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Why building a startup is probably your most sensible career path (nature.com)
270 points by dn2k on Sept 14, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 180 comments

While the author does quote the very low odds of success, I think he does readers a disservice by minimizing that risk. Very few people have the right disposition, the right partners, the right idea, and the right skill set to launch a startup. Being a freshly minted PhD doesn't change that. Failing at a startup sucks, and sucks really hard. But of course, its not in a VC's interest to tell you the pain that comes with a startup.

Better advice: if you want to do a startups, get some experience, find some good partners, test out ideas in your own time, and when you have enough runway and something that looks solid, only THEN make the leap.

> Failing at a startup sucks

This. I have a PhD and a failed startup. It felt real bad, and I didn't get that far with it (9 months before calling it quits). Creating a successful startup requires significantly more energy and stress than most science jobs, even for pre-tenure professors.

It requires different skills than science. Few introverts will succeed at founding a company, for example. Moreover, you have to produce actionable results quickly, and you have very different success metrics.

I'm one degree of separation from a PhD startup founder that literally killed himself as his startup imploded, when the company was 5(?) years old. Severe depression, loss of all semblance of a life... these are standard in the world of startup founders. The risk that you destroy your life is real.

Many of the most successful founders are introverts. Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, Bill Gates, none of them are very extroverted, but they've started some of the most valuable companies in the world.

Of course if you are so introverted that you are unable to make eye contact or talk to people it will be a problem, but most of us are not that extreme.

I hear things like this about Zuckerberg all the time and he did one singular thing that made Facebook take off more than all of the other social networks that were out there at the time (Classmates, High School Alumni, My Space, etc).

He made it exclusive. You had to have a .edu address to sign up so the people ON the network were initially only your peer group. You couldn't get in without that .edu address and therefore you WANTED to get in if you couldn't.

This created a steady user base that didn't have to be EVERYBODY (as long as people at your school were on you didn't care) and a natural spam filter as there were controls on access to those email addresses. Once those people graduated from college they got to stay on the site.

Zuckerberg succeeded specifically because of the exclusivity that Facebook grew from during a time where every other service was just a spam mine.

You don't give him enough credit. From an engineering pov alone, Friendster, myspace and twitter were often down or terribly slow.

Also, the foresight to launch a platform.

Launching news feed despite howling criticism.

Taking the company public with little investor surplus, taking heat on CNBC for a year until the market caught up to what they were doing.

Not putting ads on the site in numbers that turned off users but Having enough to run profitably from an early era

Great hiring.

Edit: Also, I think most people misunderstand the primary benefit of school-by-school rollout. By the time people without .edu addresses wanted into Facebook it was already successful. Their growth plan was premised that if you can get 50% of the people in a network to use something, the other 50% (or close to it) will pile on. You can't do that everywhere all at once across the country, let alone the world. The cliche goes... How do you eat a whale? Bite by bite.

Let's add: clean, simple theme and layout that doesn't allow users to customize how other people see their page.

MySpace was a trainwreck. The default layout was horrendous, and each user had their own themes, many of which were unreadable (I remember having to select text just to read it).

Not that they didn't want it, Myspace glits moved onto tumblr, although it is "cleaner" there I suppose.

From looking at the culture on Tumblr, it feels like there was a large-scale migration from LiveJournal more than anything else.

You're absolutely right. Though I'd argue the real value in that exclusivity was not only exclusivity itself making people want to join (though I'm sure that was part of it), but also in enabling a culture of honesty about names, interests, and life. That honesty was only possible at the time through exclusivity. When FB started there was a long-standing cliche about social interaction on the internet: everyone lied about or exaggerated who they were. Facebook encouraged people to use their real name and share real information. Of course that honesty made it all the more fascinating to look at - you got to see who people really were. The honesty was only possible because it was a small network of more or less peers with a high level of trust.

> He made it exclusive. You had to have a .edu address to sign up so the people ON the network were initially only your peer group. You couldn't get in without that .edu address and therefore you WANTED to get in if you couldn't.

Don't forget that each college's network was segregated from each other's.

You couldn't view the full profiles of people at other schools unless you were friends with them, but by default, you could view the full profiles of everyone else at your school (you could set your profile to friends-only, but most people didn't back then). I know that I didn't care that everyone else on my network could see my home address and my phone number on my profile, because I knew that they were all classmates (or professors, but very few of them were on Facebook). After I graduated and networks became less prominent, I locked down my profile to friends-only.

Groups were restricted to single schools (and Pages didn't exist): this kept group sizes small and made them feel cozier. Pretty much every school had a group for most fandoms, and it was a big deal if you were able to be the person who got to create your school's group for your favorite subject. There were a number of groups that were basically memes; I forgot what they all were, but no real discussion happened in the group, and their only value was to be listed on your profile. They were classified as "Facebook Classics", and what would happen was that the meme would take off at one school, then the members' friends at other schools would notice them on their profiles and create versions at their schools, and so on. Again, there was some prestige in being the first person to spread the meme to your school.

And there were some college-specific things on your profile, too. There were fields for your class schedule, and you had a separate "mailbox" field for colleges that had dorms.

Tell me again how exclusivity helped Google+ take off.

What he did right, was providing something that no other service did.

Funny that, because I was signed up to two or three other services at the time that seemed to be doing the same thing when Facebook appeared on my radar. Facebook seemed to gain a larger share of my friends which had a snowballing effect.

How was Google+ exclusive?

When it first started out you needed an invitation. Gmail had the same thing. Google does this fairly often to prevent still developing services from being crushed by an onslaught of signups.

G+ never gained traction because it was always the nerdier also-ran to Facebook. Everyone was already on Facebook and G+ didn't really offer anything compelling to make people want to switch. It had (has?) somewhat better segregation of your friends but keeping track of all of that is too much hassle for most people and doesn't really buy them much. Trying to decide if only your family would appreciate this witty cartoon or if you can also include your work colleagues is not something people want to do on every post.

That's not really exclusive though, that's just a beta program.

Facebook's exclusivity initially showed no plans for letting everyone else in. It was basically, if you do not have this type of email account, you can NEVER join.

it confirms the strategy to make happy a small group of users and them try to scale.

This eventually became a liability for Mark Zuckerberg; some of his earliest TV interviews went really, really badly. IIRC, Zuck hired a public speaking instructor, had Jesse Eisenberg open various internal and external speaking events for him (such as the keynote for F8 around this time), started having lunches with employees to practice talking to them in Chinese, etc.

Sorry to nit; it was actually Andy Samberg from The Lonely Island who opened F8, which was actually hilarious: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v_vz6Me_TIY. Jesse Eisenberg played Zuck in The Social Network.

Introverts often perform brilliantly when pitching or persuading. Being out in front of others is not their relaxing place, so they focus, pour their energy into it and succeed at it.

Then they withdraw to some solitude to recharge.

Or they panic, or blank out, or more likely, find a way not to be in front of others in the first place.

I think with all the real and pop science done the past few years on introversion and it's subsequent rise in awareness, far too many people conflate social anxiety and introversion. They may be related but they're not the same thing.

Why do you think they are not extroverted? Bill Gates was a famously in-your-face person when dealing with employees, partners, and competitors.

'Introversion' and 'Extroversion' are basically defined as where you derive your energy from, to put it crudely.

If you like to be alone with your thoughts, and feel 'exhausted' after interacting with people - you're an introvert.

If you like to always be around others, and get 'charged' from it, and don't like being along - you're an extrovert.

Personally - I have no problem being around people, no problem giving public talks - but I prefer solitude and contemplation to being around crowds.

Introverts I think are more direct and less socially attuned than extroverts, who are very high in EI usually. Salespeople know how to handle people and would never yell and scream at anyone - ever - in any situation - they're personality won't allow it - because 'yelling' is burning massive amounts of 'social capital'. It's the opposite of being 'popular'.

