Tomorrow the world: the rise and rise of the industrial doctorate

 By David Myton

With its origins in 19th century Germany when it was the cutting-edge qualification of its day, the traditional PhD is now nudging its use-by date.

PhD training largely has been shaped by academics to produce future academics, and the doctorate remains a more-or-less prerequisite for a scholarly career.

But today there are many more graduates than there are academic jobs and so they must find work outside of the academy. Questions are being asked about the PhDs relevance and effectiveness.

Across the world governments and universities have been busy devising a new model of the PhD that aligns more with national industrial, economic and social goals.

Transferable skills and increased research translation and commercialisation are seen to be vital to boosting economic growth and prosperity.

And so from Scandinavia to Singapore, we have seen the emergence of the industrial doctorate, in which candidates engage in industry-based research projects in collaboration with their host university.

In Britain, the move to industrial doctorates began some 16 years ago after the Roberts review concluded too many PhD candidates were being trained for an increasingly unlikely academic career.

The traditional model, it found, was increasingly unfit for purpose.

The review put an emphasis on developing a pipeline of graduates with science and engineering skills to help to boost the nation’s R&D and innovation performance.

Industrial doctorates are today increasingly common in the UK.

For example, the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council (EPSRC) funds doctoral training for students who want a career in industry.

EPSRC invests around £800 million a year ($A1,465 million) in research and postgraduate training “to help the nation handle the next generation of technological change”.

Industrial Doctorate Centres operate as an alternative to the traditional PhD “for students who want a career in industry”.

A four-year program combines PhD-level research projects with taught courses at partner universities, and students spend about 75 per cent of their time working directly with a company.

In the latest move following a report on how to boost the UK’s artificial intelligence industry in line with the Government’s new Industrial Strategy White Paper, it is planned to build around 15 Centres for Doctoral Training (CDTs) focused on artificial intelligence.

It will begin with some 100 studentships with plans for an additional 950 additional studentships over five years in “an exciting opportunity for highly multidisciplinary, research training in this hugely important area for the UK”.

The industrial PhD is also taking off across Scandinavia and mainland Europe.

For example, Denmark’s IT University of Copenhagen offers the EU-funded Marie Curie European Industrial Doctorate, which enables candidates to carry out their research work with academic and industrial partners in two European countries.

ITUC also offers an industrial PhD in which the candidate is enrolled at the university while also employed on a salary with a private company.

A major development in the European context is the emergence of specialist applied research centres in which industrial doctorates play a central strategic role.

Germany’s Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, with a staff of 24,500 people, is a leading applied research organisation in Europe. It conducts research activities at 69 institutes and research units throughout the country with a focus on Big Data, AI and Machine Learning. More than 70 per cent of its contract research is with innovative companies and other organisations.

PhD students can complete a doctorate while working in teams including high-profile scientists in the newest areas of technology with state-of-the-art equipment.

These industrial PhD candidates are a vital element in the research framework, and in return they acquire hugely valuable transferable skills.

Similarly, in France Inria – the French National Institute for computer science and applied mathematics – offers PhD students a choice of topics considered to be international research priorities.

More than 3000 scientist-researchers and 1250 PhD students work in project teams working to promote “scientific excellence for technology transfer”. It also includes internships in which students can engage in live research projects.

A model that has attracted favourable attention in Australia for promoting industrial PhDs is Canada’s Mitacs, a national not-for-profit organisation which designs and delivers research and training programs across all disciplines.

Its network includes 60 universities, thousands of companies, and federal and local governments with a goal of building “partnerships that support industrial and social innovation in Canada”.

Programs include R&D management, professional skills development, and international research training.

It is said to have enabled two million hours of research work by interns for industry and not-for-profit partners, “with the majority feeling more employable as a result of their internship”.

In Singapore, Nanyang Technological University offers an Industrial Postgraduate Programme developed by the country’s Economic Development Board to “build up a pool of postgraduate manpower with critical R&D skill-sets for roles in industry”.

Academic partners “include local universities in Singapore as well as selected Singapore-based foreign universities”.

Internationally, the industrial doctorate is gaining momentum and is proving to be a viable and growing alternative to the traditional PhD for students who want a career in business and industry.


Crossing the new frontier in applied research

By Stephen Matchett

Universities are pitching to business. “If you have a complex business challenge you haven’t been able to crack, come talk to an Australian university about how we can work together to solve it,” Universities Australia’s Margaret Gardner said in February.

It was not a message for everybody – there are still plenty of professors who are contemptuous of capitalism and entrepreneurs who ignore academics. “In the academic world, it is surprisingly common for people to disparage the profit motive and the private sector; while, in the commercial world, one often hears people denigrating the ivory-tower mentality of academics,” says Australian of the Year and quantum physicist Michelle Simmons.

But on the edge of applied innovation, where researchers and entrepreneurs cooperate more than cautiously coexist, change is coming – change that creates new demands for PhDs keen to crack problems that increase knowledge and expand the economy.

It’s less partnerships between companies and campus as  much as a new combination of people forming teams which come from both . As Tony Peacock from the Cooperative Research Centre Association puts it: “There is a change from the false dichotomy of academic or entrepreneur.”

This is not as unlikely as it seems. According to the Chief Economist, Australia ranks 7th in the OECD for government R&D funded by industry – “this favourable result may reflect stronger links between business and non-university publicly funded research organisations, such as CSIRO”. And last year the Australian Council for Graduate Research reported “73% of PhD candidates reported that they had benefitted from external contact or advice on their PhD from non-university organisations”.

But there is still a way to go to end the idea that a university is the only place for a brilliant problem solver.

