Writing a Final Thesis with an Industry Partner

Update 1: Prof. Ludewig provides a clear account of the situation (in German).

Update 2: FAU provides a leaflet with common Q&A on “external theses”.

Occasionally, students approach me with a final thesis topic “provided to them by industry” and hope I will supervise them on this topic. In general, I am positive about such approaches. However, as a University professor I’m bound by the University and Prüfungsordnung rules and regulations, and this sometimes leads to misunderstandings with the student and the industry partner. So please let me explain:

According to the Prüfungsordnung, only a professor can provide a thesis topic and supervise the work. An industry supervisor is not a professor and according to the Prüfungsordnung an industry supervisor is not in a position to adequately assess a thesis topic and whether it is sufficient for fulfilling degree requirements. (A final thesis is considered an exam, a “Prüfungsleistung”, and examiner needs a permission to examine, the “Prüfungsberechtigung”.)

Typically, the thrust behind an “industry topic” is that a student is positioning him or herself for a job at the company. In addition, they are often paid for student work at the company. The Prüfungsordnung is also very clear on this: A final thesis cannot be paid work. A student who provides as a final thesis paid-for-by-industry work has failed the thesis requirements. The little blurp that students sign when handing in the thesis checks-up on exactly this condition.

Working with a company for a final thesis is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as no money changes hands. For a student, working with a company is attractive because (a) they get to know a possible future employer and (b) they may be doing something in a work context that is difficult to have at University. For a professor, having students work at a company is also attractive, as some research questions can only be addressed in a real-life context and hence there are benefits of having students study industry.

Thus, most professors are open to topics suggested by industry and may work with an industry partner to transform an industry suggestion into something that will fulfill degree requirements. It remains, however, that the student work that constitutes the thesis may not be paid-for work.

Students and industry partners then sometimes try to separate both: A paid-for student job and separate work for the thesis. The student job becomes the “example” and the thesis work becomes a conceptual analysis, research work, etc. I believe, however, that if one were to add up the hours that went into such an “industry thesis”, most students would fail to fulfill the 15 or 30 ECTS requirements for a final thesis. Thus, students are only on the safe side if they do not accept any money in the context of a thesis.

One thrust for the (for some) restrictive handling of final theses is that student theses are an important part of getting research done at a University. A professor typically provides topics that aid his or her research projects. Thus, having students “evaporate” into industry is an undesirable event. However, most students will never go on to get a Ph.D. nor is the quality of work that good that it would deliver a tangible research results. Faced with such a student, some professors simply decide to pass and not take on the student.