Graduate Entrepreneurial Learning
A longitudinal study of the development of nascent graduate entrepreneurs
1.0 Project Aim
The aim of the research is to provide an insight into the ways that nascent graduate entrepreneurs develop. The research will investigate three inter-related themes – the
development of their entrepreneurial capabilities, the progress of their entrepreneurial career, and the success of their business activities.
A practical aim is to be able to recommend ways that such graduates can be helped to achieve their entrepreneurial ambitions.
The research will probably focus mainly on graduates from the creative sector.
2.0 Project Justification
Both nationally and regionally there has been a strong interest in encouraging students to set up enterprises soon after graduating. Indeed the National Council for Graduate Entrepreneurship (NCGE) was set up in 2004 specifically to do this. This research proposal springs directly from work done by myself for the NCGE, in collaboration with John Blenkinsopp in 2007 (Blenkinsopp, J., Fuller, E., Hanage, R., et al., 2007)
The policy interest has broadened into encouraging graduates to be more entrepreneurial not just in business start-up but also, for instance, in developing a social enterprise, or becoming an intrapreneur in an existing organisation of any type. These wider outcomes are all expected to have a positive influence on the UK economy.
Graduates from the creative subjects are of especial interest as they are often less entrepreneurial by nature, but are entering sectors in which a conventional employment-based career is hard to follow.
‘Students lack a clear understanding of how [entrepreneurship] relates to their own practices and future working lives’ (NESTA 2007)
Although a great deal of work has been done on entrepreneurship and, to a lesser degree, on graduate entrepreneurship, there seems to be a dearth of longitudinal studies. As I have access to appropriate students, and no pressure to complete the project quickly, I can carry out research which may be able to cast new light on how graduates develop and learn as entrepreneurs.
3.0 Study Context
a) Economic. The national and regional economic context has already been referred to,
b) University. Within Universities there is an increasing awareness of the need to make enterprise education more widely available and to prepare graduates for a more flexible and
entrepreneurial career. This manifests itself in intra-curricular modules, a range of extra-
curricular activities, and increasing post-graduate support through, for example, business
The participants in the proposed research will probably be mainly involved in extra-
curricular and post-graduate activities as these are well represented in the University of
Teesside, where the initial research will be carried out.
c) Academic. There are a number of academics who are actively pursuing research into entrepreneurial learning. Their focus is shifting from looking at fixed personality traits,
economic views of the entrepreneur, and cognitive approaches to understanding that
people develop their entrepreneurial behaviour by social learning. This includes sense-
making, sense-giving, negotiation with other stakeholders, and immersion in existing
The participants in the research will be of particular interest as some of them may lack the
conventionally expected entrepreneurial personality traits, and may therefore be
developing their entrepreneurial skills from a low base. Other research seems to mainly look
at existing successful entrepreneurs.
d) Researcher. I work extensively with students and graduates in the University by running business start-up courses, providing one-to-one support, and helping them prepare business
plans. I also start and run small businesses myself so am already embedded within the small
business and business support sectors.
This puts me in a strong position to carry out qualitative research from the ‘inside’, and has
an influence on the methodologies to be used.
e) Personal. The personal context is also important. Embarking on the PhD is a personal challenge which should broaden and deepen my understanding of entrepreneurship,
increase my business credibility, and extend my active career.
4.0 Theoretical Underpinning
a) A Typology of Graduate Entrepreneurs
Blenkinsopp (Blenkinsopp, J., Fuller, E., Hanage, R., et al. ,2007) has suggested a typology of
graduate entrepreneurs from the ‘natural entrepreneur’ through to the ‘life-style
entrepreneur’. Each of the three types appears to have very different characteristics, which
are likely to influence their business success, their entrepreneurial learning and their career
choices. In addition each type may have different aspirations for the timing of business
(see Fig 1, below)
Natural Reluctant Life-style
Entrepreneur Entrepreneur Entrepreneur
Start-up on graduation
Start-up after taking stock
Start-up later in their career
Fig 1: The Blenkinsopp Typology of Graduate Entrepreneurs.
The membership of the cohorts will be chosen to try to ensure that each type is well
represented so that the research can be used to validate the typology in the three following
The typology will be tested early in the research, and may be used as either as theoretical
framework or else as a tool to structure the sample of graduates investigated.
b) Business Start-up. There is a long-established base of literature on business start-up,
survival and growth, starting with seminal work in the 1980’s by Allan Gibb at Durham University, and followed by numerous colleagues who developed his ideas further. More
recently there is a shift in conceptual thinking from, for instance, environmental scanning to
interpretation of information and further to sense-making and sense-giving. This appears to
mirror the changing views of entrepreneurial learning, and will be investigated more in the
c) Entrepreneurial Learning. The literature on entrepreneurial learning also seems to be still
evolving rapidly as the personality trait, economic and cognitive approaches are replaced by
an understanding that it is more of a social learning process.
At this early stage in the project I have been greatly influenced by the work of David Rae,
currently at the University of Lincoln. His book (Rae, 2007) proposes a 13-part social learning
model of entrepreneurial learning which includes three major themes:
- Personal and social emergence: learning to ‘become an entrepreneur’ - Contextual learning: learning from immersion in a sector or an organisation.
- Negotiated enterprise: learning from starting a new venture.
See Fig 2, below.