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 • 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
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
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
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, …
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
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
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?