The best decision I’ve ever made was also the most daunting. In 2012 I quit my PhD program in International Relations to focus completely on my startup. But why did I do this?
I wanted the PhD in order to make the world a better place through sharing knowledge and ideas. I think most academics share this motivation. Yet two years into the program, reading academic journal articles and writing my own became so tedious that I was losing my passion for making improving the world. I had dreamed for years of doing a PhD, but there was no joy in carrying out research. I knew I was in some kind of slump.
At the same time, a social media platform I had created with my best friend from high school, Mark Bakacs, was gaining significant momentum. We designed Ideapod to help people use social media to build human relationships around shared ideas.
At the time Mark was a corporate lawyer, so neither of us had any experience building technology platforms. It was a crazy side project to help us deal with the frustrations of our careers and a great vehicle for our long-standing desire to build a business together. It was all we could think about. So we took the plunge, leaving behind our academic and corporate careers to focus completely on our startup.
Two years in, I’ve had the chance to reflect on what was driving my frustration with academia and why working on a startup has proven to be much more fulfilling and engaging.
The Publish or Perish Phenomenon
To advance an academic career, one must “publish or perish.” It’s essential to publish in peer-reviewed academic journals, reviewed by experts in the field. Only a handful of very powerful publishing companies own tens of thousands of academic journals, and they charge extortionate fees for access to these articles.
This would be understandable if the fees went to the academics writing for and reviewing these journal articles. However, the writers research and peer review for free in order to advance their own careers. I was dedicating my life to research in order to publish in peer-reviewed journals. My research would be largely inaccessible to the public and would only be read by people already sharing my perspective of the world.
Sharing Ideas to Make the World a Better Place
It used to be that a life dedicated to academic research was considered a public service for making knowledge and ideas accessible. But with massive changes in communication technology, is this really the case?
I wondered about what would happen if everyone freely shared their ideas using the power of social media — not only gossip or photos from the latest party they’ve attended, but thoughts and perspectives about the world we live in.
The current social media platforms were not the appropriate forums by which to see this question effectively answered. So we needed to build the platform ourselves. Even at this early stage, creating Ideapod has already done more to fulfill my initial motivation of making knowledge and ideas accessible to a broad base of people.
Becoming an Agent for Change
The purpose of education is empowering people to make a positive contribution to society. The more I learned in my PhD program, the less empowered I felt to create positive change in the world. By quitting my PhD, I liberated myself from the misaligned incentives of academic publishing and became free to create without arbitrary limitations.
Working on a startup is fundamentally creative. It’s about building a team who shares a passion for and focus on working towards one vision. I’m extremely grateful to my team for helping me learn this important lesson.
Quitting my PhD to work on Ideapod has unlocked my potential in a way that doctoral research was never able to do. It has been a journey of highs and lows, but I feel incredibly fulfilled, alive and in flow with everything I’m doing.
A version of this article originally appeared here.
Justin Brown is co-founder of Ideapod, a social media platform for sharing ideas. Ideapod helps users invite awe and inspiration into their lives by providing an environment for authentic self-expression. You can find out more about Justin by visiting his Ideapod profile: ideapod.com/justin.
The Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only organization comprised of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, YEC recently launched StartupCollective, a free virtual mentorship program that helps millions of entrepreneurs start and grow businesses.