Working with industry – should you do it?

This piece was written by am experienced supervisor in science who has a lot of experience in working on industry projects. The supervisor wished to remain anonymous, for reasons that will become obvious as you read on…

Screen Shot 2014-03-03 at 7.29.09 pmWorking on an industry funded PhD project can be a hugely beneficial experience. Not only is there the opportunity to work on research that has real practical use, and get your foot in the door for a potential industrial research position upon graduation, but industry in general tends to be more generous in providing funding. Often it is possible to have industry fund not only your research expenses (lab work, field work, computing equipment and the like), but also your tuition, living expenses and some contribution to your travel expenses to attend conferences.

However, in my experience, it is easy to be blinded by the dollar signs. While there are obvious benefits to working on industry funded research projects, there are other considerations to bear in mind.

Publishing and non-disclosure agreements

As industry will only fund research for which they will receive some kind of benefit or commercial advantage, a non-disclosure (or confidentiality) agreement will likely be required. Depending on the terms of the research contract you sign upon starting the project, this can potentially prevent you from publishing the results of your work for years. This can obviously have an adverse affect on your career, especially if you are seeking a postdoctoral research position upon graduation.

Lack of publications – even with a valid excuse – is going to make things very difficult. Don’t let your supervisor fool you into thinking that the company funding the research won’t enforce the terms of the non-disclosure agreement. While sometimes they won’t, the reality is that they can and they do. I learned this one the hard way.

A bad day is ok, a bad month isn’t

As a supervisor, I know exactly how it felt when I was doing my own PhD and I was having problems with my research and my personal life. I can sympathise with my own students in this regard. If a few days off are needed, that’s fine. Even a week won’t do much harm. However industry funded research projects require constant progress reporting to the company, not just the standard annual report PhD students have to submit to their university.

Sometimes these reports are due quarterly, sometimes monthly, sometimes whenever the company asks for one. It does not reflect well on either the student, the supervisory panel, or the university if the student has shown no progress since the last report, regardless of the reason for it.

So if your supervisor is harassing you for an update, it probably isn’t because they’re heartless and don’t understand things take time (we were in your position once too), but because they’re being hounded by the industry partner. When industry is handing over hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding for a project, they demand to know that their money isn’t being wasted. Word gets around if you aren’t producing what you said you would produce within the specified deadlines.

Companies go broke

The university bills companies for the contracted amount in instalments. However stockmarkets crash and companies can go bankrupt. It really does happen. In the fine print of the contract between the university and the company there will be a little clause about what happens in this situation, but in general, the company can terminate the funding given justifiable cause.

Going bankrupt is justifiable cause. This might mean cessation to your research expenses effective immediately, leaving you halfway through a project with no more money. It might even mean cessation of payment of your tuition or living expenses if the company was also funding those. Have a well established contingency plan in place when you start the project.

People move on

You might start working on the project with someone from the company who is supportive of your project and who may be helping with some aspect of the research. However, this can’t be counted on for the duration of the project. People lose their jobs. People move on to bigger and better things. And their replacement may not be as supportive. Or you may lose access to technical support you had at the company. Contingency plans need to be in place. This is something that is vital to raise with your supervisory panel early on in the project.

Companies change their minds

Whether you see this as a good thing or not is a matter of perspective I suppose. But companies change the direction of their interests on a regular basis depending on differing sets of circumstances (economic, personnel, etc.).

How will you cope if they change their minds on what they want you working on half way through the project and threaten to cut your funding if you don’t go along with it? Or they decide they just want you to work on this side project for them? How prepared will you be to stop working on what you’re doing to meet their new demands? What if the company decides they suddenly want you working on something that you have a moral objection to? Would you be prepared to terminate the funding agreement over it?

As a student, you should be very clear about what the company can and can’t demand in this regard, and it should be specified in the research contract between the company and the university.

Industry funded PhD research can be an immensely rewarding experience. However it is worth noting some of the pitfalls associated with it. I myself have had to deal with each and every one of them listed above either as a PhD student or as a supervisor.

My best advice is to get as much information as you can on the terms of the agreement between the university and the company before signing on to anything so that you know what you’re getting yourself into. You will find it very difficult to make any kind of complaint if your excuse is “I didn’t know it was in the contract”.

If you don’t like the terms of the contract upfront before you sign on to the project, then there might be room for negotiation, however once you’ve signed on, your chances are almost non-existent. Industry funded research can be difficult at times, however at the end of the day, it is nice to know that my research is actually being used and not sitting in a heavy volume on a shelf somewhere gathering dust.

Thanks Anonymous! Have you worked on an industry funded project? Got any tips to share? We’d love to hear them in the comments!

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10 thoughts on “Working with industry – should you do it?

  1. I can’t argue with any of the many truths in this post, but it certainly gives a negative slant. Many of these features of industry make it ideal for some scientists in training. I agree that going in with your eyes open is key.

    • It’s certainly great training. But there are things students need to be aware of that they’re often not. Many times a supervisor gets funding, advertises for a PhD student, and the student signs on to the project unaware of the conditions attached to it. Like most people, students just tend to skim over contracts and sign on the dotted line. The fine print doesn’t matter, right?

      I don’t think it’s negative to suggest that the student ask questions about the funding agreement so that they know what they’re letting themselves into. It’s just a matter of asking the right questions, and not just “how much money do I have for conference travel?”.

      • Coming from an industry background myself and rejoining academia after 30 years in industry, I can also say that many in industry don’t read contracts too well either, and in fact contracts are often held on a “need to know” basis which gets a lot of projects into a lot of trouble.

  2. Great post. There are many wonderful benefits to having a project funded by industry, but of course that source of funds does not come without a cost, and this article summarises the potential costs quite well. Sometimes it is best to fly solo and maintain control of your own destiny.

  3. This is a really great article. One thing it has not addressed, however, is what happens to an industry funded PhD student when the supervision arrangement breaks down.
    Speaking from experience, there are two critical things. The first is the payment of the scholarship, and the second is the access to data.
    Before taking on an industry funded PhD, these things need to be considered. Fortunately for me, my situation was a blessing in disguise, but for other students with less emotional resources and less knowledge about how to approach the university with such difficult circumstances, a breakdown in supervision can mark the end of a PhD for the student.

  4. My experience has been that too many students come in to industry funded projects blinded by the dollar signs, and then get blindsided when companies say “no”, the company bails mid-project, or the student gets asked to do something they don’t want to do.

    It’s not always possible to fly solo though. Given my username, you can probably guess I work in mining research. Getting access to minesites, fieldwork areas, logistical support, access to data, etc. for your research is almost impossible unless you’ve got an agreement with a company.

    I love working with industry. It’s amazing to see your research being put to practical use. All I’m saying is that students need to ask questions, and need to have established contingency plans in place. Go in with your eyes wide open!

  5. A bit different but I Recently finished a CRC project with industry stakeholders. Good research but contract driven with quarterly milestones. Will be VERY wary of doing it again. No room to slow up, for inevitable slower or delayed patches. At times All other work had to be de prioritized with consequences for my research students who were neglected, other projects, and colleagues. Milestones drove project to a significant extent , to an unacceptable extent for me. I found such research to be significantly Incompatible with my workplace and it’s demands and with how research actually proceeds.

  6. Very interesting post. It is great to hear a different side of the story and understand further some milestones that may have to be crossed with this type of funding.

  7. All of these are good points but there is often a lot of upside as well – my PhD was industry funded and it had a number of benefits including good networking for future projects and also I was able to pick quite a lot of consultancy work that paid far far more than doing a bit of seasonal teaching and was also far better for my CV (once you have done *some* teaching – more adds nothing).

    Moreover that industrial experience has allowed me to continue to do consultancy now I am a full-time academic (my contract allows 25 days a year direct billing) and the extra money means I paid off my mortgage early.

    So yes there are lots of issues to watch out for – but also some good opportunities and in the right fields, chances to make some extra green.

  8. This is great advise, Thank you! Working with industry is complicated but necessary. Dwindling Federal and State funds make it, sometimes, too attractive. I would add, make sure your academic institution is working in your best interest… sometimes they allow clauses that are not in anyone’s favor.
    As a person who actually reads contracts, I have to add that the “death” clause where funds can be terminated exists in both Federal and State research funding awards as well. And a justifiable reason is lack of progress. Although we don’t expect our .govs to apply this clause, you just have to go back to the 2013 government shut down. Lots of contracts were put on hold and no money could be spend (or invoiced for) that period of time.

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