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Joe Dixon discusses his experience doing 'A Different Kind of PhD'

Joe Dixon writes about his experience of an industrial PhD.

4 May 2017

On nearing the end of undergraduate study, the choice of whether to pursue a PhD or apply for a job is a difficult one that confounds many a budding chemist. This is the situation I found myself in three and a half years ago. With a love for organic chemistry and a penchant for the biological, medicinal chemistry was where my interests lay. While I wanted to pursue a PhD, which I saw as scientific boot camp and the best training for a career in research, it irked me to put my eagerness to work in the pharmaceutical industry on hold. It was at this point that an opportunity presented itself that offered the best of both worlds and it has not disappointed.

Currently in its eighth year, the collaboration between GSK and the University of Strathclyde has produced a different kind of PhD programme; combining the scientific rigour, mental stimulation, and personal advancement that is fundamental to doctoral research, with an immersion in the real world situation of the modern pharmaceutical industry.

The programme’s roots lie in an idea devised by senior management within GSK to allow direct academic collaboration on business-aligned research programmes, leading to the submission of the outputs for assessment as part of a higher degree; thus allowing graduate chemists to focus on honing their scientific skills with a tangible, academically-recognised goal in mind. In late 2009, after this proposal had been thoroughly developed with the University of Strathclyde, an MPhil scheme was born. This very quickly expanded to a full PhD programme, giving scientists the opportunity to really delve into the intricacies of their research, and has since been extended past Chemistry to employees in Drug Metabolism and Pharmacokinetics, and Biological Sciences. In 2012, a new arm of the programme was initiated. For the first time, the Industrial PhD scheme saw postgraduate university students from outside the company embark on pharmaceutical research at GSK, on projects that were very much a part of ongoing investigations.

Participants on the scheme are often colloquially referred to as “Reverse-CASE” students, and for good reason. Industrial Cooperative Awards in Science and Technology (CASE) are well-established and provide the opportunity for university-based PhD students to be sponsored and co-supervised by industrial partners, and spend a minimum of three months working in industry. These have been very successful and have allowed many young scientists to get a feel for how science is done outside academia. The Industrial PhD scheme flips this framework on its head. Students spend the majority of their three and a half years in the industrial environment, with a similar secondment to CASE students, but instead that time is spent in the academic labs at Strathclyde.

The industrial setting brings with it many benefits to an emergent researcher, the most apparent being the availability of resources and the robustness of the established chemistry infrastructure that helps drive synthetic efforts forwards. But, more subtle than this, and potentially more significant, is the proximity to the vast collective knowledge of scientists from diverse fields; a chat over tea is often worth more than hours spent searching the literature. I’ve found an incredible willingness to engage from many employees I’ve approached, some of whom have completed, or are undergoing, their PhD as well. These encounters are often related to problems which are, by the nature of the PhD projects, a little bit different from their normal work and this seems to light that spark of curiosity that is quintessential of a person who has pursued science.

Many of the positive aspects of academia have been recognised and emulated by the programme. As a group, we engage in regular problem sessions, ensuring that we keep on top of the basics and get exposed to lots of different chemistry. Synthetic chemistry modules that build on our undergraduate knowledge form part of the continuing education provision and are delivered by leading academics from around the country, with similar training in the various aspects of the drug discovery process supported by in-house experts. In addition, very regular communications with our academic supervisors and their research teams provide crucial challenge and direction. The large presence of undergraduate industrial placement students can present opportunities for supervising and tutoring that are a constituent element of many regular PhD students’ days. Above all, the immersion in the subject that is so much a part of studying at a university is replicated simply by virtue of being surrounded by working scientists, with the added advantage that contact with people who have come out the other side of full-time study adds perspective to what can undoubtedly be a stressful time of life.

But the years spent working towards a doctorate are not just about gaining specific knowledge - they are also about gaining skills and confidence that are applicable far beyond the lab and figuring out what the next step is to be. In this respect the industrial setting is awash with opportunities and connections for those willing to look for them. A number of us, for instance, engage in scientific outreach activities, both at large events and as leaders of organised workshops in local schools.

When I applied to be a part of this scheme back in 2013, the programme was still somewhat of an unknown quantity, from an outside perspective. Since then, as many projects have come to fruition, there has been an explosion in scientific output, with awards for posters and presentations at national and international conferences, and multiple highly read articles in top journals. One of these publications was recently picked up for discussion in Derek Lowe’s “In the Pipeline” blog. With the quality of the science being produced, and its recognition within the community, the scheme is a thriving illustration of what can be achieved from open collaboration between industry and academia.

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