Insights from an industry partnership PhD

Hayden Schilling, Sydney Institute of Marine Science

Working closely with industry professionals during research projects can be extremely beneficial for both researchers and industry. I recently completed my PhD as part of an Australian Research Council Linkage project between the University of NSW (UNSW), University of Adelaide and NSW Department of Primary Industries (NSW DPI) Fisheries. My research investigated the ecology of tailor (Pomatomus saltatrix), an important recreational fishing species in eastern Australia. Throughout my PhD, and after, I have viewed working with NSW DPI Fisheries as an incredible opportunity.

During my PhD I spent half my time with NSW DPI Fisheries—located at the Sydney Institute of Marine Science—and half my time at UNSW. I found these environments very different, which was hugely beneficial in terms of my learning and general understanding. Despite double the paperwork, stepping outside the ‘academic bubble’ (which universities are sometimes said to exist in) and working in an applied research environment driven by industry needs gave me a much greater appreciation for applied research. I personally found this a stark contrast to the university which I saw as having a broader theoretical focus.

As my PhD project was designed around ecological knowledge gaps NSW DPI wished to fill (growth and reproductive biology of tailor), I had some structure for my thesis from very early on and was able to hit the ground running and make use of existing data collection protocols within NSW DPI, including the NSW Research Angler citizen science program. I found this to be incredibly valuable in the later stages of my PhD when I had finished data collection and still had plenty of time to write. These core topics of growth and reproduction provided me with some structure to work with for my PhD while also having flexibility and time to explore other topics which interested me. I ended up exploring a range of topics including diet, juvenile habitat use and larval dispersal.

I think one of the most positive aspects of regularly working on site at NSW DPI was the opportunity to interact and talk to a variety of people which you are not traditionally able to access at university. All the staff at NSW DPI were incredibly nice and full of knowledge which I was able to draw upon. By simply being around the industry scientists and managers I was exposed to current news and an amazing depth of knowledge. I was also able to join additional projects, in the process learning skills which I would not have learnt at UNSW alone.

I found that one of the most challenging parts of an industry-based project was balancing the demands of both industry and the university. Industry-linked projects also often have more supervisors than a university-based project, which can lead to complications. I had five supervisors and was told early on that one of my biggest challenges would be to ‘supervise the supervisors’. This proved to be true and I was lucky that while not everyone had the same priorities, there were rarely conflicting opinions and I was able to lead my own project. I think by splitting my time between the university and industry site, I was able to manage the demands of both. If I had not been physically present at both UNSW and NSW DPI regularly, it would have been more difficult to successfully juggle. While sometimes challenging, I think the experience of balancing industry and university was valuable for me in developing effective communication and collaboration skills.

I now work as a postdoctoral research associate at the Sydney Institute of Marine Science, where I continue to work closely with NSW DPI Fisheries, linking oceanography and fisheries. I am also continuing the industry linked projects by co-supervising two honours students with NSW DPI.

For more information:
h.schilling@unsw.edu.au ¤

Read more from the June 2020 edition of the ESA Bulletin.