Ph.D. in Industry: The First Year

Editor's note: This is one of four stories describing the experience of Dutch Ph.D. students working in both academia and industry. In the second instalment, Edwin Zondervan, nearly 1 year into his Ph.D., tells us about his STW-supported project. Technology Foundation STW is a semi-state-controlled organisation that stimulates technical-scientific research and practical implementation of the results. This is a translation of a Next Wave article in Dutch.

A couple of times a week, I cycle from the university to "my" pilot plant--a water treatment system in Enschede's surroundings--which I use to do membrane filter cleaning experiments. I'm a first-year Ph.D. student working on a drinking water project ( OSMO) at Twente University in Enschede, the Netherlands. Together with two other Ph.D. students, I am trying to figure out how the use of membrane filters can be optimised for the production of drinking water and how this can be done in connection with chemical purification of water . It's a collaboration between Twente University and Technology Foundation STW on the one hand and several industrial partners on the other.

When in November 2003 I started my research at the Process Dynamics and Control Group, I didn't really have a clear career plan in mind. What I knew, however, was that I wanted to get more involved in this particular field, which I first got a taste of during my M.Sc. project. I wanted to find out how knowledge of advanced modelling and optimisation and control techniques--which draw on maths and electrical engineering--could be used in chemical technology.

Doing a Ph.D. seemed the right way to achieve this, from the positive stories I had heard from other Ph.D. students and graduates. They'd had the chance to deepen their knowledge in a specific subject, something an engineer working at production level, for example, is not able to do. In addition, the academic environment was appealing to me for combining an international setting, a good deal of independence, and many responsibilities. To me, the idea that my results will actually be used in the real world carries quite some responsibility with it.

A Foot in the Door

I've never been specifically looking for a Ph.D. in industry. While I was still doing my M.Sc., I just started looking for any Ph.D. position that seemed interesting. The main criterion I used to select potential projects was my interest in the subject. With this in mind, I found several interesting national and international projects on the Internet. I got in touch with Elaine Martin of the Centre for Process Analytics and Control Technology at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. We exchanged several e-mails, and although I never applied officially, she told me about the standard application procedure. It involved filling in a long questionnaire, arranging two letters of recommendation, and proving my English language proficiency, by taking the Test of English as a Foreign Language.

In addition to these extensive procedures, there was something else that held me back: In the United Kingdom I wouldn't get a salary, as opposed to the situation in the Netherlands, but would depend on a grant. Meanwhile, I had also applied for a Ph.D. in a large petrochemical project at the Control Systems Group of the Technical University of Eindhoven. I was invited for a job interview, but I declined, because I got yet another offer that I couldn't turn down.

The fact is that I had put out a feeler for a Ph.D. position in the department where I was doing my M.Sc. Brian Roffel let me know about a position that was going to be available within his group and later invited me for an interview. It became clear to me then that they especially admired the communication skills I had honed during my activities as commissioner intern of the student association. This--in addition to the fact that my professor knew he could rely on me--was probably what made them choose me over two other candidates.

I didn't think twice before telling them "I will." It didn't bother me at all that this project was industry-supported. It might sound contradictory, but I think an ideological argument had the greatest influence on my decision: I wanted to work on clean water for everybody, with or without industry.

Out Together, Home Together

It felt as if I stepped into a new phase of my life. Perhaps I should also mention that at the time I was living with my girlfriend, who wanted to do a Ph.D. as well. We wanted to stay together and therefore made all our choices together. We both made our wish lists, compared them, and found out that, luckily, Enschede was on both of them. So it all turned out really well, and, as it happened, I even had a job before graduating as an M.Sc. student, whereas my college friends needed a whole lot more time to find something suitable.


Twente University is my direct employer, but STW finances three-quarters of the project, the rest of the money coming from the industrial partners. Among them, the water supplier Vitens plays a major role, also providing the pilot plant for my experiments. Another partner is Aquacare, which provides the chemicals. Each partner obviously has its own interests in the project; Vitens aims to implement the techniques and methods that we develop to produce as much water as possible at the lowest possible cost, whereas Aquacare is mainly interested in checking the effectiveness of its chemicals.

This team effort makes good communication skills of great importance, as we need to convey information in a way that is meaningful to everybody. Once every 6 months we have a so-called users' meeting, at which all parties are represented and all three Ph.D. students present their progress.

My project is supervised by the university, where I regularly have brainstorming sessions with my professor and the other two Ph.D. students who work on the project. These meetings are far more technical, as this is when we tackle any problem arising in the project. As an example, I found it difficult to know where to start my project, because there were hardly any useful publications about the modelling of chemical cleaning in membrane filters. It was much clearer to me once we, all the Ph.D. students and our supervisors, had put our heads together.

The difference between academia and industry becomes obvious when it comes to putting up and signing a contract. The commercial partners go really deep into legal details: "Who gets which property rights?", "What can be published and when?" and "Who supplies what?" are some of the questions that concern them, whereas the university is mainly interested in the scientific content of the project. During one of the first users' meetings, one partner--who has left the project--brought a whole army of jurists to defend the company's interests. These types of phenomena make "commercial" a rather nasty term.

On the other hand, I have the impression that the partners I'm currently working with are not so commercial. They possess a great deal of knowledge, to which I have unlimited access. Both Vitens and Aquacare are willing to think along with the project and to work towards innovation. So underneath the "commercial face" of the project, the heart of all partners is definitely in science and innovation.

The Future

Even though I've hardly started in my career and it might be a little early for any crazy plans, I slowly start to wonder what I want to do after graduation. There are a number of possibilities, but I would really like to have a position in a think tank at a foreign university. I would like to think about questions such as "How do I improve education?" and "What type of research can we do?" within a research group. However, working on a farm in Latin America also sounds appealing. I just don't know yet.

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