Science in the Real World, Part 3: Who Wants to Work in Industry?

We all have our place in life. Some of us occupy ourselves with making as much money as we can, and some of us are keen to gain a deep understanding of the world we live in. Are these goals really so different? It seems to us that it is only a matter of time-scale. When do you want to harvest the results of your investments: tomorrow, next month, or in 10 years?

We both are somewhere in between these extremes. We are researchers in corporate labs and our task is to come up with an innovative understanding that can be turned into products or services for our respective companies. The goal of our employers is to sell these products and services, and make a profit.

But we both have our roots firmly in academia and, somehow, drifted into the corporate world. And thoroughly enjoyed the process, we must add. Today, we want to share our experiences as industrial researchers: for your benefit and, perhaps, entertainment.

Our backgrounds

It all started when we were freshmen. We both enrolled at the Delft University of Technology as electrical engineering students and soon became friends. Although our careers brought us to separate and remote places, we always kept in touch. Stijn left Delft within a year and took up physics in Utrecht in a longing for a broader academic education. Maziar ended up doing his thesis work at Philips Research, his first brush with the industrial world.

By coincidence we ended up enjoying our PhD training in the same city. Maziar joined the theoretical physics group in Nijmegen, while Stijn found a PhD position in a cognitive science institute a few years later. Our paths diverged again when Maziar accepted a postdoc in the United Kingdom. Later, Stijn left Nijmegen for a postdoc in the United States. For different reasons we both ended up working in corporate labs; Maziar staying in England, while Stijn returned to the Netherlands.

What made us attractive for our present employers is that we combine a strong academic background with several years of international experience. Although we were both in need of a change of environment, we did not really know what to expect when we entered the corporate world.

Where are we now?

The irony is that in spite of our quite different career paths we both work in labs that focus on information and communication technologies (ICT). Maziar is mainly concerned with technological aspects of R&D, while Stijn is mainly looking at ICT from a cognitive perspective.

R&D in Maziar's company is often done on a per project basis, with each project involving a specially assembled multidisciplinary team of scientists, engineers, and product developers, as well as marketing people. This contrasts with most academic research, which is done either in collaboration with peers from the same subdiscipline, or individually.

For example, one of Maziar's projects seeks to design an epidemic-style communication protocol for large-scale data dissemination on the Internet. The idea is inspired by the remarkable efficiency by which infectious diseases propagate in a population through local interactions. The project team therefore includes a physicist, applied mathematicians, computer scientists, and biologists, but also marketing people who advise on the commercial possibilities and contact potential customers.

Stijn also works in multidisciplinary teams, but in his case this type of collaboration is institutionalized. His company has delegated a part of its R&D department to a cooperative lab whose other members are an applied research company and two universities. You could say he is right on the border between academia and industry.

The main theme of this collaborative research lab is collaboration itself. It not only involves an understanding of how teams or organizations work together to reach their goals, but also entails the development of the necessary systems and networks that support (present-day) collaborations. The application domains are quite varied and include, for example, playing soccer with a small team of robots, supporting companies that are distributed over the globe, or responding to a disaster with a large ad-hoc organization consisting of different emergency services.

Academia versus industry

Freeman Dyson, one of the great theoretical physicists of our time, states that "The science of the academic world tends to be dominated by unifiers, while the science of the industrial world tends to be dominated by diversifiers." This aspect of industrial research is perhaps one of the great attractions of working in industry for people like us, who are naturally inclined to have diverse research interests and are not very happy sticking to the same subject for the rest of our careers. Indeed, it is an interesting phenomenon that in our industrial research environments we often come across scientists who have changed fields a few times, while in academia this is less common.

Another aspect of industrial research is that it often follows either market cycles or the company's changing strategy. These cycles are often short-term. As a result one finds oneself faced with the problem of having to switch fields very often. Computers on the move (mobile computing), for example, is now considered an area with great commercial potential while a couple of years ago everyone thought that a lot of money could be earned from Web services. The good thing about such short-term research cycles is that one has the opportunity to learn new things all the time. The bad thing is that it becomes difficult to gain a deep understanding of a certain topic.

About a year ago, Maziar was asked to chair a discussion on industrial research in a careers workshop for young scientists organized by the European Commission. The majority of the workshop participants were postdoctoral researchers, most of them working in universities. There were, however, some who had experience in industrial research. One of the key questions in the discussion was why most researchers only consider a job in industry as second choice. It turned out that most of them have a passion for doing basic and long-term research and they think this is only possible in academia, a perception that is largely in line with our own experience and was confirmed by those workshop participants who had experience working in industry.

However it also seems that many young researchers view working in industry as a highly regulated, 9-to-5 job. Such an environment seems to clash with the culture and mentality of most scientists, and indeed that of most highly creative professionals, such as artists and writers. Furthermore, the lack of freedom was a reason to avoid industrial jobs. Here it was interesting to listen to the experience of young researchers coming from industry. They argued that a research job in industry is actually not much different from that in academia. For example, in industry the fact that a research job has a different character than, say, a marketing or management job is appreciated and respected, to a certain extent.

Stijn experiences these differences on a daily basis. The team members in his projects have markedly different goals. Whereas the academics are mainly interested in publishing their results, the industrial researchers have their eye on results that their company can develop into practical applications. This tension sometimes complicates the collaboration but can also lead to mutual inspiration; academic researchers will come up with novel theoretical approaches while the industrial researchers will formulate surprisingly challenging problems.

What next?

Although we both enjoy our jobs tremendously, we obviously keep an eye on the future. It seems to us that if we really want to advance our careers, industrial research is only an intermediate phase. We feel that there are only a few career routes. Either you keep up your publication record and at some point take the opportunity to return to academia and establish your own research group, or you take on more and more management responsibilities and after several years move on to a business unit within the company.

However, a third option, hard to follow but potentially very rewarding, seems increasingly possible. This option is to maintain a career at the interface between academic and industrial research. In that way one could continue doing basic and long-term research through academic collaborations, while benefiting from the buzz of doing (and leading) project-based research in an industrial setting.

We have discussed this issue many times between ourselves and we are quite convinced that industrial research is not an end point in our careers. Although we do have our personal preferences, however, we also would not dare to make a prediction as to where we will end up.

If you like to get in touch with the authors, please send an email to Next Wave Netherlands .

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