Applying Lean Startup Methodology toward PhD Studies

So, while staying up late to do a paper for class (yes it is spring break, PhD students never rest!), I got this wild brainstorm of how to apply both my development training (I work in an agile development environment as a UXD), and the lean startup methodology I spent all day hearing about at SXSW toward my PhD studies. Below is what I quickly jotted down (instead of writing my paper) as the clock turned from 1am to 3am due to DST.

Agile Development – As in, how to quickly get started and iterate on a project in order to get it to releasable state as fast as possible.

I believe the biggest problem with most of us PhD students is just getting started on that damn 20 page paper or huge research project. Why? Because we don’t know how to begin. Well, who says you need to start at the beginning? If you know that you can knock out a section of your document faster than the others, why not start there then move on to the next fastest and the next fastest until you’ve reached the one part that will take you the longest and now it won’t take so long because you’ve already written the rest and it all applies to what you have left!

MVP: Minimum Viable Product / Paper / Project – What’s the least amount you can get away with? As in, what can I do to make a C? Then, what do I need to do to make it better in order to get an A?

Do what you need to in order to fulfill the barest and most minimum of requirements of your assignment, then build on it. At least at that point you know you’ve touched on every point the professor asked of you, and now you’re going above and beyond.

Or – how to quickly iterate on a paper. Write out a bunch of crap for a paper even though you know not all of it will go in, because you know at least some of it will and you just need to get it typed out. Then, you go back and cull it down to something respectable and focus just on that one thing rather than the overly broad dribble you spewed out to begin with.

Pivot – Change in direction after gaining valuable information

Ever get to that point in your research where you go – “damn it, now that I know more I should really go in this direction instead of the one I originally intended!” Go with it! Change the entire direction of your paper/project it even if it takes more research. In the end your final product is so much better than it would have been had you gone on your initial assumptions without exploring your research further.

Business Plan Vs Business Model Paper/Project Plan vs Paper/Project Model

What’s the difference? One you’re following simply because you’re told that’s the way you’re supposed to do it (plan). The other you’re modifying and iterating on until it fits your paper/project needs (model). Both give you something to start with, it’s just one is a lot more versatile than the other. You end up with something much better when you can improve upon it rather than sticking with something just because “that’s the way it’s done”.

Metrics – Quantify your results

I figure for us PhD students this plays out in figuring out the least amount of time you can spend on something and still get an A. By keeping track of the time you spend doing each part of the task for each project you do until you know with certainty how long it will take you to nail that paper/project you can then plan accordingly and be not only much more efficient in your work, but also be a lot more engaged in it because of your confidence level and high ROI.

It isn’t a finished piece of work, but hey – I got it out as fast as possible and I can always iterate on it later – especially if I get feedback from readers! So tell me what you think. 🙂

As always you can find me @sollitaire – or email me diana [@]


  1. Paul Wren

    thanks for this post!

    Great cross-pollination between my two areas of effort– I’m a software engineer who has done a lot of waterfall development and a bit of agile, and I’m also pursuing graduate studies in anthropology.

    I read through the Lean Startup Wiki and scanned through Eric Ries’ blog, but these materials focus primarily on sw dev and startup funding. very little on general methodology, so I would love to see more specifics on how you might see this application working.

    The OAC has a couple of dedicated groups aimed at aiding anthropology students (undergrad and graduate), and might provide an excellent forum for pushing these ideas further.

  2. Mel Chua

    Oh man, yes. Thanks for writing this up, Diana – I’m starting my Phd next year while continuing to work full-time, and desperately need to rewire the way I think about studying so I’ll graduate and still get sleep.

    I’d be particularly interested in good ways of keeping metrics – check out Quantified Self ( meetups and blogs for some ideas there.

  3. Li-Chuan Chong

    Hi Diana,

    A colleague introduced me to this blog entry.

    I think you’re onto something… good.

    This paper might be of interest to you:
    Adapting Usability Investigations for Agile User-centered Design (Desirée Sy, 2007)



  4. Li-Chuan Chong

    And here’s another more recent study from Anders Ramsay (Nov, 2010) –

    Hope it’s useful.


  5. [M]etabrain [E]ntry [L]og » Blog Archive » Scrapbook of Mel’s brain on Sunday night

    […] Diana Martin has some great notes on the application of the lean startup methodology to grad school. […]

  6. Diana

    Thanks for all of the wonderful comments and resources. I will be following up on this soon. My semester has kicked in to crazy mode as of late, so I’m doing my best to apply this to what I can!

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