Photo of students studying

Firm-employed PhD students have an important role in the innovation process

Firm-employed PhD students can be a successful approach to cooperation between universities and companies. Recent research shows how they contribute to the company's ability to innovate.

Photo of Karin Berg
Karin Berg currently works as a Research advisor in a collaborative project at Mid Sweden University.

In collaboration between academia and industry, companies can take part in new research and expertise in their field. The universities, in turn, get an indication of what research is in demand in the business industry. Firm-employed PhD students, or industrial PhD students as they are also called, are a form of collaboration. Karin Berg, University of Gothenburg, has studied the phenomenon. More specifically, firm-employed PhD students in engineering at a Swedish university. She has investigated how one becomes a firm-employed doctoral student, but also the work during the collaboration and the consequences of the collaboration.

 - Most commonly, supervisors at the university and the company take the initiative for the project together and hire a junior person who they think is suitable for the position. But it can also be an employee of a company who has identified a knowledge gap in the workplace and drives the process with a collaboration project. Some students write their master's thesis together with a company, and along the way are recruited as firm-employed PhD candidates, says Karin Berg.

Biggest contribution early in the innovation process

Firm-employed PhD students are not particularly involved in the company's product development. Nor are they known for finding new business opportunities or contributing to other things that are directly connected to the market. However, this form of collaboration enables them to become good at both identifying new knowledge and understanding which knowledge is valuable for the company. They do this by participating in strategy, technology, and personnel meetings, but also via informal discussions in open office environments. In this way, they learn which knowledge is relevant for the company.

 - They listen to problems and challenges that the company or the group has and can quickly come up with proposals for solutions, based on the skills they have gained in the PhD education. My research shows that they mainly contribute early in the company's innovation process, explains Karin Berg.

But there are examples of PhD students who also contributed later in the innovation process.

 - A PhD student had published an article in a research journal, and customers of the company had noticed it and contacted the company. They were interested in the skills that the firm-employed PhD student had.

Research in focus

Speaking of research articles, firm-employed PhD students, just like PhD students employed at universities, publish scientific articles, and participate in academic conferences during their education. Firm-employed PhD students seem to publish slightly fewer articles than the others. But when they are published, it is in journals with a slightly better reputation.

- It must be remembered that they undergo a solid academic education where they simultaneously gain knowledge of what is important for the company. And a consequence of the education is that their toolbox is richer and more useful in certain areas of the company than the one you get as a civil engineer. Firm-employed PhD students are an investment from the company's side as they contribute knowledge and skills both during and after their education.

Important with the right expectations

In collaborative projects between academia and industry, the expectations of the parties are often clearly laid out. The PhD student must focus above all on hers/his research and not be part of the product development team. Nevertheless, expectations may differ between companies. In order for smaller companies to want to participate in research collaboration, they would like to have specified, more than what the big companies want, what the PhD student's contribution to the company should be.

 - The company's goal is to secure future competence, to employ qualified personnel. For some smaller companies, the collaboration is something new, but in cases where the company is founded by researchers, there is often an understanding that the firm-employed PhD student's focus is precisely research. It is the cornerstone of this type of collaborative project, says Karin Berg.


Author and original article

This text is a translation of an ESBRI article written by Maria Gustafsson. Link to original article:

More information


Download dissertation
Exploring Firm-employed PhD students as a Form of Academic Engagement with Industry

More about firm-employed PhD students
A firm-employed PhD student, also called an industrial PhD student, completes hers/his doctoral education at the university but is employed and receives a salary through the company. They spend almost all their time at the university but are involved in the company's activities that are important to the innovation process.