In a compelling report from Nature, a trend is unveiled that showcases the ever-increasing integration of industry resources and academic pursuits within PhD programmes and postdoctoral research positions.
- The integration of industry resources and academic pursuits is increasingly evident within PhD programmes and postdoctoral research positions.
- Educational institutions worldwide are beginning to blend industry experiences into their PhD programmes, giving students early exposure to potential future workplaces. This trend is leading to a significant shift in the traditional view of PhDs as merely stepping stones into academia.
- Countries such as Australia are heavily investing in the development of industry-connected PhDs. These efforts aim to bridge the gap between academic research and its commercialization, ensuring the translation of promising research into business ventures.
This coalescence of academia and industry is illustrated in the journey of Patience Chihomvu, a biotechnologist and recent PhD graduate from South Africa. Faced with challenges of funding her research within the confines of traditional academic settings, Chihomvu turned to a unique opportunity within the industry for her postdoctoral research – the AstraZeneca R&D Postdoctoral Challenge.
The Rise of Hybrid Research Models
Chihomvu’s primary research goal was to seek potential therapeutic compounds from traditional medicinal plants her father used during his recovery from COVID-19, specifically hoping to identify novel treatments for asthma and long-haul COVID symptoms. Unfortunately, the academic lab at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, where she had accepted a postdoc position, was unable to fully support her research.
In her search for resources, she entered the AstraZeneca competition in 2022, which offered winners two years of project funding and support. Emerging as one of the six finalists, she was invited to the company’s research center in Gothenburg, Sweden. Ultimately, all six finalists received funding, providing a testament to the potential of these industry-supported, academically-focused initiatives.
The AstraZeneca model, which synergizes academic intellect with industrial resources, is not an isolated case. Across the globe, institutions are incorporating elements of industry into their PhD programs, allowing budding researchers to experience working within a commercial setting, which is a potential future workplace for many PhD graduates.
This bridging of the gap between university research and commercial products has led certain nations, including Australia, to invest significantly in the development of such hybrid initiatives. Those who participate in these blended academic-industry positions not only gain new ways of thinking but also broaden their career horizons beyond the confines of academia.
Shifting Prevalence Across Geographies and Disciplines
As traditional PhD and postdoc positions merge with industry, their prevalence varies greatly across different disciplines, institutions, and countries. For instance, German technical universities regularly offer programmes where companies fund part of a student’s research, facilitating a relationship between prospective employees and companies. However, such initiatives have been less common in the United States, a country known for producing the most PhDs globally.
Incorporating Industry Exposure into Academia
Historically, in the United States, a PhD in STEM fields was predominantly seen as a stepping stone into academia. Consequently, PhD programmes were designed to equip students for a lifelong academic career. However, with a declining percentage of PhDs pursuing academic positions, universities are being urged to rethink the skills and experiences their programmes offer.
Some US institutions have begun to experiment with programmes that introduce students to industry earlier in their career, often through internships. Northeastern University, for instance, implemented a programme in 2019 that helps doctoral students secure internships in government agencies, non-profit bodies, or companies during their degree. Stanford’s NIH biotechnology PhD programme even makes a three-to-six-month internship mandatory, recognizing the future career aspirations of its students.
Industry Experience Baked into PhD Programmes
This changing trend doesn’t solely affect the post-PhD stage; it also integrates industry experiences into PhD programmes themselves. An example can be found at CERN, Europe’s particle physics laboratory, where a 2001 initiative known as openlab fosters collaborations between academia and industry, enabling PhD students to split their time between coursework, research, and working with an external company.
In Australia, government investment aims to expand these industry-based PhD and postdoc positions even further. The Australian government has announced an investment of AUD 296 million (USD 198 million) to support 1,800 new industry-connected PhDs over the next decade. The goal is to bridge the ‘valley of death’ between academic research and commercialization, facilitating the transition of promising basic research into business ventures.
Implications for the Future of Research
As seen through Chihomvu’s journey and others like hers, these hybrid models seem to offer an efficient way to gain skills and experiences that translate directly into the private sector. They reflect a promising direction for research, where academia and industry walk hand in hand, enriching the scientific community and opening up exciting opportunities for aspiring researchers.
Maximizing the Value of Your Internship: Tips for Graduate Students
As internships become an increasingly integral part of graduate programs, it’s important for students to strategically approach these opportunities to reap maximum benefits. By leveraging these experiences, you can enrich your academic journey, expand your professional network, and increase your employment prospects in a competitive job market.
Here are five practical tips to help you make the most of your internship during graduate school:
- Before you start, clarify what you hope to gain from the internship. This could include specific skills, knowledge about a certain industry, or an expanded professional network. Setting clear goals will help guide your efforts and keep you focused.
- Show initiative in your work and interactions. If you see an opportunity for improvement or have an idea for a project, share it. Proactivity demonstrates your commitment and can open doors to more responsibilities and learning opportunities.
- An internship offers a valuable opportunity to meet professionals in your field of interest. Make a point of building relationships with colleagues, supervisors, and even clients. These connections could prove invaluable in your future career.
- Regularly seek constructive feedback on your performance. This not only shows your commitment to personal growth, but it can also help you identify areas for improvement and provide insights on how you can make a more meaningful contribution.
- At the end of your internship, take time to reflect on your experience, the skills you’ve gained, and how these might apply to your future career. This will help you articulate the value of your internship to future employers and give you clearer direction in your professional development.
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