Experiential learning: My first six months in Silicon Valley


“Experiential learning” is a phrase I’ve heard a lot recently. It is a vaguely fancy way to label learning from experience, outside the classroom. I’ve heard it used in the same breath as internships, “hands on” museum exhibits, and dropping out of school to build your own company. It has been six months since I left academia to join a Silicon Valley startup. The learning curve has been steep. I have wanted to write about the experience for a while now, but have struggled with the words. Here is my best attempt.

I graduated from college at the ripe old age of 20, went straight into a Ph.D. program, and from there, directly into two consecutive postdoctoral positions. For me, graduate school wasn’t entirely about coursework or research – it was also a time for me to learn about the world. During these years I managed to do quite a bit of traveling, a lot of teaching (and learning), and even more socializing. I really needed this time to learn how to interact with a diverse array of people, to undergo the various growing pains (and pleasures!) that come along with being in your 20s, to assert my independence, and through my dissertation, make a contribution to the world, no matter how tiny.

Now, if at the age of 20 I were given the chance (and financial means) to forego graduate school and start my own company, I would have failed. There is no doubt about that. I was just not ready. And at age 20 I already had several years of work experience under my belt. I had led teams in high school, taught courses in college, and did well enough to get into some of the top programs in my field. But I would have failed anyway, because I just did not have enough life experience. I don’t mean to apply this to all people of a certain age, but I strongly believe that “experiential learning” is important, and doesn’t necessarily have to be divorced from enrollment in formal schooling.

In fact, I have found that some lessons have translated quite well from academia to the startup world.

1. Mentorship is crucial.

In graduate school, an advisor or “mentor” is often assigned to you, but you’ll find that mentorship is really a process. I lucked out in finding a young, female assistant professor that was successful in balancing her personal life with her professional life. But she didn’t show up in my department until halfway through my second year. I am pretty sure I would not have gotten through the program without her.

In the startup world, similar rules seem to apply. It’s not necessarily the most outwardly successful, senior, or famous person that will be able to guide you through both peaks and valleys. Also, part of the mentorship process is being a good mentee. Know how and when to use your resources. Being a lone wolf might sound cool, but it’s important to check in with someone who might be able to lead you back on track if you veer off.

2. You need confidence to survive, but hubris can kill you.

There’s a certain swagger you need to command the attention of a room (in both academia and in Silicon Valley, it’s often filled with very specific-looking men in suits). Chances are you are trying to sell some sort of idea – a relatively esoteric one. The funny thing about academia and the Valley is that we all believe (and sometimes, rightly so) that our esoteric ideas are going to change the world. How are you going to change the world if you don’t have the confidence to stand behind your idea? Those men in suits (or is it jeans?) will eat you alive.

That being said, drinking your own Kool-Aid is dangerous. It’s important to believe in your idea and your abilities, but being unable to take a step back and consider other perspectives can and will often lead to a downfall. Startups fail. Experiments and studies fail. Know when and how to pivot, when and how to put your ego aside, and be able to give, receive, and implement constructive feedback.

3. Who you surround yourself with is critical to success.

I started off graduate school with an advisor and lab group that were poor matches for me. By the end, I had a spectacular mentor and a group of supportive peers that became some of my best friends. Together we came up with interesting ideas for research and teaching, and cheered each other on as we accomplished milestones in graduate school and in “real life.”

In startups, I feel that the importance of the team cannot be emphasized enough. Just like there aren’t a lot of single author scholarly articles (in the STEM fields, anyway), I can’t think of a startup that has succeeded due to the efforts of just one person acting alone. One of the most awesome parts of my own startup experience has been being part of a spectacularly talented team (whose members also happen to be outstanding human beings). I have learned so much from working with brilliant artists, designers, and engineers. How I wish I could have had such a team back in my similarly caffeine-and-adrenaline-fueled dissertation days. My experimental stimuli would have been so much better.

I don’t have a strong stance on whether someone should pursue higher education versus a startup. Obviously, every situation is different, and some people will do better with one or the other. Yet, I don’t think that either completing or dropping out of school will necessarily yield better results in entrepreneurship. But when it comes to my personal decision to leave academia for Silicon Valley, even in spite of some of the hurdles and setbacks, I haven’t looked back once.

Alicia Chang is EDUKWEST's Science & West Coast Editor. She is a cognitive and developmental psychologist (Ph.D., UCLA, 2008) with research interests in language and cognitive development, the effects of language and culture on cognition, and cognitive science applications to STEM education. She lives and works in Silicon Valley. You can follow her on Twitter @aliciac and Google+.