At least 35 of America’s billionaires are Ph.D.s. As academic jobs become scarce, doctorates should get down to business

Samantha Dewalt is managing director of the Lehigh@NasdaqCenter, an exclusive education-industry partnership between Lehigh University in Pennsylvania and the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center in San Francisco.

Traditionally, a doctoral degree is regarded almost exclusively as a passport to scholarly distinction and academic tenure. Any person who committed the time, energy, and expense to attain a Ph.D. appeared inevitably destined for the academy, free to pursue knowledge without commercial intent.

So goes the standard rationale—and training—for a doctorate. Candidates are groomed for careers in academia, where they will research, teach, and publish. That tradition, though well-intentioned, is overdue for a drastic expansion.

Saving research from ‘the valley of death’

Such an expansion has already begun. In December, the National Science Foundation awarded to 18 academic institutions all across the U.S. to “speed and scale research into products and services that benefit the nation”  NSF announces first-ever Accelerating Research Translation awards to empower academic institutions to speed and scale translational research | NSF – National Science Foundation The first-ever Accelerating Research Translation awards are designed to enable university scholars to convert academic innovation into commercial value and societal purpose. Each school awarded will partner with a mentoring institution of higher education already equipped with “a robust ecosystem for translational research.”

Lehigh University is among the recipients of the abovementioned National Science Foundation awards, with Carnegie Mellon University acting as its peer mentor. The $6 million award will be earmarked specifically to increase the translation of scientific discoveries in engineering, science, health, humanities, business, education, and other disciplines—by faculty, graduate students and postdoctoral researchers into prototypes, products, and programs that will benefit society.

Meanwhile, as the supply of jobs in academia struggles to keep up with the demand, more Ph.D.s are turning to careers in industry. In 2020, The Princeton Review warned, “If it’s your ambition to become a professor, you should be aware that the Ph.D. track is no guarantee of a life in academia.” As such, candidates will need to be prepared differently. 

Make no mistake: Some college graduates bearing Ph.D.s have proven highly enterprising. It is estimated that the private sector now employs about as many Ph.D. graduates as educational institutions.

Most research finds that between one-third and one-half of all Ph.D. graduates globally stay in academia, while others may migrate to the private sector. Almost daily, some entrepreneurial Ph.D.s launch new ventures that eventually hit the jackpot. Indeed, Forbes has reported that “at least” 35 U.S. billionaires obtained a Ph.D. before plunging into business.

But let’s face it: Academics are rarely trained to be entrepreneurs. They typically focus on conducting research, publishing manuscripts, and at times, developing intellectual property, but without cultivating the business knowledge or resources to turn innovations into viable market solutions. And it’s a shame when university research languishes on the shelf, never reaching the market—the so-called “valley of death”.

How America’s top universities are doing it

Universities are amping up efforts to educate Ph.D. students about how to better capitalize on a doctoral degree. At Lehigh University, we have conducted a competitive analysis of what other higher education institutions, particularly those highly regarded for entrepreneurial activity, are doing to engage Ph.D. students in entrepreneurial courses and programs. Among the schools we studied were Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Princeton, Dartmouth, and UC Berkeley. Overall, our analysis identified a need—and opportunity—to transform Ph.D. education.

More particularly, we found that although most of these top-tier universities offer entrepreneurship education for graduate and undergraduate students alike, few target Ph.D. students. We also learned that because most of the graduate courses in entrepreneurship originate in business or engineering schools, few are truly interdisciplinary. We also found that Ph.D. students are more likely to participate in entrepreneurial activity if they have faculty advisors who are themselves entrepreneurs or at least entrepreneurial-minded.

Stanford University particularly stands out as an exemplary entrepreneurial environment for students. It benefits from education-industry partnerships that provide access to the most innovative companies in Silicon Valley. UC Berkeley distinguishes itself, too, for its emphasis on interdisciplinary entrepreneurial development and close collaboration with nearby startup incubators.

Dartmouth College pioneered the first engineering Ph.D. innovation program that provides entrepreneurial training to turn research discoveries into market solutions. The PhD fellows take additional coursework in business, innovation, and entrepreneurship, and spend up to six months at an industry internship. 

Entrepreneurship education should be democratized. Other universities should follow the examples set by the top-tiers. All students—even those on a budget—should have access to the equivalent of an Ivy League experience.

Our university is taking a step in this new direction, to better expose our Ph.D. students to entrepreneurial experiences and career pathways. Last fall, we introduced a hands-on, real-world, interdisciplinary course on entrepreneurship for Ph.D. students. Built on a model designed by the National Science Foundation, the course is offered for credit and available to graduate students across disciplines through Lehigh@NasdaqCenter, partnering with the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Lehigh’s Office of Technology Transfer. 

It’s time for doctorates to get down to business. More Ph.D.s should treat the ideas that emerge from scholarship as entrepreneurial opportunities. But first, they must know how to harness all that valuable education in the service of both our society and our economy.

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