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Keeping Both Academia and Industry on the Go


The Spanish Torres Quevedo Programme ( TQP), which offers money to private companies toward the cost of hiring young Ph.D. graduates, was born in the mid-1990s from the Spanish government's wish to solve two problems. On one side, Spain's private sector was investing too little money in research and development (R&D), and as a consequence their innovative capacity was limited. On the other side, the number of Ph.D. graduates had increased and there was no way academia alone could absorb them all. By encouraging companies to employ highly qualified personnel, TQP aims to invigorate private R&D in Spain while helping young scientists find a job after earning their Ph.D.

An Italian researcher now based in Barcelona, Spain, Luigi Ceccaroni (pictured above) is one Ph.D. graduate who is currently benefiting from this government initiative. TQP helped Ceccaroni negotiate a part-time position within a small company while keeping a part-time research position in academia, an arrangement that demands hard work and flexibility but allows him to keep his options open until his career is secure. "Because you are diversifying, you have less risk if something goes wrong," says Ceccaroni.

Limits Are in the Eyes of the Beholder

Ceccaroni has been blending worlds that seem to have little in common since the early stages of his career. He started his undergraduate studies in environmental science at the University of Bologna in 1989, but by the time he graduated in 1995, with an M.Sc. in marine paleoclimatology, he had developed a passion for a new field: artificial intelligence (AI). With the help of some basic courses on advanced computer science, Ceccaroni followed the M.Sc. with a Ph.D. on the application of AI technology to environmental problems at the Technical University of Catalonia ( Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya, UPC) in Barcelona. The idea was to create a computer programme "that simulates the reasoning and the actions of an expert" in a wastewater treatment plant.

A Taste of Industry

During the final year of his doctorate, Ceccaroni started negotiating a job offer from California-based Fujitsu Laboratories of America to work on a collaboration with a European-funded research project. It wasn't his only option. "At the same time, I was thinking of going to work at Tufts University in Massachusetts," he says. But even though Ceccaroni was interested in working on the "more philosophical AI" project the Tufts postdoc offered, that position was for just 1 year, and Ceccaroni estimated it might not be worth the move. "The offer [made] by Fujitsu was very difficult to reject," he says. "It was a permanent position, very well paid, and with interesting people." So in October 2001, Ceccaroni moved to California.

At Fujitsu, Ceccaroni worked to develop software standards that would allow different pieces of Internet software to communicate and allow users to, say, book a restaurant, a taxi, and a movie from a single Web site. Despite the commercial orientation, "it was a very theoretical job," says Ceccaroni. In large companies like Fujitsu at least, Ceccaroni found, the distinction between industry and academia is not clear-cut. "Blue-sky research?" says Ceccaroni, invoking a phrase sometimes used to describe pure basic science projects. "If you ask them, they say they haven't got it. Industries want results, it is true, but industries also want to be the first ones to reach new technologies." And laying the groundwork yourself is sometimes the only way to get there first.

Same Situation, Different Choices

When the software industry's bubble burst in America, the effects reached Japanese companies, and amid budget cuts and job redundancies, Ceccaroni decided to go back to Europe. Before leaving the United States in 2003, he managed to find a new job in Spain and make all the arrangements, thanks to contacts within a Spanish institution, the Ramon Llull University, which "put me in touch with a few companies."

Among those companies was TMT Factory in Barcelona, which offered him a position as research coordinator, for which Ceccaroni had also secured a subvention from TQP. "The company hires you, and part of the salary is paid by the government for a maximum of 3 years," explains Ceccaroni. "For the scientists [too], it is good because it lets them [negotiate] to get better contract conditions."

Meanwhile, his Ph.D. university, UPC, also offered him a research position. This time Ceccaroni decided he shouldn't have to choose between industry and academia. He took both jobs, part-time.

One Foot in Industry . . .

At TMT Factory, Ceccaroni is coordinating a 1-year, 1 million euro project (partly funded by the Spanish Ministry for Industry, Tourism, and Trade) to develop an interactive TV adapted to people with special needs. With Ceccaroni currently the sole person at TMT employed to do only research and no research team as such working on this project, most of the research is carried out by universities. But "now that the company finally is growing, we are hiring other people to do research," says Ceccaroni.

Ceccaroni's experience working at a small company in Spain is strikingly different from his previous experience at a multinational. At TMT Factory, "we never do blue-sky research, we always do research that is related to the development of a project." There is also less freedom. "I have the freedom of proposing new projects, but the main research lines are decided by the head of the company." The pace is faster in his current job, which he believes is common to many small companies. "They need to generate some revenues; they need to survive," says Ceccaroni. "There are always a lot of things to do, and you always promise more than you can do."

. . . The Other in Academia

Ceccaroni's other part-time job, at UPC, is totally different. "I am technical leader on a part of the project" known as @LIS TechNET, which aims to create a live network across Europe and Latin America as a new, virtual, and interactive learning environment. Ceccaroni's role within this research team is to develop state-of-the-art technologies the project will be based on.

A Richer Experience

Keeping both academic and industrial projects going poses particular challenges. "To make these two jobs compatible, you need flexibility," says Ceccaroni, so he negotiated that flexibility in advance. "For my project in the university, I have to travel for 1 or 2 weeks abroad. The company needs to accept that, and vice versa." Many scientists would be concerned about spreading themselves too thin in such a situation, but not Ceccaroni, who sees mostly advantages. "It is definitely less risky for you," he says. "Your experience is richer, then something will work [out] in the end."

"I think that university experience is very good to work in industry," says Ceccaroni. This goes somewhat against the prevalent myth in Spain that, as he puts it, "Ph.D. graduates are not appreciated" by companies. In Ceccaroni's experience, "if you have reached the Ph.D. level and have got an academic history, you are usually good for doing research. This is a kind of guarantee for the company when they are hiring you."

It doesn't work the other way around, however, Ceccaroni believes. "Industry experience is not very well [thought of] in academia," he says. "This is a problem of the Spanish situation." This prejudice is not entirely justified, he believes. After all, he has found that "if you work in a big company, the quality of research is very comparable to academia." In any case, there is much to be gained from industrial experience, Ceccaroni feels, even for those who want an academic career.

Industrial work, he reckons, teaches discipline, because you have to follow a definite process, meet specific goals, work in teams, and respect your colleagues' time. He also believes his experience has given him a better knowledge of the job market for computer scientists, which he hopes will help him teach university students better, with the needs of industrial employers in mind.

A Win-Win Situation

Ceccaroni recently got a new position at UPC as an associate professor--an industry expert employed by Spanish universities to do a few hours of teaching--while continuing his research activities. "The day I get a full professor position, I might think about leaving the industry and stay at university. But it'll take some time, and the situation can change." Until that day comes, Ceccaroni intends to make sure he can keep doing his two jobs part-time and have a foot in each door. "I got this [new position] part-time so I can keep a job in industry that pays very well and lets me be in a good situation financially, to maintain my family."

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