Working with industry
Many science PhD students are funded by one of the UK research councils. Sometimes these are advertised as CASE award PhDs with an industrial sponsor or collaborator. This usually means the company will contribute extra money towards a PhD student’s stipend, consumables or travel, as well as providing the opportunity to spend some time working at the company itself.
The Medical Research Council describes CASE awards as “…a first rate, challenging training experience within the context of a mutually beneficial collaboration between academic and industry research programme leaders.”
But what does this really mean for the PhD student involved? What should you expect from a CASE or industry sponsored PhD project and what should you be prepared for?
Starting out in an industrial collaboration can be very exciting, and you will be full of expectations. There are many advantages to having an industrial sponsor: extra funds, another supervisor, access to industry, networking opportunities etc. There are also a number of pitfalls that the normal science PhD student doesn’t necessarily face that you will encounter along the way.
Research in science never goes to plan, and the same is true for working with an industrial partner, especially in a difficult economic climate. If your industrial sponsor undergoes a restructure, or is in a fast-paced ever-changing environment (e.g. the pharmaceutical industry) you should be aware that the focus of your research may change as their business priorities change.
This can cause a huge interruption in your PhD, and often takes things out of your control. This can be a major interruption. You will need to learn to manage your time around your industrial sponsor, especially if you rely on them for samples or for access to instrumentation to run important experiments.
Most CASE funded PhDs will require an Intellectual Property agreement between the University and the company you will be working with. This is normally drawn up and agreed by lawyers on each side, and you will sign this agreement, along with your supervisor. Until the IP agreement is in place, you are unlikely to receive any samples or discuss details of your collaboration with the company. Make sure you read through this agreement and are aware of your responsibilities.
Working closely with industry can mean that you may not be able to publish all of your work, so be aware that you might face limitations in this area. When presenting work at conferences your abstract and posters/talks will need to be cleared by the industrial collaborator prior to submission/presenting. Set yourself earlier deadlines and allow time for this approval process when collaborating with industry.
At the start of your PhD, the prospect of having two supervisors sounds pretty good, but it can be frustrating as you progress through your PhD. Here are some of the ups and downs of balancing two supervisors.
- Firstly, be aware that industrial supervisors are just as busy, if not more so, than your academic supervisor and your regular contact will be limited to an email or the telephone.
- Getting both supervisors in the same place, at the same time, can be an organisational nightmare.
- Each supervisor will have a different view on your research, and different priorities. You will often need to be the mediator, balancing what each of wants and making sure everyone is happy.
- Two supervisors means collating two sets of comments on any work you need proof-reading or checking. This can result in the difficult task of balancing two very different writing styles or conflicting opinions.
- You will need to learn how to be diplomatic!
- You will easily be able to pinpoint two referees when applying for jobs after your PhD – one industrial and one academic.
- Two supervisors can mean two lots of opportunities, especially when it comes to networking.
- You will have two different views on your research – making you aware of the wider scientific context of your work.
- You will improve your negotiating, organisational and diplomacy skills greatly over the course of your PhD.
Most CASE funded PhD projects are based at your academic institution but give you the chance to spend some time working with the industrial partner. The company is normally required to provide you with this opportunity for a minimum period of time.
Before you arrange your industrial visit, think about what you want to gain from your time there. Is there a set project of work you need to complete while there? Are there areas of the company you want to find out about? How will your time there fit in with the wider scope of your PhD? How long do you want to spend there?
Having a clear idea of what you want before you go will help you to get the most out of the experience.
Whilst you may be reliant on your industrial sponsor for samples or access to instrumentation; this doesn’t mean your PhD always has to be industry-focused or entirely based on their business aspirations. It is still your PhD and you need to be comfortable and happy in the research you are doing. Build up your relationship with your industrial supervisor and learn to balance what you want from the collaboration with what they want. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need, but be prepared this won’t always be possible.
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- Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council
- Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council
- Medical Research Council
- What is Intellectual Property?
Elle Blatherwick is a final year PhD student researching imaging mass spectrometry approaches to drug localisation in tissue. Her research interests include MALDI imaging mass spectrometry, Liquid Extraction Surface Analysis and method/technique development within biological mass spectrometry.
About the author...
Elle Blatherwick is a final year PhD student researching imaging mass spectrometry approaches to drug localisation in tissue. Her research interests include MALDI imaging mass spectrometry, Liquid Extraction Surface Analysis and method/technique development within biological mass spectrometry. More…