From PhD to Industry

A few weeks ago I ran into a former student who had recently completed a PhD in a biology discipline and now works in technical sales. He’s a bright, outgoing, ‘emotionally intelligent’ sort of bloke. He did his PhD in a large, successful and well-funded group so he did all the things you would expect of a current PhD student in a STEM area. He had interacted with postdocs, supervised undergraduates, spoke at conferences, dealt with suppliers and technicians, worked away on his own project – no doubt doing lots of critical thinking and problem solving – and completed his thesis in good time.

It was interesting that when I asked him how he was getting on he launched into a description of the challenging ‘learning curve’ and made a hand gesture to indicate the vertical nature of it! Because, although he was bright and had worked in a busy laboratory, he wasn’t quite ready for the business culture in his new life. In particular, he was struck by the need to multi-task and the high level of expectation from both managers and customers. He was also shocked to discover that in terms of the science, industry was actually ahead of academia.

It was a fascinating conversation and although I’m sure that he will do well, it does highlight the fact that the transition from academia to the business world is a big and challenging one; and one that we in our permanent positions in academia don’t really know much about.

At the moment we are moving towards the structured PhD model as being the standard way of doing things – and I am largely in favour of the concept. But I don’t get the feeling that we’re doing it in a … structured way. It all seems very ‘patchy’. In some cases the structured program is well thought out and with a clear goal in mind, while in others it simply involves a dictat coming down from above – a funding agency or maybe some academic body – and this is acted upon at department level. Academics, being the generally cooperative people that they are, offer to give modules in whatever area they think they can. These vary from the highly specialised and technical to the generic but there is an over-riding sense that academics are coming up with modules because they have to, not because they feel particularly passionate about the concept.

I cannot believe that we are doing this in an optimal way. There seems to be nobody really leading on this, no national figure offering some sort of passionate case for why we should be going down the structured route. This is going to cost after all – in many ways.

As one commenter pointed out in this blog, one of the problems is that PhD students see the idea of compulsory fourth-level modules as a nuisance that takes away from their valuable research time. Perhaps we need to talk to PhD students more about this. It might be a good idea, for example, to hold a conference in which recent PhD graduates could talk about their experiences of making the transition from academia to industry/business. Personally, I’d love to hear what they had to say because to be honest, I’m in no position to advise anyone about making that particular transition. I think all of us academics would learn a lot.

Posted in education, Research | 1 Comment

3rd level research: He who pays the piper calls the tune?

Guest Post by Joe MacDonagh, School of Business and Humanities ITT

Greg is taking a well-earned break from this blog and his DCU research and lecturing duties. I’m guest writing on the hanging question in his last post: why should the state fund educational research?

As a psychologist who researches and lectures I have a different, social science, perspective to Greg, but one which is not altogether different. The key challenge he set was going into a hard-nosed Dragon’s Den type setting to justify state funding for academic research.

Though funding applications are long, sometimes tedious, and requiring writing which is hard to leave to others it, thankfully, doesn’t involve presenting to a bunch of incredulous businesspeople. Nevertheless, having to think through what good will come from one’s research may mean less scientific dead ends and less chance of being parodied in the ig Nobel awards and the like.

To those imaginary Dragons I would say that there is a measureable and discernible benefit from science, engineering and computing research. Explaining why we should bother with basic, rather than applied, research may take a little longer; the full benefits of the discovery of DNA can now be seen many decades after Franklin, Crick and Watson’s work in the explosion of commercial applications to most parts of everyday life, which even the Dragons would accept, presumably.

Harder to justify is funding in the social sciences and the humanities. Consequently, these areas are less well funded. In my area, psychology, one can point to how more research can inform how Irish society treats those with mental health issues. Those with mental health issues, particularly depression, often have chronic health problems. Aside from the human and moral aspect of helping these people live better lives, helping them to be healthier would be less of a drag on our health system and so save the state money.

Less easy to justify but, I believe, eminently justifiable, is humanities research. For a country with, in the main, poor foreign language skills, research into languages is important. But those entrepreneurial Dragons might look more coldly at history, folklore or even Latin and classical studies. This is, for me, the hardest argument to make in the public sphere and one which gets to the heart of the purpose of universities and third level colleges.