As far as 'public speaking' - I think both could be equally good because it's not really a 'social' thing per sey. It's not 'interaction'. Public speaking is interacting with an 'object' - the crowd.

My bet is that introverts are more direct in their demands - possibly being aggressive. An extrovert narcissist will stab you in the back politically without ever doing anything to make them dislike you or burn political points. I find extroverts will avoid direct confrontation as though it's an instinct - again it burns social capital.

I'll also bet 90%+ of HN readers tend introverted. Extroverts would see absolutely no value in commenting/discussing with people with whom they have no relationship.

Introverts are more likely to value 'ideas' - extroverts value 'relationships'.

Depending on what you are hustling - often - people will buy something or not mostly depending on how charismatic or 'likeable' the person hustling it is. 90% of business relationships are based more on the personalities than the underlying mechanics of the deal because most businesses really are commodities of sorts.

Being an extrovert or an introvert has nothing to do with shyness. You can certainly be introverted and not very shy. Bill Gates is a great example of that.

Introvert vs. extrovert has more to do how much energy being with a crowd gives or takes, or do you prefer your own company over that of others if given the chance. Any social skill, unless natural, can be acquired.

> Any social skill, unless natural, can be acquired.


Wolf - you can be sociable. Trust me. Anyone can.

It simply takes practice.

Popular kids have been 'honing' their social skills literally since they were 4 years old. They have been paying attention to other people.

Notice how the sociable kids might have done more poorly in class, whereas the introverts maybe did better? The sociable kids are attuned to relationships. While your thoughts were on the math problem, theirs were on 'how xyz is not paying attention to me, and why'.

There are people you can hang out with. If you try to stay 'in the present' and actually practice paying attention to their thoughts and emotional signals, they will like you.

Unless you literally have autism, there's a 100% chance that you can be sociable. Also - take heart with the fact that most people find it difficult to interact with others. Want to know a secret: many extroverts, who are socially attuned, are actually quite nervous among others, always watching what they say, being deliberate with their actions. So don't feel alone. You're in the majority.

The same way all skills are acquired: practice.

Practicing does not help for me. I am rather a lone wolf, but not because I want to be, but because I simply fail completely, so I find it a little bit unfair to downvote the above post.

Might you be doing it wrong then? Effective practice requires you to stretch far enough, but not too far, lest you become panicked. It's better focused than "general". It requires concentration, effort and introspection.

If you fail completely, you might be trying things too far out of your confidence zone. A mousy introvert isn't going to morph into a charismatic rockstar within a single leap, no matter how much the introvert might want that to be the case. Odds are, he'll seize up and freeze, in which case the only thing he practices is the act of freezing.

Practice is the only way to learn anything, but you can practice in a lot of different ways. Everyone has different learning styles, you should find yours. Don't give up. Shit is hard.

I was pretty shy / introverted in my early 20's. Got a job as a whitewater rafting guide, where I had to interact with new people every day (in a foreign language). It quickly goes away.

Another friend was terrified of public speaking so started doing stand up comedy, and now helps run one of the regular shows in a pub here.

You have to put in the hours to an extent, it's not just a case of trying a couple of times and giving up. Alcohol helps to a degree, but obviously don't go crazy with it. Probably hanging out with extroverts and taking note of what they do helps as well.

Ouch, that's a complex question. I can only say it can be done. Each has his or her own path - I can only tell my story on this matter. It might sound silly to anyone else but I'm still telling it here.

I'm past 30, grew up as a archetype semi-aspie geek kid with little interest in social matters, preferring books to social settings. My preference is to my own company, still, but I'm comfortable in social settings, I'm a fluent communicator and commended for my presentations when I give them out. I'm also blessed or cursed with a complexity that makes me look perpetually 15 years old - and I'm short. Yeah, goodbye professional credibility based on halo-of-appearance. The upside is I can introduce my two kids early in any conversation, thus signaling my actual age and status - which usually results in a sudden episode of massive cognitive dissonance to my amusement.

So, there are handicaps, and, there are social skills. The dynamics underlying social skills can actually be learned from books - but, like any craft, actually acquiring a functioning ability takes practice. For me, I would split matters under "social capability" to three categories: 1. Self-confidence and Dealing with anxiety 2. Individual interactions 3. Group dynamics.

1. Dealing with anxiety and acquiring self-confidence. For me this is first and foremost a physical activity consisting of a) good posture b) calm and friendly air and c) deep breathing for calming the nerves. A corollary to this is the functioning of mirroring in any social setting - you start to behave, as others percieve you to be [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mirroring_(psychology)]. So, if you appear first as mousy, people treat you as mousy, making you feel more moysy. If you appear as confident and amicable, people treat you as confident and amicable, and you start to feel more confident and amicable.

I actually had to take a few months of personal trainer lessons to fix my posture and gain some physical fitness (I requested a program consisting of mostly of body weight exercises and I can't recommend them enough).

If you don't have a good physical posture, and don't have at least a minimal exercise routine, these will actually help a ton. I can give some references on materials if anyone likes.

On anxiety and introspection - zen meditation helps. "Sit down and shut up" by Brad Warner was a good, no-nonsense, introduction. No mystical crap.

2. For me the best resources have been interaction with colleagues and friends, Dale Carnegie's "How to win friends and influence people" and the courses http://www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/how-conversation-work... and http://www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/negotiating-the-best-.... The last is about self-confidence -as some interactions are confidence plays, it really, really helps a ton to be aware of the rules.

The hardest part for me, still bugging me, but the most important one as well: remembering people's names! This is absolutely the fundamental cornerstone of every interaction.

3. Group dynamics is a bit different. The simplest rule is: do what everyone else is doing. Go sit at the same table. If there is someone you don't know, introduce yourself. Here also comes the "how conversation works" great course into play. There are different kinds of conversations - learn what they are.

One of the secrets of human relationships that I only got recently that the relationships are things that are in peoples head's. There is no "single relationship" - each relationship is composed of the presentation of the interaction in the head of each participant. This means, that although you may feel awkward, the other person might feel the interaction is natural and pleasing. This is where mirroring, and keeping confident pose comes into play. If the interaction goes on for a long time, you start to mirror the other persons view of the relationships. But, there are still two copies of the relationship - in both of your heads.

So, I would suggest, step 1: air of confidence - good posture and smile. Wait for serendiptous things to happen. Make sure you are dressed neatly and so on - this is part of the mirroring dynamic.

Someone might feel "But that's not authentic me" - sorry - you can't change the humankind or basic psychology of those around you, you can only adjust and learn.

I think they aren't extrovert because Bill Gates himself says he's an introvert.


President Obama is a self proclaimed introvert, as is Warren Buffett.

Essentially, the two riches men in America and the leader of America are self proclaimed introverts.

To be fair you cited a pretty tiny sample size; I'm not sure if anyone actually has compiled the appropriate statistics to prove whether or not introverted people have a harder time creating a successful company. Those could be the outliers. Or maybe not I'm not sure as I lack the data.

Don't confuse introvert with shy. they are different things.

>Many of the most successful founders are introverts. Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, Bill Gates, none of them are very extroverted, but they've started some of the most valuable companies in the world.

And none of them were/are phds

pg has a PhD but is not an introvert.

I stand corrected :)

Out of the Fortune 500 companies I'd argue that most of their founders are not introverts, but some of them comes from money which helps.

Just because some introverts have seen success does not mean that all introverts starting a company will share in the same amount of success. It can, just as being an extrovert can, enable you or inhibit you.

>The risk that you destroy your life is real.

