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Should You Commercialize Your Research?

Should You Commercialize Your Research?

  • Student Tips
Joanna HughesJun 6, 2016

While scholars pursue Ph.D.s for many reasons, the goal of making a contribution to the advancement of knowledge in a particular area usually tops the list of things people think about when contemplating this advanced degree. However, an increasing number of doctoral students are taking their research a step further by focusing on a different aspect: not just the act of undertaking research, but also exploring how to apply their research findings as solutions to contemporary challenges. If you’re wondering whether to pursue this path, consider the following pros and cons of making commercializing your research part of your Ph.D. plan.

The Pros of Commercializing Your Research
As we continue to push the boundaries of discovery, the potential for progress is profound. But it’s also not without its share of problems along the way. Knowledge is ultimately meaningless without innovation -- i.e., the means to affect the real world in a way that has value. In acknowledging why and how their research will be applied, Ph.D. students enter the fruitful new territory of invention as opposed to mere authorship.

Three inspired scientists looking at a substance discovered in a lab

A recent Industry and Higher Education journal article, Research Collaboration and Commercialization: The PhD Candidate Perspective, argues that the “fundamental goal of research-based higher degree programmes as doctoral degrees, is to develop independent researchers who are able to adapt to diverse workplaces in academe, industry and the professions.” In other words, not only are innovation and business compatible, but their intersection is the imperative.

It’s no surprise, then, that so many universities are throwing their support behind commercialization-minded Ph.D. students and accepting that it no longer has to be one or the other. Factor in a shortage of post-doctoral positions, and the benefits of producing Ph.D. students with real-world knowledge and transferable skills suitable for entrepreneurial and industry jobs are amplified. An added advantage of amping up your knowledge in the area of tech transfer? While Ph.D. degrees have not typically been requisite for most jobs, they can help distinguish one candidate over another by indicating rare and sought-after excellence in your field -- particularly for candidates with the business acumen and market understanding to go along with their degrees.

The Cons of Commercializing Your Research
While commercializing your research can lead to invaluable outcomes, doing so can be easier said than done -- particularly when you consider the inherent differences between academia and industry. While the primary agenda of the former is to determine how to make an original contribution to the world’s knowledge, the primary agenda of the latter is to make money.


Unfortunately, this can lead to a chasm of understanding between the two without the proper mediating entities. According to a PLOS Computational Biology journal entry, Ten Simple Rules to Commercialize Scientific Research, “When these worlds collide there is a need for intermediaries and translators to ensure a common understanding and successful path from research to commercialism.” The takeaway? While cultivating new understanding is an essential part of any Ph.D. student’s research, those looking to commercialize must be able to find common ground with business people who can help guide their understanding of the market.

Spend too much time on understanding the commercialization element, however, and you risk going off track and/or compromising your publication schedule -- particularly if your commercialization plan isn’t aligned with your PI’s goals.

Not to mention the tricky territory of patenting and IP. Who owns your research output? What are your rights as researcher and inventor? Most academic institutions own the research of their students as part of their basic employment contracts. However, most organizations also share the proceeds from research and resulting inventions with the employees who made them. It follows that finding a university which doesn’t just tolerate but supports the commercialization of research can be a critical part of promoting successful scientific collaborations.

One last thing to keep in mind? While the business market is production-led, scientific research by nature usually works according to a different schedule. If your research is guided entirely by intellectual curiosity without a direct perspective into its commercialization, you may find yourself with amazing findings...and yet no market. And while it is possible to create a market, it will cost you time, money and skill.

Ultimately, while the commercialization of research may not have been the historic domain of Ph.D. students, the overarching goal of improving the human condition through research is surprisingly in line with the transfer and commercialization of discovery. As a doctoral student, the more you know about the challenges and opportunities, the more prepared you’ll be to chart a successful course from research to commercialization and from invention to innovation.

Joanna Hughes

Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.