Invest in Yourself: Entrepreneurial Lessons from a PhD Student
Blog Post by ELP Student Steven Romanelli (Molecular & Integrative Physiology | Class of 2021)
In many ways, pursuing a PhD is analogous to becoming an entrepreneur; long nights, countless failures, an excess of caffeine, and a stubbornness to keep on trying. As I begin my 5th year of graduate school, I can’t help but reflect on the lessons I’ve learned that I wish I knew in my 1st year. These lessons highlight the importance of investing in YOU and provide a guide for personal growth, whether that be at the bench or in starting your own business.
So, who am I? My name is Steven Romanelli and I am a PhD candidate in Molecular & Integrative Physiology at the University of Michigan Medical School. I use gene editing in fat cells to help us understand obesity and metabolism. I am passionate about the intersection of science and business and helping graduate students identify careers outside of academia. I am an avid hockey player, an average golfer, and the greatest pizza chef in the Midwest. Most importantly, I am an entrepreneur, and I hope these lessons help you realize that you are one too.
The life of a graduate student: spending hours at the microscope assessing viral transduction of adipose tissue. The green “circles” are fat cells that have been edited using genome engineering techniques. Outside of lab, I love playing hockey for the reigning Ann Arbor Ice Cube league champs: the “Spicy Boys.”
Lesson 1: Be Selfish
I know this sounds bad but let me elaborate. If you are beginning graduate school or starting a company, count yourself lucky, you’re doing something millions of people wish they could be doing. With that being said, count yourself lucky for another reason: you can now be as selfish as you want to.
If someone is described as “selfish,” we immediately associate that as bad, and rightly so. But being selfish is relative, and in some circumstances can be a positive thing. Here’s how:
Both graduate school and entrepreneurship are inherently selfish in a positive way. Both require an immense investment in YOU. In graduate school, YOU have the luxury to study anything your heart desires. YOU can take any class in any subject for FREE. YOU can become entrenched in an obscure molecule that only a handful of people in the world know or care about. In entrepreneurship, YOU are creating a business. YOU are setting your own hours. YOU are deciding your company’s values and direction.
Make this count.
Do things that will accelerate your career by investing in YOU. For me, that meant supplementing my scientific training with business experience to reflect my interests. I took courses in biotechnology and entrepreneurship to learn more about these fields. Additionally, I sought hands-on experience, and joined miLEAD Consulting Group, a graduate student and postdoc-led firm, where I served clients in the life sciences industry. I worked my way to become President of the firm, gained leadership experience, and vastly expanded my network. By being selfish, I grew.
Lesson 2: There Are No Rules
Obviously, there are rules we all must abide by. You can’t neglect what your professor says. You can’t lie to your investors. You have to follow those rules. With that being said, there is no handbook on how to be successful in graduate school or entrepreneurship, YOU have to write those rules. Let me give an example.
I hope to pursue a career in life sciences consulting at the completion of my PhD. There is no curriculum for this, no set of requisite classes. I have to write the rules.
So, what did I do? I searched LinkedIn to identify people who had the jobs I wanted. Industry experience was a common theme; I had to get an internship. Internships for PhD students are few and far between, but I didn’t let that stop me. I applied to the National Institutes of Health Cellular Biotechnology Training Program Fellowship which would allow me to do an internship. This fellowship was not open to my department, but I applied anyway. A year later I completed an internship at AstraZeneca in Cambridge, UK.
Write your own rules. The worst thing that can happen is someone says “No.” But how will you know if you never try to begin with? What if they say “Yes?” With graduate school or entrepreneurship, be creative. Chart a path that will lead you to where you want to be. Follow the lead of others, but always remember that your journey will be different; you have to be flexible but bold.
Punting under the Mathematical Bridge on the River Cam at the University of Cambridge with colleagues from AstraZeneca UK. Dinner at St. Catherine’s College University of Cambridge with friends.
Lesson 3: What Stands in the Way Becomes the Way
Lesson 3 paraphrases Marcus Aurelius, who said “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” Nothing moves linearly, life ebbs and flows, and obstacles will always get in the way; it is inevitable, we cannot control that.
But we can control how we respond to that.
Experiments will fail. Your company may have to pivot. You’ll always be looking for funding. I spent over a year failing to get my experiments to work because of a defective virus. When these things happen, rather than be dejected, this is a time to test your resolve. What can I do next? How can I get to my goal given my current circumstances? You are only limited by your creativity.
Investing in yourself will make you a better person. Be selfish. Write your own rules. Don’t let things get in your way. You should learn something new about the world and about yourself every day.
Graduate school and entrepreneurship are stressful endeavors. Investing in yourself goes beyond work. Don’t forget to take a step back and take care of your mental and physical health. Eat right, exercise regularly, and get enough sleep. Spend time with friends and family; don’t go it alone.