Dr Marian Iszatt-White explains how PhDs can add real value to businesses

10 February 2017

High-level research belongs just as  much in the corridors of the workplace  as it does in universities. In a world where collaboration and the impact of research matters more than ever, Marian Iszatt-White explains how organisations can take advantage of new attitudes and more flexible offerings. 


The doctor of Philosophy degree or PhD has a traditional look to it. Taken over three years by research students who live and work as part of an academic community, it culminates in a written thesis of 80,000 to 100,000 words. When it’s done, there’s the matter of the forbiddingly named viva voce interview to discuss the work, clarify any confusions and discuss what the next steps in the life of the researcher might be. In short, the PhD is an apprenticeship for learning how to carry out research of the highest quality.

First and foremost it’s been used as an entry ticket to becoming an academic. But all those high level research skills, that concentrated period of analysis, the new insights into complex areas, the potential for innovation and solutions to age-old problems - aren’t all of these things of value to businesses and other organisations? To put the issue into context, the annual spend on management consultancy globally is over $250 billion, a figures which is currently growing at more than 4% a year. Research in universities in general is changing due to the nature of our funding regime, dominated by the Research Excellence Framework. In 2014, for the first time, research in UK universities was assessed explicitly in terms of its impact - its effect outside of academic circles, economically, socially, politically, culturally, on the nation’s health or the environment. The value of impact in terms of the funding formula alongside other factors is to grow for the next assessment in 2020. So while research in the LUMS universe – which includes four doctoral pathways in Business & Management, Economics, Accounting and Finance - has always been focused on real-world relevance and impact, the changing focus of the REF has sharpened attitudes to what research is really for. One positive outcome has been increased motivation for engagement with industry and other organisational partners to ensure there’s more collaboration and integration. The end result? Research that matters; businesses that benefit.

Opportunity Knocks

On the surface, the idea of formal PhD study working with the demands of a career doesn’t add up. But there are an increasing number of ways in which PhD research can be made to work very effectively for employers. Around onequarter of all PhD students at LUMS are people in employment who are studying part-time, who don’t want to take the route into academia but can see the long-term value to themselves and their business from the commitment involved in doctoral study. Over time we have seen how more organisations are becoming savvy to the value of homegrown expertise and are thus investing in their own research capability. Why appoint consultants for a project when you can use your own talent, with their pre-existing base of experience and knowledge of the business; when the skills and experience gained from the research can be kept inside the organisation?

Part-time PhDs, which take between four and seven years to complete, are being made more accessible for more people. That’s being done through more flexibility in how the taught elements are delivered. While in the past the fundamental research skills and methodologies would be provided as regular weekly sessions over an entire term - not so practical for an employee based in another part of the country - there are now blocks of concentrated sessions over a two day period, as well as more online materials and support. The aim here at LUMS is to make more of the benefits and resources for full-time PhDs available to the part-time researchers.

Employees often make the best PhD students. Generally they tend to be more mature, have more experience to draw on, and are very clear in terms of why they’re researching the particular topic and what they want to achieve as a result. They’re also more motivated and need to be, as it’s often a case of juggling the demands of home, work and studying. Research topics also work best when they are closest to day-today job roles. This complementary approach, the practical experience and challenge of academic thinking sparking off each other, tends to lead to a more streamlined research process and highly effective outcomes. It also means a shorter commitment of time, more likely to be closer to four than seven years. The flexibility on timeframe is important however. Life can get complicated - as people get married, have children, get promoted, relocate - and part-time PhDs include the flexibility to deal with periods of change.

In terms of funding, the LUMS studentship awards are specifically for full-time students but research councils are supportive of applications from part-time students and are committed to ensuring that part-time students compete on an equal footing with full-timers. There are some scholarships which can work particularly well for part time students. For example, more organisations should make use of the Collaborative Awards in Science and Engineering (CASE) scholarships, which actually have quite a broad remit including the social sciences. These are PhD studentships part-funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. They’re business-led, so it’s the organisation that comes up with an issue of core importance to its future development and success. The university finds an appropriate (and outstanding) research student who works within the organisation itself for a minimum of three months to explore the issue in context. Costs are shared, with around two-thirds being covered by the ESRC-funded scholarship.

Beyond the part-time PhD there are other higher research options. There’s what’s known as the 1+3, one year of taught Master’s degree which provides the basis of research skills before the research is undertaken. This MRes can be taken on its own without the PhD and provides the kind of fundamentals that are of real value in industry for robust information-gathering and processes of analysis for the range of areas: for HR in terms of staff surveys, monitoring performance and productivity, for marketing analytics, and so on. In Accounting and Finance, LUMS has developed an integrated version of the 1+3 that integrates the taught skills element alongside the research programme.

Doctors make a difference

More complex markets demand more sophisticated knowledge, and PhD research is an effective way of providing in-house expertise. While the traditional route of fulltime study leading to a final thesis continues, the emphasis is always on an ongoing process, continual learning, insights and recommendations. It’s not like waiting for the finale of a whodunnit. Students are expected to write up their work as they go along, formulating and re-formulating their ideas and its practical applications. The subject matter has to be right, has to have the weight and potential to justify a longterm investment of resources, and it’s the job of the host research institutions to make sure there’s the right potential. But the same benefits are available to organisations of all sizes - LUMS works with PhD students from across a wide range, from small businesses to the Bank of England.

The PhD has kept its value and has prestige both for the individual employee and the organisation involved in backing them. Given the level and kudos involved, this kind of research also often forms part of Corporate Social Responsibility activity, a platform for addressing larger issues in the sector that affect wider society or the environment.