July 2011

The industrial doctorate

New European graduate program bridges academia and industry. 

Over the past 20 years, the number of scientists who have obtained doctorate degrees has risen more than 40 percent. The growth shows no signs of slowing, since most countries are building up their higher-education systems to compete globally in science and technology. However, in much of the world, many science graduates will not get tenured academic positions. With numerous doctoral degree holders now turning to industry, are traditional graduate programs preparing students for successful pharmaceutical or biotechnology careers?

Over the past 10 years, several universities have started to offer biotechnology master programs that focus on both science and business. However, very few biotechnology doctorate programs exist in the U.S. The University of Virginia offers a doctorate in biotechnology, although students only work with a company two to three months as interns rather than directly connecting their research to a company.

However, in Europe, the outlook is entirely different. The European Commission currently is taking bold steps to train a new crop of graduates prepared to enter industry. Universities around the European Union and several other countries, including Israel, Switzerland, Norway and Serbia, are closely collaborating with businesses under a pilot doctoral program called an industrial Ph.D.

The industrial Ph.D. program is modeled after an existing Danish program that has been in operation for more than 40 years. Other similar successful programs have been started in the UK and France. The goal of the program is to give scientists a more entrepreneurial mindset and skills tailored for both public and private research.

The program requires students to take business classes and create a research project with a focus on development and innovation in a private company. Industrial doctorate candidates divide their time between the academic environment and the private enterprise. Thus, students can be employed with a partnering private enterprise during the project period. Their employers can even be located in different countries from their home institutions. The aim is to build personal networks between companies and research institutions. The program is designed to encourage private industry to play a role in training scientists, and a business focus will allow students to transition smoothly into leadership roles in industry after obtaining their degrees.

There are three overlapping objectives of an industrial doctorate. One is to give students practical tools to manage their research projects at the intersection between a company and a university. The second objective is to give students an appreciation of the commercial aspects of research and innovation. And the third is to introduce students to the nonacademic dissemination of research and the process of securing patents.

The success of the Danish industrial Ph.D. convinced the European parliament to move forward with a Europe-wide program that is expected to incorporate its first batch of 100 scholars in September 2012. The program currently has more than 50 partnering enterprises. The European Commission plans to provide €20 million ($28 million) to fund the program under a special education and funding initiative titled the Marie Curie Action. The ultimate goal of the program is to make research careers more attractive for young people.

Synergy between academics and industry not only will prepare students for translational research but also will make academic research more strategic and technologically relevant. Bioscience laboratories and biotechnology companies with diverse connections have been more successful in publishing research, securing patents, and acquiring grants than those with fewer connections. Moreover, companies with more academic collaborations have flourished while those without have floundered. Overall, the industrial doctorate program is poised to benefit both the students and participating companies and universities.

Nancy Van Prooyen (nancy.vanprooyen@ucsf.edu) is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, San Francisco.

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