The Impact of Industry and Technology on the Next Generation of Scientists
There is an inherent link between academia and industry that rarely gets the acknowledgment it deserves. Industry relies on academia to educate, train, prepare and nurture the next crop of bright young talent into the work marketplace. In return, industry provides real-world problems with which to challenge researchers and the invaluable funds, facilities and workplace experience with which to investigate them and for scientists to develop their skills. Academia and industry may each exist in isolation, but both can benefit from the synergistic relationship when they work together and support one another.
As part of the “Science Futures” project, Agilent interviewed five PhD students from five academic institutions across Europe to discover their views on how this relationship works and the impacts it has on their research and future career prospects. The students shared their perspectives on a range of topics, including the role that technology plays in their studies, the benefits of having opportunities to interact with industry and the value of mentorship.
In this listicle, we summarize the findings from the project and highlight three areas in which industry and technology are impacting the next generation of scientists.
Technology is a key driver of research and innovation
One of the main themes highlighted by all five PhD students was the importance that having access to the latest technology has on their research, and how collaborations between industry and academia can support this. The students felt that sufficient access to technology is vital to keep driving their research forward.
“The continued availability of analytical equipment and the development of the underlying technology greatly accelerates our research capabilities and, perhaps more importantly, induces new questions for scientists to look at.” – Tijmen Bos
Several of the students discussed how technology had steered their research and enabled them to move their project ideas forward, often in different directions to their original plans. For some of the students, the development of new technologies by collaborators, themselves, or their own research group was critical for subsequent research. One student was able to develop their own technology by 3D printing, rather than rely on a commercially available instrument. The student highlighted how access to a 3D printer in their own lab enabled them to steer their PhD in a slightly different direction. As well as benefitting their own projects, many of the students pointed out the value that new technologies have had in spurring research ideas among other scientists.
When talking about technology, the importance of open-source software and data sharing was also highlighted by the students, especially when trying something new. Several of the students relied on free open-source software for data collection and processing throughout their projects, citing technology such as GIS, USGS, Scihub, R and Python code as being extremely useful in their research. In addition, some students relied on open-source online courses to boost their knowledge of new technologies or techniques.
“I think it [open-source technology] has leveled the playing field as all universities have access to a variety of open-source software and are better able to integrate them into projects. I think it has opened another line of communication between both industry and academia, which is beneficial to both parties.” – Joyce O’Grady
Professional connections boost idea sharing, research outcomes and training
Another key theme discussed was the positive impact that collaboration with industry has had on the students’ research goals and access to support. Several of the students’ projects were supported by industry partners through funding or instrument provision, giving students access to the latest equipment and the means to pursue their research.
“My project is co-sponsored by three leading chemical companies and aspects of my work are supported by an industry grant. The involvement of industry is essential for the project. The equipment and samples allowed me to start my research and through secondments at partner companies, I can interact with industry experts and implement my work directly on-site. I really value these interactions.” – Tijmen Bos
Mentorship and interactions with experts were incredibly useful to the students, helping them to discuss their research and increase their knowledge of instruments and techniques. Several of the students highlighted the benefits of attending conferences and events where they were able to share their work and any issues they were facing, as well as get feedback from experts in the field.
The value of having support from both academic and industry sources was described by one of the students, as getting “the best from both worlds”. Students seemed to appreciate the support and guidance they received from their primary supervisors and fellow students, and found technical support and training from industry partners especially helpful.
The positive experiences the students have encountered have instilled in them the value of such partnerships and the desire to maintain them in their future careers. The students recognized the importance of collaboration between industry and academia to maximize the potential of scientific research.
“I would definitely consider collaborating with industry in the future. Aside from the possibility to test prototype technology and develop applications and acquisition strategies, I have enjoyed the scientific discussions with the instrument developers and have learned a lot from this collaboration.” – Max Lennart Feuerstein
As well as being beneficial to students while completing their PhDs, collaborations and professional connections could prove helpful to their future career development. Particularly for competitive industry positions, professional contacts can increase the chance of getting a foot in the door.
Preparing for the future workplace
When speaking to the students about their future career aspirations, it became clear that upskilling was seen as crucial to meet not only the multidisciplinary needs of their current research projects, but also to be well prepared for future employment.
Having the opportunity to develop skills across a range of disciplines and technologies during their studies is seen by students as crucial to help them to be ready to embrace technological advances in their future careers.
“My current research topic is interdisciplinary. It includes the study of optics/photonics, chemistry, and biology…Therefore, I possess a number of unique skills and I believe the capability of coping with the different fields of science can lead to real life achievements.” – Rajannya Sen
Some of the students mentioned the challenges they had experienced moving from academia into industry and how this skills gap could affect future career choices.
“From my past experience, there was definitely a skills gap moving from my masters studies into industry in terms of hands-on experience, practical know-how and understanding the industry process. What I found was that I understood the theory behind some of the processes I was doing on the job but applying that knowledge in a practical scenario was very different.” – Alexandra Richardson
Importantly, chances to interact with industry during academic studies were seen as useful ways to address the skills gap and better prepare for a career in industry. One student described how the introduction of a training program, similar to medical students’ inter-collated year, could help to bridge the gap and ensure students are ready for their first industry position.
This lack of hands-on experience of techniques is an issue that is receiving increasing attention, which could see more universities and companies set up programs to provide students with ample opportunities to practise using instruments and performing techniques.
Throughout the “Agilent Science Futures” discussions, it was clear that industry and technology have significant impacts on the next generation of scientists, and that students recognize and value the contributions that academic–industry collaborations have on both their current research and future career prospects.