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Are Academia-Industry Ph.D.s Valuable?

The days when all Ph.D. holders worked at universities are long gone: According to a new report from the European University Association (EUA), more than 50% of the doctorate holders in Europe are in careers outside of academia, many of whom land in industrial R&D and non-research positions. Given the reality that many doctorate graduates are destined to leave academia, new demands on their training are arising, the report says, and involving industry in doctoral training is one way to prepare students for corporate careers.

The report, “Collaborative Doctoral Education: University-Industry Partnerships for Enhancing Knowledge Exchange,” examines existing industry-university doctoral programs and describes both the advantages and the challenges of them, putting emphasis on the employability of students in such programs. The report points out that, when at its best, a collaborative doctoral program benefits all parties: the university, the company, and student. Students gain a deeper understanding of how to turn ideas into business and how to handle legal matters such as intellectual property rights and market regulations. As one student interviewed for the report put it, “Yes, it made me more employable in industry. Industry employers appreciate that you have gained experience in working with their particular industry and gained insights in how it functions.”

However, the report points out some concerns to keep in mind if you’re considering a collaborative doctorate program. You should look into how intellectual property rights issues will affect your ability to publish your results, as your need for speed may be in conflict with the company’s wish to capitalize on your research. As you are likely to have supervisors both from the university and the company, good communication becomes even more essential than in a conventional Ph.D. project. All parties need to be committed to the project and have similar expectations in the outcomes, otherwise you may find yourself torn between supervisors trying to mediate a solution, which will inevitably take valuable research time away from you.

The EUA report found that companies in general have high expectations of the research knowledge a doctorate holder has. However, the companies are also interested in soft skills, such as an understanding of the market, a business mindset, and good communication abilities. Small and medium-sized companies tended to have higher demands on these skills, possibly because an employee fills multiple roles in a small company while in a larger one there is more room for specialization.

A take-home lesson from the report is to always point out any strengths you have in business skills and communication, especially if you’re applying for a job in a smaller company, as it may give you some leverage over candidates who fail to do so. Also, if you’re doing a Ph.D. right now, it’s worth considering how you can strengthen your transferrable skills so you’re more attractive on the labor market, particularly if you are interested in pursuing an industry career.

-Anna Ehrlund