The Evolving Role of the PhD, Academia and Industry

Author: Marianthi Tatari


According to reports from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) in the U.K. 80% of postgraduate students complete their PhD while only 7% of all full time entrants drop off after their 1st year. Moreover, according to other reports, there is an overall increase in enrolments in both undergraduate and postgraduate students of 11% and 7% respectively in biological sciences alone (chart 5). However, despite the ever increasing number of PhD graduates the availability of academic positions remains static at best with many online articles ruminating on the lack of opportunity for PhD holders, many of which get trapped in a perpetual PostdDoc cycle.

This overproduction of PhDs is not a new phenomenon, in fact it goes back as long as 1978. While Universities spend a lot of effort to promote their graduate programs, they do very little to incorporate “employability” in their PhD-level courses. A few such multi-disciplinary programs have started to emerge which promote highly interdisciplinary PhDs but there is certainly room for the list to grow at least outside the U.K.. At the same time the topic of “alternative careers for PhD graduates” gains more and more interest with only half of the PhD graduates following an academic research or teaching path and a 20% turning to research in the industry, while some institutions and individuals are rethinking the overall concept of the PhD and its usefulness.

This increase in PhD holders who “escape” academia and turn to pharma poses the question: why not adjust the PhD program to fit the needs of the biotech industry and give companies a more active role in the process? This question has been in the mind of both students and Universities for some time now and some graduate schools, realizing the big role biotech companies play in applied research, have tried to address it by incorporating placements in industry and the media into their PhD programs. Not so long ago this need for research that has direct relevance for the biotech industry has been the basis for a platform trying to bridge academia and industry through PhD degrees. These so-called industrial-PhDs (iPhDs) were the result of a high demand from PhD students and young scientists who wanted to see their career moving out of the lab and into the clinic. Since 2009 several such iPhD programs have been launched throughout Europe while other joint programs are organized by innovation centres early on at the level of a Masters degree. Such PhD programs include research on a specific topic of common interest for both the schools and the companies and are jointly supervised. Through them the students not only perform research but also gain a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities that exist within the company environment and build their network of collaborators, helping to shape their future career.

Although these iPhD programs are rapidly increasing in numbers, there are still many PhD students who can’t join them although they still envision their transition to pharma but are unsure how to do that. The reality is that it’s within every student’s power to reach out and make connections with people from both academia and industry who can help them. There are already a few platforms formed by such young entrepreneurs who aim to bridge the gap between academia and industry. By exploring all the available options graduate students will become more aware of their own aspirations and limitations and will not consider academia as a one-way road after their PhD and this is exactly what Oxford Biotech is trying to build.