Hedgehogs v. Quokkas: How doctoral researchers can engage with industry


For doctoral students and practitioners, collaboration can often lead to significant mutual benefit. In this insight, Vaseem Khan, Business Director at the UCL Department of Security and Crime Science, provides crucial advice for researchers on the how-tos and benefits of engaging with industry.

Before arriving at UCL, I spent ten years as a management consultant, working in countries such as India and China, before returning home, to the UK. Most of that time was spent working with two large organisations building hotel chains. I learned a lot about myself, about working with people, and about human nature. More importantly, I learned about the environment that drives businesses to continually strive for growth and innovation in a quest for greater profit, increased share price and/or greater public impact. Why is that important? Because many of our doctoral graduates will end up working for such organisations.

In the 16 years I have been at UCL – as the Business Director at the Department of Security and Crime Science – one of my fondest roles has been in initially setting up – then helping to run – the UCL Security Science Doctoral Centre (UCL SECReT).

It has been particularly pleasing to see many researchers from the programme go on to meaningful roles in the private and public sector.

Over the years, I have tried to guide researchers in some of their non-research activity, namely, how they might best prepare themselves for the task of engaging with industry. Although intellectually most doctoral researchers understand this is important, the idea of this sort of engagement often strikes terror into the hearts of many. I call such researchers hedgehogs. Hedgehogs are a beloved British animal that is incredibly industrious (most hedgehogs travel many miles each day in search of food) but also very solitary by nature. They prefer to be left alone to do their own thing.

At the other end of the spectrum we have our quokkas – apparently, the world’s happiest and most enthusiastic animal. These are researchers who are raring to get involved with industry and happy to pounce on anything that might help them in that quest.

I’ve worked with both types and the first thing to say is that a large part of this is predetermined. Some people are introverts and some extroverts. Some enjoy the challenge of going beyond their research, some want to concentrate on their core work.

There’s no right or wrong here.

I will however articulate the benefits I have witnessed over the years for those who have made incremental progress in this area, sometimes coming out of their comfort zones to do so.

Engaging with industry is important in several respects:

  1. It teaches researchers how to speak about their research to people who actually work in the field. That’s going to be incredibly important when it comes to doing job interviews.
  2. It gives researchers a better understanding of what’s happening in the ‘real world’ where their research will, hopefully, find some interest. This can feed back to help shape their doctorate.
  3. It makes it easier to find an internship if a researcher has built up a prior communication with someone from an organisation interested in their work.
  4. It looks good on a CV. Take two researchers with similar PhDs – usually the one that has been engaging with industry will find a more positive reception.
  5. It can offer a pipeline into a job after graduating.

There are various ways to achieve this engagement.

The first thing is to make the time commitment. Like everything else in life, if researchers treat it as a task that requires due effort they will get something out of it. If they simply think about it every now and again as a box to be (reluctantly) ticked, they will get corresponding results.

As a first step, the UCL Doctoral Skills Development Programme has various courses that can help e.g. Networking Naturally, The Writing Series: Crafting your Research Story, Empowered Interactions: How to Enhance Your Professional Relationships, Public Engagement as a Pathway to Impact, Marketing Yourself in Person: Non-Academic Interview Skills.

Conferences and exhibitions are also a good place to start working on networking skills. Most researchers find that people from industry (private or public sector) are not as scary to speak to as they thought, once they have broken the ice!

Events organised by our department, or at UCL, are another means of meeting industry representatives and speakers. Similarly, organising your own events and inviting industry or the public can be a great way of showcasing your work. Ditto with blog posts and articles about your research.

Mapping out organisations who are using the type of research you are working on is a useful exercise. Identifying and writing to individuals who work there should then be done with a specific goal in mind e.g. asking for a meeting to discuss a possible internship or for information about research questions that company is working on that might help reshape your doctorate. It’s also important to articulate ‘what’s in it for them’.

Having a business card is usually a good idea so that if you do get chatting to someone who takes an interest in your work you can provide contact details. Following up then becomes the key – and this can mean some persistence!

Lastly, it remains only to say that our researchers are consistently some of the brightest and highest achieving in the field and that’s why so many have gone on to such great roles.

Long may it continue.

Featured image by Matthew Crompton (see CC 4.0 license here).

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