Supervising industrial PhD students: On the edge of practice and theory
Nothing is quite so practical as a good theory
Kurt Lewin, psychologist and social scientist (1890-1947)
Is research really of any relevance?
As university professor in business marketing, I often meet managers and practitioners who critically question the relevance of research and theory. They might express the view that professors and academic scholars have no real sense of the practical world, yet how to commercialize a new product or run a business. I equally often encounter peer-researchers, who do not share my passion for studying and interacting with business practice, who see no reason for research and theory to be practice oriented.
Co-creating theory and practice
In the broad research field of social sciences, this dichotomous discussion is a recurrent theme, where many, as I, argue for the benefits of theory and practice to mutually inspire each other. I consider myself an applied researcher, studying and researching how to solve practical (business) problems by engaging in co-creation with practitioners and other researchers to deepen our understanding of ways to encounter practical problems in innovative ways. This opens an avenue for the development of theory.
The Industrial PhD programme: A playground for both theory and practice
One type of co-creative process, one specific meeting point between theory and practice, which I find rewarding, occurs in industrial PhD projects. As an industrial PhD student or doctorate, you complete your PhD thesis in close collaboration with a company or organization. Your research is supervised and evaluated on equal terms with traditional PhD projects, and you are enrolled at a host university, depending, off course, on the rules and regulations of the home country of the university. As supervisor, I have the pleasure of being part of several industrial PhD projects financed e.g. by Innovation Fund Denmark jointly with the host company or through the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement (No. 722012).
Benefits to both worlds
I see industrial PhD programmes as an ultimate arena for theory and practice to mutually benefit each other. Innovation Fund Denmark states at their website that: The company gets a candidate able to carry out a high quality research project and create results that can lead to commercial gain. At the same time, the company strengthens its relations to existing and new collaboration partners at the university. As an Industrial PhD doctorate, you get to combine your interest in developing new knowledge and the implementation of this knowledge in practice; if you visit the blog of Mercè Bonjorn Dalmau, you get a good example of this. And as the supervisor at the university, I get the great experience of taking part in research which is relevant for practice and has a practical impact.
Supervising on the edge…
In successful industrial PhD projects, the doctorate and hosting company/organisation have daily, or at least regularly, interactions which lay the ground for developing the mutual appreciation between theory and practice. While bringing rewarding experiences, being an industrial doctorate may also lead to some (personal) challenges, as explained nicely by Louise Brennan.
Being an academic supervisor includes engagement in this process; it might be directly in meetings or joint events with the company, or indirectly by advising the doctorate on his or hers interactions with practice. In my experience, interaction with practice allures doctorates, since you are part of a direct interaction which provides immediate response. This is in contrast to the often slower, thoughtful and lonely research process of reading, writing, submitting papers and waiting for (critical) reviews, which essentially then just asks of the doctorate to start re-reading, re-writing and re-submitting a new (and improved) version of the paper. However, balancing on the edge of engaging in practice and developing your research simultaneously is very important. And as a supervisor to industrial PhD students, I take my role in this meeting point between theory and practice very seriously.