Academic Culture in Doctoral Education: Are Companies Making a Difference in the Experiences and Practices of Doctoral Students in Portugal?

Patrícia Silva Santos, Maria Teresa Patrício
International Journal of Doctoral Studies  •  Volume 15  •  2020  •  pp. 685-704

This article examines the experience and practice of doctoral students by focusing on different dimensions of the PhD socialization process. It addresses the question of whether university collaborations with businesses influence the experience and practice of PhD students.

The study explores the academic culture in the PhD process through the analysis of the experiences and practices of doctoral students in two groups – those without business collaborations (academic trajectories) and those with business collaborations (hybrid trajectories). Academic trajectories are seen as traditional academic disciplinary based doctoral education, while hybrid trajectories cross boundaries collaborating with companies in the production of new knowledge.

The article uses a qualitative methodology based on extensive interviews and analysis of the curriculum vitae of fourteen Portuguese PhD students in three scientific domains (engineering and technology sciences, exact sciences, and social sciences). The doctoral program profiles were defined according to a survey applied to the directors of all doctoral programs in Portugal.

The study contributes to the reflection on the effects of collaboration with companies, in particular on the trajectories and experiences of doctoral students. It contributes to the understanding of the challenges associated with business collaborations.

Some differences were found between academic and hybrid trajectories of doctoral students. Traditional products such as scientific articles are the main objective of the PhD student, but scientific productivity is influenced by trajectory and ultimately by career prospects. The business culture influences the trajectories of doctoral students with regard to outputs such as publishing that may act as a barrier to academic culture. PhD students with academic trajectories seem to value international experiences and mobility. Minor differences were found in the choice of topic and type of research activity, revealing that these dimensions are indicative of the scientific domain. Both hybrid and academic students indicate that perceptions of basic and applied research are changing with borders increasingly blurred.

It is important for universities, department chairs, and PhD coordinators to be concerned with the organisation, structure, and success of doctoral programs. Therefore, it is useful to consider the experiences and trajectories of PhD students involved with the business sector and to monitor the relevance and results of such exchange. Key points of contact include identifying academic and business interests, cultures, and practices. A student-centred focus in university-business collaboration also can improve students’ well-being in this process.

Researchers should consider the processes of interaction and negotiation between academic and business sectors and actors. It is important to understand and analyse the trajectories and experiences of PhD students in doctoral programs and in university-company collaborations, since they are the central actors.

This analysis is relevant to societies where policy incentives encourage doctoral programs to collaborate with companies. The PhD is an important period of socialization and identity formation for researchers, and in this sense the experiences of students in the context of collaboration with companies should be analyzed, including its implications for the professional identity of researchers and, consequently, for the future of science inside and outside universities.

More empirical studies need to explore these processes and relationships, including different national contexts and different scientific fields. Other aspects of the academic and business trajectory should be studied, such as the decision to pursue a PhD or the focus on perceptions about the future career. Another point that deserves to be studied is whether a broader set of experiences increases the recognition and appreciation of the doctoral degree by employers inside and outside the academy.

doctoral education, academic culture, university-business collaboration, PhD student’s trajectory
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