Postgraduate researchers are emerging in the UK as a focus for enterprise and entrepreneurship education. This is a response to several themes:
- Academia is pretty saturated, so research students increasingly cannot find an academic career path and need to develop alternative career paths.
- Increasing focus is being put on the UK’s Science and Technology research base to commercialise more discoveries into start-ups and spin-outs. These organisations need skilled researchers and technology-literate staff.
- The professors who lead the research groups who make these breakthroughs are unlikely to leave the academy, but their researchers might be ideal Chief Technology Officers in the spin-out companies that emerge.
- Even those researchers who survive in academia are increasingly working with industry and trying to demonstrate the impact of their research – by teaching postgraduates the language of business we make our future professors more innovative and commercially aware.
Little older, only a little wiser
However, I find postgrads more challenging to work with (but more rewarding maybe when it works). They’re only a LITTLE older, only a little LITTLE wiser, but a lot more cynical sometimes!
Maybe it’s not so much their age as the fact that they’ve made a decision to stay on in academia already – dodging the outside world for a few more years. Maybe we’ve already pruned out some of the audience who are more enterprising and are left with those of a more critical mindset? They’re less in need of ‘inspirational’ content, and it’s more about supporting them or challenging them concerning something that has already inspired them.
They’re certainly more focused, which is sometimes a problem when you’re trying to convince them to look up from the lab bench at the wider context of their work. The more fundamental the research, the more difficult it is to convince them that learning about enterprise and entrepreneurship is a valid way to spend their time. That’s partly because they find it challenging to apply those fundamental research ideas to anything immediately practical and actionable – but maybe also a product of working in the abstract.
I should stress that this is as much, if not more, a product of the research environment they’re in as it is any individual bias. Supervisor and peer pressure to get the research done does detract from other options. Likewise, even enterprising academics often share their enterprising activity poorly with their research groups let alone those research supervisors who see enterprise as a 5th column distraction from the real work.
For instance, this Professor, who is very enterprising, confessed he didn’t ever tell his students about it.
Postgraduates do respond well to:
- Case studies
- Hard evidence
- Credible presenters
They are much less tolerant of:
- Not being an expert
- The subject/format being at all anecdotal
- “Hand-waving” and all the other ‘soft’ behaviours and models that non-academics use to teach and facilitate
This forces enterprise educators (a lot of whom are not career academics and approach things with “more energy than preparation”) to reconsider their approach. PGRs often prefer a careful and considered style, and much of what suffices for undergraduates needs re-framing if not rewriting. A clear value proposition to the PG audience, hard evidence and credible speakers (ideally research-active speakers), and a less-is-more sense of really making the most of the time available is key.
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I do still find myself sometimes wondering at what point does good academic critical thinking tip over into miserable cynicism and a rude unwillingness to respond positively and creatively, but despite the difficulties, they are worth it when you either make a convert or unearth an existing entre- or intrapreneur and help validate their ambitions.