Connecting Graduate Research Candidates with Industry

Guides to support valuable partnerships between university research students and industry partners were developed and released in late 2018:

Collaboratively produced by the Australian Council of Graduate Research (ACGR) and the Australian Industry Group (Ai Group), the two complementary publications assist both universities and industry partners to realise the substantial short-term and long-term benefits that can be gained from graduate research student-industry engagement.

​Announcing the release, ACGR Convenor, Professor Sue Berners-Price, said: “Graduate research candidates undertaking a PhD or a Masters by Research represent a rich talent pool – possessing the knowledge, intellectual abilities, technical capabilities and professional standards to work on and solve industry-defined problems. Linking candidates with industry partners can provide career development for students, build workforce capacity and enhance innovation.”​

“The Australian Industry Group has seen the joint activity with ACGR as an important endeavour to increase industry-university collaboration. Greater involvement by graduate research students in industry can contribute a significant contribution to innovation. These research candidates can apply specialised cognitive, technical and research skills to provide creative solutions to challenging problems,” Ai Group Chief Executive Innes Willox, said today.

“The relationships established through graduate research engagements enable closer, mutually beneficial connections between industry and universities at a time when the pace of change in industry is requiring new approaches to education and training,” Mr Willox said.

Industry and research end users who wish to engage with universities and their graduate research candidates can access a list of contacts in each institution End User Engagement University contacts.

End user engagement by Australia’s current PhD candidates; it is more extensive, complex and varied than previously thought

This work builds upon a research report ‘Mapping the External Engagement of Australia’s PhD Candidates‘ released in 2017 by the Australian Council of Graduate Research Inc.

The report examines the levels of industry and end-user engagement with PhD candidates, and includes input from 11 participating universities, representing a good cross section of the sector:

The expert panel which undertook the ACOLA review into Australia’s research training system in 2015 decried the current lack of data on this aspect of doctoral education and the research was intended to provide a snapshot of the current scale and type of end-user engagement of Australia’s PhD cohort.

Commenting on the significance of the report, ACGR Convenor Professor Denise Cuthbert said:

This research shows that while levels of end-user engagement can and should be scaled up and intensified, a large number/percentage of current candidates are working with end users and in ways we haven’t fully understood before. This engagement spans both STEM and HASS fields. Further, candidates indicate strongly that they benefit from this engagement and value this way of working.

The research undertaken by the Melbourne Centre for Studies in Higher Education on behalf of ACGR involved a survey of PhD supervisors and candidates at 11 universities, a survey of PhD alumni from 5 universities and a further nine industry case studies. Findings released today relate to the candidate survey results.

Some significant highlights include findings from the survey of over 3700 PhD candidates that show strong levels of engagement of current candidates with end users along a continuum which encompasses more varied engagement than internships. The survey highlighted that external engagement is associated with a range of positive outcomes for PhD candidates. These candidates who engaged in deeper external engagements (i.e. paid/unpaid placements and collaborative research projects) reported greater skills development, a wider range of career ambitions and increased motivation to complete their PhDs.

Although most surveyed do not engage extensively with external organisations in formally recorded ways, very few PhD candidates complete their research without any external advice or support. In fact 73% of PhD candidates reported that they had benefitted from external contact or advice on their PhD from non-university organisations.

Paid and unpaid placements are just a small part of this engagement and up to 40% of candidates engage, in one or more of a wide variety of ways, with non-university partners. These include data collection, industry advice and other forms of collaborations and underline the importance of utilising a broad definition when measuring external engagement, capturing the diversity of activities in different disciplines.

Another important finding is the relationship between  prior professional experience and PhD research. 80% of candidates reported previous work experience which strongly influenced their research topic selection and data collection. This finding suggests many PhDs candidates, particularly in HASS, conduct research on industry rather than with industry.

Commenting on these findings, Professor Cuthbert added:

Research focused on challenges faced by community organisations, by schools and  in policy settings is more prominent in HASS fields than previously appreciated. This surely is an opportunity for universities and the communities they serve, to work to together to ensure even deeper levels of engagement and the involvement of individuals from outside the university in both research design and supervision.

These data present a challenge for government also to rethink the way it frames and values end user engagement to better capture the diversity of research currently being undertaken. Innovation by researchers is possible in a range of settings beyond those conventionally put forward.

They also present an opportunity for universities and government to rethink the dynamics of university-end user relationship in research training. We should of course scale up the number of candidates who engage with industry to provide them with valuable experience. At the same time, we should do more to capture and leverage off the rich industry experience and connections our candidates bring to the university with them.

Finally, and importantly, the survey identified the skills that are gained when PhD candidates engage in deep external engagement during their research. The majority of those so involved appreciated the contacts, networks, insights into work experience, motivation to complete and practical skills that are generated by placements and collaborative research projects. Other benefits related to both the completion of their degrees and their transition to employment.

The findings of this national survey will greatly contribute to work and initiatives currently underway across the nation to recognise, quantify and expand the ways in which research candidates work with industry and end users.