The rise of industrial PhDs

Recent social, economic and cultural changes brought about by the knowledge revolution have called into question the traditional role and function of higher education institutions. The ‘knowledge economy’ increasingly requires the acquisition of specific skills on the part of graduates to compete in knowledge-intensive labour markets.

Policy emphasis, exacerbated by the current economic crisis and high unemployment rates in many Western countries, has been placed on the need for closer cooperation between education and the labour market.

The aim is to improve youth employability and reduce unemployment, especially since at least half of PhD graduates in many countries – for example the United States, Germany, Australia and Italy – do not aspire to an academic career, nor to find employment in academia.

This has led to the emergence of ‘hybrid’ doctoral degrees, combining academic research with elements of practice, such as ‘professional doctorates’, ‘work-based doctorates’, ‘professional practice doctorates’ and ‘industrial PhDs’.

They all draw on the notion of ‘doctorateness’ – an elusive concept implying a specialisation in a disciplinary field as well as the ability on the part of graduates to apply scientific research methods with the aim of making a contribution to knowledge.

Other than this, however, these programmes have very little in common.

Different PhD types

Industrial PhDs in continental Europe differ not only from traditional PhDs, but also from professional doctorates (widespread in the United Kingdom and Australia) and from professional practice doctorates in the United States.

Traditional PhDs generally prepare graduates to pursue a career in academia. They are discipline-specific and they aim to make a contribution to knowledge.

Professional doctorates are directed at mid-career senior professionals. They aim to make a contribution to practice and they are organisation-specific and generally ‘in-service’, being mostly undertaken by people who have already entered the labour market.

Professional practice doctorates, which have become increasingly widespread in the United States, differ from professional doctorates in that they are generally ‘pre-service’ – being increasingly required by professional associations and agencies to enter professional practice. They are geared towards a specific profession and, unlike professional doctorates in the UK or Australia, they are not considered equivalent to PhDs.

Neither professional doctorates nor professional practice doctorates are known in continental Europe, where industrial PhDs, a variant of the traditional PhD, are the only kind of practice-oriented doctoral programmes available. Industrial PhDs typically feature in Nordic countries, in particular in Denmark and Sweden.

There are no common rules at the European Union level regulating the matter and the wording ‘European Industrial Doctorate’ refers to a specific EU programme launched within the framework of the Marie Curie Action, which consists of a joint doctorate developed between an academic participant (university, research institution and so on) and a company established in two EU member states.

Industrial PhDs

In the absence of common regulation at the European level, industrial PhDs have developed differently across countries in Europe.

In some cases, such as in Denmark and France, industrial PhDs are clearly regulated and defined either in legislation or in government-led programmes.

Denmark was the first country to introduce a three-year industry-focused doctoral project in cooperation with a private company, a PhD student and a university. In this case, the host organisation can apply for a subsidy from the Danish Agency for Science, Technology and Innovation to cover part of the wage intended for the PhD student.

In France, similar qualifications are called Industrial Agreements for Training through Research and are aimed at fostering public-private research partnerships. The firm hosting the PhD candidate receives three-year grants from the National Association for Research and Technology, on behalf of the state.

In Germany, industrial PhDs are not regulated by law, but rather on a case-by-case basis, despite 16% of all doctoral students every year taking up company-based PhDs.

Usually, businesses make available some in-company positions – mostly part-time – for applicants interested in pursuing an industrial PhD. Candidates apply for the position and go through a regular job interview and, if they are successful, it is up to them to find a professor who is willing to supervise their research project.

In other countries, such as Italy, industrial PhDs are only partially regulated. In 2013 the Italian government issued a decree – No 45 of 8 February – distinguishing, in name only, three different practice-oriented doctoral programmes: doctoral programmes in collaboration with companies; industrial PhDs; and doctoral programmes based on apprenticeships.

There are no further details about the first two, however, apart from their name. Only doctoral research programmes based on apprenticeships are well defined, as they have existed in Italian law for around a decade, although the legislation has never been fully enforced.

In this case apprentices, who – as in all the above-mentioned European countries – are employees rather than students, enter into an advanced level apprenticeship contract with their employer. Thanks to special agreements between the university and the employer, they are entitled to take leave to attend courses to obtain a doctoral degree at the end of the apprenticeship.

An interesting case in this respect is the International Doctoral School in Human Capital Formation and Labour Relations promoted by ADAPT in Italy, which over the last four years has granted around 248 scholarships due to a dense network of companies, employers’ associations and unions that made it possible to raise over €8 million (US$11 million) in scholarships.


This comparative analysis of apparently similar doctoral programmes combining academic research and practical experiences shows that the differences between various programmes are not only in name, but are rather of a legal and conceptual nature.

This raises a number of questions when it comes to understanding the quality and effectiveness of higher education programmes. In this light, further research in the field is essential with a view to identifying best practice that could be implemented across countries.

* Martina Ori is a visiting PhD student in the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at the University of California, Berkeley. This research was presented at the Center for Studies in Higher Education, UC Berkeley, in November 2013.