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University-Industry Engagement Advisor
University-Industry Engagement Advisor
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Accelerate to Industry program

University-industry effort helps fill training gap among grad students

This article appeared in the January 2019 issue of University-Industry Engagement Advisor. Click here to subscribe.

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An extensive joint program between The Graduate School of NC State and several of its corporate partners is providing targeted programming for graduate students seeking a career in industry. Called Accelerate to Industry (A2i), it is comprised of several modules including Industry Team Practicum, Industry Job Search Strategies, Industry Company Site Visit, Industry Internship, and the weeklong Industry Immersion. The program is sponsored by industry partners; they also teach a number of the sessions, along with university faculty. Participating companies include BASF, Lord Corporation, Eastman Chemical, ABB, and Precision Biosiences.

“A lot of universities had been trying to move the needle,” says Laura Demarse, assistant dean for professional development and external relations for The Graduate School. “They know a vast amount of graduate students do not enter into the academic pathway; there are not enough tenured jobs. Many come in for advanced degrees [to prepare] for the marketplace.”

Demarse “looked around us” and saw there were some “little” workshops focused on grad student preparation for the corporate workforce, but they did not in her opinion move that needle. “I sat down with colleagues a couple of years ago and came up with a curriculum that had breadth and depth,” she says. The curriculum, she adds, was “completely informed and sponsored by industry. It was not us talking to students — industry came in and said ‘these are the competencies, the challenges, and where your skills can fit.’ The program basically addresses the training gaps in graduate education.”

The primary goal of the program, she shares, “is to help our students gain employment in industry, bridge the gap between experience in the lab and its transfer to industry. That path has not always been clear, because we [university and industry] talk about things differently.”

The second goal, she continues, was to work with the industry sponsors and help them see “the huge value added in partnering with a university, and how it works for them. The sponsors get to work really closely with the university — myself, the graduate school — and develop a really robust relationship.”

The approach seems to have been right on target. “The program is a different, and speaks to everything we value, and want to get out of a partnership,” says Nicholas A. Kraft, PhD, lead principal scientist and university relations program manager for the United States Corporate Research Center (USCRC) at ABB, Inc., which served as a sponsor in 2018 for the Industry Immersion Week and is engaged with the program. “For us, it gives us brand awareness — ABB is Swiss, and may not be a household name in the U.S.,” says Kraft. “Also, we’re cultivating the talent pipeline. We regularly target their students for internships, but we often have future staff decisions to consider. Of course we conduct national and international searches, but it’s nice if we can play a role in molding talent so it can come right to us.”

The research center, he explains is on campus at NC State, so there had always been a lot of interaction with the university. “Through normal channels of communication we learned about this program, but we wanted to learn more; it sounded really interesting,” he recalls. “Through discussions with Laura we ultimately decided to make this a priority for sponsorship and participation.”

Immersion Week ‘rules’

Of all the modules, says Demarse, Immersion Week is “the most well-done.” The 2018 session ran for a full six days. “We talk to students not only about the companies, but also the pathway to jobs and industry,” she says. “It’s a deep dive, almost like a boot camp where we talk with late stage grad students.”

The “transformational” program is completely sponsored by industry. “Every single day students interact with sponsors in a high-touch, meaningful way,” says Demarse. “These contacts were not previously offered to sponsors; we did career fairs and informational sessions.” Now, she adds, the hiring process is “more high-touch, with a higher degree of engagement, and the students are more discerning. We needed to create an environment that allows them to interact multiple times on multiple occasions.”

Generally, the sponsors will have a full day or half day for presentations. “Perhaps it will be a tech talk, a tech transfer issue, or a market evaluation; they present a challenge,” says Demarse. “There’s a Q&A career panel and breakout sessions.” From the talks to the challenges, she adds, they are all done “on a high level.”

“Ours was organized around a panel session where we brought in people who were primarily PhDs from ABB — researchers, line management, and various functions in the business units,” Kraft notes. “We talked about what it takes to succeed in an industry career — not only with a PhD, but also with ABB and other large multi-national companies.”

ABB also had two presentation sections, one about tech transfer — specifically ‘productization’ — and the different paths to commercialization with ABB. “These PhDs come from a research background, but at a university commercialization is not always a top priority,” says Kraft. “We opened their eyes not just to its importance, but we did it on a case by case basis. One was a prototype to external license and then a scenario of research to internal commercialization — we actually productized it. Both were educational for them, and made it clear that ABB has opportunities.”

The week also includes resume and CV reviews, headshots, research talks, and elevator pitches addressing a variety of different sectors. “Employers get in front of talent on the vine,” says Demarse. “We make sure the students are in hiring profile for all employers. Employers get a bio sketch in advance, so they know who they’re speaking with in the interview rooms all week.”

The event includes several networking receptions, the final one featuring a ‘boutique’ work fair.

Program is ‘a la carte’

Although the program is somewhat linear, Demarse describes it as “a la carte,” although you’ve got to be farther along in the program to participate in some of the offerings.

The job search, for example, can be taken any time. It is a half-semester non-credit course. The last session had 250 students. “It’s taught each week by a different industry sponsor,” says Demarse. “They discuss hiring, salary negotiations, and so on.”

Another module that can be taken any time is the company site visit. “A curated selection of students is invited to participate,” she says. “We get a company recruitment file, what they’re looking for, review our database to see who fits, and invite them.”

The selected students visit the facility, and the program includes a lunch talk. The selection process clearly was on the mark. “The last time we did it three offers happened,” says Demarse. “We’re not throwing things at the wall. We say to our partners, ‘Tell us what you need, and we’ll bring it to you. The students are prepped for the trip, so when they show up polished and professional, they’re able to engage the sponsors.”

The Research Practicum is also sponsored by industry, and always seeks to answer some kind of problem; it concludes with the presentation of a report. The interdisciplinary program can go from a semester to a year, and is open to graduate students and post docs.

Internships are also offered by the sponsors, some done virtually. For example, says Demarse, one Eastman program involved being mentored at a distance. “If you’re a PhD [working as an intern] is harder,” she says. “We’re trying micro-internships — a shorter, condensed period, like a couple of weeks.” While internships can occur at any time in the program, she advises grad students to wait until they’re far enough into the program so you have “something to offer.”

The only module the students must apply for is Industry Immersion; they must get a PI or an advisor to sign off on it and accept that they’ll be gone for the week. The program is also open to alumni, for whom it is free.

All participants benefit

Demarse says the program has been extremely well received, both on the university side and the industry side. “Students feel it’s the best thing they ever did; they think about themselves, and how they can have an impact on industry,” she says. “And all these are embedded skills they learn — how to manage a project, how to put together a budget. It allows them to articulate all the in-demand skills and close the training gap. It is unique and coveted; the sponsors come back year after year.”

ABB’s Kraft agrees. “I think it’s great. I’ve been here at ABB almost five years; I used to train students who were planning to be faculty members. Despite that, most of them went to industry. Most PhD grads at land grant universities will go to industry. We regularly have gotten very bright people who understand the tech area, and who have good communication of what they’ve done, but we’d often see them missing the big picture. Now they have to talk to people in business — product managers to sales, to marketing, to the IP council — a much broader audience.”

Part of that is just practice, he continues. Students who are involved in the program come out of it with a business acumen not commonly seen among new post docs, he observes. “We understand your research is important, but also what is the [business] case, what is the market — questions that typically do not arise in a PhD program,” says Kraft. “This A2i [program] is excellent at showing the communication differences for different audiences, and opens their eyes to the requirement to determine the needs for markets and customers. Having exposure to this helps you go at a much quicker pace from your start date [with a company] to where you can make meaningful contributions.”

How does that benefit ABB? “Our participation in the short term has seen really increased engagement with a number of student organizations at NC State,” says Kraft. “Typically a member is a chapter president of their society or organizes workshops for students in the greater Triangle area. We’ve had more opportunities to meet potential employees and interns. The longer we participate, we hope they will feed more directly into our pipeline.”

For NC State, “we have a close engagement with industry anyway, but industry wants to work with us,” says Demarse. “Since they’re housed in the graduate school there is ease of use — one point of contact. They can contact me and my team to manage their needs — who needs what, what lab — and take some of the legwork out for our sponsors. They love it.”

In fact, she notes, one of the sponsors has already reached out and wants to pay to sponsor a PhD student, then train and hire them. “It’s also good for faculty in terms of sponsored research opportunities; overtures have been made,” she reports.

Spreading across the country

When the program was launched in 2017, Demarse had a feeling it was going to be a big success, and she acted upon that feeling. “When A2i was created, we trademarked it because we knew it was special, and we started getting applications from graduates and post docs at other schools. We couldn’t give them a seat, but there is no reason their university couldn’t do it,” she relates. “They reached out to me on LinkedIn, and so on. Students are hungry for this — they want to have these kinds of experiences.”

So, as A2i gets ready for its third iteration this summer, it’s spreading across the country. “It’s now on a lot of major university programs; we’re hosting train the trainer in June on how to roll it out,” says Demarse.

The program is being licensed to the other universities for free. “We’re giving them all the materials, sponsorship documents, and tools to run the programs,” she says, noting that following the June 12-14 session the participants will leave with all the materials. “The University of Florida ran it this summer. It’s up and running, full of sponsors,” Demarse reports.

A program like this, she continues, “is really an imperative. We need to train graduates for jobs in a variety of sectors. We hope to have 50 institutions to train this summer, and we wish to ultimately be on all R1 campuses in the country.”

Contact Demarse at 919-515-0326 or ledemars@ncsu.edu; contact Kraft at 919-856-2456 or nicholas.a.kraft@us.abb.com.


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