Impact Blog

Supervise Me: Engaging the Best Supervisors for Industry Partnerships

August 2023
Jonathan Lacey, Cruxes Innovation

Recently, the Federal Government announced the National Industry PhD Program, investing $296 million to build a bedrock of research talent skilled in university-industry collaboration.  In addition, some Australian universities have similar programs of their own.

This is a hugely exciting opportunity for PhD students. PhD candidates in industry PhD programs are typically co-supervised by a university academic and an industry partner, and work on a project co-designed by the two co-supervisors aimed at solving a problem for the industry partner. The candidates spend a significant fraction of their candidature at the industry partner’s location.

Industry PhDs potentially deliver huge benefits to everyone involved: not just the student but also the industry partner, the academic supervisor, their university, and Australia. It’s exciting to see that the national program includes structured support, training, and coaching for all PhD candidates to help them acquire the skills and confidence to engage effectively with their industry partners. But I believe there is a way to create even more benefits for Australia with this program – and this requires an appreciation of the role of the supervisor.

We have a wealth of talent in Australia in all areas involved in these programs – students, supervisors, and industry partners – so bringing them together in multidisciplinary research for commercial output is a great idea.

Though the current funding focus is on the PhD candidate, and rightly so, the academic supervisor has a crucial role to play in the success of the program. There are two key questions at this point: who in the university cohort is best suited to supervise the industry-university research project, and what do they need to succeed?

The right skills for the research workforce

Australia has some of the best universities in the world (13 rank in the global top 200), and the Australian research system is well known to be highly successful at training PhD candidates to be effective researchers, as evidenced by metrics such as citation indices. The skills required for this success include identification of research gaps, research rigor, and effective written and verbal communication of research outputs to research peers.

Effective engagement with industry also requires PhD candidates to successfully acquire skills in stakeholder engagement, and communication to a non-research audience. The structured support, training, and coaching programs provided to all industry PhD candidates in the National Industry PhD Program represent a proven, scalable way to develop these vital skills and turn them into habits. These training programs will not only help the candidates make a contribution during their PhD, but they will also set them up to become vital “connectors” between industry and research, and in doing so, enable innovation for the rest of their careers.

Industry partners in successful collaborations need to bring plenty to the table as well, starting with identifying an appropriate innovation challenge for the PhD candidate to work on. The organisation must support a senior staff member to co-design the project with an academic supervisor, then co-supervise the PhD candidate throughout the project, and host the candidate while they are working at the industry location. The outcomes for the organisation need to have sufficient value to justify this time commitment plus the industry partner’s potential financial contribution to the PhD candidate’s stipend.

The key cog to enable this successful collaboration is the university-based supervisor. Training and supporting industry PhD candidates to engage with their industry partner is valuable once the academic supervisor has engaged the industry supervisor, and they have co-designed a PhD project aimed at solving a problem for the industry partner.

University-based supervisors of industry PhD projects can help the industry partner find value in participating in the project. This value might include identification of potential future employees, exposure to leading-edge research and thinking, and building or deepening a relationship with the supervisor’s university. This is on top of the value of the PhD project’s outcomes, already designed around an identified industry challenge.

The nature of these projects sometimes requires access to the industry partner’s long term innovation strategy or development pipeline, or a process of co-developing these strategic goals. This level of trust and engagement needs to be developed over time, through the application of soft skills such as communication, negotiation, and influencing with impact.

Finding the right fit

The university-based supervisor’s role in initiating an industry PhD project is clearly a delicate stakeholder management operation, if ever there was one.

We know that academics with these skills exist today. They are the senior researchers who lead existing research projects based on collaboration with industry, such as those funded by programs including CRC and CRC-P, ITTC and ITRH, and Trailblazer Universities. But these stars are already stretched thinly, and this could potentially limit the success of industry PhD programs.

What can we do to support the development of a next generation of research leaders with these skills?

Mid-career researchers to the rescue

With the exciting number of projects that the National Industry PhD Program and other similar programs are aiming for over the next 5-10 years, it’s important to prepare researchers now to become the next industry PhD supervisors. Many of these supervisors are likely to be today’s early- to mid-career researchers.

Industry PhD programs represent a great opportunity to help early-to-mid career researchers develop into the research leaders of the future – with a focus on industry collaboration as part of their core code.

Support from the middle out

I’d love to see industry PhD programs become vehicles to empower and support early- to mid-career researchers who have the  desire to become great supervisors and connectors for these industry PhDs.

Just as formal, structured, cohort-based, hands-on training and coaching programs are a scalable way to help industry PhD candidates acquire foundational industry engagement skills, similar programs can help early- to mid-career researchers acquire the more advanced skills needed to initiate, maintain, and deepen engagement with industry partners across a multi-year research and supervisory relationship.

Mid-career researcher programs of this type are being piloted now by several universities and research centres. The most successful examples of these programs draw heavily on peer coaching, where small groups of researchers in different fields (not competitors!) share their experiences, challenges, and successes with one another, guided by expert facilitators.

An investment in these programs will not only help ensure the success of industry PhD programs, but it will have long-lasting positive outcomes for all involved. The skills that early- and mid-career researchers will learn and refine in these programs will help them engage industry partners for other collaborative projects, and in emerging new programs such as Trailblazer Universities and Australia’s Economic Accelerator. Opportunities will emerge beyond the initial industry PhD program scope.

With a successful, large-scale execution of the Federal Government’s National Industry PhD Program and other similar programs, a generation of researchers will have the skills and confidence to move between research and industry. This will deliver enormous benefits to our economy and society.

I believe that an important element in the long-term success of these programs is to involve tailored support for early- and mid-career researchers. We want to enable them to initiate, maintain, and deepen engagement with industry partners. This support will also develop the research leaders of the future, with industry collaboration as part of their core – with even more benefits to Australia.

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