Advice to Intersectoral PhD Students
Updated: Feb 10, 2021
Luis Fernandez-Luque, Dr
Co-Founder / Chief Scientific Officer
I decided to undertake a PhD in 2006 following an experience I had as a research intern in the ITACA research center in Valencia, Spain, led by Prof. Vicente Traver. During my time in Prof. Traver’s research lab we worked on multiple mobile health projects which involved engaging with different stakeholders including start-ups, hospitals, and academia. Following this experience, I embarked on a PhD in Tromso, Northern Norway, where I worked in a research institute, now called NORCE ('NORCE is one of Norway's largest independent research institutes, with more than 700 employees from around the world'), in a group led by Lars Vognild. During my PhD I was embedded in a large project called ‘The Tromso Telemedicine Laboratory’ with more than 10 PhD students all of whom were drawn from different types of organisations (Big IT, Hospitals, University, etc.). During my studies, I worked with many different types of organisations, from the US CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) to the Boston Children's Hospital. The intersectoral and interdisciplinary nature of my PhD project allowed me to be involved with patient advocates, hospitals, patient associations, entrepreneurs, etc. I was exposed to project management, leadership, science communication, etc. These are things you cannot learn in a university course, you need to learn hands-on collaborating with people with real-world expertise.
At Salumedia Labs, we have embraced interdisciplinary PhD programs from the beginning. Right now, we have eight PhD students who have joined us for part or all of their PhD studies. Three of them have since become full-time employees and are core members of the Salumedia Labs team. We continue to collaborate with many other past graduates.
I would like to give some tips for people who are planning to undertake an intersectoral PhD.
Why are you doing a PhD?
I have met a lot of people who started a PhD project and even after many years into it they had no idea why they were doing it. As you can imagine that is not very wise. You don't need to be 100% clear, but at least be sure you want to learn about research because you will need to be to apply the know-how and skillset you develop to your career.
If you are not 100% sure whether you want to become a Professor, having industry exposure in your PhD will help you to understand what it will take for you to work in another sector. You also need to know that finding a tenure-track academic position is becoming increasingly hard across the world.
You need to think about your career plans regularly to make sure that whatever you do in your PhD is helping you towards your next step in life.
Many people think that industrial equals distraction for your PhD, that is not true.
First of all, if you are in a company you will have many things which can distract you. If you are in the wrong company, you might not have time for your own research project. Likewise, you might end up in a research group where PhD projects are low priority and you end up doing many unrelated things (e.g., helping organizing conferences, supporting grants or projects).
If you are working on your PhD while working in a company, the timeline is most likely to be driven by the needs of the business. You need to make sure you continue to connect with the research/academic environment. I did that during my PhD by joining Prof. Gunnar Hartvigsen’s research group. I joined weekly meetings and key workshops. I also joined working groups in several scientific societies.
Think about your supporting environment
The key to making sure that your working environment is supporting you, is to find out whether the company or the academic institution has extensive experience in the area in which you want to do your project. If you are doing an industrial PhD you still need an academic partner. There are a few things you need to pay attention to:
Has your academic PhD supervisor worked with your company in the past?
Is your company familiar with PhD projects? Do they do their own research?
Is it possible to undertake a 3 year project in the company or do projects change every few months?