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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