The monks of old in Oxford and Cambridge who instructed the original undergraduates could conduct their research, or scholarship, with little expense and just needing time to do so. Research of all sorts, particularly in the sciences, medicine and engineering, is now expensive. So why not drop humanities research and make room for “real world” research which is patentable and commercialisable?

Simply put, without a knowledge of our history we will forget the lessons of the past or, as George Santayana put it much better- “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. That’s the quote most often used in this context but I prefer Cicero’s comment: “Not to know what happened before you were born is to remain forever a child”. The presence of academics from humanities disciplines, including folklore, literature, history of art and classical studies, helps to inform public debate on what we value so that we don’t repeat past failed social experiments.

In Ireland you only have to look at the popularity of historical, artistic and literature texts to see how much they contribute to the Irish psyche and to the need for self-understanding. And that’s their value; infusing society with something ineffable and unquantifiable but beneficial nevertheless. They’re like a vestigial organ; it doesn’t seem important but take it away and the whole isn’t as healthy and doesn’t thrive as well.

At this stage the Dragons may have pulled a lever and I may have gone down a trap door but still such a process is useful as it should make us in the academy better promote the worth of what we do. We need to work together on research more as I see duplication in a lot of Irish colleges, with an increasing “me too” approach to funding. Every college can’t have exactly the same kit and the same super expensive machines. Specialisation would encourage critical masses of researchers and would save money which could be spent elsewhere in an increasingly challenging environment for research.

Where we should specialise is an argument for another day but to any Dragon types out there wondering about the cost efficiency of current research spend just look at: the pharmaceutical companies situated in Ireland, the burgeoning computer gaming sector, our prominent role internationally in medical devices manufacturing, how we need to understand our high rates of depression and suicide and how good research informs teaching. A vibrant research sector means more graduates who think critically and it can contribute to a thoughtful and considered society.

Thanks for reading this far and thanks to Greg for letting me write this guest post.

Posted in education, Research | 1 Comment

Why should the state fund academic research?

Many academics would scoff at the very idea of asking this question. To them, it is so self-evidently obvious that  research should be funded by the taxpayer that they view the question as preposterous.

In these recessionary times, the prevailing paradigm is that academic research should be a driver of growth in the real economy. Thus, much of the language around universities these days involves words like innovation, enterprise, start-ups, knowledge economy etc. But let’s suppose (with good reason I believe) that the direct contribution of academic research to the economy is likely to be small, except in some niche areas where small numbers of highly qualified people are employed.

Now, if we put those immediate and relatively small economic benefits of academic research aside, what exactly are the main benefits? If you had to walk into a sort of Dragon’s Den full of hard-nosed, sceptical policy-makers who control the purse strings, what would you say in your pitch? How would you sell academic research in an evidence-based  way such that the bottom-liners would buy it?

I’ll leave that with you as I head off to the sun for a couple of weeks! Maybe I’ll try to answer it when I come home and if anyone wants to do a guest post on this blog (on this topic) I’ll be happy to oblige.

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Signalling and the Structured PhD

‘Signalling’ is the idea that the value of third level education is not just that it provides students with knowledge and skills that are useful in the workplace but that it acts as a sort of marker for certain innate qualities that the student had in the first place. (Signalling is discussed in more detail in this very interesting UK report: “Methodological Issues in Estimating the Value Added of Further Education, Higher Education and Skills: A Review of Relevant Literature”). Thus, it is not always the content of a degree that is important but the innate characteristics that are required to have earned that degree, and especially to have earned a particular grade in that degree. There is no doubt that many employers, especially those in ‘non-specific’ areas like management consulting, see signalling as a key part of their recruitment methodology; they recruit the person not the discipline. The signalling idea has important policy implications because there might well be more cost-effective ways of sending the correct signal to employers, a signal that matches the student’s attributes to the employer’s needs.  (I should say that I am taking an entirely utilitarian view of education purely for the purpose of this argument!)

Signalling is even more important in PhD education. When PhDs were rare, the very fact of having a PhD sent out a pretty clear signal to the employer about the qualities of the person who had earned the doctorate. PhD graduates were characterised by being highly ‘academic’ and having an independent mind-set. But things are more complicated nowadays. PhD students now range from the outstanding to the average, from the highly enthusiastic and intellectually curious to the unmotivated, from the fiercely driven and ambitious to the ones who are just serving their time. The quality of PhD theses is similarly variable.

So, in that kind of environment, it makes sense to structure the PhD process. By ensuring that all PhD students acquire certain ‘transferable’ skills, we reduce the variability somewhat. Nowadays, PhD students, whose numbers are many, have very varied personal and academic attributes. Soon, however, employers will be more confident that candidates with PhDs have a basic set of skills that can be applied in the workplace no matter whether their PhD is in molecular biology or pure mathematics or romantic poetry. Structured PhDs are here to stay because they improve the signal being sent to employers.

Posted in education | 3 Comments

Recommended books about education and related matters

Here’s a list of some books about education and related subjects that have influenced my writings in this blog. All are worth a read in my view. If not quite contrarian, most of these books challenge the consensus in some way. I’m including Mary Gallagher’s book not so much because I necessarily agree with it but because it is probably the best exposition of a particular philosophy of education, one that might be seen loosely as representing the ‘left wing’ consensus.


  1. Why Don’t Students Like School, Daniel T. Willingham.
  2. Teacher Proof: Why research in education doesn’t always mean what it claims, and what you can do about it, Tom Bennett.
  3. Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking, Susan Cain.
  4. Does Education Matter? Myths about education and economic growth, Alison Wolf.
  5. Perfect Rigor: A genius and the mathematical breakthrough of the century, Masha Gessen.
  6. Bad Education: Debunking myths in education, Philip Adey and Justin Dillon.
  7. Seven Myths about Education, Daisy Christodoulou.
  8. How learning works, Ambrose, Bridges, DiPietro Lovett and Norman.
  9. When can you trust the experts?, Daniel T. Willingham.
  10. The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker.
  11. Academic Armageddon, Mary Gallagher.
  12. How Universities can help create a Wiser World, Nicholas Maxwell.
Posted in education | 2 Comments

Education, Work and Jackie L.

When Jackie Lavin made her ill-fated appearance on RTE’s Prime Time, she actually did education some service. One of her key points – albeit clumsily made – was that students spend too long at college, only to end up ‘not having a clue’. Whatever about  their not having a clue, the suggestion that students spend too long at college is one that deserves serious consideration.

The argument for having an extended period in higher education is that as well as acquiring knowledge, students acquire all sorts of higher order skills like critical thinking, not to mention general maturity. That is true, of course, but the truth of this proposition is not the issue. As with many aspects of education – notably PhD-level study – we are not using the correct ‘control’ in making our argument. Let’s consider two students; one spends three years at college while the other spends four years. In theory, the student who spends four years acquires additional knowledge and additional ‘skills’ in critical thinking etc. But what about the person who has spent the ‘fourth year’ in the workplace, perhaps even in a workplace that is not directly related to his or her studies. The key question now is this: does the extra year in higher education contribute to the development of the student to a greater extent than the year in the workplace? The answer to this question is not obvious and depends on both the aptitude of the student and his or her ability to study at fourth year level, and on the quality of the employment in question. In other words, Jackie Lavin’s suggestion that (some) students spend too long at college is one that is worth taking seriously.

In DCU, our students undertake a compulsory six-month placement in business/industry at the end of a shortened third year – a tacit admission of the value of work-based education. This is our INTRA program. There is general agreement amongst the academics and most of the students that the INTRA experience is hugely valuable and it is something that we are desperately trying to keep afloat in these days of recession and unpaid internships. We find that our students mature enormously during their six months in the workplace and many of them, despite being academically limited, are rated very highly by their employers.

In my view, many of our students should not return for further academic study immediately post-INTRA. Many prove to have little or no capacity for the more independence-requiring, research-focused curriculum of final year. Some even seem to regress as the year goes on and failed marks at final year are becoming increasingly common. Many students would be far better off staying in business or industry where they can continue to develop and receive further training, perhaps to return to higher education at some later date. In effect, they would personally benefit from an exit qualification at the end of the INTRA placement.

As academics, we are often guilty of a sort of arrogance in that we assume that universities and institutes are the only places where education occurs. Yet, I think most of us who teach at third level  would probably agree that much of our knowledge and understanding of our disciplines has been acquired ‘on the job’ in our role as educators. The reality is that education continues throughout all our lives and when young graduates enter the workplace, they continue to learn and to acquire all those higher order skills like critical thinking over which we in higher education seem to be claiming ownership. But, we do not have a monopoly on education.

The education system needs to become more flexible and it needs to acquire the characteristics of a network or web rather than a ladder. We need to provide students with the ability to negotiate their own individual pathways through the network, perhaps stopping off at various points along the way, only to step back on when they are ready to do so. We need to recognise the educational value of work and to see education as a much more seamless activity that does not stop at the gates of the third level institutions. Why shouldn’t students, for example, graduate with a Level 7 qualification, only to ‘top it up’ to Level 8 some years later, perhaps through innovative, online and project-based education in fields of study in which they are actually interested and in which they have genuine industrial or business experience? Actually, interdisciplinarity might emerge quite organically in this way.

As the demands on third level increase and budgets fail to keep apace, we need to embrace new, more flexible, ways of education that are not only more cost-effective but more geared towards the needs and, especially, the aptitudes of our students. Employers need to play their part too because they seem to have a growing sense of entitlement when it comes to education.


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Education and Johnny Giles

If you read a lot about education there are times when your head goes into a spin: so many philosophies, so many ‘best practices’, so many innovations. It’s at these times that I think about what John Giles might say on an RTE post-match panel. Gilesie’s recurring view is that football is a simple game: when you don’t have the ball, you work hard to get it back; when you have the ball, you control it and pass it to one of your own players, trying to create a scoring opportunity in the process. Complicated systems are not his thing.

Education, at least third level education, is, like football, a simple process. The lecturer guides the students by organising existing knowledge (in the broadest sense of the word) for them, by explaining that knowledge, and by encouraging, facilitating and incentivising the student to – as Giles would say – do the right things. And the right things to do in education are to acquire the basics of your discipline through hard study and to build on those basics through practice and reflection, acquiring higher-order abilities (like problem-solving and creativity) in the process.

The real problem in education is in encouraging and enabling students to do the right things. But, like the football manager, there is only so much we can do once the ‘game’ has started. Students are not blank slates. In football, setting out with a 4-2-3-1 formation is fine but it’s useless if the players ignore it and wander out of position with abandon. Likewise, no method of teaching, whether it be traditional lectures, flipped classrooms or new modes of active and problem-based learning will be effective unless the student buys in to the process by supplementing formal learning with his or her own independent study and practice. (Of course students need to be taught how to study and practice effectively.)

For me, this has always been the crux of education and rather than obsessing about the advantages and disadvantages of any particular mode of teaching, we should be focusing more on the student mindset. Why do some students aim for 40% when others aim for 80%? Why do so many students not have any ‘plan’, not understanding, for example, that poor results in one year can have all sorts of knock-on effects like missing out on work placements or on opportunities to do postgraduate work?

While you can put all of this down to the natural variations in humanity itself, it strikes me that given the investment made – by all parties – in third level education, there is scope to have some sort of formal ‘life coaching’ or mentoring (peer-based, perhaps) for undergraduates. Many seem to suffer badly from short-termism and it would useful for them to take some time out every now and then and really ask themselves where they are going and what they would like to achieve in life. Yes, they are young, with their whole lives ahead, but isn’t that the point? They do need to be encouraged to ask themselves the hard ‘where-do-I-want-to-be-in-five-years’-time’ sort of questions. Sadly, many tend to drift and stumble, often painfully, through what could be a high point of their lives, only to emerge with a mediocre qualification in a subject in which they have little interest.

Now, it’s quite easy to simply dismiss this argument with the well-worn “I hadn’t a clue what I wanted to do when I was in college and look at me now” sort of argument but I’m not sure that is good enough anymore. The world has moved on, third level participation rates are vastly increased and a degree is no longer a guarantee of anything. Expectations are much greater in all walks of life.

We need to spend a lot more time getting into the heads of our students and less time theorising about teaching methodology.  We need to encourage them to figure out what they actually want out of their education and we need to do our best to ensure that the education system and the student work effectively in partnership towards well-defined goals.

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