Sacha Patera on Reviving the PhD through Entrepreneurship

Anyone who knows me, knows how strongly I feel about the value of the PhD.  You’ve heard the statistics that there aren’t enough academic jobs to accommodate all the PhD graduates.  A simple-minded solution is to admit and train fewer PhDs.  I could not disagree more!  On the contrary the world needs armies of people who are smart and technical experts.  But yes, the world needs to widen its expectations of what these smart technical experts can contribute to society. To thwart the excitement and passionate pursuit of scholarship and research, arbitrarily, just because there isn’t an academic job at the other end, is simply uninspired and in-the-box thinking.  Academic jobs are not the only outlets for the value of the PhD.  In fact, with so few academic openings, academia is the alternative, not the norm.  With that out of the way, let’s brainstorm on the value of the PhD.

For years, I have made the case that a PhD is, at its essence, a license to lead.  The activities that culminate in a thesis are those of a leader:  collecting data, synthesizing a story from the data, and ultimately influencing audiences through storytelling.  While most PhD programs effectively prepare their candidates for data collection and data synthesis, they abandon the trainees to rely on their natural-born communication and storytelling talents.  This happens because PhD programs unwittingly fail to provide relevant context, challenges, and real-world business situations that are required for the development of effective communication skills. One solution might be the Northwestern MS in Law, which provides legal cross-functional training that contextualizes the highly technical expertise honed during doctoral studies. This expertise will be valuable in a variety of contexts in which STEM professionals may find themselves.

One outlook for PhDs outside of academia is entrepreneurship. Programs like the Master of Science in Law offer PhD students the grounding that will serve them in any entrepreneurial venture they might undertake down the line. This article explores Cornell Tech’s graduate program, which is attempting to provide many of the same opportunities to post-doctoral students.

If entrepreneurship can indeed revive the troubled PhD, then the MSL is one of its best guarantor of success. It will arm entrepreneurs to avoid many of the pitfalls of the startup world.


Sacha Patera
Former Director of Law-STEM Initiatives for the MSL

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