Hi TechEntrepreneurship readers! I’m Alex Danco, currently leading the BackTrack project at TandemLaunch along with my cofounder Alex Daskalov (Yes, I know). I’ll be posting on TechEntrepreneurship from time to time, and in between entries you can read some of my other thoughts at alexdanco.com.
This post is all about a choice many people face when finishing up an undergraduate degree: should you go to grad school? I’ll be sharing my thoughts about the similarities and differences between grad school and startups – and whether grad school might be useful if you’re a budding innovator.
First off, a bit of my background: I received my undergraduate degree from McGill in 2011, majoring in human physiology. I then did what every good life science student who doesn’t go to into medicine is supposed to do- applied to grad school. In my case, this was a relatively easy decision- I was interested in research and already working as an undergrad in Dr. Laura Stone’s laboratory, which studies (among other things) low back pain. So I started as a Master’s student in Neuroscience, and spent two very enjoyable and relatively productive years in Laura’s lab. I was fortunate to have had such a great experience and such good mentorship while I was there- students in other labs are not always so lucky. After finishing my Master’s (and opting out of transferring to a PhD program- more on that later), I connected with TandemLaunch through the Entrepreneur-In-Residence program, and am now working on BackTrack to try and fix the way we treat back pain.
Now for the big question: as a young future innovator coming out of undergrad, is another degree at all worthwhile? Some might say, absolutely- an undergraduate degree isn’t enough anymore; you have to specialize in something, and grad school is a good way to do that. Others might say, absolutely not- you learn things by actually doing them in the real world, not in some silly academic echo chamber. I can tell you that I’m confident of two things: 1) there is no ‘right answer’ to this question; and 2) your personal strengths, weaknesses, field of study, and passionate interests matter a whole lot more than anything I can say on the subject. Nonetheless, I will do my best to articulate a few points, based on my experience and observations.
I’ll start out with some of the drawbacks of going to grad school. (The ‘minuses’ column.)
1. The Fairness Principle. When I say fairness, in this case, I mean something specific- the general notion of ‘if you work hard, you will be rewarded’. This is something we’re all taught growing up, and that’s a good thing- incentives are important. However, there’s a critical difference between A: ‘I won’t be rewarded unless I work hard’ versus B: ‘If I work hard, then I will be rewarded’. Working in a startup requires a complete embrace of A and complete rejection of B. If you strongly believe in the type of ‘fairness’ described by B, you probably shouldn’t be working in a startup. Go to law school.
Grad school brings out the ‘Fairness Principle’ in everyone. Generally speaking, your degree (the end goal) is a bright shining target that ought to get predictably closer, inch by inch, for every month of effort and diligence you put in. If you work hard and write a good thesis, you will eventually graduate. If you’re pursuing a PhD this may take many years and is never exactly guaranteed, but there’s still a high degree of implicit fairness involved. The longer you toil, the more people will think of you as a hard worker who has earned their diploma. However, that’s not quite how life works, especially not in startups. Hard work is essential, but doesn’t guarantee anything. After grad school this can be a difficult mindset to break out of.
2. Aversion to risk. This one applies a bit more to grad school in science, where you’re doing experiments with uncertain outcomes. You see, the way science is supposed to work is, you generate a hypothesis, perform experiments to test that hypothesis, and then share your work so that the world can know what you found. Now here’s how it actually works these days: the first two steps are the same, but if you get negative results on your experiment (which should happen a large percentage of the time, if you’re doing good science) you keep your mouth shut and don’t tell anybody outside of your lab. This is a much bigger problem in science than I have room to talk about here, and others have researched and written on this subject extensively. What I’ll say here is that there is subtle but powerful pressure on you as a scientist to do experiments that don’t fail. The consequence is a strong aversion to risk-taking that can stay with you for a while.
With startups, on the other hand, the need to constantly experiment is the same- but ‘failure’ is treated very differently. You don’t do an experiment (say, an A/B test) because you’re trying to publish the results of this test and get recognized for your hard work, you do it because you genuinely need to know whether A or B works better, and you could not care less if anyone recognizes your hard work. Anyone who’s read The Lean Startup knows that it’s Build-Measure-Learn, not Build-Measure-Publish. Avoiding the risk inherent in designing and carrying out experiments will get you nowhere fast. Plus, on the broader level, if you’re a very risk-averse person then what are you doing at a startup in the first place?
