When I graduated with my PhD in 1990 and searched for my first job, becoming a professor was one of the furthest things from my mind. It’s hard for me to remember now why I did not consider life as a professor as an option – but I had an idea that I wanted to get out into the “real” world and to have a role in making products that people would actually use, rather than just publishing papers in scientific journals. Also, even though I had published papers in some of the top journals, worked for a very famous advisor, and came from one of the best university-based research groups in the world in my field (compound semiconductors) I somehow did not feel qualified to be a professor on my own. It just seemed that there was a huge gap between what my advisor and other professors were able to do, and my perceptions of my own capabilities. Could I teach? Could I raise money? Could I do a decent job advising someone else, when I hardly knew what to do myself?
Also, at the time that I was ready to hold a job, there were several great alternatives to academia within industry for someone who was interested in doing basic research. Big industrial research laboratories such as Bell Labs, IBM TJ Watson Research Center, and Xerox Palo Alto Research Center all operated world-class research centers that promised great facilities, top-notch collaborators, higher-than-academic salaries, and a streamlined path to commercializing ideas. Many large semiconductor, automotive and defense companies had research laboratories that followed the Bell Labs model, including Raytheon, General Motors, Ford, TRW, Texas Instruments, Hewlett Packard, and Hughes. Rather than pursuing an academic career, many of the brightest students were heavily recruited by these organizations, which offered a highly attractive combination of stability (without having to obtain outside funding support), the ability to publish and patent extensively, and no requirement to teach classes. National laboratories such as Sandia National Laboratory, Lincoln Laboratory, Draper Laboratory, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Lawrence Livermore offered very similar research experiences, but often with requirements to work on projects with a “secret” classification that would make it harder to publish.
Through the course of several economic recessions that occurred since the late 1980’s, most of the corporate research laboratories that I mentioned have been either completely eliminated or folded into the manufacturing parts of the company. In some cases, “research” could be more accurately described as incremental product development, with the goal of more quickly delivering product enhancements to existing product lines, rather than developing fundamentally new products that the company might bring to market 5-10 years down the road. While business executives can rightfully point to increased efficiencies that are realized through operating in this way (due to elimination of projects that might consume millions of research dollars per year, and yet generate no revenue), there are now fewer opportunities for young engineers to develop the skills and resume that would help them make a transition to academia later in their careers. As a result, in my opinion, the most innovative research now takes place at universities, startup companies, and national laboratories – but that will be the topic of a later blog entry.
Since I have worked at a big industry research laboratory (Raytheon Company’s Research Division – now closed), two government laboratories (Sandia National Laboratory and Draper Laboratory – both still open), a startup company (SRU Biosystems – also still open), and most currently at a university (University of Illinois – still going strong since opening its doors in 1868), students sometimes ask me about the advantages and disadvantages of each. The following list is only my opinion, based upon only my own experiences and those gathered from friends and colleagues over the last 20 years. There are exceptions to every rule, and your own experiences may differ. I will start with corporate research labs of big companies.
Corporate Lab Advantages
· Strong focus on translating R&D projects into something that makes an impact on the marketplace in the short term. If you want to see your work “out there” right away, then this is the place for you. The best labs are tied in pretty closely with marketing and manufacturing, and are highly focused on developing new features that are sought by customers of that can address a niche that might give some advantage over a competitor that is offering something similar.
· Can be an exciting environment since product development cycles are now very fast in some industries. Trade shows at conferences can be filled with intrigue (what are the competitors going to unveil this time?) high stakes business deals, and the experience of being part of a big team (i.e. everyone wearing the same shirt to trade shows).
· If you like to be told what to do or assigned tasks by your manager, then this is the place to go for a new graduate. Especially at the beginning, a new PhD or MS engineer will not have much autonomy, with tasks or projects being assigned according to needs.
· The pay can be good. In some companies more than others, there are opportunities to earn performance bonuses, based upon the market success of your project or meeting some performance objectives.
· There is a perception of job stability, but this can be an illusion (see “Disadvantages” below).
· Despite a (sometimes) short-term focus, there can still be opportunities for performing more fundamental research and proposing new ideas if the topic is directly related to a company’s core strengths.
· If you don’t like writing research grant proposals or raising money from investors, then this is the place for you. You might still need to convince internal managers to fund projects that you support, so you are not totally off the hook.
· A lot of people work 8AM-5PM, but there can be periods of longer hours near deadlines. People who want to be seen as ambitious will consistently work longer hours. Overall, it is not impossible to have outside interests and a family life.
Corporate Laboratory Disadvantages
· At a really big place, it can feel like your own personal contribution to the success of the company is extremely small or nonexistent. When I worked at Raytheon, the company’s annual sales were in the billions. When a new idea would be proposed for some new semiconductor component, managers would ask: “what is the size of the market that we could generate with this product?” If the answer was “0.01 billion dollars per year” the whole effort would be “in the noise” in the context of the whole company’s sales. The same idea might be considered as a more substantial opportunity somewhere else.
· Even if your company is large, job stability is an illusion. Companies of all sizes are constantly going through re-organizations, mergers, acquisitions, bankruptcies, etc. For every merger or acquisition that happens, there are probably at least 10 that “almost” happen but that don’t go forward for some reason. Regardless, each transition results in disruption to your potential job function, who you work for, whether your job will be sent elsewhere (another state or country), and whether you will still have a seat after the music stops in the game of corporate musical chairs. Each of these events can present new opportunities, but can also lead to much hand-wringing and rumors, as people try to guess what is going to happen to their job. In my opinion, your only source of stability is to perform excellent work at all times and to maintain the highest ethical standards at all times. When your boss’s boss is looking to lay off some percentage of the division, you want to be the most valuable person – the one they would never consider letting go.
· Big companies can have big bureaucracy. Decisions about anything important can take layers of management approval, hours of meetings, committees, and consultants. This can especially be a problem if the company is considering doing something new. It is much easier to come up with excuses to kill an idea than it is to take a risk on advocating a new idea, which results in, very often, new technologies getting killed at a big company before they get a chance to become a product.
· You will not get much vacation time – all least at first. Two weeks of vacation per year for the first few years at a big company are standard.
· You may not get much opportunity to publish. If you think that you would like be become a faculty member someday, it is important to establish a publication trail. Some positions will provide more opportunity than others to publish research results. Often, if the R&D project is comprised of incremental advances, scientific journal submissions may not be reviewed very favorably or the company will suppress publication in order to maintain a competitive advantage.
· In my experience, some (but certainly not all) managers seemed to be promoted for odd reasons. The people with greatest ability were often passed over in favor of those with the most obvious ambition, in a process that is far from rigorous. This resulted in management positions being occupied by those with the best ability to please their bosses, rather than those with the best technical understanding, organization skills, or people-management skills. While some managers were outstanding, I was puzzled by how others got their position.
Government Laboratory Advantages
· Since my time at Sandia National Laboratory was a relatively short 9-month postdoc, my comments here are drawn from my experience as a scientist in the MEMS group at Draper Laboratory.
· Because they offer a research environment with good funding, strong laboratory facilities and good job stability, you will find that government labs have some of the brightest people working at them. Many people have risen to become highly respected world leaders in their technical specialty in this environment. Government laboratories tend to focus on big problems of national importance that do not have solutions that can be solved in one quarter.
· Because the national laboratories address tough problems, it is possible for your work to make a fundamental impact on the environment, space exploration, energy, fundamental physics, national defense capabilities, transportation, and many others.
· Funding for these priorities goes through up/down cycles that are not as rapid as those within companies, but can shift due to the whims of Congress. Despite this, I cannot think of any national laboratories that have gone out of business. Many engineers have enough flexibility to shift to different projects as the priorities change. In general, there is more job stability than at a company.
· Some research at national laboratories may be classified as “secret” and therefore impossible to pubish. However, this is not strictly the case. At Draper Laboratory, I worked on non-classified projects in parallel with my classified projects. Even though I had to fill out long forms and obtain several signatures to obtain publication permission, it would generally be granted it I could convince all concerned that no government secrets would be revealed.
· National laboratories have funding and flexibility to explore new research areas and some funding to go after them in a meaningful way. Many labs are getting into “hot” research fields such as nanotechnology, life science technologies, energy transduction, sensor networks, autonomous systems, and many others. Researchers generally do not write grant applications to NIH or NSF, but may write internal research proposals or proposals to other government agencies (such as DARPA) where political connections of your managers make a big difference in your chances for getting funding.
· At Draper Laboratory, I found the environment to be very conducive to proposing new research directions, especially if it could lead to getting outside funding. The lab sponsored internal proposal contest to help foster new ideas and to encourage development of proposal-writing skills.
· If the lab is affiliated with a university, there can be opportunities to continue your education through taking classes, earning a degree, teaching a class, or mentoring graduate students. There is no expectation that scientists at a national lab will teach, but there can be opportunities for teaching if you actively seek them out.
· You can come into work at 8AM and leave at 5PM if you want to, without being thought of as lazy. A few people work longer hours when needed, but generally the parking lot was getting emptied out by 6PM.
Government Laboratory Disadvantages
· Salary is generally on par with that of industry, but without the opportunity for stock options and bonuses.
· Government laboratories can have similar bureaucracy to corporations in terms of management layers, meetings, and big-decision making. At the level of a scientist working in the lab, I hardly experienced bureaucracy at all, however.
· If your goal is to develop a technology into a commercial product or a spin-out company, doing it from a national lab is possible, but making the transition can be a challenge. Some laboratories have technology transfer offices, but I have not seen these be as effective at starting successful companies as independent entrepreneurs.
· There is little incentive for people to work together, resulting in a substantial degree of politics to obtain people and resources for a project. Entrenched people can sometimes simply refuse to cooperate with others and focus instead on their own narrow interests. In one case at Draper Laboratory, a senior scientist was being verbally abusive and insulting to one of the junior female engineers on my team – in front of many witnesses. Since I was the project leader, I removed the offending senior person from the team, who howled in protest to every senior manager who would listen to him. I don’t know how many hours of meetings I had to endure to deal with this jerk, but at a small company I could have simply fired him. Higher level managers simply wanted to smooth over problems and to protect the ego of a prima-donna.
· People are managed on a very strict accounting system for reporting the use of your time (in 6-minute increments – I am not kidding) so that the correct budget can be charged for your time. This leads to every engineer, scientist, secretary, and technician scrounging for “charge numbers” for performing even the smallest task. This has a stifling effect on trying to get traction for any new idea that does not have a large existing budget.
· People cost a lot. The overhead rates at national labs are very high, resulting in a cost of >$200-250K/year to support a single engineer. Even a project with a few people working on it needs a great deal of financial support.
Startup Company Advantages
· Starting your own company is an experience like no other – but I will try to write from the perspective of someone who is thinking about joining an existing small company.
· Your work will have a strong impact on the success (or failure!) of the company.
· There is a greater sense of teamwork than in any other type of organization, since everyone is in the same boat, and everyone will swim or sink together. There is less tolerance for people who cannot get along or who want to do their own thing. They will be asked to leave before their attitude spreads far. That is not to say there is no conflict – quite the contrary. People feel passionately about the company, and will argue passionately for defining the path that they believe will be successful.
· A startup offers the best potential to substantially benefit financially, IF the company proves to be successful. We all know stories of people with stock in startups who became millionaires after the company was sold or after it went public. There is also the possibility that the company will fail, or that the venture capital investors will capture most of the financial benefit before employees get much money.
· At a startup, there are opportunities to gain experience with a wide variety of roles and tasks. For example, I’ve taken part in marketing, creating the web site, designing a company logo, business negotiations, manufacturing process development, fundraising, hiring, and business planning. Some of the tasks are definitely non-glamorous (fixing the copy machine, setting up the internal wireless network, ordering/unpacking office furniture, finding leaks in the roof, shoveling the snow…) but they build character, I am told.
· You will find a different style of engineer at a startup company. I was fortunate to work with people with impressive technical skills, a get-it-done attitude, and dedication to excellence. There is no time to study something for two years before trying to implement it, so there is more of a “just build it, test it, and we’ll understand it all later” mentality that helps move projects along quickly.
· A startup has the ability to adapt to new market opportunities and customer preferences very quickly, resulting in a big advantage against larger rivals. The skills of the management team, scientists, and engineers have a direct impact on the ability of the company to become and stay profitable. The Darwinian effect of this kind of pressure for survival results in, I believe, a prevalence of more effective managers and leaders at startup companies than at large companies. The bad ones simply do not get to stay at the job very long before someone forces them out.
· If you work for a startup company that grows, it is possible to move up the management ranks much more quickly than you could at a big company, resulting in greater authority and salary at an earlier age.
Disadvantages of a Startup Company
· Of all the working environments, a startup is perhaps the least stable, because they can fail for so many reasons – not all of which are directly under your control. The world is not exactly kind to startups, with big companies trying to keep them out of established markets, the challenges of obtaining funding, and many others. Some people prefer the action/adventure, while others find it very stressful to wonder whether their organization will still exist in one month or one year.
· By necessity, a startup must be highly focused on the product, requiring all elements of the team to pull together. As a result, a startup may not be the right place to start your own separate new idea. However, successful startup companies will continue to introduce new products, so opportunities for developing a new idea are certainly possible.
· Work hours at a startup can be very demanding. There are many milestones (imposed by investors, business partners, customers, trade shows) that simply must be met if the company is going to survive (or at least it always seems that way). Expect to work nights and weekends – sometimes for a long period. However, there are often compensations (like bonuses, time off, company recognition awards) for these efforts.
· Even if the startup company consumes your life, hardly anybody else has heard of you! There is an implicit assumption that you are just out to make a buck that results in some scientists looking down on you. You will find yourself always explaining what your company does – even several years after it was founded – to people who have not heard of your products.
· Universities de-value time spent at a startup compared to national laboratories, perhaps because of the low-prestige effect mentioned in the last point. For example, even though I had dozens of patents, many publications, and started a successful company, the University of Illinois would only hire me as an associate professor without tenure, compared to younger faculty with Bell Labs experience or faculty experience who were made full professors nearly 5 years before I was.
Advantages of Being a Professor
· One of the best things about being a faculty member is the freedom to work on whatever ideas you are excited about, and to NOT spend your time on ideas that you believe are a waste of time. You can work on any idea that you can get financial support for, which provides the opportunity to explore new ideas, to be creative, and to try things out that nobody has done before. This is part of the excitement of being a scientist, and one of the things that I enjoy the most.
· Many people outside academia consider the obligation to teach to be a disadvantage, but I consider it to be a very strong advantage. By teaching, not only are you contributing to the development of a new generation of students, but you also have to keep your own engineering skills very sharp. When I taught undergraduate electromagnetics for the first time, I had to re-study Maxwell’s equations all over again – something I had not done in many years. By understanding the fundamental concepts well enough to be able to teach them (and to teach them over and over again) actually results in a deeper understanding which in turn results in better research.
· Having the opportunity to help young people get their careers off to a great start is highly motivating and personally rewarding. I recall the teachers in my life who had the most positive impact on my outlook and education – it is great to have the opportunity to “pay it forward” to the next generation of students.
· My colleagues are each, in their own area of expertise, among the best in the world. This means that no matter what topic I am interested in, I directly talk with and work with people who are at the top of their field. So much research is interdisciplinary, that this is a critical advantage.
· I don’t really have a boss. There is nobody who I report to every day, who checks up on my weekly or monthly progress, or who tells me exactly what I must do. (see the topic under “Disadvantages: Everybody is my boss.”) I am actually SUPPOSED to spend some of my time reading, writing, and thinking. I am actually SUPPOSED to travel around the world to scientific conferences and universities in cool places and share my research results by giving presentations and meeting people. I am actually EXPECTED to organize new initiatives to help educate students more effectively, and to meet with people across the country to figure out how to do it. I am highly ENCOURAGED to participate in meeting with faculty colleagues from around the country to discuss and to evaluate the best research proposals in fields like nanotechnology, medical imaging, genomics technologies, and many others.
· Being a faculty member results in development of strong and lasting interpersonal relationships with students, faculty, administrators, company representatives, and even parents. I get to work with and interact with a much wider variety of people from different cultural and educational backgrounds that in any other job I have had. I even teach a middle-school class on Electromagnetics, basically because I wanted to.