Especially so for PhD recipients. Unless they're from money, they've probably already spent their post-grad years living very modestly. Starting a startup just extends and amplifies that, which can be dangerous.

> Few introverts will succeed at founding a company, for example.

This is comically obvious when you look at some successful startups... My brother joined one (not technically as a founder, but he left the same company as them to join as a day 1 employee). They occasionally post PR pictures of themselves. They all look ridiculously like successful, smiling, talented and dynamic people, the kind of people a VC probably likes to see. Except my brother, who looks totally like the bookish introvert that he is.

Well well, I figure smart VCs knew that they have good reasons to have that one guy around.

On the bright side, at least you didn't spend 3+ years on it like some people do before realizing their idea or model is fundamentally flawed.

That fear is one of a few reasons why I don't think I'll start a startup any time soon.

I'm sorry to hear about your friend-of-a-friend†, but it's crazy to suggest that's meaningful data in isolation. Most of us have known people, or know people who have known people, who have killed themselves; they come from all walks of life. († I suppose that's what you mean by one degree of separation?)

the right disposition, the right partners, the right idea, and the right skill set

Or the social and economic safety net.

I agree, going after a professorship after getting a PhD is unlikely to cause you personal bankruptcy but creating a start-up might.

Also, if your product is similar to another you may get caught in costly legal battles but this is unlikely to occur as a scientist. It will most likely "just" tarnish your reputation.

While the monetary rewards of creating a successful company exceeds a good academic career it is, as the author points out, high risk.

I wouldn't call a high risk gamble that has possibly detrimental long-lasting effects over your life and your co-founders life "sensible". I'd call it a gamble, as that is what it is.

I don't disagree with you completely, but as a guy working for a start-up I would say that no matter if we find success or failure I'm going to personally walk away with good memories and a hell of an experience. There's more to it than success.

How many times can you afford to be unsuccessful? I am not advocating an aversion to risk, mind you. I am simply asking the question. My guess is that it is deeply personal and has more to do with life goals than that of work/career goals.

So if you were faced with a nice fat exit, or could continue running the company with the day to day grind, would you continue to pick the journey over the destination?

You may want to look up Gary Vaynerchuck on youtube for that

I'm well aware of Gary's attitudes on the subject, but I wasn't looking for general thoughts, but what an individual thinks. In general, I've found that that those critical of the financial rewards typically sing a different tune once success becomes an option.

Interesting perspective. Certainly get a good feel for your potential before striking out on a startup. And have as much savings as possible. I did the PhD and while doing my Postdoc I started a company. I did many years as Research Professor before quitting and focusing on my company.

Comparing the two situations I'd argue the business option is far better for a number of reasons. The most important being freedom. To survive in academics now is an awful game of proposals and nonstop stress. Success rates are very low and there is intense competition. And all for very little (no) payoff. And it is a sales job. At the end, before I finally pulled the plug I often likened academics to a situation where you're selling something that people may like, but they don't want to pay for it. If you do it right with a company, people are begging to pay you. And the reality is the business route is much more challenging, just in a different way. Everything is on the line.

I do think promoting a "startup" in the conventional sense where you have VC funding and explosive growth is disingenuous. There are many opportunities where a PhD scientist can carve out a niche where you have a company with 1-10 million in revenue. It affords an excellent situation that, if sustainable, is orders of magnitude better than the academic lifestyle that is so often idolized.

Does a startup have?

Proposals and Stress = Check

low success rates and intense competition = Check

Need for sales = Check

I can't help but think you essentially have the same situation in academia as one has in a startup, only "it's different." The difference to me is the illusion of control. One may think that they are in control of the startup vs. the bureaucracy of government/academia/established business.

I posit that most things that are required by business are, in fact, not under your control. The illusion of control is there and one may feel that actions are leading to certain outcomes, but the truth is they have no direct control of the outcome. "Luck" plays the same role in the bureaucratic or private enterprise affair... some have it and others don't.

If anyone thinks that startups aren't _all about_ sales, they are in for a rude awakening. The truth is, your idea/technology doesn't actually have much to do with the success of a startup. It's all about how much money you can raise (sales), and as a prerequisite, how much traction/customers you have (sales).

Just look at the Yo app. They got $1 million in investment (for some reason). Their technology was nothing special, in fact it was literally written in a day. But their CEO apparently had an in with some investors, or they were _very_ good at sales/pitching.

There's more than one way to run a startup. There are startups that are very product focused, with very little personal salesmanship.

"It's different" is a big deal. In academics, if you're research oriented, your success is 90% or more based on your ability to bring $ in the institution. If your research field is on an upswing - novel, deemed important, hot with the funding agencies - you're good. It extremely challenging when things turn. Pivot is virtually impossible, especially before tenure. I'd argue that with business you don't necessary have to be producing the next big deal. There are plenty of mundane products from which a lot of $ can be made and you can survive. That's what gives you the freedom.

I'm not discounting the difficulties present in each scenario (or the luck). However, after ruminating about all the pluses and minuses, I believe one is likely better off trying the business route.

Despite what SV wants the world to believe, business success is 100% based on how much money you can bring to your business/company as compared to the cost to operate said business/company.

I see your point and concede that if you have research in an area with no funding, you are most likely dead in the water.

I don't see how that is any different than a business. The simple fact remains that you have no control over what is going to be "hot" and what is going to be "dead." How many times can you afford to be wrong? That is the ultimate question, isn't it?

This is like saying that Leo Messy scoring goals is luck.

As a business owner that meets other business owners every day I believe "luck" is not that important.

There is a lot of space for normal business in the world, that solves a problem, give a service or creates simple products. You can be good at it or not. Most successful owners I know are not lucky at all.

Luck applies to the "changing the wold" thing, but 99% of business are not that way. People at HN has a distorted view on that reality.

What is luck?

Does Messi score a goal on every attempt? Does he score a goal on every third attempt?

To me, "luck" is everything you don't control. You can call it fate, reality, "the grind", or life. The fact is you don't have complete control over most aspects you think you have control over. It is an illusion.

From what I've seen on HN, many commenters are experts on what won't work.

The faith that big things come from little ones is a bigger factor in success than is often acknowledged.

>low success rates and intense competition = Check

Not as low or intense as academia IME :(

I'd be interested in looking at the data in order to find out just how success rates compare between academia and startups.

Chance of extremely high returns = Check (not so much in academia)

Chance of nice pension and a job for life = Check (not so much for a failed startup)

I am not saying one is right or wrong; the pension could "poof" go away with legislation for example. However, I will say there are compromises/choices to be made. I am quite indifferent to the matter as we all choose a path... The difference lies in how much we think we control vs. how much we actually control.

Chances of a nice pension and a job for life are pretty low in academia these days.

A quick back of the envelope calculation of the value of a $150000 salary over 30 years is 2-4 million (depending on what you assume as your interest rate).

What are the chances that a person doing a startup will leave the startup with 2-4 million dollars? How does it compare with the chances of getting tenure at a university that pays $150000 on average?

I would disagree. Just read the list of nobel prize winners and how many of them are academics. These are often actual paradigm shifts in how you think of the world that lasts generations, not decades.

Compare this with the impact a successful startup has and it does not quite compare. A successful startup creates new jobs. Novel science that can be applied creates entire industries.

When he/she says high returns I'd imagine he/she is referring to monetary gains.

So impact withstanding, a Nobel prize winner is awarded roughly 8 million SEK, which is 941320 U.S. dollars. Now, disregard their monthly salaries, as the time it takes from winning a Nobel Prize varies from an infinity to once or twice and consider the portion of Nobel prize winners compared to the number of scientists and measure that against the number of businesses owners that rake in 941320 dollars a year out of all of the business owners that there are and I'm sure you'd agree that if you are optimising for personal economic gains going the academic route is not the wisest choice.

