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Next January, I will start as an assistant professor in a respected university. My field of work is civil engineering, and I have diplomas (Masters, PhD) in the engineering studies (Hydraulics, Geotechnical, Construction, ...). What I lack, however, is an experience in the field since I have devoted my time to academia.

I am clueless as to how I could establish ties with the industry: consulting firms, labs, ... Many professors in my field are expert consultants, and are renowned in the community of engineers, even though their main activity is research.

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    This is just my opinion, but getting a PhD in engineering without working in the field is a bit like being an electrical engineer without knowing how to solder, or a mechanical engineer without knowing machining. Sure you can do it, but you are missing a huge part of your field. I don't think I'm alone in this, many schools won't allow you to teach engineering without having time in the field you are teaching. – Sam Oct 25 '17 at 20:19
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    @Sam But, it's certainly true that many new engineering professors at top research universities come straight out of academia without passing through industry. – littleO Oct 26 '17 at 7:27
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    @Sam, the kind of work that is expected from a professor is not the same as the work expected from an engineer. A professor is consulted as an expert. If you expect a civil engineering professor to be able to do the engineer's job, than you should ask the engineer to do the builder's work. – you-slamm Oct 26 '17 at 17:37
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    @Sam Generally the point of these programs isn't to have you ready to be productive in the field after coming out of school. The fields are too broad; instead they have to compromise by teaching a wide range of theory from professors who ideally are well versed in those theories. When you get into the professional environment, you still have to learn the specifics of your industry. You just have the background knowledge to be able to understand technical aspects of the profession. – JMac Oct 26 '17 at 17:45
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    @Sam An engineer can understand how to weld; but that doesn't mean they would be a good welder. The builders practice the application of the engineers design. The engineers practice the application of the professors theoretical knowledge. The professors provide the theories so that the engineers can come up with the procedures that experienced builders have to follow. This obviously isn't universal. Courses can have a more application-driven approach; but generally those courses come after the theory courses; or don't require extensive understanding of theory. – JMac Oct 27 '17 at 17:14
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First, Congratulations!

Second, I see you are in Canada.

The first thing you should do is join your local Canadian Society of Civil Engineering chapter. Become a member, and attend their events (this may include dinner meetings, speakers, tours, etc.). Talk to people: start with "Hi, I'm Dr. X and a new professor in Civil Engineering at the U of X, where do you work, what do you do?" Get to know the local executive of the CSCE, offer to do a talk about what you do.

Attend the CSCE conferences. There are many practitioners there who are presenting on their most technical and most research-y work. Get to know them, they might like to collaborate.

Next, make sure you are on the mailing list for the local chapter of your provincial engineering association. Go to their events. Offer to do a talk for them (at lunch meetings, annual events, etc.). They also likely host professional development workshops, another great way to meet practitioners.

At these events and though your colleges and students, find out which consulting firms do projects that are closest to your research area. Find people that work there at local engineering events. Great ways to get to know a firm as a researcher is "Hey, I am teaching a class on (insert topic here) do you have any interesting case studies I could use to illustrate (insert concept here)."

Finally, (as Mad jack says) in engineering programs in Canadian universities, students often must complete a capstone design project. Find out how your department handles that, and if you will be involved. Perhaps volunteer to mentor a group. Then at local meetings you can say "next year I will be mentoring some fourth years students doing a capstone project in (insert discipline here), do you guys have anything interesting coming up that would be suitable for a fourth year group to tackle?" Then make sure your students do a damn good job.

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One way, based on my experience, is to form connections through your students' internships. This gets you an "in" with the company, so that you can network and potentially collaborate.

For example, my advisor got invited to give talks at two of the companies I interned at. He collaborated on projects with both companies and even received funding from one of them.

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This is at core a question about networking, so the standard advice on that applies: meet as many people as possible, show interest in what they're working on, ask for introductions, and actively look for ways your expertise might benefit them. Be proactive and discard shyness.

To expand on Austin's great answer, you can search yourself for internships with related companies and bring them to the attention of students who might be interested. Many students are interested in internships, but don't really know where to start. If you have trouble finding related internships, you might consider cold contacting larger companies to help create internships--make a business case for why they should want to do it, then help them set it up.