“I have no patience for people who tell me that a person with a PhD who starts a company, or goes into the public service, is a waste of a good academic researcher. The purpose of a PhD is to allow talented people to develop their strengths and choose their direction,” Chief Scientist Alan Finkel told a graduate research conference in April.

“Applied research is no longer looked down, attitudes to links with industry now feel really different. In the last 12 months what we have been banging on about for 20 years is starting, “ says veteran research opinion leader Tony Peacock. University membership of the CRC Association has gone from three to 18 in less  than 12 months, and two new CRCs, in cyber security and digital health, are pitching to the university sector specifically on what they can offer to their PhD candidates.

In a 2016 review the Australian Council of Learned Academies emphasised involving postgraduates involved in industry saying it can “help improve their future employability while giving industry an insight into the benefits of employing researchers”. But it seems candidates and corporations have already worked this out. A recent study of PhD candidates at 11 universities for the Australian Council of Graduate Research found 40 per cent of them engage “with non-university partners” and 73 per cent had benefited “from external contact or advice”.

“Rather than becoming an obsolete, relic of the past, the PhD is already being transformed into a mechanism for businesses to innovate through skilled and talented workers who are capable of independent and original research and development,” Swinburne U PVC  Bernadine van Gramberg writes.

It’s a future path for PhDs who will not find, or may not want, permanent career paths in universities.

But convincing industry to invest in research, to put postgraduates on the payroll, takes people who are academic and entrepreneurs plus more – they are rain makers.

So how do universities get into the game. Some already are.

The great research dating-game

 By Stephen Matchett

Getting universities and industry engaged isn’t Facebook-friending easy. For a start they generally haven’t met, let alone thought about dating.

“The biggest problem is not knowing who to collaborate with and why. Companies don’t know what they don’t know,” says Cooperative Research Centre Association head Tony Peacock.

And while universities are happy for industry to fund research, the people keen to cash company cheques are not easy to find on university org charts.

“It’s amazing how reluctant people are to ring each other. I tell PhD students about this old technology called the phone,” Peacock  adds.

Which is where the new generation of academic entrepreneurs comes in, people who understand what their university’s researchers, particularly PhD students in the market for a topic, can do for business.

“It’s less about standing in the marketplace and saying ‘look at us’ as identifying the big issues we are good at and then going after industry,” says Mohan Krishnamoorthy, PVC Research Partnerships at the University of Queensland.

“We start by asking how we can help, how we can value-add,” adds Swinburne U DVC  R&D Aleksandar Subic.

And for the new engaged research culture that help can come from embedded PhD researchers.

For some universities applied research in the form of a PhD topic is in their institutional DNA.

The Australian Technology Network runs an industry doctoral training centre which combines coursework on research methods and masters/doctorate programs in collaboration with an industry partner “where solutions are driven by fundamentals of mathematical, statistical, information technology, and information sciences”.

Organisations whose raison d’etre is research also have something industry envies – a workforce as clever as it is curious. For a CRC with a fixed-term mandate to find solutions to practical problems engaging with industry and providing PhD research power is core business.

Business “does not like funding people for four years in the hope of a result,” says Darrell Williamson who led the successful bid for the new Cooperative Research Centre for Cyber Security. Mr Williams sees the research students who will join the centre as a major asset, working on practical problems that will take two years, for a masters and four for a doctorate. And what works for industry will appeal to students – “we will be offering high level funding and the chance to acquire industry-skills”.

The new Digital Health CRC pitches to partners on “affordable access to high quality PhD students or postdoctoral researchers who are ‘embedded’ with the industry partner”.

But it isn’t always as easy for universities, with cultures creating problems. For a start there are problems in framing challenges to suit scholarship. “There has to be a researchable question, something novel that needs to be found, a project that is actually a PhD,” says a close observer of the UTS industry engagement program.

“You still need a principal investigator, someone who can define problems to solve,” agrees UoQ’s Krishnamoorthy.

And universities need matchmakers who can identify if and how universities can help a business and convince colleagues to clamber out of their research silos. “Industry is not interested in university structures, it is interested in value add,” Swinburne’s Subic says.

“A graduate school can organise inter-disciplinarity but ultimately it is driven by individuals, Krishnamoorthy says.

At Swinburne they less breakdown barriers isolating PhD students from industry as ignore them.  The university teaches a graduate certificate in research and innovation management, which includes an optional industry placement which is targeted to the needs of the majority of PhD graduates who will not become academics.

At Swinburne it also works the other way, with the university looking to  embed industry on campus as well outsource its PhDs. With the University of Queensland’s Boeing Lab, Swinburne’s partnership with German industry giant Siemens sets a standard for less research cooperation than combination.

As part of a national research rollout Siemens has provided Swinburne with $135m worth of proprietary software to run a digital “factory of the future”.

The aim, Subic says, “is to get industry interacting, engaging, and talking with our staff, with our teams and with our students. It is through these interactions we can develop a common language and deeper understanding of both perspectives”.

At UoQ Boeing has a 30-strong R&D team in the university’s engineering research hub, with PhD students, including 14 now funded by the company, researching aero-issues from autonomous flight to new construction materials. Yes, Professor Krishnamoorthy says, this is great for Boeing, “it’s a talent pipeline.” But Boeing’s work on campus gives students a sense of what they can accomplish. “An unbelievable number of students go and see the team.”

It’s less a classic than a founding case of what can happen when industry and universities, with research students in need of career-creating projects can accomplish. “The nature of the conversation with industry has changed, people come together who would not have otherwise. At UoQ Boeing understands academics and vice versa.”







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