This guest blog has been written for us by Dr Emma Williams, who is a consultant working with higher education institutions to illuminate wider career choices for early career research staff.


Mystery. Suspicion. Bemusement. All reactions I have encountered to entrepreneurial events whilst working with early career researchers at a variety of higher education institutions both in the UK and overseas. These are bright, sparky people who make up the backbone of our research base. They have all been undergraduates and many have masters. Why then do they shy away from all things entrepreneurial?

The Roberts Review (SET for Success), back in 2002, identified ‘a number of serious problems in the supply of people with the requisite high quality skills’. The health and wealth of UK plc depended then, as now, on harnessing those with Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine (STEMM) skills to apply to research and industry. The report was instrumental in bringing money provision for transferable skills into universities for early career researchers. Although the funding ended in 2010/11, many higher education institutions embedded what had been initiated by the ‘Roberts’ money’.

Both PhD students and postdocs benefitted from a wealth of courses to help them improve their communication skills, time management, career planning and networking to name a few. These certainly did help early career researchers and the Roberts’ legacy is that universities now have a full range of embedded courses on offer for researchers. Enterprise courses however seem to have been missed from standard researcher development programmes until recently. The provision has largely been seen as ‘something the business school do’. But this lack of connection has widened the gulf between researchers and the essential skills that we need them to have 16 years on.

Building for portfolio careers

The span of working years is increasing whilst the culture of a job for life decreases. Universities need to be preparing all their graduates including those on higher degrees for a flexible working career. Such a portfolio career may involve changing roles or running jobs concurrently. Freelancer site PeoplePerHour predict that 50% of people in the UK will be freelance by 2020. This is a huge shift in working life since 2002.

As Roberts suggested we still need STEMM graduates to fuel our economy who can communicate their ideas and project plan. But we also need them to be enterprising and portfolio career ready. Enterprise skills encompass being entrepreneurial but are wider including: an appreciation of building a business case, marketing and the sales process. Those that stay in research increasingly need to be able to write and pitch for grant funding, with fellowships being an increasingly popular route into academic tenure. Resilience – fail fast, fail often – is needed everywhere but especially in the brutal grant funding research environment. Johannes Haushofer highlighted this in his CV of failures.

This is not only the province of STEMM graduates. In fact, there may be an even more compelling case for giving those in the Arts and Humanities enterprise skills. They are more likely to go on to become ‘soloprenuers’ as musicians, designers, journalists or consultants. Surviving the ‘gig economy’ requires exemplary enterprise skills.

The recent HEPI report Going for Gold: Lessons from the TEF provider submissions by Dr Diana Beech highlighted that institutions that prepared their undergraduates for the future through employability skills training or exposure to business competitions were praised  for their ‘highly successful approach to supporting students into employment’. These skills programmes need to be extended through the early career researcher (ECR) years so that our brightest researchers are equipped for their future.

Building confidence

Universities act as hubs for enterprise both formally and informally. In some institutions such as the University of Oxford, it is almost possible to attend an entrepreneurial event every day. But this is often news to the ECRs I work with or they view it as not for them. How then can we get people involved? Having developed suites of enterprise courses at two research intensive universities (aimed at STEMM ECRs), I think the following points are key to getting people involved:

  • Business like research has its own language. Providing events that can translate and demystify the code are essential in building accessibility. Researchers are by nature curious. Giving them the business basics enables them to be ‘informed enquirers’.
  • Building on what they know. Using their own research as a starting point to try out business concepts is very valuable to learn enterprise skills but can actively improve their research. Applying the business model canvas to their research project has been really powerful.
  • Once researchers understand the business basics they are then equipped to understand how various university innovation systems work. It can debug the myth of ‘they will steal all your IP’ once they understand concepts around patents, IP and equity. Greater knowledge helps them choose from the variety fo support mechanisms available to them.
  • Non-research ideas are business too. ‘I have a business idea but it’s not my research, is that ok?’ – yes! Moving away from academia is often regarded as failure in this group. Unsurprising then when non-technical ideas are dismissed but our economy needs these highly numerate and literate people in business as well as in technical industries. These researchers have great social enterprise ideas which are often a product of the international nature of the community and the desire to make the world a better place. Researchers are in the business of creativity and so can be a hotbed of innovative, disruptive ideas.

Building diversity

The Royal Society’s report ‘Diversity in STEMM: establishing a business case states “Compared with the EU and the USA the UK STEMM workforce is less diverse. ‘Vertical’ and ‘horizontal’ segregation is evident in the STEMM sector in terms of gender, ethnicity and disability, where these under-represented groups cluster in particular occupations and lower levels in organisations”. But also point out the wealth of potential benefits that diversity could bring including: increased creativity, innovation and problem-solving. The latter could be the definition of enterprising. If we are looking for STEMM entrepreneurs to be diverse we need to take this starting point and the complexities of intersectionality into account.

Why does it matter? The Virgin Unite Entrepreneurship Team postulate that diversity helps success ‘by being open to feedback and insight from a wide range of people, entrepreneurs can be more certain that their products and services fully reflect the needs of their diverse customers.’

My research in 2017 looking at encouraging ECR women in the enterprise space uncovered some excellent practice for creating more diverse enterprise spaces with-in and around our universities. These include:

  • Overtly using pictures and case studies in marketing and publications that feature a range of people. If you can see it, you can be it. This needs to be actively done. Typing ‘business’ into google images will return largely male ‘suited and booted’.
  • Demystifying the risks involved. Enterprise is often seen as risky by the researchers I work with. However, the chance of them becoming academics is incredibly small. Balancing risk versus rewards needs to be clearly laid out. Women rather than being ‘risk adverse’ usually want to weigh up the whole picture. Understanding that it is not possible to know all the outcomes but an informed choice can be made is key. Case studies from other ‘people like me’ can be incredible helpful here.
  • Understanding that you don’t have to jump in at solopreneur. Those interested in business can cut their teeth by joining another start-up and these are often mediated by universities with events where founders can look for talented technical people. Most business endeavors are team based so understanding early on you don’t have to be every aspect of your business is important for building confidence.
  • Innovation services in universities need to roadshow for researchers to meet them and understand the services they offer. Linking these to existing events for women’s networks can provide a low key and yet targeted way of meeting potential entrepreneurs.
  • Hosting events such as women’s coding groups in enterprise hubs provides an opportunity for people to familarise themselves with systems and spaces they might otherwise not encounter.

As HEPI guest blogger Loris Ramio has previously written the Government’s Industrial Strategy highlights the importance of entrepreneurs to our country’s financial future. If universities act to break down the barriers to enterprise and facilitate early career researchers to take their first enterprising steps then we will truly have a worthy Roberts legacy.