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Posted on 28 Apr '22

The Benefits and Challenges of an Industry-Funded PhD

Industry-funded PhDs offer the opportunity to pursue your research in a more vocational setting, developing excellent transferrable skills and providing you with plenty of business experience. This blog, originally published in May 2019, explores some of the main pros and cons associated with this kind of doctorate.

Over the last nine months, I have started a PhD sponsored by an SME to develop a patented idea by the end of the programme. There are many positives to doing this kind of project.

You get to explore your research in a more pragmatic and applicable way – academia often suffers from criticism that not enough of the work completed has practical applications. You also get to work in close proximity with people with much experience in the world of industry and business, which allows you to increase your skills in these fields. This can make you a desirable potential employee for many different industries, as you have developed skills that can be directly relevant to industry fields.

However, an industrial PhD is quite different from a standard ‘academic’ PhD – and it’s also quite different from the academic degrees you’ve probably done so far. You have to be prepared to face different kinds of challenges. Here are five of the biggest, with my tips for overcoming them.

#1 You have to become extremely good at time management

While every PhD will require effective time management, an industry-oriented one will be much stricter about this. You will likely have stipulations about how much time you must spend each week or month working with your industry partner or working with your university.

This can be the cause of several headaches if you do not get on top of it and appropriately timetable yourself.

#2 You will have to be the bridge between several different groups of collaborators and foster good communication between them

In a more conventional environment, your main go-to contact is your supervisor, or PI (principle investigator). In industry projects, you will often have multiple collaborators, all of whom must be regularly communicated with to arrange face-to-face meetings to discuss the progress of the project.

This is useful for increasing communication and organisational skills and also gives you far more people with different experiences to call upon for help. The downside is the difficulty of getting people from different industries and professions that all have different time commitments to meet in the same place at the same time.

#3 You will have to learn about a topic or field you know relatively little about

This point is shared with multi-disciplinary PhDs. The vast majority of these projects are not purely focused on one strict field of research. The positive to this is that you will develop yourself further as a researcher and be more capable of handling different kinds of projects in the future. The downside is the difficulty of getting up to speed to a high level on a topic you know relatively little about.

#4 There will be some legal and patenting restrictions on your work

While you can work on some exciting concepts and explore different ideas during an industrial PhD, the end goal is still a product that will possibly be sold for commercial profit. This provides some excellent practical experience (and will eventually look great on your CV), but it does have its limitations when it comes to sharing your research.

There are various legal protections and intellectual property concerns that will limit your publication potential compared to a ‘normal’ doctorate. A lot of this can be addressed by chatting with your industry partner about what information is and is not okay to divulge. You’ll find that you usually must get their approval to present work at conferences or to publish interesting findings.

#5 It is necessary to focus on the big picture and the ‘macro’ of the project

You will come to have a good understanding of some of the more pragmatic aspects of your project and its future applications.

For example, what will be the financial cost of producing something on a large scale? Just because you make something that works doesn’t mean it’s something that will sell; you’ll need to know what kind of target market there is for this product.

While more conventional PhDs focus strongly on knowledge for knowledge’s sake, important logistical questions should stay at the forefront of a student’s mind when they are completing an industrial project. While that's not to say exciting results can't be studied in greater detail, it’s very beneficial to know precisely what the outcome of your project should look like from the very beginning and have a clear plan of how to get there from day 1.

What have I learnt so far in this project?

So far, I have immensely enjoyed the challenges and opportunities involved in this project as I have become open to approaching problems in an entirely new way.

I have found my overall PhD experience very useful in developing multiple skills as a scientist and understanding some of the bigger pictures involved in the industry. These kinds of PhDs are becoming increasingly common as industries realise they can form links with universities and access world-class facilities and knowledge for a relatively small investment. I'd recommend looking into these projects as a prospective PhD student, particularly if you’re not sure you want a university career after you graduate: industrial PhDs allow you to build your CV for a future working in industry or for one in academia.

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Last Updated: 28 April 2022