To the Academic who is Interested in Industry

Being an academic, I love research. It’s not that I love research, I really love research. Give me any data set and I will spend months studying it, trying to uncover how that data forms and if I can predict it. Collecting perfectly-formatted data gives me a kick with today’s kinds of data analysis libraries. You can practically whip up any flavor frequency distributions in under 10 minutes! Insights and research galore!

That being said, I couldn’t imagine life without investigating and solving open-ended and messy problems — that’s the reason I went to graduate school. But have you heard those stories about how scary and difficult graduate school can be, and how stressed out students get and how it can actually ruin lives? I’m incredibly lucky to say that this was never me. Of course, the luck comes from having the most fantastic, supportive, and inspiring advisor I could imagine. But it wasn’t all luck. I simply did exactly what I loved and made sure I stayed surrounded by people who shared the same sentiment (but that was easy with my advisor’s contagious passion for astrobiology). I took advantage of every opportunity that crossed my path because I wanted to make my experience in grad school stellar. It is, after all, what you make it to be, much like many things in life.

It was already obvious that I wanted to continue to do research in big-data-generating systems after completing my PhD. But the question was if I absolutely had to stay in academia to do that. Could I do research elsewhere or was it simply not possible? Or worse: what if I could do research outside of academia, but only in something that I wasn’t interested in… like semiconductors, ugh! (nothing against semiconductors, they’re just not my jam).

And then there’s the articles on Facebook. The blog stories and the news articles highlight that people are leaving academia because there simply aren’t enough jobs to go around. Just look at all the articles you can find at this one page alone. Being someone who is always thinking 5 years ahead, this was enough to illicit concern. Perhaps I should find places to do my academic work outside of academia, was my forefront thought.

Then one fateful afternoon at an annual APS 4C Meeting, I met the founder and CEO of a local quantum sensing technology group. For about a week prior, I had been toying with the idea of starting my own AI business — nothing serious, mostly daydreaming while sipping beer. But I decided to probe his thoughts on the intersection between academia and industry anyways. After all, using my research skills to build products that people use to improve their own lives has always sounded kind of exciting to me.

I asked things like “Why did you start your company? How did you do it? Do you hire PhDs? Do you like what you do? Do you have any advice for me if I wanted to go into industry somehow?” And to be honest, his answers totally disappointed me! For starters, he said he hates hiring PhDs because grad school makes students lazy (although I could sympathize a tiny bit with this one… I did know some really lazy PhD students, but there are plenty more hardworking ones!). Instead, he hires fresh BS graduates who are used to jam-packed schedules because they are primed on the deadline-mentality. Then he said he was always miserable. His knee was always hurting from 18-hour work days and never went to the doctor for it (he walked with a cane). He advised me that I am probably crazy if I wanted to start a company so don’t do it. If I wanted to go into industry, I should be prepared to be miserable.

What doom and gloom! Although, I suppose I wasn’t too surprised to hear these things in an academic setting. After all, I don’t often hear positive tones about industry in academic settings (excluding interactions with my advisor, who has always been supportive of everyone’s passions no matter what those are). That same year I went to a career panel as a part of a complexity science conference. Naturally, most questions were about the difficulty getting a tenure-track position. “How do you think the prospects of being tenured are for today’s PhDs?” Short answer: Not good, but do what you love. I asked a question along the lines of “Say someone wanted to go into industry. Can you still be involved in the research community?” Short answer: Once you get out of academia, it is extremely difficult to go back. Universities look for professors who can do research on top of heavy loads of teaching, generally.

Quite simply, I just didn’t like the answers I was hearing. And I didn’t like a lot of what I was hearing about the prospects of staying in academia either. Every year, there are less and less post doc positions available and more and more PhD graduates. Professors aren’t retiring. Pay is decreasing. Scientific funding is shaky. “But it’s all worth if it you’re doing what you love” you will hear some seasoned professors say. I guess, but I like to eat and someday I’d love to own my own house. Also, I have this massive pile of student loan debt just hanging around, waiting to get paid off. I want security and stability and I don’t know if I’m going to get that from staying in academia. I’m certainly not saying that people who are/stay in academia don’t have job security, it’s just not enough for my personal taste. Success means different things to different people.

I like the old saying “The quickest way to have something done is to do it yourself.” But I like my own version: “The easiest way to form an opinion is to try it yourself.” So that fall, I decided to apply for some internships. Gotta try this myself right?

For starters, I cannot believe how incredibly positive my experiences with industry have been! At VEDA, I’m doing the same exciting things I would be doing in my spare time: Getting the perfect data to analyze. It’s exactly the thing I was doing as an academic, but with different data sets. And bonus: We are doing this for real-life clients who will use our hard work to positively impact lives! The CTO of VEDA holds a PhD in Astrophysics and did a postdoc as well, so he also came from an academic setting. Turns out, if you’re getting a PhD in something (especially something technical and scientific) then you most certainly have the potential to be wildly successful in industry! Not only that, but you definitely will not be alone as an academic. Working with other academics in industry is very exciting. Places like VEDA love PhDs because they’re precise, technical, and can think critically about how to solve vague/messy problems. In fact, VEDA is actively seeking out PhDs for this very reason. Imagine what a whole team of science PhDs could accomplish in today’s data-oversaturated world. Literally, the possibilities for massive, positive changes are endless.

So if you’re an academic, be careful on who is giving you advice on industry. You don’t want to become deterred from a future that you could really enjoy. Ask yourself: Had they worked at a company themselves? How long ago was it? Where did they work?

Personally, I don’t think it’s helpful to believe someone who says broccoli is terrible if they’ve never had it themselves. Every person is different and is entitled to form their own opinion about broccoli, or industry, or academia. It’s also worth considering how different industry is now than it was in the 90’s. Startups are being created by people that are close to your own age to make cool products that you could love. Did you know you could work for a company that creates memes? Or how about an AI startup that is interested in building augmented reality applications for your phone? Furthermore, each company has its own unique culture associated with them. When I did my internship at Microsoft Research in Cambridge, people said it was drastically different than Microsoft Research in Redmond and Microsoft Corporation in general. We had monthly movie nights, all-you-can-drink espresso bar, in-house fresh lunches, glass offices, and a frequently-visited xBox room. Google has a giant slide and an open bar. Riot Games wants you to take breaks to play League of Legends. Peoples’ experiences can vary wildly from company to company, to field to field.

The bottom line? If you’re curious to know about going into industry as an academic, check it out yourself! Get an internship and use it as a springboard to launch a career that you tailor for yourself. Be choosy. Start thinking about this as early as you can, because when the time comes for you to graduate, you want to be certain that you’re making a future that is right for you.