Five Ways Being a Graduate Student Made Me a Better Entrepreneur

 October 15, 2015


This past May, my husband and I packed our bags and hopped in the car for a 20-hour road trip. We typically rotate between music, podcasts, and various topics of conversation, but on this particular trip, we talked about only one thing.      

A few days prior, I had an idea for a new company. It would be my foray into entrepreneurship, and my heart was aflutter at the thought of it. We decided to use our 2-day car ride to hash out some details, and I would make a decision about pursuing the idea when we returned. By the end of our trip, we felt this was a great opportunity, but there was one significant barrier: I had three years remaining in my Ph.D. program at Duke, and time was already a scarce resource. I decided to go for it. 

At first, I was very nervous about balancing my company, Eva Jo Rompers, with graduate school. But as I embarked on my entrepreneurial adventure, I made a fantastic discovery: being a graduate student actually made me a better entrepreneur. Here’s how: 

1. Problem solving
The first thing a graduate student has to learn is how to react to problems. Your gut reaction must shift from “panic” to “analyze”. Brainstorming solutions and making an execution plan become a part of every day life, both inside and outside academia.

This problem-solving mentality engenders the confidence that you can solve any problem that arises, a confidence that is invaluable as an entrepreneur. Despite being a newcomer to the fashion industry, I carried with me a certain calm that stemmed from knowing I could meet any challenge - as long as I had access to the right resources.

2. Resourcefulness
As a graduate student, there’s no such excuse as “I can’t find the answer." If you need an answer, you search the literature, email a scholar in the field, or conduct your own experiment. Once you realize there’s no easy out, you learn to be pretty resourceful.

Any entrepreneur will tell you that early days of entrepreneurship are colored by astonishment at how much you don’t know. The only way to tackle your startup immaturity is to know (or be willing to learn) how to find the information you need.Toward the beginning of my startup journey, I realized I was entering an industry that was largely offline. Calling factories and requesting swatches in the mail was unnatural and seemed inefficient. I had to learn how to navigate an industry that operated very differently from what I knew, with its own tricks and secrets. Finding knowledgeable mentors was key in this regard.

3. Understanding the value of mentorship
I’ve always preferred an independent learning style, so working with a mentor in graduate school didn’t come naturally to me. I was nervous to enter a program where I was admitted specifically to work with one advisor, but I quickly learned the value of such a model. I don’t think a Ph.D program would be impossible without the mentorship model, but it would be much more challenging. I believe that entrepreneurship, however, would be impossible without the help of valued mentors. Every meeting I’ve had since I started my company has resulted in a noticeable gain: a new connection, a timely piece of advice, a book recommendation, or in one case, simply a vote of confidence.

Several months ago, I met with a local startup guru. I didn’t have a business plan, market analysis, or even a sample of my rompers – just an idea and naïve excitement. At the end of the meeting, he said, “When I took this meeting, I thought I’d have to come tell you this was a terrible idea. But after talking to you, I think you can do this.” That statement from a stranger has gotten me through a handful of rough days. It demonstrates only a fraction of the profound benefit I’ve received from seeking out mentors.

4. Time management
In graduate school, I became acquainted with a new type of time management challenge: how do you prioritize when your to-do list is endless and no deadlines are in place? In a Ph.D. program, the end goal is a dissertation, and you have 5 years to get it done. Procrastination becomes a comfortable choice, with no apparent consequences… at least for a little while. 

As an entrepreneur, there are no syllabi or due dates, and the final exam is whether your product makes it big or tanks. Procrastination collects its dues when your product launches (or in my case, when your Kickstarter launches), and it is not merciful. Learning how to prioritize a to-do list that spans several months can prevent major fluctuations in workload, and protect you from burnout.

5. Forge your own path
Graduate programs are characterized by unique research. You can’t write a dissertation by reproducing someone else’s work, so you have to learn from what others have done and then get creative. You have to forge your own path. Startups follow the same pattern. Creating something original demands a lot of trust in yourself, and when the stakes get higher and higher, it can be tempting to look around and compare. Forging your own path can be uncomfortable, but entrepreneurship isn’t about being comfortable.

In the end, I believe the skills I learned from being a graduate student are indispensable as an entrepreneur. They have helped me prepare and launch my first Kickstarter, and though free time still eludes me, I’m grateful for the opportunity to try my hand at two such rewarding endeavors. Next time I’ll opt for just one at a time!


Stephanie Santistevan-Swett

Ph.D. Candidate, Cognitive Psychology

Stephanie is a third-year Ph.D. candidate in cognitive psychology. This summer, she succesfully launched her own company, Eva Jo Rompers