Industry-based doctoral student with one foot in the forest, the other in academia, and an ear to industry


Photo of Karin standing in the forest.
Photo credit: Fredrik Melin

Karin Westlund has always been interested in mathematics and describes herself as a a bit of a ‘country bumpkin’. So she felt right at home at Skogforsk, where she has also been an externally employed doctoral student studying at Uppsala University in the subject area industrial engineering and management for two years.

Let’s take it from the beginning: What is an industry-based doctoral student? A doctoral student at a higher education institution who carries out most of their research where the student is employed. And you don’t need to be employed by a company. Karin Westlund is currently an industry-based doctoral student working at the research Institute Skogforsk, but she receives her doctoral supervision and studies third-cycle courses at the Department of Civil and Industrial Engineering at Uppsala University.

Karin Westlund originally studied engineering physics specialising in applied optimisation at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm.

“I have always been interested in mathematics in some form or another and worked in different industries. But now I have come back to something that suits me down to the ground and that is forestry. Probably because I’m a bit of a country bumpkin at heart,” she laughs.

From forest to industry

At Skogforsk, the Forestry Research Institute of Sweden, Karin Westlund works with forestry questions.

“We work with questions about the forest and forest management and transport to industry,” she says.

Karin Westlund is focused on timber supply, from the felling of the tree until it lands in one of the industries that use the timber.

“It’s a rather complex chain. We have a lot of variations – everything from the fact that the properties of individual trees vary to the fact that the weather varies from day to day and impacts whether it’s possible to transport the fresh timber to the industry. A lot can happen on the way from the forest to the industry.”

AIMday was the how it all started

So how did Karin Westlund become an industry-based doctoral student? The idea of doing a doctorate has always been there, but it was sheer coincidence that it happened just then. A colleague took her to AIMday, the Academic Industry Meeting, which is an activity established at Uppsala University as a tool for collaboration between academia and organisations and companies in the community.

“Skogforsk is actually located very near to the University, so we just trotted over to check it out on this particular AIMday. It provides the opportunity to ask experts and researchers in areas other than your own about the problems you are encountering, and so I did,” says Karin Westlund.

Some time after she had attended AIMday, she received an e-mail from Uppsala University asking about a collaboration that would later lead to her becoming an industry-based doctoral student at the Division of Industrial Engineering and Management.

Optimisation and simulation

The project that Karin Westlund works with is about how best to get trees from the forest to industry. On the way between the forest and industry, lots of things can happen. A big part of the work is about planning, while also having in mind how different things can affect this planning.

“There may also be several things that we need to optimise for, such as reducing costs as far as possible. It’s like a control system where the levers are set, and my part is to give suggestions to decision-makers on how those levers should be set,” says Karin Westlund.

“The most interesting thing about the project is combining simulation models of reality with different optimisation goals,” says Karin Westlund.

“I hope that we will be able to use this in forestry, because not many have done so before. This is particularly important now that it is more difficult to plan and predict due to climate change,” she says.

Fun ‘getting down and nerdy’

“The most enjoyable thing about being an industry-based doctoral student rather than an ‘just’ an employee is the courses,” says Karin Westlund.

“I can really ‘get down and nerdy’ in programming and maths, it’s great fun,” she says.

The advantage of being an industry-based doctoral student is that Karin Westlund also always has an ear to what industry wants and she keeps up with what is happening there, too.

She doesn’t quite know yet what will happen in the future. She hopes to have completed her doctorate in three years’ time and she thinks that she wants to continue working then with her topic in forestry. Her advice to others who want to do the same is simple:

“Don’t sit back and wait. If you want to, you can,” says Karin Westlund.

Benefits for all parties

What benefits are there for the employer from having a industry-based doctoral student in the house? Karin’s supervisor at Skogforsk and Uppsala University answer as follows:

Lars Eliasson, supervisor at Skogforsk:
“We see this as an important way of increasing the skills of our employees and the organisation, and as a way of keeping us up to date with new research methods to further develop our own research.  Doctoral student projects also generate contacts with university researchers, which makes it easier to find the right partners in future research projects.”

Amos Ng, supervisor at Uppsala University, Department of Civil and Industrial Engineering:
“Thanks to the industry-based doctoral student’s position as a 'bridge' between academia and a company for example, we have direct access to an activity and its data. This makes it easier to convert real-world problems into relevant research questions. An industry-based doctoral student can see more clearly why certain research questions are more important than others and also see opportunities for applying the research results within the activities of their employer.”

Agnes Loman


Last modified: 2022-06-27