Yeah, working in academia, with its endless proposals and grant applications, is a bit like running a start-up that never succeeds.

I didn't go as far as PhD, but when I came out of uni, I knew nothing about life or work. I really wouldn't recommend anyone to try to launch their own startup right out of uni (especially not alone).

When I think back to it; if I had succeeded with my first startup right out of uni, I would have had a seriously distorted view of life.

My idea of 'hard work' has changed a lot since then. Staying up till 3am a few times a semester to finish an assignment is not hard work. Writing a 100 page thesis is not hard work either.

> Writing a 100 page thesis is not hard work either.

Maybe don't belittle things you've never done?

Doing a PhD is not just sitting down and writing a thesis, and it's also not just taking a few classes that occasionally require late nights. A PhD student is typically teaching one or more classes, learning as much as possible about his/her field, reading papers at the forefront of research in his/her field, conducting original research, writing papers on one's research, preparing and giving talks at conferences and seminars, along with writing the thesis and (at least in the first year or two) taking classes.

My thesis was in fact just over 100 pages. It also required a lot intense studying (on top of my basic undergrad and graduate education) before I understood the topic well enough to begin to do research on the topic, and quite a lot more work before I started to find worthwhile original results to write about. Here "a lot of work" doesn't mean a few late nights, it means years of working as much time as possible every week.

As someone who was in the working world for almost 10 years before returning to school, I assure you my thesis represents a lot more hard work than anything I ever did in "the real world."

All that said, this article is nuts. Very few PhDs are in a good position to launch a startup. But not because PhDs "know nothing about life or work," and not because they are unfamiliar with hard work.

I think you're both making different points. Yes, a PhD is a lot of work (I'd assume, haven't got one). Maybe more work than a startup. But it's not "hard" work in the sense that you don't have a 90% chance of your thesis being rejected despite you trying your hardest. You don't have to be scared of Google catching wind of your thesis and publishing a better version before you can finish it. Your advisor doesn't take on 10 graduate students and encourage practices that will cause 9 to fail but 1 to succeed beyond anyone's dreams. Messing it up doesn't mean you don't have to tell 30 people that they need new jobs.

Maybe I'm interpreting the GP post wrong, but I take their use of "hard" to mean "unfair and stressful", and your use of "hard" to mean "high quantity and quality of work."

The attrition rate for a PhD program isn't 90%, but 50% is not unknown; my own was around 30% (measured from matriculation to defense, my class year). Some students were forced out of the program, others left on their own accord.

Also, it is unusual for a dissertation to be outright rejected because of how it reflects on the advisor and committee: the committee is (supposed to be) kept up to date on the student's progress and will recommend against defending if the student is unlikely to pass. Slightly less unusual would be a student being allowed to defend, but then needing to do major revisions to their dissertation for it to be accepted. Keep in mind that at the point one is defending, quite a bit of time and money has been invested in the candidate so there is a good incentive to see the candidate succeed for no other reason. Unsuited students are (ideally) dismissed much earlier, i.e., at admission to candidacy.

One absolutely worries about being scooped on papers, since those are the currency of academia and being scooped usually results in needing to publish your own (now less novel) work in a lesser journal. And as another commenter points out: a professor taking on 10 students with only 1 succeeding, if one defines success as being tenured, isn't that far off from reality.

As an aside, I personally think forming a research group at a university isn't all that different from creating a startup.

I've known students who defended their thesis and were told to do major revisions. Typically, it's because their thesis supervisor didn't do their job properly as they should know not to send that student to defend.

You're right in that they weed Ph.D. students out earlier, during their comprehensive exam. How it's done varies from department to department and university to university. My comprehensive was a lengthy oral exam by my committee with two rounds of questions. The first on background and the second on the written thesis proposal I submitted. I went for 3.5 hours straight, basically until the committee wanted lunch.

Equating a research group to a startup isn't a bad analogy. One of the professors in my department basically uses his students to do research for his company. He even makes them sign over the IP rights to him. Other professors have a continuing line of research across a number of students. Even my Ph.D. thesis was the latest in a number of theses on the same topic, each getting progressively more advanced. My thesis basically finished that line, with other related ones opening up as a result.

Nope, research groups/projects at uni is all about milking money from grants. Running startup is all about making money for investors. Direction is different and risk much lower.

> But it's not "hard" work in the sense that you don't have a 90% chance of your thesis being rejected despite you trying your hardest.

Nor do you have a 90% chance of failing in your business venture despite you trying your hardest.

Going from the statistic "90% of businesses fail" to "you have a 90% chance of failure when starting a business" is an incorrect deduction. The latter only follows from the former if business success is almost entirely random chance. It isn't. Some people are almost guaranteed to fail because they have no idea what they are doing or what they are getting into[1]. Some business ideas are just bad. On the flip side, some people are really good at running businesses, take the time to understand what is required, wait until they have a realistic idea, and through all that give themselves a very good chance of succeeding.

I wish we, as a community, would stop parroting this abuse of statistics.

[1] I'd wager that this explains the vast majority of restaurant failures.

In a similar vein, about half of all marriages end in divorce, but half of the people you know are (probably) not divorced.

Out of pure curiosity, what makes you think that someone on hn is more likely to be successful running a startup than anyone else?

because they/we are more likely to have worked at one, and see how it actually works, or doesn't work.

same goes for any high stress, high risk business, like running a restaurant. if you've worked in one for years, you're more likely to succeed in running one yourself.

there is a running joke in the restaurant business about rich semi-retired professionals opening up a restaurant and failing miserably, because they simply don't realize how much work it is. they think because they're great home cooks and can throw an awesome dinner party, they can all of a sudden run a commercial kitchen and dining room. wrong. very, very wrong.

same goes with startups. most people fail because they don't understand how much work it is, and simply give up.

> because they/we are more likely to have worked at one, and see how it actually works, or doesn't work.

They were talking about building a startup right after a PhD.

and i'm obviously not.

> You don't have to be scared of Google catching wind of your thesis and publishing a better version before you can finish it

It's called "scooping". You do have to worry about other academic groups doing that, depending on the area you're working in.

And you may even also have to worry about Google or MSR scooping you.

In fact, I know of one person who had his thesis basically scooped by a large corporate research lab. Not so much his exact ideas, but they out-performed his would-have-been thesis work in every meaningful way in a sufficiently small sub-problem that he had to pivot.

> Your advisor doesn't take on 10 graduate students and encourage practices that will cause 9 to fail but 1 to succeed beyond anyone's dreams

I guess that depends on your advisor and program and your field of study. These sorts of attrition rates aren't unheard of in Math, for instance.

> Messing it up doesn't mean you don't have to tell 30 people that they need new jobs.

That is certainly true. But the upside is also significantly bounded.

> Maybe I'm interpreting the GP post wrong, but I take their use of "hard" to mean "unfair and stressful", and your use of "hard" to mean "high quantity and quality of work."

80 hr weeks working on something that the academic community might choose to reject for whatever reason all while making 20k/yr could be described as both...

Since so many people here seem to be in the business of peddling cherries, apples, and oranges, I thought I'd throw my own analysis in the mix:

First, the likelihood of earning a PhD shouldn't be viewed as p(graduate) but as p(graduate | admitted) * p(admitted). Once you factor in the high rejection rate of competitive PhD programs, the success rate drops off pretty sharply. Additionally, the applicant pool tends to self-select toward people who at least believe they are minimally qualified because of the time and expense in completing applications and gathering letters of recommendation.

Second, the random error term is much larger in the hypothetical formula for startup success than it is for PhD success--in fact, it's probably much larger than any variable one can control. A consequence of this is that a unit increase of talent/skill/drive will move the needle further toward success in the PhD world than in the startup world. Comparing successful or unsuccessful individuals across worlds tells you very little.

