Industrial PhD: Harder to Publish?

Industrial PhD: Harder to Publish?

While doing my PhD, I often wondered at those theses where a student managed to publish 4-5 times within only 3 years. However, after some digging, or explanatory talk if I happened to know the student in question, I almost always encountered some sort of trick.

Sometimes the research was quite repetitive (same kind of experiments changing one compound), sometimes it was “salami” (that is, the dark art of slicing a publication into several). Others had the luxury of having done the background work during Masters years. There were also cases of very well-organized research departments with clear objectives in mind (very, very rare), and of course collaborating with post-docs.

The last one deserves some explanation. If you are second author in a publication, but the first one already has a PhD, you can use that publication as part of your PhD work. Considering that post-docs are more experienced than PhD candidates, being some of them real publishing machines, this may be considered a great strategy.

The problem is, how do you get into collaborative projects? One would think that working in direct contact with a university, a research institute, a utility and a consultancy gives you some advantage in networking. Truth is, it does help with the networking, but that is not the same as publishing.

Utilities and consultancies are not interested at all in “high impact journals” or “research index”. Their interests lay elsewhere (money). Which is not so different from academia, is just that they have a different method for getting money in. It was clear to me from the beginning that the heavy weight of publishing was going to be carried by the academic part of project. This is relevant because, regardless of how beneficial an industry placement is (and I can say, it is VERY beneficial), at the end of the PhD I will be judged mostly for what I have published.

What are the advantages then, from the point of view of publishing, of spending 2 years out of three within industry walls? Well, wastewater research is, or should be, strongly directed by industry. Research has to respond to the needs of society and aim to be applicable. This is done by looking at what the sector needs. In that line, my industry supervisors make sure that my research stays focused in the sector needs, and that it will be of interest to practitioners.

But writing papers is a craft which practice resides generally in academia. Besides, journals have their own interests such as raising their impact factor and getting citations. Meaning that the publication process is not always as “fair” and clean as one would expect, since papers coming from an academic environment have more chances to be picked up and cited by other academics. Finally, it is much harder to find the collaborations I mentioned earlier in the non-academic sector, where publishing is not a priority.

All in all, I find that working in Industry has made me, undoubtedly, a better scientist and a highly skilled professional. However, it is not making getting my PhD any easier. I fully support the TreatRec philosophy of changing the current paradigm of graduate students to researchers that i) are more apt to be directly enrolled by the industry and ii) do research that is directly guided by practitioners. But it is important to make a call to thesis evaluators and emphasize the value of multidisciplinary work, rather than citations and journal indexes.