Making space for entrepreneurial thinking in postgraduate research

As part of Global Entrepreneurship Week, Universities Scotland is highlighting how universities in Scotland are embedding entrepreneurship and enterprise in students and staff. Across seven blogs this week, we have experts the length and breadth of Scotland telling their stories about how universities are contributing to make Scotland an entrepreneurial nation.

In our seventh blog, Elizabeth Adams from the University of Glasgow explains how post-graduate researchers have been engaged in entrepreneurial thinking alongside their busy PhD studies.

Fifteen years ago, when we held our first enterprise and entrepreneurship for researchers workshop, I could just about convince 25 PhD students along – but only when ‘bribed’ with a flashy venue and non-university catering!  If even one of them had a vague business idea that they might take further, I was pleased. Entrepreneurship was barely on researchers’ radars at this point, let alone uppermost in their mind.

Today, the picture is very different.  We are seeing increasing numbers of researcher-led businesses coming through. Perhaps they are prompted by talk of the ‘impact agenda’ trickling down from supervisors, but also because of increased visibility of entrepreneurial alumni and student businesses.  We barely need to advertise our workshops: they fill up due to word of mouth and a growing sense of awareness that, when it comes to career-planning, it pays to think entrepreneurially.

In those 15 years our enterprise training provision itself has expanded and improved over time, becoming much more tailored. We’ve realised that one size definitely doesn’t fit all, and we’ve put careful consideration into the types of entrepreneurial activity researchers are likely to become involved in, having diverse role models (both the people and the businesses) and the language that people connect with (or switch off at) when it comes to talking about entrepreneurship.

We have found, for example, that researchers don’t tend to identify with the term ‘entrepreneur’ but ‘working for yourself’, was much more relatable, and led to greater engagement.

We’ve developed guidance and best practice on embedding equality and diversity into researcher development. It’s no longer acceptable to have an all-male, all white speaker line up. Or one where the ‘token women’ is from university services.  We’ve developed thoughtful and relatable video case studies and tested different approaches for different disciplines or groups of researchers, including social enterprise programmes and women only events.

Over the last decade, we have worked with other universities and organisations like Enterprise Campus, Converge Challenge and Women’s Enterprise Scotland to understand what quality support looks like and address any gaps in our provision.  Attending a Universities Scotland policy forum in early 2016, I was struck by how complex the landscape is in terms of support agencies, training courses, competitions, funding and other initiatives.

No wonder the average PGR might feel tempted to stick their head in the sand and focus solely on the PhD.

I think we’ve all tried to create better websites. We’ve all talked about pipelines and pathways.  The reality is that we need researchers to feel empowered to come forward, ask for advice, network, and make connections. Some of that is about building skills and confidence and helping researchers to carve out that time to think creatively about their career, in the midst of everything else that might be happening for them.  I’m just back from two glorious days on our new programme for researchers (Ingenious Women…The Adventure) which aims to do exactly that, taking researchers both out of their comfort zones and out of Wi-Fi signal to hone their leadership skills and think about the future.

Our training provision has to constantly evolve to meet current needs and interests.  Another discussion that really stuck with me from the Policy Forum was around ‘failure’ and how this just isn’t something we are prepared for in academia.   This is a topic that student journalists have explored in our PGR blog and we have begun to embed it as a recurring theme in careers events.

Doing this well is a massive challenge in terms of time and integration with the PhD.   However, the fact that many of the researchers I work with would like to stay in Scotland post-PhD – and are starting to realise that they have to be more entrepreneurial in creating their own opportunities to be able to do this – suggests that the Scottish University sector as a whole has really lifted the bar in the support that we offer to PGRs in all areas of career development.

The key has been in collaboration between institutions to build critical mass and momentum, as well as shared learning on what works in terms of approach.  Continued collaboration will build on our existing success, and further embed entrepreneurship as part of the researchers’ mind set.


You can read the rest of the blogs in this series as they are published at: