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Why I Chose Industry Over a Postdoc

November 15, 2015

About a year ago, I was considering postdoc options. Two university professors had invited me to join their research groups. I wasn’t quite sure what to do. I like research, and I like the work I’ve been doing as part of my PhD. On the other hand, I’ve been growing increasingly frustrated with academia, and more specifically, with the publication game. I’ve had papers rejected several times now. More than once, reviewers who were clearly associated with competing research projects (and did not try to disguise this fact) have shot down my work with unfair, intellectually dishonest and sometimes hostile criticism. In general, I’ve come to feel that, at least in my sub-field, the exploration of new ideas is discouraged, and I’m not getting judged on the quality of my work, I’m getting judged on how well I play the publication game.

The end of my PhD is just a few months away now, and I had to make a choice. I was tempted to continue my research on basic block versioning, but the prospect of working very hard and maybe not being able to publish a single paper made me uncomfortable. Another issue is that the two professors who approached me for postdocs have made it clear that I should apply for a postdoc scholarship. They didn’t have enough money to pay me, and if I didn’t get this scholarship, I couldn’t do a postdoc. They were also putting pressure on me to decide as fast as possible, I got to understand that postdoc positions are limited and it’s a very competitive environment.

Recently, I attended a conference and got to meet a researcher who’s pretty well known in my field. He’s someone I really look up to, someone who’s name I’d seen on several papers that have shaped the development of my own research. We had dinner together a few times during the conference, and discussed various topics. One of the things that really struck me though, is that this guy is in the process of hopping from postdoc to postdoc. He’s struggling to publish his research, getting many of his papers shot down, and having difficulty finding a position as a university professor. He’s a much better academic than I am, and he’s still struggling.

In the meantime, I never really looked for a job, but I’ve been approached by IBM, Facebook, Microsoft, Google, Apple, Twitter, Amazon, Autodesk, AppNexus, Two Sigma, Reservoir Labs, D-Wave, and a few startups. It’s been a stark contrast. On the one hand, academia is offering me a chance to maybe do a postdoc, but only if I’m deemed good enough by the people who judge scholarship applications, and I have to decide now. On the other hand, industry people are bending over backwards to try and get me to come talk to them. I decided to go out and try interviewing for some of these companies, and over a month ago, I made my decision. I signed a generous offer from a company in the bay area.

I have no illusions that industry is some amazing utopia. I’m sure it will take me some time to adapt, and that I’ll miss some of the perks of being an academic. I know I’ll also miss Montreal, the city where I was born and raised. Still, I’ve been in university for over 11 years now, and I really think it’s time for me to try something different. I think that if I continued on the academic path, I’d be headed for stagnation and a burnout. Industry, in contrast, seems full of opportunities to explore. And hey, it won’t hurt that I’ll be making over six times what I get as a PhD student. For the last two years, I’ve been renting a tiny bedroom with a window on a noisy street, and sleeping on an uncomfortable futon that’s hurting my back. One of the first things I’m buying when I make it to California is a queen-sized bed, and the best mattress that money can buy.

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From → Grad studies

20 Comments
  1. I am truly happy for you. You are very capable and deserve an excellent carreer

  2. Make sure to check out online mattresses, they’re way easier and cheaper to get when you move down here. Casper, Leesa, Tuft & Needle, Bed in a Box, etc.

    • Kurt permalink

      I agree. We bought a 12″ thick king sized memory foam mattress from Amazon for less then $600 delivered. We love it. Top mattresses are like $4000-8000. What sold us in the end was that buy one of these try it out for a year and throw it away, and still be ahead money wise.

      -Kurt

  3. Good decision! I don’t know if you ever worked in the industry before for a longer time but be prepared for a culture shock:

    – Academic = dig deep and understand everything
    – Industry = do just enough that it works and stop

    It can be frustrating if you seek for perfection and until you “understand” the mechanics of a commercial company.

    BTW: A lot of people think they do understand the mechanics, from my experience (doing management consulting for 15+ years) a lot don’t.

    • Funny, I thought it was the other way around:

      Academic, build something that could appear to plausibly work, publish and forget.
      Industry: build something that works FOR REAL and face all sort of practical problems

  4. I did the same choice: it is really shocking to compare the treatment offered by companies and the one offered by universities. This and the fact that innovation in CS seems to be lead by companies make me wonder why people should stay in universities nowadays.

  5. kamilia permalink

    I really wish you all the best Maxime.

  6. Good luck! Will Higgs have any further development with this post in mind? :)

  7. went permalink

    As everybody knows: All in good time.

    As for me the choice is obvious.
    The benefits of real work are much more than the miserable opportunities of academia.
    I’m writing this as a former university lecturer.

    At work you will have the ability to look for the scope of mind over other people, who are doing something with finger touch. How do they think, what do they feel, all this complexity is a great impact to the research.

    And there, then, may be You will find a way to bring solutions to their Real troubles.
    Through this way You will reach the Ideas for continuing the research, if You will wish.
    Because theoretical thinking is worthless until the experiment is done.
    And the best experiment is a real task, real team, real decisions.

    Wishing Good Luck for You!

    PS: your github is awesome.

  8. Mike S. permalink

    I realize I’m a few weeks late, but I wish you good luck.

    I’ve experienced work environments where the attitude was one step away from “Well, it looks done. Ship it.” and other places where management allots more than 50% of your work time for adding automated tests and refactoring code, all in order to keep code quality high.

    And in fourteen years, I’ve had to work more than a 40 hour week less than ten times. But then, I made that a central criteria in the interview process – I’d rather take a pay cut than work in a meat grinder.

    • Never too late, I still read the comments :)

      I did bring up work/life balance in the interview process. At the company I chose, the employees seemed to say that this was pretty good, and they honestly looked not too stressed.

      I interviewed at another company that had everyone working in a giant pen, people running around frantically, interviewers looking highly caffeinated. I chose not to go there. They chose not to make me an offer.

  9. Good decision, I also doesn’t like to writing papers, and ‘ basic block versioning’ are very promising, it’s has the strength to bitten v8 or IonMonkey

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