A STEM enterprise training programme: Connecting doctoral student talent to industry

Jane Coughlan
Imperial College London

The STEM enterprise training programme incorporates industry retreats that are designed to create opportunities for postgraduate research students (PGRs) to participate in enhanced professional development through interaction with industry. This links to research that spotlights the provision for enterprise education for postgraduates particularly in STEM - Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (Smith et al., 2014; Turner and Gianiodis, 2018). The programme’s participants are involved in a range of practical activities aimed at networking and knowledge exchange, creating impact in industry from research, working on innovation and idea generation, receiving advice and developmental support through observations and feedback from industry, particularly on how to transform academic ideas into real business innovation.
The training programme was conceived as three industrially themed 2-day retreats for PGRs along the broad themes of materials, health and innovation. Retreats were held at locations across the UK with industrial relevance to the theme and proximity of local companies. The two days were structured to incorporate experiential activities that allowed students to pitch their research in front of an industry panel, Q&A session with industry panel members, company tours, business masterclasses and team activities around idea generation.
In total, 50 PGRs attended the retreats representing 90% of the total number of departments within the university. On average, nine departments were represented at each retreat across the three faculties, which made for a highly multi-disciplinary mix. The gender split was 56/44, slightly weighted towards males. The participants were divided into three teams at each retreat and mixed by gender and discipline to promote different perspectives and enhance the team dynamic. Across the two days there were 25 industry representatives drawn from 14 different companies.
An evaluation was conducted post-retreat with a follow-up survey 4-6 months later that repeated some of the relevant questions from the post-retreat evaluation to assess whether knowledge has been sustained or put into practice and make broad comparisons. The response rate for post-retreat feedback was 88% and the follow-up response rate was 48%.
The post-retreat evaluation revealed that the strongest impacts from the programme’s learning outcomes were that 89% of students were able to self-assess and develop successful communication skills for innovation, ideas and influence; 82% were able to recognise impact and create pathways to impact in industry; and 73% felt they were able to assess industry requirements and use appropriate communication strategies.
With respect to the industry (experiential) activities on the retreats the strongest impacts were where 82% of students found the pitching competition a good test of their ability to present to industry; 75% were satisfied overall that the activities and the course content were a valuable use of their time; and 71% found the activities prepared them to engage with industry. Overall, 80% of students would recommend the retreats to others and 75% felt that their confidence in applying these skills had increased.
The follow-up evaluation 4-6 months later revealed that the impacts from the programme’s learning outcomes were still consistent and high over the longer term. Some of the learning outcomes were rated more highly than six months ago, for example, where students felt that they were able to Identify and participate in impact activities for their research and for industry challenges. There was a consistency in rating on learning outcomes, for example, students on the Health retreat felt that even six months on they could employ innovation / entrepreneurial skills and attributes. Similarly, students on the Innovation retreat felt that they could recognise the impact and create pathways to impact in industry and self-assess and develop successful communication skills for innovation, ideas and influence equally as well six months on.
With respect to industry activities the ratings, in comparison to six months ago, are broadly similar, for example, with the students finding the industry representatives beneficial to engage with, that the activities prepared them to engage with industry and they found the pitching competition a good test of their ability to present to industry. In particular, the students rated more highly that they were satisfied that the activities and the course content were a valuable use of their time.
The top three practices that the students implemented following completion of the programme in ranking order were: 1) made new connections with fellow students on the programme – this resonates with one of the reasons for attending the retreat, which was to meet researchers from other departments; 2) helped to inform research – this demonstrates a cross-fertilising effect that the retreat had for students in being able to showcase their research to industry via the pitching exercise, but also advance knowledge of their own area; and 3) focused job hunting – this shows a benefit in the students being able to target appropriate, or realise new companies or industry sectors.
Students were also asked if they felt that they needed further training to support their interaction with industry and the level of agreement was 96%, which shows that there is a need for these types of enterprise training programmes.
Overall the findings show that there is a strong demand for enterprise training amongst PGR students with a STEM background, which helps to develop our understanding on their specific training needs to support how knowledge and practice gained from such programmes can be embedded.