Industry-backed PhD students ‘not staying in private sector’

Chief scientist at UK arm of French electronics giant Thales says big business is frustrated at retention rates for such students

February 2, 2016
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And the rest? ‘We are only able to keep about 10 per cent of the PhD students we support,’ says Chris Firth

Getting big business to sponsor PhD students is often seen as a win for both industry and academia.

Corporations gain early access to some of the world’s brightest scientific minds, people whose ideas might lead to new products worth millions of pounds; universities receive much-needed funds and get the chance to build a wider relationship with some hugely wealthy firms that are able to invest serious capital.

There are numerous other benefits for business – not least the opportunity to recruit top young research talent thanks to a sizeable investment in these individuals’ futures.

But what happens when students decide that they do not want a career with the firm that has backed them for years? What if life in academia, or a fresh challenge altogether, holds more allure?

Hanging on to PhD students is a headache for many large companies that invest heavily in doctoral students, said Chris Firth, chief scientist (research and technology) at the UK arm of Thales, a French multinational electronics giant whose global turnover totalled about €13 billion (£10 billion) in 2014.

“We support quite a number of PhD students – we have 50 on the go at any one time – but our retention of them is very poor,” Professor Firth told a Vitae researcher conference in London on 26 January.

“We are only able to keep about 10 per cent – although 25 per cent will remain in academia as our friends, so that is a result,” he explained.

Other major engineering firms have also faced a similar problem, he added.

“In Rolls-Royce, they get about 25 per cent retained in roles and 25 per cent stay in academia,” he said, adding that the “rest are off to other places, often the City”.

Thales still invests massively in academia: it spends about £520 million a year on research and development and triple that amount on customer-focused R&D.

But many high-tech firms have started to question whether investment in PhD students is justified given the difficulty of retaining these researchers.

“It is becoming a challenge because our boards are saying: ‘Why are we investing in them?’” Professor Firth said.

He believes that one of the problems with the current situation is that PhD students do not spend enough time with their sponsor.

“They spend three months on our premises – that is not enough. I fear they are isolated from what we do,” he said. Thales-backed PhD students in France spend far more time with the company, he added.

The sector has sought to tackle the problem in recent years with the creation of new types of industry-facing doctorates in addition to the standard PhD.

About 1,400 engineers have so far gained doctorates under the EngD qualification launched in the 1990s, which its advocates claim has a better record of keeping people in the profession.

According to an evaluative study published in September 2015, 24 per cent of EngD graduates stayed with their sponsor, compared with just 10 per cent of graduates from traditional industry-backed PhDs.

William Powrie, dean of the University of Southampton’s Faculty of Engineering and Environment and chair-elect of the Association of Engineering Doctorates, said that EngD programmes were more closely linked with industry than standard PhDs.

“But people still need to spend that first academic year in a university context,” Professor Powrie said.

Industry-backed PhD students also need to spend time with their peers at industrial doctorate centres, he continued, which “is not possible if people are scattered to the four winds”.

Splitting your time between your university and industry sponsor is not always practical, Professor Powrie added.

“People are looking to find accommodation for a year at a time, so they can’t really do three months here and three months there,” he explained.

It was important to build industry-academia links, Professor Powrie said, but most firms accepted that they would “win some, lose some” when it came to recruiting PhD students.

“You might lose someone you’ve sponsored but pick up someone sponsored by another company,” he said.

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