Universities and
Commercial Research


This note was included in the preface of my PhD thesis, and thus primarily reflects my experience as a PhD student at QUT during the 1990s. It should not be taken as necessarily applying to all universities, although I suspect it does apply to many, probably most.

by Jason Robert Carey Patterson, Feb 2001

I have included this note because I feel it is important for the people in high places within the university system to understand how the PhD system is failing its top students, and industry as well, in fields where student research has definite commercial potential.

It has become increasingly obvious to me, during my PhD, that the current PhD environment in Australian government universities is totally incompatible with commercially viable research. In particular, any PhD student whose work has genuine commercial potential is currently pressured to drop all commercial aspects of the work in order to fit into "the PhD system".

This PhD system is basically geared towards people who want to become teachers at universities, not people who wish to do research with a commercial aim. In fact, the system almost forces students to take up teaching and tutoring, thereby railroading them into academia (which the current system clearly does – just look at the statistics). The wider community does not perceive a PhD as a teaching-oriented qualification at all, but the university system seems to deliver only that version of the PhD "product".

In a commercially oriented field such as computing, it is essential that the PhD system allows its students to pursue the commercial aspects of their work if they wish to do so. If the system does not allow for this, then many of the good students will simply choose not to do PhD's at all, or to drop their PhD's during candidature (as was very nearly the case with me) so they can pursue the commercial viability of their ideas. Indeed, there is already a substantial trend in this direction both here in Australia and overseas.

If commercially viable research is to be allowed within the PhD system, I believe that...

  • Students should be allowed to take time off to pursue the commercial aspects of their work during the PhD program. This time off might need to be many years in some cases. This should not be seen as a bad thing – it should be actively encouraged.
  • Students should not be pressured into submitting their dissertation early and then perusing the commercial aspects later, because this gives large international competitors access to all their ideas, dramatically reducing any hope of commercial success.
  • Students should not be pressured into publishing research papers, thereby reducing the chances of commercial success in the same way as submitting the dissertation early.
  • Most important of all, PhD students should not be forced to choose between getting the PhD and getting the money on the commercial side. This is clearly what is happening at the moment, and it is simply forcing people to drop their PhD's and choose the money.

In my opinion, the PhD system in Australia (and probably elsewhere) needs a dramatic overhaul if it is to remain relevant in commercially oriented fields like computing. A PhD is currently being sold as the natural progression after Honors for all good students, but it only fits this role for students who wish to become teachers. Anyone with commercially viable work in mind has no real place in the current PhD system.