Doctoral Students in the Service of Two Masters

A young doctoral student has worked hard for several months coming to terms with their chosen field of study, taking guidance from their academic supervisor and settling into their environment in their university. They have also spent time with their industrial sponsor, working in their offices, getting to know their business and staff.

Functional Duality

In doing so, a functional duality has developed. On one hand the student lifestyle continues, all be it, on a higher intellectual level, increased independence, self-regulating and an enormous reading load, as they read around their new subject area looking for the possible research questions that will result in their doctoral thesis.
On the other hand, they find office life, commercially driven, tightly timetabled, with practical milestones and deliveries, lacking the camaraderie of student life but sprinkled with regular, targeted and timetabled interactions with older professionals.

Worlds Collide

Progress is strong, even rapid. Academic rigour has provided a great basis for the pursuit of the research topics and constant refinement of putative research questions and resulted in a targeted, well-reasoned approach to a clearly defined gap in current knowledge. Innovation is better served by proximity to development resources.
Even in the most supportive scenarios, sooner or later, the two worlds of industry and academia will clash. As the needs of academia and industry temporarily diverge, our student can be drawn into an argument, which they are singularly unqualified to settle. The student has enough to do and should not be drawn into what is essentially a management disagreement. There are two supervisors with responsibilities, who along with providing the joint funding, monitoring the research questions, managing the student, reviewing progress, tracking IP and preparing publications also need to resolve schedule conflicts without stressing their young apprentice.

Close and Closer

As I have said in an earlier blog “Keep your academics close” and now add “and your industrial partners closer”. We all have potential conflicts to resolve, this conflict is no more challenging than any other. The efficiencies gained by industrial involvement, are balanced by the necessity to perform exercises from time to time that will not appear in the final thesis. The industrial relevance of a set of research questions certainly helps to enlighten the introduction and conclusion chapters of a thesis, not to mention the availability of resources not to be found on campus. Certainly the well rounded researcher that results from such a project is immediately attractive to industry and academia alike.
So don’t forget, your resource is a sponsored doctoral student, not quite an employee and not only a student. In public, let’s stick to the schedule and the science, we should save the horse-trading for behind closed doors.

October 22, 2013

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2 thoughts on “Doctoral Students in the Service of Two Masters

  1. Excellent point, Fred.

    Even with our full-time students, it can be very difficult for them to realise that the abstract nature of the challenge of a PhD requires significant time just thinking. There is a desire to be ‘doing’, be that coding, or working, planning, or even reading, but often what is lost is the reflection that can be most important in actually grasping the research question in sufficient depth.

  2. Great article. Would love to see more specific pointers for both managers, and maybe even guidelines on how to view/manage that relationship. But perhaps that’s part of your consultancy offering?

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