March 21, 2016, by Andrea Bristot

Spending time in industry during the PhD

Very often, successful achievements in industry benefit from extensive research work performed in universities – with whom industry can collaborate with on multiple levels, ranging from the sharing of knowledge to hosting complex, dedicated test rigs. Engagement between young researchers, with a fresh and comprehensive understanding of the underlying physics and mathematics involved in engineering problems, provides industry with a source of new ideas for the development of innovative projects. On the other hand, for researchers with relatively little experience of industrial environments this may, in some cases, reduce the effectiveness of the collaboration, for example through a focussing of the research work on aspects that are not strictly related with the industry project.

A useful approach to integrating the work of the researcher within the industrial context is to divide the project time between the university and the company. Ideally, the PhD student should spend some time with the company at the start of the project to jointly define the objectives and develop a strategy to address the challenges involved. The period spent in academia would then be used to analyse the problem and build-up an extensive knowledge on what has been previously done in that field, taking full advantage of the knowledge available at the University.

In my personal experience, the main source of knowledge in academia are the professors and colleagues within my working group, who contribute to pass on knowledge that has been built up through years of research, not only through papers and theses, but more practically with day-by-day collaboration, discussion, and follow-up of specific problems.

After an extensive analysis of the problem within the academic environment, a period within the industrial team can be beneficial by enabling the application of the findings to an industrial context. Whilst integrating within the team of the company also adds more “practical” points of view to the project. For example, how long will it take to perform a given task? Or how far from the real world are the results obtained for an ideal test case? All of this gives us a feeling that what we are doing is going to be used to improve and develop real parts of an aircraft, providing a strong link with the reality of the problem we are addressing.

Such collaboration with a partner company is leading me to better structure the project I am working on, by requiring me to carefully plan the expected times to accomplish the given tasks and by evaluating the applicability of what I am doing. Often, we tend to excessively focus on the single problem while losing sight of the bigger picture, which may well overwhelm the single problem itself. The experience within the working group of my industrial partner led to a better balance between these two aspects, with constant reality-checks on what I am doing.

Moreover, the team provides additional insights and suggestions while benefitting from my academic findings, so that an exchange of knowledge in both directions is possible. After all, I feel like I became part of two different working teams, addressing the same challenges in a different context, and providing a link between them.

The integration of the researcher in both the academic and the industrial working group appears to be a fundamental piece of the puzzle of industrial collaboration with academia. Chris Firth, chief scientist of the UK branch of Thales (a French multinational focusing on aerospace and defence) recently stated that industries struggle to retain students after their PhD, due to the generally low amount of time, on the order of few months, spent in the companies’ teams during the project. In my view, a nearly-equal balance between the time spent in the university and the time in industry would be ideal to maximise the collaboration between the two parts, although this would depend on the “technology readiness” of the project itself.

The INNOVATE project proved to be a great choice in terms of industrial experience, as flexibility and support was provided by both The University on Nottingham and the partner company in organising the secondments. The interaction with both sides led to greatly expand the knowledge and impact of my project, from the basic underlying physical principles of my studies to the perspective of industrial application.

Andrea is currently doing his secondment at Rolls-Royce Deutschland. The Company is supporting his project on Heat Transfer and Thermal Management for the Aero-Engine Core.

The Institute for Aerospace Technology is currently welcoming applications for a range of PhD Fellowships. These Fellowships are funded by the Institute’s Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions COFUND project, ‘INNOVATIVE’. For more information and to apply, please visit the University’s careers page.

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