How I Left Academia (and Set up My Own Business)

How I Left Academia (and Set up My Own Business)

The data on PhD students graduating and remaining in academia are pretty-stark. Depending on who or what you read as few as 10% of graduates remain in academia long term.

The road I have travelled – PhD to professional support role to business owner – is not necessarily typical (but I am not sure there is a typical pathway). However, I am hopeful others can find it useful in the context of options available to PhD students. The intention is to use the story to show others that there is a pathway. That there are people who can help. That changing careers or sectors is not bad, going to the dark side or weak. This blog forms one part in three covering:

  • how I left academia;
  • The value of my PhD (to my business); and
  • How you can transition out of academia (and into business).

After completing my degree (a biomedical science degree, but not like the many and varied biomedical degrees on offer now), I felt there were three career options:

  • Science geek (i.e. someone who is trained to think, but not specifically qualified for a job; generally excellent, but too general to be employable without further training);
  • Professional researcher (i.e. the whole academic route); or
  • Science rep (i.e. selling reagents, equipment etc. to doctors, pharmacists, other health professionals and/or scientists).

Of course, there are MANY more options, but these are three that I recall as being put forward to me as careers.

In that context, honours felt like the right thing to do – both in providing a competitive advantage as well as putting off making a career decision for another year. Having enjoyed honours and the research process, combined with my thinking (around competitive advantage and putting off career decision making) undertaking a PhD was an obvious choice.

The decision to do a PhD was not driven by anything else. There was no burning desire to do research, cure cancer, or save the world in any way. Don’t get me wrong, I loved (and still love the idea of research), I just did not feel a calling to do it like many researchers have expressed on twitter.

During my PhD, I had some great experiences. My supervisor was (and still is) an internationally renowned researcher in her field. My co-supervisor was (and still is) also an expert in his field, and the PostDocs in the lab were supportive, encouraging and very helpful. As were the PhD students and honours students, not to mention the academics within the department, school and wider faculty.

Although research was attractive – particularly knowing something (almost) no one in the world knew – it was difficult to reconcile the effort put in against the outcomes achieved. That is, longer hours or more work did not seem to match against a better career. Similarly, less work or shorter hours did not have a proportionally negative impact on progress. The financial rewards of being a researcher were not attractive either.

So, mid PhD I let my supervisor know that I would not be pursuing a research PostDoc. It was daunting –supervisors choose students as much as students choose supervisors. Not to mention the investment research groups make in their PhD students as the future workforce (and if you are being cynical as factory workers of the Australian research system).

Despite being anxious the discussion went well, and together we planned how the PhD work would be completed, while keeping a look out for opportunities to build skills for a life outside research. This meant a focus on various courses such as leadership and commercialisation; as well as taking on conference organisation with an eye to honing organisational, project management and sales skills.

It also meant I met people with the non-researchers who came to the lab, whereas other PhD students spent more time with the vising researchers.

This approach also allowed my supervisor to focus her efforts as a referee on my transferable skills rather than research specific skills.

The job interview process also helped form decisions about career pathways. For example, my first interview was with a pharmaceutical company. It clarified that a role in big pharma was not for me.

However, my second interview was for the perfect job. It was a faculty-level job providing strategic and research support to researchers. The interview process went well; my supervisor was able to act as the perfect referee and I performed well on the written task (many job interviews involve a written task at that level). I landed the roll! So, simultaneously I was getting married, building a house, completing my PhD and starting a new job.

The job went for four years (I’m still married to the same awesome person). The job was a perfect place to cut my teeth. I learnt business strategy, grant development, team management, project management and was able to formalise some of my experiences with training (e.g. Cert IV in Project Management; MS Excel, MS Office etc.).

The transition to my current job (owning my own business) was next. Having viewed and worked with other consultants and I wondered what it would be like to be my own boss. Without much planning, a fare dose of courage, support from my wife and massive help from my former boss I set up my solopreneur practice! We (my wife and I) were still building our house (it took four years), had a baby on the way and enough savings to live for four months. The only planning I did was to choose a business name and calculate how long we could live off our savings (four months). My safety net was that I could get a job within 3 months of the business failing. Giving us one spare month .

What you all know as Raven Consulting Group was born on 1 July 2008 (yep the start of a new financial year). Work was initially a few tenders with the Department of Health and evolved into what it is today – a range of mentoring, project management, speaking and training.

As with research, I did not feel a burning desire to own my own business – I just wanted to give it a go. The projects I have been involved in have allowed me to make meaningful, measurable and impactful contributions to both the university and health care sectors.

When I reflect on my career there are a few points where I can see I let myself coast. Happy to have the views or decisions of others lead my trajectory. There have also been times when I leveraged who or what I knew for my (career) benefit.

In terms of transitioning from PhD to non-academic work to owning my own business I think the following were important:

  • Mentors – people I could talk to about the transition. These included my PhD supervisor, my boss(es) as well as small business owners.
  • Emphasising transferable skills – PhD projects require good communication (written and verbal), people, project and time management (amongst other things). I chose to undertake extracurricular activities that highlighted those things. Not all employers will immediately understand why a PhD requires project and stakeholder management, but most people know that conference organisation requires project and stakeholder management. Similarly, taking a short course (e.g. Cert IV in Project Management) helped reconcile my working knowledge of project management, against theoretical best practice.
  • Supportive critical friends – key people in my life (e.g. my wife, siblings, parents), were supportive of the changes I was contemplating (and subsequently implementing) in my career. However, they also provided an importantly reality check on my decision making. Regularly reflecting on my life choices to date and making sure my (future) decisions were in line with their version of me.

However, on reflection I think things could have been even better if I:

  • Had experience – I never worked in a small business before working in my own. I have learnt a lot along the way through making mistakes. Working in someone else’s small business (even only a few weeks and/or for free) would have helped avoid some failures. Undertaking small business training, could have assisted with others.
  • Took my academic experience into my business – I work a lot with researchers and universities. Some projects have lent themselves to research articles. I could have (relatively) easily written them up, but did not focus on those aspects of my work at the time. Peer reviewed publishing could have added even more value to clients and projects.

Contact me for advice and ideas on making the transition from academia!


Raven Consulting Group specialises in delivering high quality strategic advice to the education, research and government sectors. Richard is driven by the challenge of helping researchers be commercially smart. His strategic approach to collaboration and research translation has been making the impossible possible for more than seven years. His clients appreciate his cut-through approach. He knows the sector and how to turn ideas into reality. To find out more, call 0412 606 178, email (Richard.huysmans@ravencg.com.au) or subscribe to our newsletter.

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