Third, for all the parroting of the "9 in 10 startups fail" statistic, there seems to be almost no work in connecting its relevance. A startup is not a person. A person may found multiple companies in their lifetime. A person only needs to earn a PhD once to be considered a PhD. I could go on, but I think "apples and oranges" is sufficient.

> take on 10 graduate students and encourage practices that will cause 9 to fail but 1 to succeed beyond anyone's dreams.

Sounds like a pretty good description of the academic job market to me.

9:1 is too optimistic though

I think you are mischaracterizing both startups and academic work. A few things to think about:

-A Ph.D. usually often isn't the end point. If your end point is a tenured academic position, your odds are much, much worse than startup success

-About 50% of Ph.D. students don't complete, ever.

-"1 to succeed beyond anyone's dreams" seems odd. Most people who succeed in startups succeed precisely in scope of most peoples dreams. There are outliers, sure, but they are exactly that.

-You aren't scared of Google publishing before you - but in some areas you are justifiably scared of other people publishing before you and making your work unpublishable. You may know these people personally.

-Academic work is often best characterized as being unfair and stressful

-The 90%:10% statistic is just that, and you aren't really applying it meaningfully

-Like companies, Ph.D.s aren't fungible

> You don't have to be scared of Google catching wind of your thesis and publishing a better version before you can finish it.

People have had the problem of being beaten to publication by another researcher and having to re-start their PhD.

The big thing that both PhDs and startups have in common is that you have to do a lot of lonely work for years before you know whether you've succeeded.

Counterpoint of sorts, taking German PhD programs as an example... You usually have to work on it for 3-6 years (many professors assume you'll use the full 6 years or it can't be interesting enough research), often times only being on 50% contracts making about 1k/month after taxes. Typically you only get 2 or maybe 3 year contracts at a time. And worst of all you're not really in control over this. If you run a startup you can at least theoretically influence your own income. Depending on the field your PhD skills are often considered rather worthless outside your specific niche. If you fail the PhD there's a huge negative stigma attached to it and your skills don't carry over which puts you in a horrible career spot. For most startups (depending on the country) it's fairly healthy for your career even if you fail.

Doing PhD research is basically a horrible job choice (imo).

Are PhD candidates more self-selecting? I've met some very clueless people who tried to startup, and they contributed to that 90%. Sometimes it wasn't because it was hard, but because it was a really bad idea, or the founder(s) really lacked talent. PhD candidates on the other hand to even be eligible had to succeed already, whereas anyone can startup. I'd argue that a 50% PhD failure rate is comparable or more significant than a 90% startup failure rate. (unless we can qualify those startups by industry experience, previous businesses run, etc)


1) A PhD is a very personal experience, but hard work is the common denominator.

2) The article is off - very much because there is a multitude of outcomes when it comes to personal development during a PhD.

This. Only BA here. But I worked in a forensic genetics laboratory with 2 Ph.D candidates from start to finish and learned to mimic their work ethic and methods: They do not sleep. They teach, then they crank out publications, and in between maybe they can work on their thesis so that in 7 years it will be ready to defend.

It is an obscenely grueling path that let me know it wasn't one I wanted to head down.

It's interesting how people are calibrated differently it comes to measuring 'hard work'. The difficult thing about startups is that the correlation between hard work and success isn't very strong.

It might be the case that a PhD is very hard. My idea of it is just based on third-party observation and discussions with people who have done it. I suppose some people have a harder time than others.

I worked on two open source projects for 6 years in total for about 20 to 30 hours every week in addition to my 40 hour per week day job. My first project had around 500 commits and was about 10K lines of code. My latest project has well over 1000 commits and probably 15K lines of code (I contributed about 80% to 90% of the code and it went through several rewrites). I also wrote the documentation for the project mostly on my own - There are almost 30 pages of technical documentation - About 15K wordcount. I did it for $0 - All I got out of it was experience, industry connections and some nice job offers.

I feel like I worked hard. Almost certainly harder than anyone I know. But I know for sure that some people on HN will read the paragraph above and think that I'm actually a lazy entitled millennial.

For what it's worth, I don't think you're a lazy entitled millennial. I do think that you may not understand what doing a PhD involves.

People find academic careers hard for a lot of the same reasons that startups are difficult: there's no clear roadmap for moving forward, tons of hard work is necessary but definitely not sufficient for success, and although you have frustratingly little control over outcomes, it feels like all of your 'eggs' are trapped in one basket.

Writing the 100 page thesis is not the hard work part of a PhD. Doing the research to have the results to write that thesis is the hard work. Unless you are uncommonly lucky, you will fail at some avenues of research and have to slog through lots of painstaking work. I don't (yet) know how that compares to the challenges of a startup, but a PhD is an entirely different animal than an undergrad degree (for better or worse)

I worked on some pretty big projects and did a lot of research. That was easy.

Part of the reason why it was easy was because I knew that if I put in the effort, I would almost certainly pass the course. At uni, if you're smart, the odds are always stacked firmly in your favor.

Failing a PhD thesis during the defence is apparently a 'rare occurrence' in most universities.

By contrast, the odds of your startup not failing are like 10%. Now if we're talking about actual 'success' then that's like 1% or less (it certainly feels like that from where I'm standing).

With these sorts of odds, you don't have this feeling of 'meritocracy' that you might get if you came right out of uni.

> Failing a PhD thesis during the defence is apparently a 'rare occurrence' in most universities.

Yes, but not for the reasons you think. Typically the advisor and thesis committee simply will not let the student defend (or at least will strongly urge the student not to defend) unless they are extremely confident the student is ready and will pass. A student failing the defense would be embarrassing for everyone, and so the real judging happens well before that. These days the defense is mostly a formality.

Moreover, students are not even admitted to the program unless they show very strong promise of being able to complete it. If you want to look at low success rates, here is one place to see it. Very few students graduating with a BS in any given field (computer science, mathematics, whatever) have any chance whatsoever of getting admitted to a decent PhD program in that field.

Why is it so hard for you to believe that getting a PhD (something you've never done and know nothing about) is hard?

You do not have the experience or expertise to justify your claims; a PhD thesis is in no way like doing a regular research project, or passing a course in university.

The reason why failing a PhD thesis defense is rare is because your adviser should prevent you from defending until the product is sufficiently strong. Many, many, many more people fail by dropping out of a PhD program during their dissertation than fail by doing a poor defense. Comparing successful thesis defense rates to startup success rates is not valid.

> The reason why failing a PhD thesis defense is rare is because your adviser should prevent you from defending until the product is sufficiently strong.

This. Failing a public defense is not like a startup failing, it's more like an IPO failing (as in, stock goes to zero within a short time). You don't do it if you aren't 99.9999% sure it won't fail.

It's worth noting that some PhD students get passed because their advisors feel bad for them after they drop 8 years in the program and the advisors are too incompetent to actually bring up a student through the PhD with a successful project.

I've seen it happen five or six times (usually it's the same group of professors) at a top-tier research institute.

The external examiner should allow that to happen, if they're doing their job. The whole point of the external examiner is so professors can't just collude to pass people.

I've seen a number of things happen during a defence, but not this. The worst was seeing two professors (one of whom was the candidate's supervisor) on the committee argue with each other while the candidate just had to watch. It took a lot of work for the chair to reign them in. I think it was difficult for the chair because they were arguing in German and the chair didn't speak it since he wasn't from the German department (my friend was getting her Ph.D. in German literature).

> I worked on some pretty big projects and did a lot of research. That was easy.

Yes, I remember those days too. It was easy. It was also nothing like PhD research.

