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Grab Your Partner: STEM Connections Outside Academia

Important issues to keep in mind when considering a non-academic partnership to fund research.

November 13, 2014

Michelle Lavery is a graduate student of biology at the Canadian Rivers Institute in New Brunswick, Canada. She likes making friends, and has observed them making non-academic connections for awhile now. You can find her on Twitter @JMichelleLavery.

For many grad students, it’s very easy to get stuck in the academic bubble, since everyone knows the formula and it’s comfortable. Non-academic partnerships (research collaborations with industry, NGOs, or government agencies) are a great way to break out of the comfort zone, whether you’re considering joining a lab with a pre-existing partnership, or you are connecting for the first time. Either way, there is a lot to consider before jumping into a partnership—there are the obvious benefits, but they are tempered with cautionary tales and unanticipated limitations.

When you partner with industry, NGOs, or government agencies, the most obvious and awesome advantage is a new and relatively stable funding stream. I have government-funded labmates who get new toys to play with on the daily, and colleagues working with industry who are completely funded separate from their university stipend. A stable funding source can make or break some projects, and the sense of security that it provides can bring your research to the next level. No more relying on the sketchy sediment shaker in the back corner of the shed; no more MacGyver-ing a new piece of surveying equipment; no more haggling over pipette tip prices—that’s the dream.

Partnering with non-academic organizations can also be a healthy boost for your CV, since you may be privy to networking or co-op opportunities that your colleagues are not. A few months spent working in industry or partnering with a charity initiative can go a long way in today’s non-academic job market. The career pickings are slim, and any extra connections or opportunities can help you stand out.

Furthermore, the chances of your research intersecting with other disciplines are high when an outside partner is involved. It’s likely that their partnership goals are much broader than the often extremely specific objectives of a single research lab, and they’re probably involved with other students, labs, universities, and/or organizations. Opportunities to incorporate new perspectives into your research can be very valuable as multidisciplinary projects become more and more relevant.

At this point, a non-academic partnership is probably looking pretty good. However, it is important to keep a few things in mind before jumping into the deep end of a relationship outside academia.

It is vital that both parties are in agreement about the goals of the partnership. If your lab is already linked to a non-academic partner, this part of the puzzle has (hopefully) already been addressed. However, if you’re beginning a new collaboration, a conversation about goals, objectives, and expectations is crucial. This discussion will lay the framework for all future endeavors, clarify funding commitments, and elucidate timeline and final product expectations. Not knowing what each party expects from a partnership is a recipe for disaster, so make sure lines of communication are open and honest from the start.

In that vein, a key issue to discuss is that of Intellectual Property. Usually, given their financial contributions, the non-academic partner has access to whatever products your research yields. However, be sure you are aware of what this means for publishing results or filing patents, especially if there are incidental discoveries during the course of your collaboration. Depending on the nature of your partnership, the rights to your research may fall under a variety of laws or regulations. A full understanding of these is important before starting any research collaborations, so that when a final product or result is produced awkward situations can be avoided or mediated.

Similarly, you should be aware of the limitations that partnerships can impose on your academic freedom. For example, scientists in Canada who have partnered with various government agencies have recently been experiencing significant restrictions on communicating their research. Under mountains of bureaucracy and paperwork, Canadian scientists who are on the government’s payroll are extremely limited in what they are permitted to discuss with the media and general public—especially when their research deals with environmental issues. This is an extreme example; however, it is important to acknowledge what restrictions you may experience should you enter into a partnership with a non-academic organization. Whether it be red tape, muzzling, or nothing at all, make sure to be aware of what your partnership means for your academic freedom.

With that in mind, go forth and partner! Get that money, make those connections, and do that multidisciplinary research. Here are some grants to get you and your advisor started:

NSERC Engage



Have you partnered outside academia? Do you have any advice for those of us diving in the deep end of a non-academic partnership?

[Image by the University of Minnesota and used under the Creative Commons license.]


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