3. Sunk cost. This is the big one. I believe a lot of people go into grad school for precisely this reason, which you’ve probably heard before: ‘I’ve just spent four whole years on a degree studying [anything]; I don’t want that to go to waste. I guess I’ll get a Master’s degree in it too so I’ll have better luck finding employment in my field.’ Once you start grad school, it gets stronger. One year in, you’ve developed a few good skills and are actually getting some research done. Then your supervisor (or a mentor, or your labmates, or anyone) says, ‘You know, you’ve put lots of time and effort into this, it’d be a shame not to get a PhD out of it. I bet you it’d take a year or two more, at most!’ This is a death trap.
Yet you agree, transfer to PhD, and then 6 months later your project starts to struggle right on schedule. Your sunk costs begin to accumulate, not just in an additive manner but with compound interest. If you leave now, all that time on your Master’s was wasted, which means your undergrad was wasted, which means your decision to pursue a Master’s was wrong, which means… AAAH! So you stay, bang your head against the wall for the next five years, and cultivate a long list of enemies.
As an added bonus, Sunk Cost interacts with the Fairness Principle in a particularly insidious manner: the more sunk cost you accumulate, the more you feel like you need that degree ‘out of fairness’. Death trap.
Still with me? Okay good, because it’s not all bad news.
1. Focus. If your undergrad was anything like mine, it involved a lot of classes, a lot of exams, and not much continuity. Sure, hopefully you’re learning things that build on each other, one year at a time. But the semester-based system more or less ensures that you never work on any one thing for longer than a few months. Grad school is different. Your thesis work will become your infant child: it’s all you’re able to think about, the only thing you have time for, and often the cause of a big mess. At first, it’s hard focusing on only one project so intently- but it’s a valuable skill. You learn how to manage your own project, and take the long view in doing so. You’ll learn how to delegate, schedule, and prioritize far more effectively than you could before. If you’re good, you might even start enjoying this process.
2. Pitching. One fantastic part of being a grad student is you will be constantly bombarded with opportunities to present your work. Take advantage of every single one. Before long, you’ll develop a Swiss army knife of presentation skills- how to frame arguments, how to be convincing, how to be concise- even how to bluff on occasion. Scientists are incredibly tough audiences- the question period after seminars sometimes feels like a blood sport. But if you can learn how to hold your own, then you’ll thrive in other environments where presentation skills are key.
Speaking of pitching, another great part about grad school is going to conferences. Conferences are where you’ll develop skills like ‘how to skip most of the scientific talks and then work the cocktail hour afterwards like a boss’ and ‘how to be energetic despite seven-hour jetlag and getting three hours of sleep last night’. They’re where your pitching skills will be honed to perfection- partially at the poster sessions during the day, but mostly over wine in the evening. Conferences help you develop your charisma, fluidity, and confidence while you pitch- and that’s worth a lot.
3. Identify solvable problems. Remember back when I mentioned that grad school was a good way to specialize in something? Here’s why that’s a good thing: it lets you learn a whole lot about something very specific, which is key for identifying solvable problems. Without a deep, thorough understanding of a topic (which can be hard to develop in an undergraduate program), you might still be able to identify the big problems in a field but not the specific and creative ways those problems could be addressed and solved. You’ll learn all the different angles of looking at a particular topic- and the critical differences between those perspectives. You won’t just gain knowledge- you’ll gain insight. As a future innovator these insights will be absolutely critical, not just as inspiration for new inventions or companies, but as guiding principles to ensure you’re solving people’s problems, not just making stuff.
So is grad school a good idea? I can’t answer that question for you- but hopefully this post gives you some food for thought if you’re on the fence. For me, the decision was a no-brainer, both at the time and in retrospect- I learned a tremendous amount during my Master’s, had a great time, and developed some critical skills that I’ll use my entire life. It was the right move for me- but everyone’s different. What’s important is that whatever option you choose, you commit to it completely and embrace the opportunity to its full potential.
And that’s all for this post! Thanks for staying with me, and good luck with those life decisions after undergrad. Like most things in life, grad school is what you make of it.