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Research with industrial focus

Research with industrial focus

Research with industrial focus

She never meant to become a researcher, but the combination of business and university life works well for Julie Dam Larsen, who has embarked on the third (and, according to plan, last) year of her industrial PhD.

She was actually ready to complete her biology studies and find a job. Julie Dam Larsen never dreamed of a career in research when she started her master’s degree programme at Aarhus University (AU). That was before she knew what an industrial PhD actually involves.

Julie is now on her final year on the industrial PhD programme and is therefore both enrolled at DTU and employed with Orbicon A/S, a firm of consulting engineers working with the environment, construction, and utilities. Here, she spends her time studying biological sludge treatment plants, which are constructed wetlands used for sludge treatment.

She became interested in this field thanks to a course on her master’s degree programme, and has been so ever since. Immediately before Julie started looking for a thesis topic, Orbicon had been in contact with AU because they were looking for a student for an industrial PhD project on biological sludge treatment plants. When Julie contacted AU and informed them of her intended thesis topic, she was presented with the industrial PhD project and decided to say yes.

The project changed—for various reasons—from being a collaboration between AU and Orbicon to being a collaboration between Orbicon and DTU. However, the academic aspects of the the project remained the same, and Julie therefore decided to complete her master’s thesis at AU and then change to DTU:

“I graduated in May 2013. By August, I had moved to Copenhagen and was already busy doing research,” says Julie.

Two worlds and a lot of planning
Nowadays, it is easiest to get a hold of Julie over the phone. As an industrial PhD student, she does actually have an office both at DTU and Orbicon—but also a very busy schedule.

Julie does not just spend her time on research, test tubes, and white lab coats; she also has to organize and plan meetings. She must plan how and when data can be collected from the involved treatment plants, and she has to hold meetings with customers, managers, and colleagues—at two very different workplaces.

“It’s quite challenging. You really learn a lot about organization, planning, and updating your calendar a thousand times a week to put the puzzle together. As a researcher, you’re also very much a kind of project manager—perhaps even more so as an industrial PhD student, because you are employed at two very different places.”

When you work at two different locations, you have to remember to visit both places regularly—if only to say hello, so that you stay in contact with both communities. But it also has clear advantages to be at two locations:

“The fact that it’s two different worlds offers a lot of possibilities, as I have access to two kinds of resources and two groups of colleagues. But with freedom comes responsibility, as there’s no one who keeps track of whether I actually show up or whether I’m on time; if I’m not at one location, my colleagues expect me to be at the other.”

Out in the real world
One of the most important differences for Julie between a traditional PhD and an industrial PhD is that she is helping to further develop a product—the biological plants. At Orbicon, she is an employee in a company which has employed her to conduct research into something very specific. It is a driving force for Julie and has made her think differently:

“I’ve learned to not only view the project as purely research, but also as a product of financial value to Orbicon. It may sound tough, but if you want to do something for the environment, you also have to make something that can be of use.”

Julie is in no doubt that her research will be put to use. She appreciates the close contact with the business community and hopes to land a job with Orbicon, when she has submitted her PhD thesis. The industrial PhD opened a door to industry for Julie. Soon, she will again be gathering data among rushes and treatment plants and gather data.

“I like to do field work—in my job you cannot sit and and hide in the lab!”

source : Technical University of Denmark

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