Transitioning My Social Science Skillset to Start a Small Business
My passion for food has taken me many places over the years. As a young kid, my wide-eyed eagerness opened up a space in an adult cooking class at a local shop in my hometown. As an undergraduate, it created an opportunity to work in high-end dining. Cooking has been my creative outlet throughout life, but especially during graduate school–an opportunity to decompress after long, stressful days. In the pandemic, I turned my passion into an Instagram project, creating slicedbyice, a place to document my more adventurous culinary endeavors. Then, this past October, a special group of friends took a chance on me and gave me the opportunity to test out a prepared meal service, Sliced by Ice.
My business is a small one, turning out fifty high-protein, healthy meals each week to fuel my friends through their busy careers and athletic endeavors. Starting a new business is hard, but the skillset I’ve developed through my time as a social science Ph.D. candidate has made this new chapter a little bit easier. There are four aspects through which my social science training has been critical to developing this part-time endeavor.
Data, Data, Data
If I could distill the last six years of my time at Duke down to one takeaway, it would be the power of data to be a more precise decision-maker. With a new business there are a thousand decisions, small and large, to be made. My experience with survey design allowed me to ensure that I was offering my clients the types of meals that they need to accomplish their goals. I also use feedback surveys every few months to find out which meals are favorites and which need a little more R&D.
In the course of conducting research as a social scientist, I’ve internalized the fact that experimenting is an iterative process. Sometimes your treatment just isn’t strong enough the first time you run an experiment. You’ve got to be willing to go back to the drawing board with what you were able to learn, and try, try again. Cooking meals that have to survive the microwave and still have good textures and flavors turns out to involve a remarkably similar process. Being okay with failure is another valuable lesson from my graduate school experience, and that helps me to continue moving forward, even in the face of mistakes.
Even at a well-supported institution like Duke, resources—time included—are finite. Similarly, the margins on any small business, let alone one trading in food products, are razor thin. Thorough pre-planning to ensure I get exactly what I need without having waste left over is critical, and supply chain shortages over the last several months have only amplified those challenges. I have to manage my time precisely to take orders, source supplies, juggle the timing of cooking fifty units of five different meals in a large kitchen as a staff of one, and make timely deliveries each week—all while interning at The Graduate School and finishing my dissertation.
Putting Yourself Out There and Stepping into the Unknown
The most challenging transition from undergraduate to graduate-level work is going from a consumer of research to a producer of research. It requires tremendous initiative. Putting your ideas out into the world (commissioning the creation of a website and a logo), seeking out funding and support (securing a commercial kitchen space within the budget of a part-time business), and opening yourself up to criticism are unnerving at times. It’s easy to doubt yourself. No one will notice if you don’t follow through on an idea. You have to take ownership of your work or your product and be your own best publicist. Pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone, surpassing your limits, creating something that you can take pride in—these are not lessons easily learned. Graduate school forces them on you to some degree, and I’m so thankful for that. It’s made me a better scientist, a stronger person, and a better business owner
I know that the skills that I have honed will serve me well as I continue to search for my dream job in academic administration. My passion for serving others alongside my data-driven approach to problem-solving will allow me to tackle any challenges that lie ahead.
Katelyn Mehling Ice, Ph.D.
Recent graduate, Political Science
Katelyn Mehling Ice is a recent graduate and holds a Ph.D. in Political Science, with a focus on American political institutions. She is also the Graduate Student Affairs Intern in The Graduate School for 2021-22. In her spare time, she runs a meal prep service and trains in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and powerlifting. She is currently searching for her dream position in academic administration.