The best decision I've ever made was also the most daunting. In 2012, I quit my PhD in international relations to focus completely on my startup. But why did I do this?

I wanted to do a PhD to make the world a better place through the sharing of knowledge and ideas. I think most academics share this motivation.

Yet two years into the PhD, reading academic journal articles and writing my own were both so tedious that I was losing my passion for making the world a better place.

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 named it Ideapod, and it was designed to help people use social media to build human relationships around shared ideas.

Mark was a corporate lawyer back then, so neither of us had any experience in building technology platforms. It was a crazy side project to help us deal with the frustrations of our careers, while also being a great vehicle for our long-standing desire to build a business together.

Ideapod was all we could think about. So we took the plunge together, leaving behind our academic and corporate careers to focus completely on our startup.

Two years on, I have 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.

Publish or perish

To advance an academic career, one must "publish or perish." 

It's essential to be published in peer-reviewed academic journals, where experts in the field review the articles. The tens of thousands of academic journals are owned by only a handful of very powerful publishing companies, and they charge extortionate fees for access to the articles.

This would be understandable if the fees went to the academics writing for and reviewing journal articles. However, research and peer review is provided for free by academics in order to advance their own careers.

I was dedicating my life to research in order to publish in these peer-reviewed journals. My research would be largely inaccessible by 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?

What 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 also thoughts and perspectives about the world we live in.

The current social-media platforms were not the appropriate forums through 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 so much to fulfill my 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 that shares a passion and focus in working towards one vision. I'm extremely grateful to the Ideapod 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. 

Published on: Jan 16, 2015