Government and governance, Education | Australia

17 July 2017

When it comes to making research relevant to industry and providing employment pathways for students, PhD supervisors have a key role to play, Brody Hannan writes.

Engaging doctorate candidates in industry research has long been recognised as a key method of enhancing PhD career mobility – which is expected to play an important role in commercialising academic knowledge.

A new pilot study I was involved in has highlighted the key qualities of academics who engage their PhD candidates in intersectoral research. This will hopefully lead to university-wide strategies for PhD supervisors to enhance their students’ intersectoral mobility.

We interviewed six senior academics who were highly successful over the last 15 years in their applications to the Australian Research Council (ARC)’s Linkage Grants, focusing on how they developed research collaborations with sectors outside of academia, and the effect this had upon their PhD candidates’ intersectoral mobility.

One common theme amongst the academics interviewed was their initiative in engaging with industry. This involved actively seeking out potential industry partners and creating opportunities for them to engage with their faculty’s research.

A professor of law organised and ran a series of national and international “court architecture conferences” and symposiums which brought government organisations, large and small businesses, and other universities together to “put forward what they [thought were] the issues” in law, in a “relaxed environment”.

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These conferences led to the establishment of research partnerships with the university’s law faculty – some of which were awarded Linkage Grants – enabling PhD students to engage with new industry projects that were highly relevant to the needs of industry. Monthly meetings with these industry partners discussing the progress of the project and providing avenues for them to offer ideas and support were also believed to have kept them engaged throughout the duration of the project.

This same approach of fitting PhD students’ research around the needs and wants of industry was echoed by a professor who said one has to “find what turns [potential industry partners] on, what they are keen to find out or develop, and then… find the students”.

Another advantage often enjoyed by these successful academics was experience in other sectors before entering academia. This gave them both the understanding and networks to establish research collaborations with industry that PhD students could then utilise.

One postdoctoral fellow said that it was her decade of experience working for the ARC and the National Health and Medical Research Council which allowed her to intimately understand the needs of government organisations, as well as establish research collaborations with industry partners that were later funded by the ARC’s Linkage Grants.

One professor believed that her years spent in retail, human resource management and teaching in tertiary education, gave her the networks to establish relevant research partnerships with the vocational education and training (VET) sector – “it’s much easier to go out and talk to people because everyone knows me… which helps in building trust”.

Across a wide range of disciplines, most of the PhD supervisors who participated in the study reported giving their students a meaningful piece of the research – often allowing their thesis to be a derivative of the main collaboration project. Great care would also be taken to ensure the “candidate… project and the research all align”.

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Once these projects were established, PhD candidates were often seconded to work within the workplace of the industry partner. Supervisors wanted to give their students the “value of autonomy… agency… and their own capacity to build relationships and bring projects to the conclusion”.

Many of the participating academics agreed that these collaborations created more opportunities for their doctoral students.

Whilst the results are only preliminary, these findings may have potential impacts upon higher education research policy – shifting the responsibility of enhancing PhD mobility away from governments and policymakers, and onto universities’ senior academics and research faculties.

This sentiment was shared by others in the study, believing doctoral study being “largely shaped by the experience of your supervisor… [if] you have a supervisor who exists in a highly esoteric plane, then the chance of going into industry is small”.

However, this project has demonstrated that with the right supervisor, even the most abstract of subjects can have an enormous impact in providing greater mobility outcomes for PhD graduates.

Both universities and policymakers must look at how we can support the initiative of these academics, whilst looking for ways we can make more researchers like them.

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