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I am about to get my bachelor degree in computer science. I have applied PhD programs of US universities to earn doctorate degree in computer architecture subject. I kept my hopes high and applied the most of top US schools, but rejected from the most of them (mostly because my GRE, TOEFL grades are not top for these schools, I think). Hopefully I will be admitted some of the schools that I applied.

I know pursuing a PhD and conducting research is not easy, but it is a serious process that requires the one to devote himself or herself to. Luckily I like working on computer architecture and learn about new innovations, techniques, ideas proposed by researchers. I think computer architecture is a field fully open to innovation, research and development. However, at the same time I love spending time on web technologies. I have been developing new applications related with web services, mobile services, social media, content management systems etc.

Do you think would it be really possible to pursue a PhD and simultaneously work on a start-up project?

I am not looking for answers saying that it would be possible as long as you manage your time to work on them both or it is up to your advisor or program etc. I know after some point everything up to you, but I don't know the PhD experience and that's why I am asking this question here.

PS: I hope this question would help others in the sense that it is about the possibility of serious extra activities during PhD process, rather than being an personal issue.

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I think it's a good question, and I agree with EpiGrad and Lars' answers, it's likely to be "no", at least for a start-up. Doing a PhD is really time-consuming, especially at the beginning, and you want to be able to focus entirely on your research, and that's pretty much the same for a start-up. But nothing prevents you to have independent developer activities on the side (as long as you can cut them for several weeks/months), or to launch your start-up from your research results after a couple of years. –  Charles Morisset Mar 13 '12 at 22:00
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6 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Yes, Yes and absolutely Yes! Yes, you have to manage and balance your time well and make sure you devote the time to your Ph.D first, if your startup kicks off and you start raking in millions, you may again decide how to distribute your attention :)

Now, what are the benefits of doing a start-up-like project (notice 'like')? You don't really know how/what this project will turn into. So first pursue it as 'passion' or have 'will to do it' to solve a 'pain point' and NOT for 'it's fun to start my company, let's do it!' kinda attitude.

First, find a pain point and talk it out with your peers, friends etc. Basically anyone whose pain you will relieve :) Get a pulse of the solution and its possible acceptability.

Second: Is this in line with your PhD focus area? Can you 'put it line' with it? The reason I ask is that'll be all the more worthwhile and you'd be 2x willing to work your a** off :) and time devoted to either will be beneficial to both!

Now if it's not in line and a totally different project here are some benefits:

  • Strong honing of skills with a focus on 'value' - you'll HAVE to prioritize the requirements with a focus on the most valuable/risky items first (and not necessarily the easiest ones)
  • Understanding who will be your success critical stakeholders and how/what will satisfy their needs (i.e. what are the pain points, whose feeling it and how to relieve it)
  • What it takes to run a business or bring an idea to fruition
  • How painful is quick and dirty in the long run i.e. if you sacrifice maintainability/readability/adaptability the business will teach a lesson ;)
  • Develop a techno-business mindset i.e. along with the development skills you'll also (hopefully) develop some valuation skills. These are those that help you 'sell' your idea to someone (VCs, Angels etc.) to invest in your business - you'll learn to speak the language of 'business' to help them understand the value of your idea.
  • Learn to do risk/return tradeoffs

This will make you a 'System Engineer' in a sense - you'll be able to look at a broader picture along with your particular skill set (computer architecture)

Now, assuming your PhD is purely technical, you will develop (and appreciate) business understanding, complexity and communicability! In the future it'll help you communicate well with the 'other folks' (i.e. marketing, managers, CEOs, bosses, customers etc. etc.)

These skills ARE EXTREMELY VALUABLE in the long run. Working on your start-up project may help you at least get an inkling if not the entire understanding but you WILL definitely have a better understanding of technical + business oriented aspects and I think that's a skill all PhDs ought to have!!

PS: I am in your shoes :)

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"Yes, you have to manage and balance your time well and make sure you devote the time to your Ph.D first, if your startup kicks off and you start raking in millions, you may again decide how to distribute your attention :)" - The failure rate for startup businesses is already staggeringly high. The probability you'll "start raking in millions", or do anything other than crater, if you're not focused on the business is - I'd assert - near 0. –  Fomite Mar 15 '12 at 4:11
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Honestly, my instinct is "no".

Both startups and PhD advance in the same way - the massive influx of effort. And that effort is often unpredictable. Both settings have "crunch time" wherein for the next few weeks, you might as well have dropped off the face of the Earth.

Balancing that is, imo, a very tall order for a human being and will probably result in one of them suffering, falling to the side and getting triaged if you try to split the middle.

That being said, there are paths you can try, particularly if you can manage to either consult for a startup in a way that has structured limits on your time, or manage to link your dissertation to the startup's work enough that your effort counts for double. But as entirely unrelated projects? Its begging to have one fall apart.

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Unfortunately the answer you don't want to hear is the most plausible one in my opinion. There are plenty of cases where people even start companies while doing a PhD and then never finish their PhD (Google being a notable example). People also do both at the same time, or change to a part-time PhD.

If you are serious about getting a PhD, this is only really an option in the later years of your studies. If you start working on a project that is not related to your PhD right away you will probably run into difficulties with your studies, the project or both.

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It depends the most on how much time and effort you need to pursue your start-up project. If you were able to do it and have a normal job - then probably yes.

However, time management is an issue - both PhD and start-up are things with unbounded times - so always competing with each other. The thing with devoting oneself may be psychologically harder, as you need constantly to switch attention and evaluate priorities (but sometimes it may be beneficial - serving as an 'intellectual crop rotation'). Moreover, dealing with the pressure from two opposite sites at once may be difficult. And don't underestimate it.

For US, note that first 1-2 years is the coursework, so it may be not the easiest/possible to start your project then.

Anyway, it may be the best not to start both PhD and star-up exactly at the same time - better to learn how much time & effort is needed for one activity and e.g. what is approach of your professor / graduate school to your other project(s) (actually, sometimes they may be supportive, including in the financial aspect).

Source:

I'm a PhD student running a sort of a start-up project (Confrenzy).

EDIT: Now failed, or frozen.

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is it "Welcome to Nginx" campaign? –  NPcompleteUser Sep 1 '13 at 12:35
    
@NPcompleteUser The site is no longer active, sadly. –  Piotr Migdal Sep 1 '13 at 18:40
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It can be great if you learn skills that you can apply in your PhD. Some Universities even encourage it. As long as you communicate this clearly to your professor and still devote enough attention to your PhD it is OK.

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Awesome question.

My answer is - for sure! (if it is related to your research as a grad student)

Let me expand. I think grad school is time for couple of things:

  1. Widen your knowledge in the field.
  2. Deepen your knowledge in the subfield of the subfield of the subfield ... of your field
  3. bla bla bla
  4. Get to be known by your peers
  5. Make new connections

Professor could usually tell you that points 4 and 5 are easily achieved by publishing couple of papers and going to couple of conferences (realistically, how many conferences grad student can go in 5 years? maybe 8).

Of course, also, advisor doesn't want you to spend time on the stuff that will not has his/her (advisor's) name on it. That is understandable, advisor needs a list of stuff to put in the grant/whatever proposal to get funding. However:

  1. Advisor pays you a minimum wage (in most of the cases)
  2. Makes you work on his/her spherical cow
  3. There are hardly any jobs on the market [1,2]

For at least these reasons my answer is - for sure.

Now, usually startup'ers invest time and money into something, and hope to get more money back. In my case, I have decided to invest in myself. So my startup goal is to contribute to a list of the opensource/closed source project in my field and arrive into authors/contributors list. This will accomplish the following:

  1. Get to be known by your peers
  2. Make new connections
  3. Get myself aware of the code

One more thing I'm happy about, only my name will be on the list. In academia people get authorship on the papers for all kind of things, only not for doing research, well, in the software - there is no such issue - as commit history is the judge.

thanks for the attention.

  1. http://cen.acs.org/articles/90/web/2012/03/Unemployment-Data-Worst-40-Years.html
  2. http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.caredit.a1300184
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