Impact Blog

Graduate researcher value in post-COVID-19 industry settings

June 2020
Anne Younger
General Manager, Education and Training, Ai Group

How can Australian industry recover post-COVID-19? The Ai Group’s Anne Younger provides examples of the benefits of collaborating with Graduate Researchers to do just that.

Australian businesses face wildly different external influences as they move out of the COVID-19 environment. While some were forced to hibernate during the crisis, others rapidly switched to deliver new products and services, often accessing new technologies. In many cases the way they must now connect, learn and continue to do business has shifted. Companies may continue to pivot business models and innovate in order to change directions, survive and grow.

Australian industry may also expand its manufacturing sector as a result of the crisis. This will highlight critical STEM skills deficits as businesses focus on the benefits of increasing digital transformation. As industry transforms, adopts advanced technologies and changes its work organisation, business problems will still need to be solved.

Graduate researchers have long been a rich source of high-level knowledge and ideas for businesses needing solutions to both product/service ambitions and roadblocks. However, the urgency for businesses to adapt in the post-COVID-19 environment now presents an opportunity for industry and universities to work together to embed more graduate researchers within businesses.

During the pandemic, Australian universities and employers worked together to convert many existing face-to-face placements or projects to remote engagements wherever possible. Students have demonstrated that they are able to use the latest ICT tools to communicate, plan, collaborate and present business solutions. They have collaborated and conducted meetings using their own IT equipment from home and have been supported by teaching staff proficient at project management and the use of collaborative technology.

The Australian Industry Group (Ai Group) is keen to expose more companies to the benefits PhD and Masters by research students can bring to new business problems and research needs. As they possess the knowledge, intellectual abilities, techniques and professional standards to undertake new research they can assist companies in complex fields of learning. Their capabilities can enable them to work on and solve industry-defined problems or generate new knowledge that leads to innovation and commercial outcomes. They offer companies flexibility, with the potential to be involved through their entire candidature or for more discrete periods via a placement or internship.[1]

Company involvement with graduate researchers can realise the additional benefits of providing access to academic supervisors with specialist knowledge; building talent pipelines; and attracting funding/scholarship options, rebates and tax concessions.

Ai Group’s Innovation Facilitators, employed under the Australian Government’s Entrepreneurs’ Programme, focus on helping businesses to collaborate with the research sector to develop new ideas with commercial potential and to identify any knowledge gaps that are preventing business growth. Facilitators work with businesses to diagnose barriers to innovation that may include technical issues, a gap in knowledge or a need for research to develop new products, processes and services. This may include a matched funding grant that assists direct access to research capability. As a result they often arrange for research graduates to undertake projects that meet the specific needs of companies. Our Innovation Facilitators consider these engagements to be productive relationships, and find that the advanced subject matter knowledge of the graduate research students is most valued.

One example of a successful collaboration connected a PhD student with Australian Vinegar, a company that has created boutique vinegars using waste food and clever science. They are fermentation scientists, exploring wasted hydrocarbons and trying to turn them into either food, food ingredients or agricultural industrial chemicals using vegetables and fruit and juices that were destined for the ground. Through the Entrepreneurs’ Programme an Innovation Facilitator was able to secure a grant that employed a research scientist, allowing other employees to remain on the ground. The owner of the company was very happy with the graduate who undertook the research. The researcher reinforced Australian Vinegar’s view that it is a world leader in innovation in its area of expertise.

Another example, organised by one of Ai Group’s Innovation Facilitators, paired Pacific Bio, a sustainable aquaculture company in Far North Queensland, with James Cook University (JCU). Using a research grant into macro-algae production to target pollutants, the partnership with researchers benefitted the company by enabling it to develop technology for waste solutions in other sectors. Professor de Nys from JCU said the researchers focused on being innovative and open to trying new things.

GO1 is yet another current example of a collaborative relationship where both the business and PhD researcher are happy with the engagement. The graduate research student has become a team member rather than a research placement and has worked on two different projects. There is the potential for permanent work in the business at the end of placements.

Ai Group’s Innovation Facilitators have commented that the experiences research graduates receive in the business can depend upon many factors, one being the size of the business. Smaller businesses may not always be able to invest the time needed to train a person up or offer a breadth of experiences, whereas larger businesses can. However, smaller businesses can offer more autonomy and less structure for self-starters.

It is also seen as important that, in addition to their specialist area of expertise, graduate researchers have developed the employability skills that employers look for, including good communication, teamwork and adaptability. These employability skills are best developed by students through a number of work integrated learning opportunities, beginning in their undergraduate years. The connections made between universities and companies through WIL also assist teaching staff to keep their industry skills and networks current.

With a new chapter beginning for Australian industry, Ai Group sees the connections between universities and businesses to place graduate research students as a vital cog in our innovative future.


[1] Enhancing industry university engagement through graduate research students: a guide for industry, Australian Industry Group and Australian Council of Graduate Research, 2018

The Australian Industry Group (Ai Group®) is a peak employer organisation representing traditional, innovative and emerging industry sectors. We have been acting on behalf of businesses across Australia for nearly 150 years.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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