tasks get done. Juggling deadlines along with client demands is half the battle inherent to running a business.
  2. Budgeting money/fundraising- Did you apply for external fellowships or were you in charge of ordering lab supplies while in graduate school? In my case, I learned to plan out experiments sometimes months in advance in order to adhere to strict stipends and grant budgets. I often thought of this as an annoyance, but now I am a pro at getting discounts from companies and making sure materials are well stocked, so I don’t run out of an important reagent in the middle of an experiment. This is another aspect of running a business that Ph.D. training has already granted you first-hand experience.
  3. Client management- Being a scientist is pretty unique in regards to the diverse environment that constantly surrounds us. On a daily basis, we interact with individuals from every part of the globe who have different backgrounds, opinions, religions, and outlooks. We train students who have never been in a lab before, deal with multiple bouts of laboratory ‘politics’, and still find time to finish the additional experiments unrelated to our dissertations that our PI’s request from us. This is the perfect preparation for business! We all work together to produce a final product (manuscripts, in the case of scientists), and this is directly translatable to many of the skills you will need in a business environment when dealing with individuals from different fields and difficult clients.
  4. Communication skills/breaking down complex topics for public understanding- Speaking of dealing with individuals from diverse backgrounds and education levels, it is evident that Ph.D. training can sharpen communication skills. From day one, not only were we able to answer challenging questions about our projects from various professors, but we were also able to break down our project to the simplest level so that family and friends could have an idea of what we were researching. We presented at conferences and learned how to give elevator pitches at career development events, all of which helped to improve our communication styles and confidence. Communication is the basis of any human interaction, and can make the difference between a successful business concept that people understand and one that never gains momentum, just because of the way it was initially presented.
  5. Problem solving/troubleshooting/ingenuity- Remember that time (or 500 times) when no matter what you did you just couldn’t get a particular experiment to work? That is until you broke down every step of the process in an effort to troubleshoot or you found a crazy new way to measure the same variable. Well, identifying a problem and coming up with a solution is the hallmark of running a business and your Ph.D. training has given you about 1000 times to prefect this skill.
  6. Reputable credentials- Lets face it, having the letters Ph.D. behind your name is never going to hurt you in the business world, especially if you’re offering a service related to science, medicine, or health. Embrace all of the benefits that come with earning a Ph.D.!

In my previous post I detailed my desire to start my own medical communications company, but I also have non-degree related business focuses including real estate investing and holistic health/nutrition coaching. People often ask me why I completed a Ph.D. to get involved with these seemingly unrelated career paths, and I explain that the skillsets I have developed over the past 5 years are already proving to be invaluable for my business endeavors. While I am aware that only a small percentage of scientists have entrepreneurial goals, the skillsets discussed above have direct translation to both industry and academic career paths. Overall, I believe that Ph.D. training is a great way to perfect complex skills that will benefit you no matter what career path you chose.

Recent Posts

Leave a Comment