PhD became self-employed and takes on more PhD graduates in his company

Justin Markussen-Brown
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What started as a sideline activity alongside his postdoc turned into a career for Justin Markussen-Brown who started the company which, amongst others, helps train educational staff in municipalities. The company quickly grew in size and, today, he counts several PhD graduates among his employees.

Facts on Justin Markussen-Brown

Justin Markussen-Brown originally trained as a linguist in Canada. He completed his PhD at the Center for Language Learning (CLL) ​​at SDU/University of Southern Denmark in Odense. His field of research was language teaching and, in his PhD thesis, he examined how to better support children's language acquisition and early literacy through the continued training of teaching staff. In early 2016, after a brief stint as a postdoc, he left academia and joined the playground manufacturer KOMPAN as a play researcher. Already as a PhD student, he had the idea for the company "Sprogklar", which works with developing the practice of language teaching. Below, he talks about how he left university and how the scientific starting point was crucial to his current work.

How is it that you started your own business?

Early on, I saw a considerable need for supporting the educational tasks managed by the municipalities. There was a great deal of interest in our research, so I could earn a little extra by making presentations to municipalities, alongside completing my postdoc. I quickly started nursing the idea of ​setting up some kind of business alongside my academic work. So, I’d actually already bought the domain and created a very simple website before having completed my PhD. I then launched it while my thesis was being assessed. My thought was that if anyone were to google me or the thesis, it should be easy to contact me.

In the autumn of 2015, after I’d finished my PhD and started my postdoc, several things happened which helped convince me that my type of research would be in demand. I joined the PhD cup and finished in the top five. Moreover, I was asked by a publisher to write a book on language acquisition, so I did. It was published and sold out pretty quickly. That probably meant that extra attention was paid to my name because, now, 1,000 books were circulating in the municipalities.

Thus, more and more enquiries were received - not only for presentations to be made but also for participation in specific projects - training teachers on children's language acquisition. In fact, so many job enquiries were received that I could hire several specialists from my research network who’d like to help with these jobs. So I employed, amongst others, the chap I shared an office with during my PhD programme as well as my former student assistant, a recently graduated speech and language therapist.

Why did you chose to leave academia?

I guess I’ve often thought that I spent too much time at the university instead of in practice. And my interest has always been the actual impact of my research. I would like to watch the children become more skilled and that e.g. we have a decreasing number of children in our focus groups. It’s that part of my research that has given me job satisfaction. I probably haven't been quite so motivated by how much I published. And, at some point after the PhD, it came to me: “You can live off this. If you’re unhappy that your work at the university does not make an actual difference, then you can just go and make that difference yourself in another context.

Why do you specifically hire PhD graduates for Sprogklar?

Empirical research skills are crucial to our work e.g. in measuring municipal efforts. Here, the PhD graduates are just better equipped than the candidates. If you’ve spent three years doing fieldwork, collecting data and compiling statistics, then you’re just sharp on the methods and can quickly see if a project plan will work or not. Furthermore, you typically have a stronger grip on the scientific theory. It may sound longwinded but that's what allows you to assess whether the knowledge you acquire in a project is of the required quality. At the same time, It’s an advantage if you also have teaching skills and know how to disseminate and maybe teach the methods to the others or explain practical study designs.

So, when hiring a PhD graduate, you don’t merely get a clever employee – you also get someone who’s experienced in some very basic data work. And the municipalities respond to that. Rarely do I leave an initial meeting with our collaborative partners without there being things in their projects which I’ve convinced them should be different to achieve a stronger design.

What have you had to learn in connection with leaving academia?

I've had to learn several things. Firstly, some very specific things about management and business economics. Management has become a significant part of my job - and that’s a world onto itself. Initially, I thought that "We'll figure it out along the way," so it may have come as a surprise how time-consuming it is. When I visit the municipalities and meet these managers with management training, I can see how they have a completely different approach to their employees - so I am currently working towards creating a clearer structure for my leadership.

Also, there are a number of specific things to learn which are all about doing business: What is a business model? How do you start up a business? It’s been one of the funniest things about establishing Sprogklar; having to learn these things which aren’t things you learn at university.

Another thing I’ve had to get used to is the cultural differences between academia and the business community, such as I’ve experienced it. At university, you’re surrounded by people who work insanely hard to criticise each other's work. So, as a young researcher, you always have the feeling that you’re behind, that you need to do more and that you need to relate to others’ assessment of what you say.

And then you enter business life where there isn’t this focus on intellectual criticism. For me, it meant that I had to get used to another way of working with knowledge, which is why I was maybe a little reluctant at first. It took me a while to realise that I actually had a lot to contribute to the development of practice - and that my scientific starting point was actually my clear advantage.