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Academic vs. Industrial Research Jobs Jennifer Rexford My Story Princeton EE undergrad, UMichgan EECS grad school PhD on hardware support for communication in parallel machines Four summers working at AT&T in the research lab Two before grad school, and two during grad school

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My story l.jpg
My Story

  • Princeton EE undergrad, UMichgan EECS grad school

    • PhD on hardware support for communication in parallel machines

  • Four summers working at AT&T in the research lab

    • Two before grad school, and two during grad school

    • Grant from AT&T Research during graduate school

  • Job search at end of grad school

    • Interviewed for a mixture of academic and industry jobs

    • Ultimately, decided I preferred an industrial research job

  • Nine years at AT&T Research

    • Same department where I had been a summer intern

    • Enjoyed having real data, doing tech transfer, working with peers

  • Ten months at Princeton, and counting

    • Making the transition to academic life


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Choosing Industry Over Academia

  • Strategic aspects

    • Wanted to switch research areas, to data networking

    • Thought industrial experience would enhance research and teaching

  • Personal taste and experience

    • Enjoyed tech transfer and working on real-world problems

    • Wanted to focus exclusively on research work for a few years

    • Knew I really liked AT&T from my summer job experiences

  • Balancing trade-offs

    • But, I also wanted to do research, stay professionally active, mentor students, teach, and everything else academics do

    • Found I could do these in industry, in different proportions and ways

    • … though, with extra effort (and negotiation) to make room for it

    • This balance is arguably harder to strike in industry labs today


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Choosing Academia Over Industry

  • Personal growth

    • Ready to take on a new set of professional challenges

    • Felt ready to (try to) juggle a wider range of responsibilities

    • Feeling a little too “comfortable” in the technical work I was doing

  • Shift in research direction

    • Wanted to step back to do more “clean slate” research, building on the operational perspective from AT&T

    • Wanted ultimately to branch into some other research topics, and make connections across disciplines

  • Interaction with students

    • Found I was happiest in the summers, when students were around

    • Wanted more of an opportunity for teaching

  • Balancing trade-offs

    • Striving to keep my research grounded in reality, with extra effort


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What Does Industry Look For?

  • Hard question to answer

    • Differs across research groups, and non-research industry jobs

  • Some common elements

    • Subject-matter expertise

      • Knowledge of an important technology or problem area (e.g., a particular protocol)

    • Problem focus rather than technique focus

      • Emphasis on formulating and solving problems, moreso than applying a particular technique (“the nail, not the hammer”)

      • … though having your own special hammer is good, too!

    • Willingness to jump right in

      • Talk to practitioners, write code, collaborate with others, be a “hub node,” share your expertise, …


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Advice for Deciding What You Want

  • Getting to know your own personal taste

    • What kinds of problems you like to solve?

    • What part of solving a problem most excites you?

    • Working alone? Managing a group? Working with peers?

    • Focusing on one thing vs. juggling many things?

  • Keeping your options open

    • Selecting an interesting and important research problem

    • Worrying about whether you are working on the right problem

    • Acquiring domain knowledge, skills, and practical perspective

    • Interacting with industry, through collaboration and internships

  • Resist ranking either type of job over the other

    • Ultimately, the specifics of the place matter a lot

    • Some industry job may be better for you than some academic job

    • … and vice versa… no need to form a total ordering in advance


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Internships at Industrial Labs

  • Working with new people on new problems

    • Valuable complement to your PhD research

  • Figuring out what you like

    • Gives you a sense of whether you like industrial work

    • … and whether you like that particular company

  • Gives you an “in” for a full-time job later

    • Try before you buy, for you and the company

  • Enhances your thesis research

    • Access to interesting problems, domain knowledge, and real data

    • Opportunity to see your ideas applied in practice

  • Building your resume

    • Work experience and domain knowledge

    • Publications with other researchers


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Job Questions: Research Area

  • What government agencies would you target for funding your research?

  • What companies would use your research? Any small companies?

  • In what conferences/journals would you publish your work? How do these conferences/journals differ in the type of papers they publish?

  • Who are your "competitors" at other schools?

  • Is it possible for academic researchers to make significant contributions to your field, or are industrial technology and resources necessary?


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Job Questions: The Department

  • What would you consider as the weaknesses in our department?

  • Who here would you consider as potential collaborators?

  • Who would you consider as potential mentors in the department?

  • Which of our courses are you qualified to teach?

  • Which of our courses are you most interested in teaching?


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Job Questions: Teaching

  • Given that existing technologies and tools will be obsolete in a few years, what should we teach our students?

  • How would you approach developing a curriculum from scratch?

  • What is your teaching philosophy?

  • What do you think about having undergraduates serve as TAs?

  • If an undergraduate wanted to work with you, what type of project would you give them?


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Job Questions: Research Plan

  • What start-up funds/facilities would you need to establish your research?

  • How would you organize/manage your research group?

  • How many graduate students would you like to have in your group?

  • Where do you see yourself in five years? Ten years?

  • What would be possible titles for the first three PhD thesis projects in your research group?

  • What new courses would you create on your research area?


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Job Questions: Philosophical

  • How did you decide what school to attend for your PhD?

  • How did you choose your thesis topic?

  • What would you consider as your biggest weakness in starting a faculty position?

  • If you start having difficulty juggling the combination of research, teaching, advising, and proposal-writing, what would you do to fix the problem?

  • Do you have entrepreneurial aspirations?

  • Who would you most like to emulate?

  • What are your non-technical interests?

  • What factors will determine which academic/research position is most attractive to you?


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