Study finds grad students benefit from industry/university collaborations

Graduate students find real value in research cosortia in terms of creating opportunities for career advancement and professional growth.

A new study has found that graduate students gain significant professional benefits from being trained as part of research consortia that bring together university and industry partners.

The study focused specifically on Industry-University Cooperative Research Centers (IUCRCs) that operate with support from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The research is part of a larger, ongoing effort to develop alternative metrics for measuring the innovation capacity of the U.S.

“IUCRCs are collaborative research centers that pull together industry and university personnel to tackle basic research questions in engineering and computer science,” said Olena Leonchuk, a postdoctoral researcher at North Carolina State University and lead author of a paper describing the work. “There are clear benefits to both industry and universities, but our fundamental question was: To what extent do graduate students benefit from being part of an IUCRC while in grad school?”

To address this, the researchers compared two groups of doctoral students. Students in both groups were matched for gender, area of study, immigration status, grade point average and age. The first group consisted of 173 students across 42 IUCRCs around the country. The second group consisted of 87 “traditional” students who were not affiliated with any research center. International students made up approximately 56% of both groups, which is consistent with national averages.

All study participants filled out a lengthy survey that asked questions about their social capital in the form of professional networks, training experiences, satisfaction with their graduate training and how prepared they felt for their careers compared to their peers.

“Overall, our study shows that doctoral students garner different professional benefits, depending on whether they receive traditional university training or center-based training,” Leonchuk said. “Students who are trained as part of these collaborative centers report feeling more prepared for their careers, more satisfied with their training and having larger and stronger industry networks compared to traditional students.

“There are numerous factors about these research centers that can explain this strong positive impact, but in my six years of being part of this NSF program’s evaluation team, I believe the unique structure of the centers allows all of its stakeholders to benefit from their involvement with the IUCRC program,” Leonchuk said. “This, in turn, manifests itself in a collaborative and open atmosphere, where students are exposed to a variety of opportunities to work in a team environment and tackle real-world problems, even before they join the workforce.”

Interestingly, a key distinction was shown for international students regarding their industry networks. While the researchers found that international students who are trained in the NSF centers still have larger industry networks than non-center students of any background, the strength of those networks is no greater than that of their non-center counterparts. At the same time, international students from both groups reported larger and stronger academic networks outside of the U.S. than their U.S. peers.

“It is hard to decipher why center training does not affect these outcomes for international students,” Leonchuk said. “On the one hand, the U.S. and international students may differ on some key training elements that were not captured by this study. On the other, it could be due to other non-training factors. For example, differences between individual U.S. and international students in their personal career choices, in their English language proficiency or in their cultural norms may affect the way students socialize professionally. Finally, specific U.S. immigration rules that limit international students’ options during and after their study may change their career paths and/or how they pursue them.

“This study clearly demonstrates that there is real value for students who participate in IUCRCs in terms of creating opportunities for career advancement and professional growth, especially in the business sector, where almost half (46%) of science and engineering doctorates find jobs after graduation,” Leonchuk said. “One next step is to look for ways we can build on these findings, perhaps finding ways to improve outcomes for international students and increasing the likelihood that we can capture that talent to contribute to U.S. innovation capacity.”

The paper, “Scientific & Technological (Human) Social Capital Formation & Industry — University Cooperative Research Centers: A Quasi-Experimental Evaluation of Graduate Student Outcomes,” was published in the Journal of Technology Transfer.

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