Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Industry-Backed PhDs Don't Want to Remain in the Pool

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Industry-Backed PhDs Don't Want to Remain in the Pool

Article excerpt

Chief scientist at UK arm of electronics giant Thales says big business is frustrated at retention rates. Jack Grove reports

Getting big business to sponsor PhD students is often seen as a win for both industry and academia.

Corporations gain early access to some of the world's brightest scientific minds, people whose ideas might lead to new products worth millions of pounds; universities receive much-needed funds and get the chance to build a wider relationship with some hugely wealthy firms that are able to invest serious capital.

There are numerous other benefits for business - not least the opportunity to recruit top young research talent thanks to a sizeable investment in these individuals' futures.

But what happens when students decide that they do not want a career with the firm that has backed them for years? What if life in academia, or a fresh challenge altogether, holds more allure?

Hanging on to PhD students is a headache for many large companies that invest heavily in doctoral students, said Chris Firth, chief scientist (research and technology) at the UK arm of Thales, a French multinational electronics giant whose global turnover totalled about [euro]13 billion (£10 billion) in 2014.

"We support quite a number of PhD students - we have 50 on the go at any one time - but our retention of them is very poor," Professor Firth told a Vitae researcher conference in London on 26 January.

"We are only able to keep about 10 per cent - although 25 per cent will remain in academia as our friends, so that is a result," he explained.

Other major engineering firms have also faced a similar problem, he added.

"In Rolls-Royce, they get about 25 per cent retained in roles and 25 per cent stay in academia," he said, adding that the "rest are off to other places, often the City".

Thales still invests massively in academia: it spends about £520 million a year on research and development and triple that amount on customer-focused R&D.

Boards are asking, 'why invest?'

But many high-tech firms have started to question whether investment in PhD students is justified given the difficulty of retaining these researchers. …

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