Friday, February 9, 2018

Academia vs. Industry

I recently comoderated a discussion session on "academia vs. industry" at a Women in STEM Mentorship Program event, and it was very interesting to think back my days at Stanford EE MS/PhD program and my struggle with PhD that led to my leave and my current job as a software engineer.

My comoderator Danielle is a very accomplished physics PhD graduate, worked in industry at Lockhead Martin, and went on to run her own company now. She brought a lot of great perspectives to the table from her path in both academia and industry, which compliments mine with an earlier transition to industry.

I still remembered my academic advisor Teresa Meng at Stanford telling me, "everyone walks their own path in the woods and writes their own story" when I was struggling with lab rotation and considering an internship. These days, sometimes looking at some candidates at work or the celebrity in industry, lots of them with a well known college with internships and/or a few years of post-college work experience at hot companies/startups. They certainly created impression of this "straight path" but I'd like to think everyone should create, or at least not afraid to create their own path.

Figuring out whether PhD is commonly required at some dream jobs one could think of could be the first step. Certain positions in industry (e.g. R&D or networking/security specialties) usually have PhD requirements or filled by mostly PhD candidates, while software development positions usually do not. Faculty jobs most likely take PhD. However, as a college student, I did not really know what it took to earn a PhD even after some research projects with professors since the expectations and responsibilities for a PhD student and a college student were just quite different. PhD is a 3-6 year commitment (could be shorter or longer), and if one is to work on a topic for that long, having a topic with great interest and finding a professor or lab with guidance and support are super critical to the happiness of PhD journey. I picked things up fast, but I was new to the bioinformatics field, and I got lost in my bioinformatics research in a very hands off environment.

Some observations I gathered:

    Industry (esp. tech)
    patient, curious to dig into a problem deep down
    fast paced (faster in startups), making things happen / change (though not always so easy in an organization)
    summer and winter vacation! generally more flexible schedule
    limited or unlimited PTOs, generally 10-30 days per year depending on the company
    conference travels! student life, with lots of events and classes
    tech companies generally have some fun benefits like free food, gym, game facilities (doesn't mean people actually play)
    Steps for college students
    take/audit graduate courses (MS/PhD) with research projects, or rotation at research labs (paper reading / hands on projects)
    summer/winter internships, part-time jobs, hackathons, fun side projects

    It's important to know yourself, understand what sorts of things make you happy and motivate you. College or right after college are the perfect timings for trying different areas if one of them does not work out. That being said, it is never too late to try and switch. It took me two years to realize PhD was not for me, and even though the thought of not finishing something occurred to me, I have not regretted my decision to leave for industry after knowing my passion for building things during internship and side projects.

    A common question is, PhD graduate might have fewer job opportunities or the feeling of "overqualified" from both sides? I'd say the skills acquired during PhD are transferrable to industry jobs, and research experience or topic are not usually the same for my friends with PhD and working in industry. While it could be true for a CS PhD graduate to feel "overqualified" when looking for a pure software development job, the company usually adjusts compensation based on education and skill set or as Danielle said, companies can create new positions for a PhD candidate. Of course the focus on "talent" rather than "industry experience" differs in companies, but the starting salary for PhD candidates is generally higher.

    The last but not least, I always value mission and passion over compensation. I enjoy building things more than buying things, and I find that money is a poor and short term motivation. In Silicon Valley, some people look for "companies with fast growth" with great promise to go IPO and cash out, and I just could not imagine myself working at a job I did not like only with prospect of a upcoming high paycheck. More on the startup scene in Silicon Valley later, but I wanted to stress this last part because it would be a great loss of talent in academia and the whole society if students all decide to go for industry or leave academia for industry because of the compensation. A meaningful job where I learn all the time, whether in academia or industry, is what matters to me.

    I am always interested in discussion on this topic and happy to help from my experience, definitely reach out to me from my website anytime :)

    No comments:

    Post a Comment