A partnership between the 5 Western Australian universities is addressing key industry challenges with multi-disciplinary teams of PhDs – and producing outstanding results. As importantly, it has provided over 100 PhDs with pathways into industry roles in the last 4 years.

iPREP WA was established in 2014 as a partnership of all universities, coordinated by Edith Cowan University (ECU). The program involves interdisciplinary teams of PhD students working on six-week projects for industry, government and community partners. The teams focus on solving real commercial and community problems.

Projects range across development of new product ideas, new ways of using existing products, evaluation of current service offerings, and prototyping and design.2018 projects included using data science to increase the efficiency of fertiliser use efficiency, and optimizing the sniper precision agriculture system for grain growers, to optimizing wetland performance of future treatment technologies; and developing environmentally sustainable solutions for sequester carbon using hemp.

Over the last 4 years, 128 PhDs have worked on 44 projects for 36 organisations.Industry feedback highlights the value of the program and confirms their willingness to engage further with universities after involvement with iPREP. Multiple companies have participated more than once in iPREP and have engaged in other activities with the universities such as PhD scholarship programs, and linkage grants.

Cinglevue International has used iPREP WA for three projects to provide innovative solutions within the K-Tertiary education space. They employed two iPREP teams on contracts following the program, and employed three former iPREP participants to work as research scientists.Michael Garrett, the Head of Research and Innovation at Cinglevue says that “iPREP can provide an effective and low-risk pathway for bringing new employees into the organisation, where we get to see how a particular student functions within our working environment prior to potentially recruiting them as an employee.”

Recently-completed PhD students focus solely on the industry project itself, giving the companies access to experienced and highly-skilled researchers. Both groups contribute to a stipend for the PhD students and to program management costs, with in-kind and financial grants provided by the WA State Government.

Through the program, PhD graduates apply the skills developed in their PhD, such as problem-solving and critical thinking, to a range of disciplines and industries outside academia. iPREP breaks down the perception from industry that PhD graduates are overly specialised and lack key skills required for the workplace such as leadership, communication, teamwork, and business acumen. Participant feedback highlights the career benefits, with PhD participants offered employment with their organisation post-iPREP; one group of PhD students has even started their own business.

Dr Peter Binks, CEO of BHERT, praised the iPREP initiative: “At a time when the structure and value of a PhD is being questioned, the Western Australian universities have demonstrated an exciting new approach.iPREP is the only established program in Australia using multidisciplinary teams of PhD students to work on industry-defined real-world problems. This has clear benefits to universities, students and industry.”

Original article published in the Business Higher Education Round Table (BHERT) e-news: