Thursday, 24 November 2016

PhDs in industry

Are you currently debating whether to apply for a university-based doctorate or for a graduate job in industry? Maybe you want the best of both worlds to keep your options open? Read on, there may be a way to combine the two..........

As well as the "normal" university-based doctorates (PhD/DPhil/EngD, among others) you can complete a doctorate almost entirely in industry, or spend a variable proportion of time in industry/academia. Let's start with industry-based:

1. Doctorate in Industry

I said almost. In actual fact, you cannot do a doctorate entirely immersed in industry. Apart from organisations like the Royal Society of Chemistry or the Royal Horticultural Society (or if your name is Donald Trump), who can award Masters degrees, normally only universities have degree-awarding powers. This means an academic partner has to be involved at some level. However, your day-to-day research can be done in employer premises.

Examples are the GSK Industrial Chemistry PhD, which  spans 3.5 years spent mostly at GSK, with only a 3 month stint at Strathclyde. Rolls Royce have a similar PhD, where you would be based at their technology centre (itself based within the University of Nottingham). Other doctoral training may be offered by employers occasionally but they will always have a university connection and will be advertised through both the university and the employer's websites.

If you DO go for a graduate job in industry, but still have a hankering for further study, perhaps you could spend a year working to prove your capabilities, then enquire whether undertaking a doctorate in the workplace would be feasible? It IS possible, but I have also heard of graduates who were discouraged from doing this - some of whom subsequently resigned to take up a university-based PhD. The main reason for this was that they reckoned their chances of becoming a Study Director or beyond were hampered without one.

If you are employed by, or have an offer of employment from, a company in the UK and you have a potential PhD project in mind, then you can apply for funding through the quaint sounding organisation  The Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851They will pay half your salary to "release" you from your day-to-day duties with your employer. Deadline end of January every year.

2. CASE - Doctorate shared between Industry and Academia

In Industrial CASE Awards, industry has taken the lead in thinking up a project, but the university has substantial input - there are two supervisors, one industrial, one academic. All seven of the Research Councils fund these 4 year doctorates, both PhDs and EngDs. For example the BBSRC partners with Astra Zeneca, Bayer, GSK, MedImmune, Nestle, Syngenta, Unilever, Croda, Mondelez and others.

The time spent in industry varies with the project, but it can be anything between 3-18 months. Money-wise, the industrial partner tops-up the studentship too, so it's worth more than the basic stipend of  £14,296 (eg EPSRC for 2016-2017).

CASE studentships are advertised on individual university websites (or the relevant college or department), as well as on (194 currently), or (500+ currently). Search on CASE or INDUSTRIAL.

3. Other settings for Doctorates with Industrial Input (if you can cope with abbreviations) - CDTs versus DTPs versus IDCs.

Centres for Doctoral Training (CDTs) are Research Council-funded consortia of universities who have a similar research interest. The defining feature of CDTs is that they are FOCUSSED and address SPECIFIC SKILLS GAPS in new and emerging research areas. Doctorates there are usually 3.5- 4 years long and include transferable skills training and a mini-project in first year. There is huge benefit from being involved with a wider range of scientists and students, as you get access to the best specialised researchers in the country.

Most CDTs have some industrial input - for example the EPSRC-funded CDT for Critical Resource Catalysis (CRITICAT), involving Edinburgh, St. Andrews and Heriot Watt universities are currently working with Astra Zeneca, Sasol and Syngenta. Working in industry is usually possible but the time allocated to this may not be clear cut at the outset. All of the Research Councils have CDTs, eg the EPSRC has 100+. Advertised as in 2 above plus on the CDT lists found on your particular Research Council website.

Doctoral Training Partnerships (DTPs) have the defining feature of being MULTI-DISCIPLINARY, offering a BROAD RANGE OF TRAINING across the sciences/engineering. They cover a wide variety of research or prime importance to one Research Council. Some do have a direct industrial application and there may or may not be an organised placement. You can often organise one yourself if there is nothing built in. Usually 4 years duration, with transferable skills training and one or more mini-projects at a non-host institution.  Advertised as in 2 above plus on the DTP lists found on your particular Research Council website.

Industrial Doctorate Centres (IDCs). The EPSRC-funded IDCs offer Engineering Doctorates (EngDs) which last 4 years. They consist of some taught courses (sometimes shared with MBA students) and students spend a hefty 75% of their time working directly in industry on PhD level projects. There are 19 EPSRC-funded Industrial Doctorate Centres (in addition to the EPSRC CDTs). Advertised as in 2 above plus on the relevant IDC websites above.

4. Other ways of getting industry insight

Bear in mind that anyone can ask their supervisor for a break from their university research to work in industry for a period. The answer would depend on the project's timescales and the flexibility of your supervisor and funding. The middle year(s) would probably be the most sensible time to try this out.

If you want the opportunity to work elsewhere in the university during your PhD, that's possible too, at least at Edinburgh, through the Employ.ed for PhD scheme. This is a 4-12 month paid contract in another area of the university, working around 6 hours per week. Other universities may offer something similar.

An interesting development from the BBSRC is PIPS (Professional Internships for PhDs) - a 3-month placement UNRELATED  to your doctoral research. This was introduced to help students understand the range of settings in which they could use their PhD skills after graduation.

Length of PhD

Most of the above relates to doctorates lasting 3.5 - 4 years. What has happened to the good ol' standard 3 year PhD? (I have one myself and those 3 years were quite long enough thanks). There are still plenty 3 year doctorates around, they usually just skip the official transferable skills, mini-projects or time in industry. A PhD is a PhD though, the qualification is exactly the same. Three year funders include universities, Research Councils, charities, trusts, learned societies, government.  See this blogpost on the relative merits of 3 yr PhDs compared to longer ones.

Some engineering adverts I have noticed recently allow you to choose between a 3yr PhD or a 4yr EngD, same project, with the extra year spent in industry.

Some 4 year PhDs expand on the mini-project idea and incorporate an MRes (Master of Research) into the PhD.

So that's all clear as mud. What's best for me?

If you are in the glorious position of having a choice, then you will need to weigh up the pros and cons of each option. What should you look out for?  Are there any disadvantages to a PhD in/with industry? You might want to be aware that:
  • Industry is typically a bit twitchy about confidentiality - you might have to sign an agreement saying you will not talk about your research at conferences, won't publish anything until they give you the go-ahead, you might not even be able to reveal the name of your industrial partner. 
  • How might those restrictions affect your chances of securing a good Postdoc position?Understand the implications, if any. 
  • Working with industry, there can be less room for manoeuvre; in academia you can change focus a bit more readily if things are going belly-up, or if a side-shoot of your research sparks your interest.

And the advantages of spending time in a company?
  • You get to see how industry works
  • It's a nice change from the university environment
  • You will almost always get paid more.
  • You can establish a good professional network which would be useful for your future career.
  • You might be more likely to get your name on a patent application, make big bucks and never have to work again!

Here's some Further Reading to weigh up the pros and cons of different PhD types: