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In my opinion

An alternative, industry-linked model for PhD training

In exchange for a company funding their doctoral program, grads would commit to four years’ employment afterward at that firm.


We’ve heard a great deal in recent years about a “skills gap” being experienced by business and industry and the need for more apprentices, pipe-fitters and so on. Much of this concern is economic-cycle dependent and the downturn in energy prices has quieted this discussion. What is less at issue is the need for more “work-integrated learning,” a broad category that can include everything from formal co-op programs to one-year internships, to more course-based experiential education. Universities such as Queen’s have invested heavily in recent years in creating programs and opportunities for our students to learn the lessons (some of them hard) of entrepreneurship and innovation. This will be a good thing, as long as there is sufficient supply of graduates also prepared to go into business, industry and the non-profit or public sectors – not everyone can or should be an independent entrepreneur.

But what about the needs of business and industry at the more advanced level? At a recent meeting of the U15 group of universities, a number of STEM industry leaders noted that there appeared to be a downturn in the production of PhDs generally and of PhDs in STEM disciplines in particular. However, the most recent numbers coming from Statistics Canada show that the number of PhD degrees awarded grew steadily between 2006 and 2013. That said, Canada falls below the OECD average with respect to the number of PhDs held – surely a problem if we are to be competitive in the global knowledge economy – and perhaps the reason behind the sense of a “downturn.”

Canada’s low number of PhD holders could be ascribed to a combination of factors including:

  1. the reduction in real terms of funding for investigator driven basic science research over the past decade;
  2. the sluggish academic job market, which, given constraints on provincial budgets (the primary funder of university operating expenses in Canada) and the absence of mandatory retirement, is not likely to change in the medium term;
  3. Canada’s poor performance in supporting business and organizations to embrace innovation as a strategy for growth. The cumulative effects lead quite simply to a drying up of the pipeline that leads from education to economic growth and global competitiveness.

University and business leaders agree that this is a problem, and it’s accentuated by the failure of many of us in academe to connect more closely with industry – not, I emphasize, to allow a private sector agenda to dominate research, but rather to make sure that prospective candidates for PhD are aware of opportunities outside the academy both before and as they progress to degree completion. It should be noted that academic/industry programs such as those offered by Mitacs have proven to be quite successful, but I wonder what more we could be doing to foster skills and career development through direct partnerships with industry. These would not be limited to STEM – banks and other businesses have needs for the critical skills that can be provided by PhDs in English or Political Studies – but I’ll confine myself to STEM here with a modest suggestion for a solution.

Universities and businesses could take a page from the playbook of Canada’s Armed Forces, who have been producing their officers for decades through a combination of teaching them themselves (for instance at Royal Military College in Kingston) or subsidizing their education at other institutions. In return, they get an agreed-upon promise of years of service post-degree.

What if we extended that model to the doctoral level? Businesses and industries could either individually, or as a pool, provide four years of doctoral funding for qualified candidates to do a PhD at a research-intensive university, in return for, say, four years of employment at the firm afterward. This would solve a variety of problems at once. It would provide a badly needed alternative stream of funding for students thus enabling faculty to take on doctoral-level researchers in their labs. It would remove the problem of “what do I do when I’m finished”? It would ensure a steady supply of STEM PhDs in needed areas. It would seed businesses with managers who understand the importance of university-based research and what it can do for Canada’s economy. And it would help mitigate the most unhelpful and unrealistic notion that we in the academy have, that our PhDs must go into academe, must get a postdoc, etc., or else they have failed us and we them.

This alternative model for PhD training would need to be designed carefully. At the outset it would require that intellectual property considerations are addressed and that there is a clear understanding that the research to be undertaken is an academic requirement conducted under the mentorship of the faculty supervisor. Ideally, there should be opportunities for work-integrated learning woven into the academic program. Many programs are introducing such opportunities, and with businesses investing in supporting students they may be highly motivated to provide training that will complement the academic learning and better prepare PhDs to join the employer upon degree completion.

The current model of relations between business and the university, built mainly on patents and licenses, has served us all well for decades. But the world has changed, and we need as a country to raise our game and examine other models of integration. If we do not, we run the risk of losing the next generation of research leaders. Not just business, not just the university, but Canada as a whole will be the poorer for it.

Daniel Woolf is principal and vice-chancellor at Queen’s University.

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  1. David Seljak / March 30, 2017 at 09:04

    What happens if the doctoral candidate happens to discover information that seriously hampers the ability of the sponsoring corporation to maximize its profits? For example, let’s say a medical research PhD candidate discovers that a sponsoring corporation’s new wonder drug is dangerous or ineffective. Wouldn’t this arrangement limit the ability of the candidate to make and publicize a fair and objective assessment of the drug? Are they going to be forced to choose between academic integrity and employment–or even the cancellation of the company’s funding of their education?

    I thought Universities Canada argued that the university’s autonomy and distance from government and business guarantees academic freedom. Surely the same applies to young researchers.

    • Daniel Woolf / April 1, 2017 at 10:53

      A very legitimate issue which, like other aspects of intellectual property and academic autonomy, would need to be carefully worked out with any sponsoring company in advance, and in detail.

  2. Ted McCormick / April 2, 2017 at 12:49

    It is possible to imagine a scenario in which industries pay for researchers’ training merely on the condition that the researchers work for them once trained, regardless of the context of their academic research. But that kind of arm’s-length relationship is not at all the direction that university-industry partnerships seem to be taking in the here and now. On the contrary, universities seem ever more eager to take their cues from the whims — or the perceived whims — of their corporate and political betters in more invasive ways.

    So I’d like to echo David Seljak’s concern, and add that the danger is hardly hypothetical. Consider the university imprimatur given (and, despite the acknowledged conflict of interest, not withdrawn from) John Aylen’s 2015 report on asbestos, conducted under the auspices of Concordia’s John Molson School of Business and reported widely in Canadian media. Now imagine for a second that Aylen’s post or his research project had involved — as it easily might — graduate researchers. Perhaps they could have looked forward to several years’ employ shilling for the asbestos industry on the strength of their “academic” work. Would that be a good thing for academia?

    Even if we’re just talking about pegging numbers of PhDs to private-sector support, that is bound to mean reduced support from within universities for other things — especially for the kinds of things that most depend on the distinctiveness of universities’ mission for their existence. If PhDs in finance and tech are paid for externally, how do you justify spending money on the humanities (beyond basic literacy and reasoning, which we are assured is important even in business)? How do you justify spending money even on areas of STEM that are less interesting to employers?

    At issue here isn’t just the (very real) problem for academic freedom that unforeseen findings might pose for individual researchers, but also the larger questions of how, by whom, and in whose interests research is directed and supported in the first place — matters of academic freedom and of faculty governance.