researchers: think like expert entrepreneur- effectuation in action

During the last Researcher Away Day* (Friday 13th May), which brought together PhD poster_ad16students, Postdoctoral researchers, and Research Staff from many diverse departments across the Faculties of Science and MDH, I came across an interesting tool/model, which I would like you to consider as a possible tool to negotiate research careers strategically.

Dr Ali Riley who works for USE (the University Enterprise hub, which support enterprise education across the University) presented the concept of Effectuationdeveloped by Dr Saras Sarasvathy. This researcher explored the thinking processes used by expert entrepreneurs in making decision at the start of a new venture. Her research participants were entrepreneurs with extensive experience of the business environment. She set the participants “a 17-page problem set of 10 typical questions encountered by entrepreneurs as they build a venture”. Participants thought aloud about their approach to the problem and its resolution. The data gained from this study has permitted to develop a model about the type of logic followed by successful entrepreneurs in making decision and taking action. Different types of logic exist in making decisions about the future, which we cannot predict: causal logic, adaptive logic, visionary logic or effectual logic. Successful entrepreneur use a lot of effectual logic in their cognitive processes.

So how could the ways of thinking of entrepreneurs or “effectual logic” help researchers at the start of their research career (like the start of a business venture)?


Considering researchers (PhD students and research staff) as a type of entrepreneurs can be useful in considering approaches to undertaking research, developing networks, setting goals and career strategies. Indeed, when looking at the skills that researchers develop or may aim to develop, it is possible to apply an “enterprise lens” when looking at research skills. Vitae has indeed developed such a tool using the Researcher Development Framework and considering which skills/ competencies and attributes related to enterprise (download the enterprise lens). This lens can help you become aware that the skills you are developing during the course of your PhD are entrepreneurial skills that you could apply to many professional contexts.

But how could you train your thinking process to follow the effectual logic used by expert entrepreneurs?

 The effectuation model is a cycle with 5 principles. These principles could be used at many points during your research career when faced with making decision, planning what to do next, being strategic with what you do, or developing new research ideas.

The model of effectuation developed by Dr Saras Sarasvathy

Here are these 5 principles:

1/ Bird-in-the hand: start with what you have

This principle is about self-awareness and reflection about what you have: Who are you, what do you know, who do you know?

  • What are my research interests, what do I want to know, “what rocks my boat”?
  • What do I find interesting in science?
  • Whose/ what research, do I like to hear about?
  • What are my research skills?
  • Which techniques am I an expert in?
  • What is my background knowledge? What do I tend to read?
  • Who are the researchers/ academics/ peers/ colleagues I know?
  • Who has the same research interests as me?
  • Who has heard me give a talk?
  • Who have I talked to at a conference?
  • Who have I collaborated with?
  • Who is my supervisor/ PI collaborating with?


2/ Affordable loss- only invest what you can loose

  • When considering your future research career, how do you limit the risks you take?
  • What are the activities that you need to engage with or avoid?
  • If starting a risky (potentially rewarding) project, which side projects should you have to have small rewards?
  • If working on a big paper/ big science story, could you have side stories/ smaller project to continue maintain your publication record, could you write reviews, or other types of publications?
  • How much time do you have to invest in different activities: time spent on writing a paper versus time spent teaching, time spent building-up your CV for careers beyond research versus time spent on research-only activities.
  • What can you afford to loose at each step?
  • What are you willing to loose to have the research career you want?


3/ Lemonade

This principle is about leveraging contingencies…if things do not work out, then what else do they bring. If a research grant is not selected then where does it take you in writing the next grant… If a collaboration does not expand, what else can it bring…If an experiment does not work, how else can you approach it…


4/ Patchwork quilt

This is about building and forming partnerships, about getting people to want to work with you. In developing your collaboration potential, are you thinking about what you can bring to people or what you can take from them? Collaborators will want to engage with you if they can see why it would be exciting, useful, interesting, rewarding to work with you. Be generous with your ideas, engage others to create a productive network of like-minded collaborators, be prepared to give… before you receive.


5/ Pilot-in-the-plane

Because the future is unpredictable (we do not know the type of research, funders will value in the future or what academic positions will become available), enterprising researchers focus on activities they have control over. While you do not know whether a grant review or interview panel will like or not your grant or application (you can’t read their mind), as an enterprising researcher you will continue to apply for funding and positions over and over again until you reach your goal and access the funding you need/ job you want. Being successful in academia demand great resilience, but resilience is not given, it is taken. You decide how you take control:

  • Ask colleagues to review your grant/ job application
  • Look at successful applications
  • Get colleagues to run a mock interview
  • Ask substantial feedback if unsuccessful
  • Use the feedback in your next application
  • Contact the academics/ labs you want to work in and ask them whether they have opening positions
  • Write research project ideas and take them to your PI/ supervisor for discussion


While such model may seem complex and convoluted, developing a habit of using the five principles of effectuation may lead you to become a more enterprising researcher and support your career success whatever direction you intend to pursue. Have a try and see the impact!


More details about effectuation:


* The event was organized by a team of postdoctoral researchers who had collaborated over a number of months to develop a programme focused on skills. There was a very diverse line-up of talks focused on skills to succeed…as a scientist, as a person…as an entrepreneur.


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