I shall be telling this with a sigh somewhere ages and ages hence

Warning: If you have a vested interest in what I do after I graduate (you know who you are; if you’re not sure if this applies to you, then it doesn’t) or you don’t have the stomach for the inherently impolitic nature of job-search aporia, you should probably stop reading.

As some of you know, I’ve been wrestling with some decisions over what I want to do once I graduate (in the near future, knock on wood). And I’ve had a really hard time coming to any sort of definitive conclusion. I know a lot of you also had/have the same decisions to make.

The first order decision is whether to go the route of industry or academia. I’m really interested in having the freedom and resources to work on interesting problems; I’ve fielded arguments from both sides on whether industry or academia is best able to realize this. On the one hand, industry generally has a lot of resources (be that data or computers). And some places are engaging on problems which I think are of real research interest. But in the end you have to sing for your supper, so your eye is typically always towards some product (vague though it may be).

Academia on the other hand is relatively unfettered. It is true, however, that you are subject to the whims of inconstant moons, grants, committees, etc. You’ve got to hustle and sometimes that hustle may entail compromise on the research front. Academics also might have fewer resources on average, but they’re no slouches either. On the balance, academia provides an environment in which the talismans of research, publications, are given priority. Whether these count as progress is up for debate, I suppose, but there’s no denying that there’s lots of interesting stuff in those pages.

The second order decisions are on where one should go in academia/industry. What should one look for in an academic position? In an industry position? A smart boss? A famous boss? Smart peers? Smart underlings? Other interactions with academia/industry? A secure role? A flexible role? Other? All of the above? None of the above?

Finally, while it may seem from the above discussion that options can only cause headache, I still think options are good. So what track provides the most opportunities for change in the future? I’ve heard it argued that one should just go to academia; you can always leave. On the other hand, it’s also been argued that silicon valley changes much more quickly than the lumbering giant that is academia; you should take those opportunities when they appear. If I go to academia will I wall myself off in an ivory tower? If I go to industry, will academia then shun me?

So, do you have advice/musings for me? Feel free to comment below, or email me if it’s personal. And contact me if you want to take a more specific survey about these questions =).


I did an informal poll of some people I know. They came out on the side of going into academia. Out of curiosity, I broke down the results according to whether the survey respondent was currently in academia or industry (there’s some fuzziness in how I categorized people: e.g., grad students were counted as academia). The result of this is here. As you can see, if I were to only query industry people, then industry would win out on my poll. People currently in academia on the other hand are overwhelmingly tilted towards academia. Go figure.

Update 2:

Edo pointed me to this helpful link.


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One response to “I shall be telling this with a sigh somewhere ages and ages hence

  1. Since finishing my masters about 14 years ago, I’ve spent roughly half my time in industry and half my time in academic (PhD+post docs). So I have some experience with these things.

    What you say in this post pretty much agrees with my experience 🙂 Going from academia to industry, especially if you do something that can be applied to real problems like machine learning, is not too hard. When the economy is good, it’s actually pretty easy. Going the other way is more difficult. If an industry job is more applied and less research, then you won’t get many publications which is what people hiring for Prof. positions want to see. But that’s all a bit longer term. If you’re 20’s or early 30’s then a couple of years in one and then switching to the other isn’t hard if you are reasonably good at what you do.

    In terms of the world the main difference I find is the “flavour” of the work. In academic you can write a paper about some theoretical bound on some algorithm and get it published and never actually implement it. It could well be the case that various unfounded methods are faster and more useful in practice. In industry the reverse is often the case: if you make something that works well in practice, your bosses are unlikely to care that some parts of it are rather hacky and ad hoc. Then there is training. In academia I often have more opportunities to learn new things than I can handle. In industry it’s much less so in my experience. They just care about the end results.

    I’d say that the politics in both is quite similar, but academic politics bugs me more. I think it’s because I expect business to be all about money and politics and so I accept this. While I expect science to be about talent and creating new knowledge etc., and so when it’s not I’m disappointed.

    Um, so what’s my advice? Well, if you’re youngish then a year or two on either side isn’t going to make much difference longer term. It might even be good psychologically as you’ll have a better appreciation of what’s on the other side of the fence.

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