Grad School vs Industry Experience

graduation

I would have loved to read this blog post several years ago when I was still in grad school. Why? Pure curiosity. I’d like to share my experience from the two worlds: academia and industry. I have enjoyed them both, although in different ways; they encourage different work- and lifestyles. The post is fairly universal. Some observations, however, are inevitably influenced by my science/tech background.

Grad School

  1. Goal. Your main goal is to graduate. Period. Apart from classes and other lesser commitments, your focus is on writing publications that, eventually, lead to a thesis. The thesis shall be a coherent piece of writing. Having said that, you work within a very narrow area of knowledge. You rarely work on unrelated projects.
  2. Project flexibility. You have a lot of freedom when it comes to the topics you could work on. Just find something that is of interest to you and your professor, and you’re all set. Good professors are open-minded and full of ideas, so it’s not difficult.
  3. Tasks. I spent a lot of time on thinking, clarifying and sharing ideas, writing papers and paper reviews, attending talks/classes/presentations/conference calls, programming, traveling to conferences. In general, these are very intellectual tasks demanding a lot of focus and deep thinking.
  4. Work style flexibility. University labs tend to be small groups (<20 people). Collaboration in such an environment involves a lot of mutual trust between professors and grad students. Professors are too busy to micromanage each and every student. As long as you are self-directed, focused, and deliver work of quality, there is a great flexibility when it comes to how, when, and where you work. This is the most significant feature that I’m missing in the industry.
  5. Time flexibility. If you prepare publications, presentations, thesis, etc., nobody promises that working from 9am to 5pm is enough. In fact, it’s the opposite. In my last year of PhD I was working for the whole year 9am-11pm. It was my choice, it was enjoyable, but it was a lot of hard work. In the earlier years, I felt like I could go on a trip any day; it was up to me whether I work in the morning or in the night. Typically, however, I was doing research from 9am to 6pm. Free weekends and many vacation days.
  6. Getting your ass kicked. Any research idea and claim, that you express, will be criticized by others. In the academia, people tend to be very blunt, to the point, and don’t use unnecessary words. Hence, you won’t hear any corporate mumbo-jumbo, niceties, and words that weaken the message. Although comments are rarely rude, they are also rarely wrapped in a nice coating. If you are a fresh student, you may take it personally and feel bad about yourself. You quickly learn, however, that people criticize your work, not you as a person. You become thick-skinned and focus on the content of the criticism to improve your work. You also start appreciating the feedback. At least, someone took the time and effort to go through your ideas!
  7. Theory. If you propose an idea, you need to define it very precisely so that others can reproduce, understand, and criticize your results. Proper theory helps to ensure that your ideas are correct. In practice, you end up describing ideas formally.
  8. Prototypes. Academic research, especially in Computer Science, requires a lot of novelty from the proposed ideas. Often, you need to prototype the ideas in software to show that they work in practice. On the one hand, you have a lot of freedom when it comes to technology to implement the idea, and you don’t need to worry about crappy user interface, bad performance, lack of scalability, and other secondary requirements that are non-essential in experimental projects. On the other hand, very few people care about your prototypes.
  9. Personal development and entertainment. University offers endless opportunities for personal development: language classes, student clubs and societies, physical activities. All of that is either free of any additional cost, or is fairly cheap. On a daily basis, you can also interact with college students. You can continue living student lifestyle, enjoy parties, and cool trips.
  10. Low salary/stipend. Whereas I was very satisfied with my material situation as a single grad student, I knew a lot of students who were much less fortunate. What you can get as a grad student is nowhere close to what the industry offers. In grad school, it didn’t bother me much. I simply loved the research and wasn’t there for money. Growing as a person and getting the degree was the ultimate pay.

gears

Industry

  1. Goals. There is no single goal that you strive to achieve to say “I’m done, now I can retire“. Instead, you work on a variety of projects. Of course, the projects are within your area of speciality, but they don’t need to be related directly. You tend to focus on current issues and whatever is needed on the market.
  2. Real-world impact. You work on projects that matter a whole lot to the world. If people are willing to use your software, you can have a significant impact on how they go about things. It is a great feeling to know that your work matters to many people (as opposed to judging your work by few of experts as in the academia).
  3. Usefulness. Ideas in the industry are secondary. First and foremost, ideas don’t need to be novel, they need to be (almost) immediately useful. Second, it’s the implementation that actually matters, not merely a proposal of an idea.
  4. Focus on customers. As opposed to prototypes, the final product must be understandable to the customer, and shall be easy and pleasant to use. It means that significant resources are spent on polishing user interfaces, writing good documentation, and researching the market. Furthermore, seemingly non-essential requirements, such as performance, scalability, and reliability, often determine whether the product is a success or failure. This interplay between the multitude of requirements makes real-world projects significantly more complicated than the academic prototypes.
  5. Work-life balance. Unless you work for a startup, it is fairly easy to balance work and life. Weekly, you work around 40 hours, sleep another 40, waste 10 on “stuff”, and you are left with 78 hours for pursuing own ideas and enjoying life. On the one hand, your schedule becomes predictable. On the other hand, it is good to know that after coming back home you don’t need to work for another 6 hours writing publications.
  6. Company culture. If you are hired to do a job, you are bound to company’s culture, processes, and rules. Of course, it is possible to influence these, but it is significantly more difficult than in a research lab. Companies have much more structure and the relationship manager-employee differs from that of professor-student. It is much less intimate and personal. I believe that much of the structure and processes are the result of scalability and general mediocrity that sneaks in as the organization grows.
  7. Great salary. The industry offers very compelling salaries compared to academia. It is very simple: you are hired to do a job that people need urgently and are willing to pay for now. As such, it is much easier to afford a fancy lifestyle, travels, and all the materialistic stuff (house, cool car, fine foods and alcohols). It is nice, but it is also very addictive. Many people become enslaved to work. They take loans to buy expensive things, so they need to work more to pay back the loans.
  8. Perks and discounts. Established companies have high purchasing and negotiating power. Consequently, they can negotiate cool perks and discounts with other businesses, e.g., health insurance rates, car rentals, shopping discounts, museum discounts. It is a nice addition to complement the consumeristic lifestyle :-)

All in all, I wouldn’t say that one of the experiences is absolutely better than the other. They offer different tradeoffs. Despite the differences, there are also multiple similarities, such as ensuring correctness of ideas, validating ideas in real-world experiments, seeking feedback, working with like-minded people, and contributing to the world. Both, academia and industry, provide highly valuable and enriching experiences. In the next post, I’ll wrote about transferrable skills that I acquired in the academia, but are highly useful in the industry.