The “start-up dream” is PhD’s nightmare

It looks to me that this decade started the “start-up dream” madness. Have a wonderful, original idea, possibly one you can turn into an app, and become millionaire. Of course, one of the best way to do this is through a successful PhD: study something intensely for 3-4 years, use your unique knowledge to develop a successful product and sell it. Although this attracts lots of young people to science, this approach is wrong. And stressful of course, otherwise I wouldn’t write about it here!

I am a PhD student in material engineering, working on a material that could potentially be used in our everyday cars. After my research, it seems that this material is not that worthy, and there might be better alternatives for cars. It took me a while to understand that this is also an extremely important result! Of course, I won’t found a start-up and make millions out of this material. But warning people “hey, don’t use this stuff in cars or planes, or they might crash!” is incredibly useful to society as well. In the first case, you make a lot of money. In the other case, you can potentially save lives. And I know, everyone wants to get rich; but if we chose science, it’s not really for the money, isn’t it? The way to find satisfaction in academia is to recognise the immense intrinsic value of our work, even if the monetary recognition is rarely distributed accordingly.

In addition, finding out a technology isn’t worth pursuing or it’s even dangerous, it’s not only important, but necessary. The start-up dream made us researchers forgot that behind a successful technology there are tens of unworthy ones. The road to success is not a straight line: we have to try different paths, many of which will be dead ends. And with “we” I mean us researchers, as part of a bigger society.

Therefore, dear stressed PhD student, here’s a secret: most likely, your supervisors are aware of what I wrote above, and do not expect you to found a start-up. If you show a material is not good, that’s a good job! If you show a model does not work, and you can explain why, that’s a good job! And going even further: if you show how the problems you encountered could be solved by others, that’s an excellent job!

And finally: if a technology proves not to be good, it’s not your fault! But that’s a topic for another post…

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