If I Build Software for My PhD Dissertation, Do I Own It?

Apr 08, 2024

Dr. Vicki Johnson, a mid-age white American woman with straight brown hair and a green blouse

Dear Dr. Johnson,

I’m gearing up to apply for PhD programs because I’m a software engineer and I want to be an entrepreneur. I have heard that PhD programs will pay you and this could be the perfect runway to build my own tech company. I have a product idea that I think will be a game-changer. My question is, if I use this product for my PhD dissertation, will I own the product or will the university?

– Aspiring Tech Entrepreneur

From Dr. Vicki Johnson:

It is true that many Ph.D. programs give students an annual stipend and a full tuition waiver (a package known as “full funding”) for the duration of the 4-6 year program. In exchange, most students work 10-20 hours per week for the university in a Graduate Assistantship, supporting faculty with teaching or research. Receiving full funding is like being paid to go to school! At ProFellow, we list hundreds of fully funded PhD programs in our free database.

However, you are asking the wrong question about the Ph.D. dissertation. While you might use or test software in the course of your studies, as of today, you can’t submit a software product as your Ph.D. dissertation.

The Doctorate of Philosophy (Ph.D.) is training in academic research and your dissertation is your exam. In virtually all U.S. Ph.D. programs, you will complete 2 years of coursework on research methods and then spend 2-4 years working on a significant research project of your own design. The result of this project is the dissertation: a 60,000 to 120,000-word book that describes the research question, the research method, your analysis, and your findings.

What you are being tested on at the end of your PhD is not the innovativeness of the research or the value of the outcome, but how well you did the research. Your dissertation committee will review virtually every choice in your project, to judge if you have learned and applied enough skill and knowledge about research methods to deem you a Ph.D.-qualified scholar.

Many Ph.D. students have started businesses while completing their studies on a stipend (including me). As a full-time Ph.D. student, you will have the freedom to choose your dissertation topic and how you spend your academic and free time. But you will still need to write a dissertation.

So, I suggest selecting a dissertation research topic that could help inform the product you want to build and choose a university that will give you access to useful tech tools and knowledge that you might not otherwise have.

Also, many universities now have resources and programs to help students and academics take their research to market. Just be sure to read the fine print about intellectual property ownership.

Dr. Vicki Johnson is Founder and Director of ProFellow, the world’s leading online resource for professional and academic fellowships. She is a four-time fellow, top Ph.D. scholar, Fulbright recipient, and an award-winning social entrepreneur. She is the creator of the Fully Funded Course and Mentorship Program which helps graduate school applicants enter top graduate schools with funding awards.

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