External involvement in PhD programmes might help to fix academia’s big problem
The problems with traditional PhD programs are well-documented: money is tight, funding is limited, academics often aren’t able to train for positions outside of academia, and the path up to tenured faculty positions just keeps getting narrower.
When Jane Osbourn made a shift from academic biochemistry into Cambridge Antibody Technology —a biotech company which later became MedImmune — she found the transition smooth. “I already came from a molecular biology background,” she says. “When I moved into biotech I could use the fundamental skills and techniques I developed in my PhD and postdoc in a more focussed way.”
Osbourn went on to be a part of the team that discovered the molecule that became Humira (adalimumab), an important anti-TNF antibody now marketed by AbbVie. Adalimumab was the bestselling drug in the world from 2012-2014, producing revenues of $20 billion in 2014. Jane is now Vice President of R&D and Cambridge Site Leader for MedImmune, the global biologics research and development arm of AstraZeneca.
MedImmune, alongside four universities in the UK, will soon be launching 12 collaborative PhD studentships, with the first intake due to start in October 2017. The PhD projects – whilst primarily funded by the BBSRC (Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council; one of the UK’s major funding bodies) – will focus on biopharmaceutical development with an emphasis on collaboration with industry. Students will have access to MedImmune’s facilities for their research, and their projects will be guided by MedImmune’s scientists, as well as academic supervisors.
“This is a great way to build an industry-academic partnership: it can have really significant benefits in productivity and manufacturing,” says Osbourn, who also encourages undergraduate-level “sandwich” courses with universities. PhD students, whilst well trained in their specific scientific field, often feel that they haven’t developed the right skills to make a transition outside of academia.
Compounding this problem, supervisors often aren’t able to offer students the support they need, as many have no personal experience in working anywhere other than in universities, and training on the university level is rare. Industry-partnered PhD programmes, however, may offer a solution for students hoping to improve their ability to do research outside of academia. “Understanding the business environment – what the key drivers are from a drug discovery and development perspective – is really fundamental,” Osbourn says.
And what’s in it for industry? “It’s always nice when the students you’ve trained come back to the company, but we’re not in it for the short term,” says Osbourn. “We really are in it to make sure we’re creating a talent pool for the whole sector.”