· People have a lot of respect for professors. Even though I am still basically the same person who I was before I was a faculty member, I have observed that people are more respectful to me now. Not only students and parents, but also scientists, lawyers, business people, investors who I meet anywhere. Nobody was this nice to me when I was a startup company CTO. I think that there is a general recognition that faculty members put in extra time and effort for the benefit of students, at the expense of maximizing their salaries. Since faculty are experts in their fields, their impartial expertise is highly sought after, where faculty may serve as consultants.
· Working with students helps you keep a youthful attitude. I have met many middle-aged engineers and scientists who have become highly cynical in their careers, but that trait is very rare in faculty members. Students have such optimism and personal drive that even when asked to take on a very challenging task, they can do it extremely well, without even really knowing why the task was supposed to be difficult. When I ask students what they would like to do in their careers, some say things like “get a job and make money,” but many others want to improve human life, develop exciting new technology, and make a positive impact on the world. It’s really refreshing to hear that!
Disadvantages of Being a Professor
· Being a professor is not so much of a job, as it is a way of life. It can occupy much more of your time than any other job, even compared to founding a startup company. Many of the responsibilities are very pleasant (award ceremonies, entertaining campus visitors), others are tedious (grading 80 midterm exams), and others just come with the territory (writing graduate school recommendation letters, faculty meetings, committees). However, there are many separate groups of people who need your time, and there is only so much of it to give out. Evening exams, banquets, faculty meetings, conference calls, meetings with graduate students, grant progress reports, answering ~100 emails/day, teaching, preparing to teach, generating homework problems, interviewing faculty candidates…) all take time. I find that I work for ~2 hours every weekday evening and 8-12 hours on the weekends to keep up during the semester.
· Everyone is my boss! I find that I am constantly doing things for other people. This includes multiple department heads, deans, lab directors, grant agency program managers, proposal team leaders, proposal review panel leaders, and committee chairpeople. While it is true that you do not have a very invasive boss, you will find that you are serving many different groups and leaders at the same time. Of course, none of these “bosses” coordinate with each other, so it is possible to have many reports, meetings, proposals, and reviews to work on, that are all due at approximately the same time.
· Students think that they work pretty hard, but most of them accomplish only a fraction of the work of a good full time engineer – at least until they get near the end of their PhD. Students are constantly distracted by homework assignments, midterm exams, small bumps in their personal lives, a million hobbies, and travelling around the world. It still amazes me how long it takes for a new student to accomplish simple tasks. Students seem to get sick with amazing frequency and duration compared to adult engineers who I have worked with. Perhaps they do not get enough sleep or maintain a good diet! Once focused on a goal, however, students are capable of working much longer hours than a non-student engineer, but this tends to happen in short bursts of activity.
· Achieving full-time professor status and tenure at a major research university is a big-time career challenge. Even though your boss does not tell you what to do, there will be a promotion/tenure review committee that will closely study your record of accomplishments. So even though nobody is watching you, people really ARE watching you. Developing a record of excellent publications, successful proposals, service to your professional societies, excellent teaching reviews, and successful mentoring of graduate students takes a sustained commitment to developing your skills. I am not sure whether this is a disadvantage or not, but it is a constant source of stress. You are effectively being evaluated by all the senior faculty in your department and by many of the senior people (worldwide) in your research field who will be asked to provide external recommendation letters for your promotion.
· Writing research grant applications can be a major time commitment and a mentally agonizing process. Actually, the proposal writing is not the hard part for me anymore. Rather, it is reading the review comments. Sometimes, reviewers have some excellent insights and suggestions that would help to make a proposal stronger, but often the comments are totally incorrect, or indicate that the reviewer completely missed something that was written in the proposal. Some funding agencies (NIH) provide an opportunity to respond to reviewer comments, while others (NSF) do not. Regardless, there is a large time lag (perhaps 2 years) between the conception of an idea, preparing preliminary data to “prove” that the idea will work, proposing the idea, and getting outside funding for the idea.
· Students seem obsessed with “points.” Of course, students take classes to earn a grade, and their GPA’s are important to them. When I was a student, I wanted to earn as many points on homework assignments and exams as I could, but I don’t recall trying to beg the professors for extra points or easier grading. In the greater scheme of things, the “points” seem so trivial, but it drives me nuts at the end of the semester when students beg for a higher grade than they earned because they “need” it. There is at least one student who does this every semester.