You can also work with the career office at your university and get involved with recent grads looking for work. Connect with former students (on LinkedIn for example) and network through them both to help later students also find work, and to connect with companies you're interested in.

Additionally most major professional fields have meetups in major cities and professional organizations. Go to places like Meetup.com for meetups and google for professional organizations with conferences you can join. Get on as many mailing lists as you can, so that you can attend as many events as possible. Short of that, look for entrepreneurial and startup organizations where you can meet people with novel engineering problems.

You can also look for people to contact on the author lists for published patents or research papers from labs working on things you're interested in. Cold contacting people is scary and has a lower success rate per contact attempt than networking, but it can work. The pro is that it's something you can make progress on at any time whereas networking can only be done at meetups and such where people are available.

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Good answers so far (+1 to both). I would also suggest to leverage any interactions with your undergraduate students on their capstone / senior design project in those cases where the students seek out an external client.

At my institution, some students work on solving a problem for industrial clients that are located nearby, and I have gotten to know folks in these companies through co-advising student teams.

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I'm in the UK, so I don't know how it works in other countries. Over here though, we have various sources of government funding which give an incentive for academic institutions to work with industry. Funding is particularly geared to research into things which aren't currently widespread in industry.

The Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund invests in a few key areas. Civil engineering isn't really applicable to them, but other areas are.

More generally, Innovate UK has a raft of projects it's looking for applicants for, or you can apply for funding for your research if you think you fit their criteria.

And for European funding (which British academics can't get now - deep joy) there are Research Councils which fund research from EU budgets.

As an academic though, one of your problems is going to be showing that you know how to apply your theory to a practical problem. Industry doesn't care about theory, it cares about building things, and your "respected" colleagues have earned respect by understanding this. I'm sorry to say though that industry generally regards academics as ivory-tower amateurs - and that opinion is generally justified.

A personal example. One piece of opthalmic test kit my company produces was closely tied to research from two academics on "deskilling" the screening test they were taking. We worked closely with them, and assumed the tests they had designed were valid (we're software engineers after all, not opthalmologists). It was only when customers around the world brought up some problems that we had to go back to first principles. We found their entire methodology was so fatally flawed that any conclusions they wanted to draw from the data were completely invalid. Put simply, these senior professors who'd been important academics in their field for 40 years had no understanding of how to run an experiment.

In another case, we bought technology for improving the response of a nanopositioning system. The theory was (and is) compelling, and the academic concerned had data which backed up the theory. It was only when we integrated this technology into our systems and tried to reproduce his methods that we found none of his reports used the same circuit diagram twice, and the circuits he'd used didn't match the transfer functions in his reports, and even then we couldn't reproduce his results. We've been working with another university to try to figure out how to apply this technology properly, because it does look to have potential if it's done properly. So far we've had three postgraduate students look at it, under the guidance of a professor of control theory. None of them has had any kind of clue about how to run an experiment either, and we've had very limited useful data from them.

Can you do better than that? If you can, you have a chance. If you can't, then honestly you should quit your job and get some experience, because you're a hazard to the careers of the people you're supposed to be teaching.

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  • Industry doesn't care about theory -- Say what now? How do you innovate on a challenging problem if you don't understand the theoretical limitations of the state of the art? – Mad Jack Oct 26 '17 at 13:44
  • In civil engineering, the practice is heavily regulated, and the results are reviewed through replication studies by independent organisms before being integrated to the codes and regulations. We don't suffer from the replication crisis as much as other fields. – you-slamm Oct 26 '17 at 14:08
  • What you are describing looks more like cheating than plain incompetence. Sadly, this is a result of the "publish or perish" system, that pushes scientists to try and publish as much papers as possible, in order for their careers to advance. – you-slamm Oct 26 '17 at 14:13
  • @MadJack Industry cares about theory insofar as it is practically applicable and relevant. What matters is not the theory, but the ability to apply suitable theoretical understanding to solve that challenging problem. The theory itself doesn't have to be challenging, or even optimal - what matters is just that your system works (for some value of "works"). – Graham Oct 26 '17 at 17:28
  • @ysalami The second case, where we bought the IP, was very much like cheating. For the two opthamology professors, and for the control theory postgrads, it's more a simple inability to look at the product which we as a company are trying to put out, and see how their work meets that requirement. – Graham Oct 26 '17 at 17:31

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