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Field Report by PhD Student Jonas Krieger

Research between Academia and Industry – Pursuing a PhD in the Automotive Supply Industry

Jonas Krieger

Field Report by Jonas Krieger. The PhD Candidate at FU Berlin works at one of the world's leading automotive suppliers.

“As an industrial doctoral student, you have the particular challenge of meeting two sets of objectives – those of the doctoral supervisor and those of the industry. You have to be willing to go the extra mile.”

Double track to a doctorate

Working in a company and doing a doctorate at the same time: The industrial doctorate (“Industriepromotion”) makes it possible. The university and company mutually specify the research topic, and the work is remunerated accordingly. This way, both the doctoral candidate and the company can benefit. At the end of the day, as every other researcher, you are solving a scientific problem. As with any dissertation, the sole right to award doctorates lies with the university.

A doctorate and professional experience at the same time is attractive – and rare. It is not exactly known how many doctoral students in Germany choose to work in a company instead of university institutes or research groups. There are certainly not too many. The German Academy of Science and Engineering (Acatech) estimates that engineering sciences, which probably make up the largest group of industrial doctorates, account for a single-digit percentage.

Before making a final decision, it is important to understand the differences between an academic PhD and an industry-supported one. Academic PhDs are usually more flexible, allowing students to refocus their research as they gain more experience in the field. Internal PhDs, i.e. doctoral candidates employed at a university, typically gain teaching experience by moderating lectures and exercises and supervising final theses of more junior students. Publishing their work or presenting it at conferences is a normal part of all academic programs. On the other hand, typically industry-based PhDs – where the company sponsoring the program usually has well-defined goals and deadlines – are part of the regular day-to-day activities within the company. So-called “university-external” PhD candidates work within their respective department while given the freedom to pursue their academic research. Most of the times, the access to relevant data is easier since the researcher is already working within the company, i.e. collection of relevant data is facilitated. In some cases, students have to sign confidentiality agreements preventing them from disclosing any information related to the project they are working on.

The advantages of such a doctoral dissertation are the close connection with the company: Almost all companies regard the industrial doctorate as a good introduction to research and development, as proof of self-discipline and leadership skills. If, in addition, the doctoral thesis matches the current vacancies in the research and development department of a company, the industrial doctorate often enables a career quick start into industry. For all those who do not intend to work in research after obtaining the PhD, the intensive contact to the company is very useful - especially with regards to the option of a possible future employment. However, the double workload can only be mastered with a lot of extra energy.

Make clear agreements with respect to the area of responsibility

On the other side, there are also drawbacks: Some companies like to involve their doctoral students for additional operative tasks in the departments. To ensure that these conflicts of interest do not collide with your research work, clear arrangements should be made from the beginning on.

Today, I work in one of the world’s leading automotive supply companies as a doctoral student in the area of driver assistance systems. My research interest lies in contract violations in interorganizational relationships, and determinants thereof. I applied in 2017, because I found the doctoral program of my employer very interesting, even at first glance – I was also encouraged by the fact that many PhD students work in the industry afterwards. I knew I wouldn’t be a lone warrior. Among 300 other company-internal PhD researchers, we meet to discuss our research approaches and organize subject-specific study groups or extracurricular activities. We also realize events like newcomer-meetups or PhD students’ conferences, where we present our research findings to interested colleagues. Besides regularly communicating with other PhD students, I consult with my professor at the FU Berlin and with my company-supervisor, to make sure I’m on the right track. I also have an experienced mentor from upper management by my side. I talk to him about things like career planning, work-life-balance and networking.

I find it particularly exciting to do my doctorate in the automotive industry, because the research here directly lays the foundation for the later management of strategic buyer-supplier relationships. The first couple of months I was fully occupied with getting into the matter. Although I had a solid basic knowledge, I had to concentrate on studying technical literature and learning the methodology. Meanwhile, I work independently and discuss my progress regularly with my university supervisor and knowledgeable colleagues at the chair of strategic management. In addition to the varied work and the pleasant atmosphere among colleagues, I particularly appreciate the opportunity to regularly participate in working groups, conferences, and workshops, where I can present my own results and discuss them with other researchers. This encourages innovative thinking and often helps to solve problems.

Balance the pros and cons

What I also find very appealing about working in such a large international company is the fact that, after completing my doctorate, I can not only follow the typical career path of a doctoral student, post-doc, working group leader, but also gain insight and contacts in other areas such as project management or agile transformation. The decision to do a doctorate in a company and not at the university is a very personal one. I think it is important to inform yourself sufficiently about the goals of the project and the necessary, at best already established, methods and conditions at each interview.

In addition, it makes sense to balance mutual expectations, i.e. how intensive do you want the mentoring relationship to be, what kind of workload is expected and do you get on well with your colleagues right away? The doctoral period is a work-intensive professional phase, so it was very important for me to feel comfortable in my environment. The university and my supervisor offer me the flexibility and freedom to work on my research while simultaneously always supporting me and steering the project in the right direction. So far, I can say that my expectations have been met and I am very satisfied with my decision. I can work on my research project freely and independently and at the same time feel very well looked after both professionally and personally.

As a member of the Doctoral Program in Business Research (DPBR), I am accompanied through my doctorate by team-based supervision and taught courses. The program aims to provide systematic research training for PhD students in business studies. The DPBR offers the central benefits of structured PhD program for students who are employed within the university e.g. as research assistants or are externally funded outside of other full-time PhD programs.

As with many things in life, before deciding which type of PhD is the best one for you, it pays to explore all the options, think about your personal and professional goals, and then weigh all the pros and cons.

About Jonas Krieger (author)

Jonas Krieger is a member of the Doctoral Program in Business Research at Freie Universität Berlin and is enrolled at the School of Business & Economics at “FU Berlin”. His employer is a professional partner in close collaboration with the university. As a PhD Candidate at the strategic management department, his research focuses on determinants of contract violations in interorganizational relationships. He is currently working on his doctoral dissertation on governance mechanisms in buyer-supplier relationships with a focus on contract violations in the automotive industry.

Dahlem Research School