> Failing a PhD thesis during the defence is apparently a 'rare occurrence' in most universities.

In the US, most committees won't even let you schedule a defense unless they are prepared to pass you. What usually happens is the "all but dissertation" (ABD) route where one is writing in perpetuity or leaves the program without finishing.

In any case, why do you feel compelled to justify how much (harder?, richer?) your chosen path has been than a categorically different alternative path which you admittedly have no experience with? Please, at least rise above the level of posting misinformation.

are you confusing the terms 'study' and 'research'?

Almost certainly, or his defense of the earlier claim would include some description of what new knowledge or novel techniques he developed with this research.

Going through a graduate program, especially in the sciences, can really prepare you with a lot of the soft skills (and even more of the 'hard' skills) necessary to do so.

>Writing a 100 page thesis is not hard work either.

You already said you didn't get a PhD, you didn't need to say it twice.

I opened this thread in the morning, got to that '100 page' remark and belly laughed. Then my day took over, and I just refreshed and saw your comment, and belly laughed again. I'd say it's been a successful day. Thanks ;-)

> Writing a 100 page thesis is not hard work either

Except if you stubbornly decide to fully understand LaTeX in the process.

Dear lord, I've started writing all of my mathematics homework in LaTeX, it's not even remotely reasonable.

Though interestingly, having to be more deliberate in my operations do make me have a much more rigorous understanding of what I'm doing.

> it's not even remotely reasonable.

What is more scary: I exclusively write LaTeX equations in emails, raw to my colleagues. We have all been working with it for so long it is a native language.

Math does funny stuff to your brain.

    This is your brain 

    \this{is your brain on Math}
As a less poetic example, playing Dwarf Fortress for prolonged periods of time reportedly has similar effects. The ASCII fades, and mental images take its place. It's freaky when decoding slips into the hardware layer.

Most of my colleagues did this too. I know I've done it with my supervisor. It's just easier when you're trying to write out something complex and everyone who you're writing to knows how to read it without difficulty.

I once (only once) live-typed notes from my Quantum Field Theory 2 class in LaTeX. It was on non-Abelian gauge theory IIRC. We had a German professor who was really fast too, and there's so many co(ntra)variant indices it's not even funny.

It took quite some preparation and a shitload of custom \newcommand's, but it was doable, although painful.

Impressive feat. And I'd buy you a shot of whiskey if I ever met you in person for attempting said feat.

Now try to go back to MS Word and typeset equations. You will miss LaTeX.

>Staying up till 3am a few times a semester to finish an assignment is not hard work.

Finishing assignments is to what a PhD student actually does is as `printf("hello world\n");` is to what a developer does.

writing a 100 page thesis for a contemporary PhD is easy, if you're not an idiot. Do everything in TeX and digitally staple the papers you've written together, and whip up a 10-page introductory statement.

What is hard is the work that you have to go to to get to the 100 page thesis. Try working a 100 hour workweek, including sleeping the lab only to find out that the experiments that you've set up completely go to hell because of a minor detail that you missed at the beginning. Five or six times. (with 75 hour workweeks in between) Over the course of a year. Not taking any vacations. Five years over.

If you've not written a PhD thesis, you're not in a position to discount the work involved. Mine was a hundred pages, and I had about two weeks to write it from scratch. I'm not saying it was hard work, but it's not easy either.

This raises more questions than it answers. Why did you have such a compressed schedule?

Doctoral school refused theses which were simply concatenation of publications and I was also obliged to start postdoc on deadline.. not great but whatever.

> My idea of 'hard work' has changed a lot since then.

I'm a phd student and my idea of 'hard work' has changed a lot since I started, too. The master's was child's play. Now it's about determination and finding avenues forward when facing problems that are so large that even finding a good question to ask is a major success. Staying up late and putting in the hours is the easy part.

This is not as simple as you imagine it to be.

> My idea of 'hard work' has changed a lot since then.

This. I was just considering this last night, since I was back on my university campus again. While I subconsciously knew the work I was doing in school wasn't real, I still attributed value to it. Looking back, while it had value, it was fundamentally different value than real work. Its value was most temporal, i.e., if I got it done on time, it was valuable. This has little to no direction correlation to real life.

Hard work is valuable when applied to intrinsically valuable work, which will be valuable if you finish it today or tomorrow. And in general, a missed deadline is bad, but doesn't reflect on the intrinsic value of the work (there are exceptions, of course).

Hard work is worthless when applied to intrinsically worthless work, regardless of when or how it is completed.

This is odd. I was checking socketcluster.io a few hours ago for a side project I'm planning on building. Now I see your comment and Googled you ("because you said 'my first startup', no stalker) and found out you're the main contributor of it. Crazy.

Staying up till 3am a few times a semester to finish an assignment is not hard work. Writing a 100 page thesis is not hard work either.

If you got through uni by doing this, you went to a bad uni. Same goes for your statement about a thesis. I feel like you don't really have an idea how tough academia can be. Your comments are smug and condescending.

I got through uni by doing this at a top 5 research university (Columbia), it may depend on degree but it's definitely doable at 'hard uni's.

That said, definitely keep my gpa off my resume.

Different people's experiences can vary drastically, even at the same institutions. You may have had to study every day, but you had classmates who didn't. That doesn't mean you went to "a bad uni".

I agree with you, even though I haven't graduated until December. I did 3 internships throughout college, and it really taught me a lot about life. Before that, I too, had a distorted view of life. Working in the real world really opened up my views on life in generally. Your example about hard work is excellent.

I used to think staying up 24+ hours working on something was what hard work meant. Today, for me, hard work means getting adequate sleep, making sure that I have great energy so I can function for 10 hours a day on my personal projects, school, work, and wellness.

I really do not understand the cynical posts here, but given the path for Ph.D.s trying to get tenure is getting more difficult. Deep Science ventures are providing a path ahead. I understand the writer is vested in his venture. I was watching the ultra-endurance documentary the one in Tennesse, he was telling its usually people with Masters or PhDs who excel at this because they are used to planning and preparation.

A Ph.D means you have higher than average IQ and you have grit, honestly, without will-power no body completes Ph.D. which have great correlation of success.

You can learn marketing (which is very important), improve you EQ with seminars but Depth of Ph.D. and grit to the finish line is not easy to get.

Its not automatic, but I agree with the essence of the article.

edit: I am not a Ph.D.

The alternative to getting on the tenure track is usually getting a commercial role, probably a relatively well paid one. There is literally no worse reason to start a startup than "trying to get tenure is getting more difficult". Because if your end goal is to study phenomenon that particularly fascinate you at your own pace in a collegiate environment, then starting a startup is a big step in the opposite direction. And if it's the difficulty or possibility of failure that's putting you off pursuing a career in academia...

Sure, many PhDs are eminently capable of starting a startup and some will be wildly successful. But that's more likely to be because they have a burning desire to commercialise their research or a great founding team sees their skillset as the missing link than because they couldn't find an alternative

I would argue most PhD students don't have the right kind of hustle to be entrepreneurs.

Yes - the IQ, work ethic is there. But they are differential.

All the succesfull business people I know have been 'hustlers' since grade 1.

Look at the early emails between Zuck and others at Harvard. Age 19 that kid was already a baby shark. Very cynical, competitive (granted, it might be an ivy league thing).

Successful entrepreneurs I find are more like Trump than not.

And I don't think that Google and a few others are good examples. Aside from the 'top 10' big companies, you'll find that most are classical alpha dudes, really hustling hard, trying to make $$$ any way they can, focusing on those outcomes.

PhD's tend to be very deferential to authority, they believe in 'true outcomes' (i.e. some kind of real progress) etc. when often Entrepreneurs don't care that much: have produce, hype it up, make money.

