University/industry collaborations – what do you think?

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This week, I have been mostly reading The Wilson Review. Commissioned by the government in 2011, the review explores the relationship between universities and businesses. I haven’t finished the whole thing yet but, so far, the key debates and recommendations focus on:

  • Universities as a supplier of knowledge, innovation that could be shared with business (building on the success of KTPs)
  • Universities as a supplier of knowledgeable and innovative people, who could go on to work in business
  • The need for businesses to offer work experience and internships to students, postgraduates and contract research staff, in order to prepare them for a life outside academia
  • The potential, therefore, for businesses and universities to collaborate more closely on curriculum design
  • The role that universities play in local and regional economies, and whether this can and should translate into university engagement with local and regional governance structures
  • The tension between UK immigration policies and the recruitment and retention of international students and staff.

So the Review has a lot of offer in the way of meaty and interesting discussion (two questions that I’m pondering are: what are the implications in terms of what universities are for? And wouldn’t the public and third sectors also benefit from closer collaboration with universities, because we surely also want these sectors to be world-class hubs of creativity, knowledge and innovation?).

The main question that I am pondering at the moment, however, is the issue of internships for PhD students and contract research staff. When I was a PhD and then a postdoc, I’m not sure how I would have felt about this, as I was already pretty busy and feeling quite pushed for time just getting my day-to-day work done, and using my extra time to chase publications.

However, as a Careers Adviser, I can’t help but think of how few PhD graduates researchers go on to permanent careers in academia (only 23% of PhD graduates were working as academic staff 3.5 years after graduation), and how many of the researchers I meet who struggle to understand what they have to offer life outside academia. Moreover, some employers (not all!) have reservations about the ability of long-term researchers to adapt to life in a commercial environment. So, I like the idea of being prepared for a change of plans.

I also think that, when I meet PhD students or researchers who have been out of academia for a while, that break from university life has really benefitted them as academics, as they are better at seeing research as their career, rather than their life, and engage in their professional development accordingly.

So I think there’s a lot to be said for the internships idea, but I wonder how the harried researcher will find the time to fit it in, and whether PIs and supervisors will be supportive. What do you think? Would you appreciate the opportunity to work outside academia for a month or two, or do you think that it would be an unwelcome distraction from your work?

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2 thoughts on “University/industry collaborations – what do you think?

    Ann Fitchett said:
    16/08/2012 at 3:04 pm

    Hi Lorna,

    I think the question: What are Universities for? may need a bit of thinking about… However, with regards to an internship I think it would be a great idea. Some of the post-grads in my research group did one after submitting their thesis and waiting for their viva’s and it was a great taster for them. I believe it was a pilot run by the graduate school. I also think I read somewhere that the research councils were thinking of making it a compulsory part of PhD training. Though whether this will happen I don’t know.
    As for contract research staff I think it becomes a bit more blurred. Undoubtedly it would benefit us but why would or should the University send its employees to go and work for someone else? I think the University already does try and offer a lot of training resources even for us contract staff but maybe these courses should be given greater emphasis and / or a greater slant as to how they can help us out in the big wide world as well as the academic one. Maybe also us researchers need to become more aware that there are other opportunities outside academia and be more prepared to take that very, very scary jump!

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    Lorna Dargan responded:
    16/08/2012 at 3:33 pm

    Hi Ann,

    The BBSRC is running internships as part of their 3+1 PhD programmes, so the Faculty will be piloting the placements for next year’s intake – it will be interesting to see how the students respond!

    As for the contract research staff, I think that what Wilson is proposing is kind of like an industrial sabbatical every three years, which would be embedded in their contract and built into any funding for the contract. He talks about “real-time connectivity with the business world… [which] would both support the development of the individual and potentially improve the impact of the research undertaken”. So I suppose that’s more about improving university-industry links, than the career development of the researcher.

    It’s interesting to consider where universities’ responsibilities to their staff’s career development begin and end (gosh, what a lot of possessive apostrophes!). I really like the idea of universities valuing and developing their staff in this way, and if it benefits both parties, then it should be encouraged. I would certainly like to see it extended to the public and voluntary sectors as well as the private sector, as I think the benefits there are pretty obvious too.

    What do you think needs to happen for the existing staff training to be given a bigger emphasis?

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