In this text, WDRG doctoral candidate Thomas Banafa writes about combining entrepreneurship and doctoral studies.
I started my own consulting company a little over two years ago after six years of working as a design engineer at a large consultancy. This fall I started working on my PhD, and in this blog post I’ll highlight some similarities and bring up some advice I’ve found useful both as a doctoral candidate and entrepreneur. I’ll briefly also describe what led me to this point, and conclude on how I believe professional experience and entrepreneurship can prepare you for a PhD and vice versa.
The circle of (professional) life
Some of the reasons to start my own company was to advance my career, build new networks and expand my skills. I was intrigued by succeeding or failing on my own merit. Timing also played a role: there were certain public processes coming up that I knew would require the help of consultants – in essence, there was a customer pain and I had the cure.
Working on my own company forced me find my niche and position in the market, which at first required me to expand my scope. Through networking and new projects, I started to develop the subject for my doctoral studies. I had thought about pursuing a doctoral degree a few years back, but it took some more time for the idea to mature. I also reasoned that I could benefit from a certain unique skillset, which I could obtain by working on a PhD.
Limiting and managing yourself
With my limited experience in academia and industry, I can already see some parallels in doctoral studies and being an independent consultant. The most obvious thing is the highly independent nature of both types of work. The freedom enjoyed by academics and entrepreneurs requires not only hard work, but also limiting yourself: this includes e.g. working hours and deciding on the direction and focus of your work. When working for yourself, you have ALL the time in the world and there is ALWAYS more work to do. Knowing when something is worth doing or when something is good enough is important for time and stress management.
Struggling with motivation isn’t uncommon at any job or task, but the importance of internal motivation is highlighted when you are your own boss. Some factors depend on your working environment, but you should also look for ways to influence them and nurture the kind of workplace and environment that you find motivating. Personally, I found out that competence, autonomy, and relatedness  are instrumental for my well-being. Am I able to decide what I’m doing, and is it driven by my internal desires and alignment of my personal values? Am I working with my full potential and/or feeling overwhelmed? Do I care for my colleagues and do I feel cared for?
As independent as both types of work are, it doesn’t mean being alone: when overwhelmed, tired or even when feeling satisfied or accomplished, it’s always a good time to contact colleagues or peers for support. Keeping yourself and your head together is important and asking for help is ok. I would also encourage to talk and meet with people who are not working in the same field.
Best of both worlds
Like mentioned before, both doing a PhD and being an entrepreneur carry substantial degrees of freedom and responsibility. And for me, being able to balance these things gives a strong feeling of agency, which enhances motivation and feeling of empowerment.
In my opinion, doing a PhD can prepare you for starting your own business and vice versa: having to lead yourself and focus on the essential is something that you will learn from one and will benefit the other. Going from an employee to an independent consultant was a turning point in my career, and I believe starting doctoral studies will be another one.
Combining PhD studies and with entrepreneurship, sounds (and feels) daunting. But at this point I’m more focused on the former and the latter is in “power save mode”. Keeping my company running allows me to keep in touch with the industry and allows me to work a couple of days per month on something else. I also think that since my projects are usually small and self-contained, it will offer a nice counterbalance to PhD studies.
Banafa Consulting: https://www.banafaconsulting.fi/
 Ryan, R. M. and Deci, E. L. (20000301) ‘Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being.’, American Psychologist, 55(1), p. 68. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.55.1.68.
Thomas Banafa is a doctoral candidate at Aalto University’s Water and Development Group. He holds an MSc (tech.) in Water Resources Management and his doctoral research focuses on collaborative water governance. In addition to his research, Thomas works as an independent consultant and an entrepreneur working with both with public and private sector clients. His project work comprises flood risk management and facilitating environmental decision-making processes.