Steve Jobs was a hustler, not a scientist. Taking credit for others work, massively leveraging over his own staff (taking their equity etc.). Gates, Ellison, Benioff, same deal. Travis K of Uber I think is much the same, and in many ways I think Zuck as well. Bezos. Even a lot of the 'shy' type CEO's, I think, are still inner hustlers.

Obviously these are huge generalizations.

That "grit" is entirely within an academic context and does not necessarily translate outside of that context. It's also debatable whether a PhD absolutely implies an above average IQ (or even whether that is a meaningful trait).

As for correlation with success, I wonder if you could elaborate? What measures "success"? What studies are you referring to? What confounding issues (if any) are accounted for?

> That "grit" is entirely within an academic context and does not necessarily translate outside of that context

Do you have any particular reason for stating this? Having been in both environments, I actually think that academic grit translates outside of academia more fluidly than the other way around.

Conjectured reason: most academic projects have a horizon of 5-20 years to market and require large amounts of very mundane and uninspiring work. There are infinite distractions within academia. A successful academic project isn't going to make anyone rich, and even if it does, that person probably won't be you. Also, the pay is terrible.

Startup and even corporate life are very different in almost all of those dimensions. Projects succeed or fail fast. There are few distractions, especially for individual contributors. There's still routine work, but usually routine in the sure-to-succeed way rather than the sure-to-fail-and-be-repeated-10x-times way. A successful project can easily make you a valuable person -- either on the job market or in terms of actual net worth. And even if everything hits the fan, you're receiving a reasonable salary and building your career.

> It's also debatable whether a PhD absolutely implies an above average IQ

That is certainly true.

I have nothing other than my personal experience and observations of fellow degree holders. I mostly agree with respect to the fluidity argument, but I think that's different from my point. I've seen PhD holders lack the grit to see a project filled with non-academic tedium through, for example. I've been there myself, even.

As another not a Ph.D. i'm not convinced from what I know about Ph.D's that a higher than average IQ is actually required.

However, I do agree that "grit"/"will-power" is definitely required.

0.5% getting 'professor' positions is just nonsense. Just click the link so see some useful discussion, but it's ridiculous at its face: the average professor is not graduating 200 PhD students. The figure is probably closer to 20 for most fields, which gives a more reasonable 5%. Then you have to consider that many programs offer tenured research positions, but don't take on doctoral students.

Finally, consider that, upon entering a doctoral program, many students don't intend on academia at all. That number drops by the time they complete their dissertations, too.

Ultimately, I'd give a rough figure of 1 in 4 qualified and motivated PhDs getting a suitable tenure-track position in a reasonable timeframe (~4-5 years). Maybe one in five or six will get tenure, in the end. Which is still terrible when you think about it, but the odds aren't nearly as ridiculous as some would claim.

Might not be in physics or mathematics but in Life Science it certainly almost is. At the institute I am working right now has about 20 PhD students per full professor (every 3 years anew, so a Professor has 10 times that number in 30 years). Its all a question of associates and other types of group leaders and obviously delegation.

That's assuming that tenured positions are not on the decline (they are), and that the number of PhD graduates has not been increasing (it is), and that the funding available to maintain a lab has not gone down (it has).

I completed a PhD in chemistry and went straight into the start up world in 2008. I focused on building tools that would have been helpful in my research lab[1].

My feeling was I can work a lot of hours for little pay and questionable benefits as a post doc or start my own thing. I use 'start my own thing' since I hadn't ever heard of doing a start-up being in the Midwest.

[1] https://labspend.com/

Do you get enough paying customers for your startup? I imagine labs tend to be hesitant before they approach startups for solutions to their problems..

... if you've just gotten your Ph.D., know how to get some specific grants, have no interest in remaining in academia, and consider it against only one alternative: becoming a professor.

Well if you have no interest in remaining and academia and you only compare it to becoming a professor, anything would be better, right?

I'm having trouble understanding your logical association between having no interest in doing something and being willing to do literally anything else.

Would you mind explaining what you mean by that?

I'm a huge start-up fan but this article makes doing a start-up sound more fun than they actually are on the ground. Here are a few things the article leaves out.

* Years of grunt work. You just did that on your Ph.D. Don't kid yourself, start-ups are just as hard and can take longer before they are successful. As they say in show biz, it takes years to become an overnight success.

* Business smarts are non-optional. If you are in a leadership position you need good business acumen. (I.e. like Andy Grove, not like Bill Shockley.)

* You need to be an all-rounder who can roll with the punches and pitch in to do whatever needs to be done. Chances are only some of that will be science and some fraction will be downright unpleasant. My personal favorite: the head honcho in a small company is the top of the product support escalation chain. By the time users get on the phone with you they are often downright steamed.

Finally, if you don't fit the mold there's a reasonable chance you'll either just flame out nothing to show for it or get fired. That's in addition to all the normal stuff that goes wrong when you have a good idea, good funding, good co-founders, etc. Doing a startup is not for everyone.

This is addressed to new PhDs. Look what they're comparing it with:

"According to the Start-up Genome Report 92% of high-tech start-ups fail. ... If you can get as far as investment this number falls to around 40%, and your chance of making it big within that sits at around 10% (Pitchbook). This adds up to a 0.48% success rate overall. Interestingly, this is the same proportion of PhD students that reach professorship."

Dr Mark Hammond is one of the founders of Deep Science Ventures, a fully funded six-month programme designed to turn scientists in to founders.


I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest ulterior motives are in play here.

"That clearly sounds dismal, but it doesn’t matter – as long as you can cover your costs while you try then your upside is nearly unlimited, whilst your downside is virtually non-existent"

Um, yes except for the part about paying for food and shelter ??

Cover your costs includes mortgage and food in this context.

guess the author skipped his economics class on opportunity cost.

Usually a bubble is just about to burst when the last hold out becomes convinced and buys into the hype. The enthusiasm stems from a belief that it will always continue and apply to everyone. Then destruction and chaos.

> last hold out becomes convinced and buys into the hype

Interestingly, this can be justified by economic theory, because it's the marginal price of the next transaction that everyone sees, so you always need someone who's willing to buy in for a higher price.

Once everyone has already bought in and there's no fresh money to prop up the bubble, everyone can immediately see that, and things fall apart just like you said.

The telling stuff always happens on the margin ;)

If we end up with a bubble in this case, it will be due to the nature of hard science contrasted against the prevailing Theranosian assumption that R&D can be brute forced by entrepreneurs.

Seems like the author has a motivation to push this kind of storyline, that startups are sexy for scientists. Yet another early-stage fund with tons of investments and none that are notable successes (yet).

Putting blogs and "news" on nature.com is continually degrading the quality of the "Nature" brand. It's poor form to mix this editorial and un-reviewed journalistic content under the same banner as peer-reviewed scientific articles of the Nature journal.

I deplore the model of the world where acquiring a PhD is a choice made by an individual, and what you should do is cash in on your credentials.

When we ignore the social component of our lives, big surprise, it atrophies and dies. I have a PhD because many people (a society) invested in me to get one. My PhD is not something I should use for my own enrichment by building a "career" and a "startup" to satisfy my job requirements, there should be a substantial portion of my effort that is socially directed, that gives back the enormous amount that was given to me to get me here.

This is why I will remain stuck in academia forever, desperately seeking that shrinking universe where someone can attempt to produce pure public goods.

Admirable! This sort of socially conscious personal life decision making rarely survives very long after contact with capitalist realities... a quote from Peter Thiel (of whose apparent social perspectives and path-to-riches I am not a fan, ) summarizes the late capitalist perspective on this: The eccentric university professor is a species that is going extinct fast. May I ask what your field is?

> Later stage investment is increasingly focused on science > > Even five years ago it was incredibly hard to get funding for science-based ventures...

This seems wrong to me.

This may be true for consumer facing products or tech investors like YC, but it misses that biotech investors have been investing $1B+/quarter into science based startups for over a decade now [1]. I suspect that as far as absolute numbers go traditional biotech investing still dominates in this space.

[1] http://www.forbes.com/sites/brucebooth/2015/07/23/the-ventur...

Every PhD student should read this book [1] about academic job perspectives. It's a bit of a cold shower, but it also tells you how to deal with it, if that's what you really want after all.

[1] https://www.amazon.com/Professor-Essential-Guide-Turning-Ph-...

Why work 40 hours a week for someone else and sleep at night, when you can work 16 hours/day 7 days a week for 10 years for yourself, and age a lot in the process?

Err. Why do you need to work 112 hours a week for 10 years?

To get to the other side.

Well sometimes you still need that Ph.D, though.

I recently enquired about a possible career at a small (<50 people) consulting firm. They do mathematical modelling and consulting and have scored a few high profile contracts. The work is interesting, easier than the typical Ph.D stuff and yet still challenging and varies a lot.

BUT! They pretty much only hire Ph.Ds. Why? It's mostly a reputation thing. When they send you to help out a client they don't want to send somebody who "only" obtained a masters.

The firm was started by two Ph.Ds out of school and could essentially be considered a startup. Barely 10 years old I believe.

There is distinction between consulting company, new business and startups.

I'm not sure the headline is warranted as natural science career paths that involve R&D departments of established companies are a very good choice (as is academia in these fields). Taking slow and steady wins is actually a good choice in these fields (imo) as is access to "veterans". But I could be wrong, I only see natural scientists' lives from the outside.

But the overall point is interesting. I feel there's a slight bias against academics from "the startup scene" or maybe I'm just imagining it being a mediocre scientist thinking about starting by own business every now and then (so not the super duper elite MIT guy). I've always felt that some of the stuff you learn by practicing science is fairly valuable even in a web based startup. Depending on the field you're more or less forced to get a better understanding of statistics and rigorous testing (with all the pitfalls involved) and the general hypothesis/test-it cycle is really helpful for startup life as well. For me the sad trade of is that my programming skills (mostly the secondary skills like architecture, being up to date on databases, refining the vcs workflow, testing etc.) erode slowly. I also have a lot less time for side projects these days which kind of sucks. [I haven't taken the traditional academia career path and actually worked at a software company before so I feel like I have a decent grasp on both fields]

Screw the statistics.

If you feel compelled to start up a company, I say do it.

Put yourself 100% in. You might be 100% successful, or, you might be 100% a failure. But do not think the statistics make you one or the other.

Only advice I would give is to get yourself on decent financial footing before making the leap. It helps you from making impulsive/bad decisions later.

Can't agree more! If you are not a skilled developer or designer yet have a major passion about seeing your app ideas built go for it and learn those skills along the way.

Your startup journeys could succeed but the odds are against you. Though, whatever its a ton of fun and the stories that come from it make you a more interesting candidate when going up for your first Developer job.

I had two startups fail yet I was able to raise incubator money for both, invited and had a demo meeting with Google, invited and filmed for a reality tv show about makers(I think I maybe a good marketer hence these opportunities yet I suck at people skills) and a lot of other random out of nowhere stuff.

Overall, great times with many lows that are now great life stories even if I'm not a millionaire I now earn a good living coding.

"Now, the most successful investors are increasingly coming to the realisation that searching for the low hanging fruit in web-tech is nearing the point of diminishing returns."

This is true in the sense that the amount of VC poured into things such as social networks or SoLoMo startups is decreasing and the amount of VC poured into things such as machine-learning based startups is increasing. Even though the amount poured into the first is still larger than the amount poured into the second.

However, this article shouldn't discourage people with just an undergrad (or even without an undergrad) to start startups. A group of 22 year olds might know about Deep Learning and might just apply it as a medium to a solution in a different narrow domain than a group of 40 year olds will.

This is interesting. Some of the worst-run startups and companies I know were started and run by one or more academics. You see this quite a bit in pharma-tech and bio-tech.

Yes - they have the smarts. Yes - they know how to learn (but are sometimes arrogant enough that they won't). Yes - they know how to work hard. But there's something about the academic culture that makes for ... I don't know. Something. I haven't nailed it down, and I wouldn't go so far as to claim "advanced degrees considered harmful", but startups are hard in a different way than academia prepares one for.

That said: you learn a lot in the first one. And get to learn more about the wrong lessons from the first on the second. Why not give it a whirl?

Aka science PhD's need jobs because there's not enough research funding to go around.

This strikes me as an oddly process-based approach to a problem (how to start a successful company) that is never solved by following a set process.

I think "startups require almost the exact same skills as science" is true only in the broadest sense....like, doing work of scientific value is hard and requires intelligence and discipline, and this is also true of startups.

It is also true that there are many people who are exceptionally good scientists who are not good entrepreneurs (and wouldn't be if they tried), and vice versa.

I agree with the article not because I've drunk the kool-aid but because I have seen the math work out on numerous occasions.

Say you average $x per year for 3 years, then your startup fails, so you join bigcorp at $y. So at the end of 4 years you have 3x+y.

Your conservative classmate joins a bigcorp and stays there 4 years averaging $z per year. So he now has 4z.

It's a simple exercise to enumerate tuples (x,y,z) where 3x + y > 4z.

Literally in every case I have seen up close and personal, the LHS exceeded the RHS. And I'm not going to argue with math.

That equation makes it a little too easy to have a rosy picture of things.

A failed startup can be very expensive. You might break even. You might not. Just from the financial perspective on it, when you start including negative and near-zero values on the left side of that equation, conservative job at bigcorp starts looking good.

Then think about the rest of your life. Surely there is some value in getting enough sleep, having free time, work-life balance (because your work isn't 100% of your life), and a basic level of security. Startup life sucks; there are far fewer people who have what it takes (including luck) than there are people who think they do.

eh, I am in infrastructure, not science, but looking back, I have a really hard time coming up with something that I might have done (I mean, something that the person I was in my 20s would likely have done.) that could have caused me more financial damage than starting a company did.

On top of that, nobody tells you, but when you go to get a real job after starting a company? If you didn't have big-name VC, "Oh, that was your company?" the interviewer asks... but what the interviewer clearly means is actually "Oh, so you were unemployed"

I mean, I'm not saying that you shouldn't start a company, I'm just saying that you need to be mindful of the risks. Yes, you feel free when you are young, but any money you put into retirement then is extremely impactful. The same is true of anything you put into covering your long-term housing short.

Even if I could talk to myself in my early 20s, I probably could not talk him out of starting a company, but... i would be way better off now if he could have been talked into being more conservative... into maxing out all available tax-deferred retirement options, into limiting the amount of money and the amount of my self that I was willing to sink into the thing. Into buying a fucking condo, at least. Something.

"The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man." --George Bernard Shaw

As a Ph.D. student, I found this to be an interesting outlook, albeit a bleak look at the current job market. My research is in machine learning, and I'm hoping my job search will be easier :P

I thought the outlook for a PhD w/ specialization in ML would be bright, no? At least in industry. The academic world is something I wouldn't even consider.

if you succeed, great. if you raise, fail, and decide that it isn't the life for you - you aren't left with a lot of options.

TLDR: start a startup if you are in such a terrible job market that you have, by default, a 95% chance of failure.

But the 1/20 that do "succeed" get a salary of ~$150000 over ~30 years, which is worth $2-4 million today dollars depending on how you set your interest rates.

Are 1 in 20 founders today exiting with $2-4 million in their pockets?


Glug glug glug. The sound of Koolaid being drunk..


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