Indulging in personal activities and hobbies outside of research during grad school can be for personal enjoyment, but for some dedicated students, it can also be a way to earn a little money on the side. After all, grad school can be financially challenging, and side hustles can help subsidize assistantship or fellowship stipends. Dr. Melanie Girard, a recent PhD graduate from the Department of Immunology (Class of 2022; the Watts Lab), started PHDOODLESHOP that sells science-themed stickers, accessories, and clothing during her final year of PhD. Melanie shared with us how she turned her side hustle while in grad school to a booming small business.

What inspired you to start a side hustle? How did you find out that science-themed illustrations are right for you?

When I was younger, I enjoyed painting and drawing, but I lost that hobby when I started grad school. I changed cities and didn’t bring my art supplies with me. After 4 years of focusing on my PhD research I had a sudden urge to be creative, so I started doing digital art. I was also using illustrator to make figures for my papers, so I suppose that is what inspired me to make science-themed illustrations. I didn’t really plan to make my hobby into a business at first, but at some point, I thought it would be fun to open an Etsy shop and share my illustrations in the form of stickers. When I saw that people were actually buying them, I decided to invest more time into growing a small business.

What are the skills you learned in your PhD that helped you with your business?

Being able to manage various aspects of my business requires organizational skills that I developed during my PhD.

Another skill I find useful is the ability to learn new things on my own. For example, I taught myself about product development, branding, how to build and maintain an e-commerce website and how to market my products on social media.

It is also important to not be afraid to try new things even though they might fail. During my PhD, for every experiment that succeeded, I had done countless number of experiments that had failed. I learned that you need to try different things to figure out what works and what doesn’t.

As a small business owner/ entrepreneur, what are the main challenges/hardships you have encountered so far?

I find the marketing aspect of my business quite challenging. I reach my audience through social media, mainly through Instagram. Posting on social media every other day is time consuming and requires a lot of creativity. I find it difficult to post consistently.

You started PHDOODLESHOP during the final year of your PhD. How did you balance your business with your PhD work?

I was initially doing this as a hobby so I would be happy to work on this during the evenings and weekends. I find that it helped me disconnect from my research.

Where do you see your business in 3 years? Do you see yourself running your business as a full time in the next few years?

I would like my brand identity to be polished so that my business really stands out amongst other science-themed retailers. I also hope to have a warehouse and to outsource most of the manufacturing. Finally, I hope to broaden my audience to STEM graduate students in general rather than only life sciences. As for my next career move, I am not sure at the moment. I think my business stems from a need to be creative that I didn’t fulfill during my years in grad school. At some point, I think I will want to use my scientific background to find a job in industry. I would still like to run my business on the side because I really enjoy it.

Please share some advice for graduate students who are looking to start a side hustle.

I think it would be a good idea to ask yourself what skill(s) you have and see if that skill can be useful to others. For example, if you are a good piano player, perhaps you could teach piano. For my business, I started selling stickers because they do not cost much to produce and to ship. I opened an Etsy shop. The advantage selling through Etsy is that the platform will direct relevant customers to your page for you, so you don’t necessarily have to invest time and money into marketing and advertisement. I then used the profits and reinvested them into more expensive equipment and products, and to build my own website. I find that this strategy is particularly good for graduate students because we don’t have a lot of money to invest, and we are not in a position to take financial risks.

Do you see yourself as successful? In what ways?

I am proud that I completed my PhD. It was intellectually and emotionally challenging, but I persevered. I am also proud of my business because I feel like there is value in the products that I have to offer. Products that reflect the day-to-day life and experiences of research lab scientists are hard to find, so people get really excited when they discover my shop! Sides hustles not only can help developing personal skills outside of research but also can help you to make extra money. If you want to learn more about Dr. Girard’s business and her story, check out her business website ( or follow her on Instagram (@phdoodleshop)!

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