Thursday, September 10, 2009

Labs vs Academia

The topic of the day seems to be labs vs academia (sparked by this, and indirectly by Muthu, picked up by Michael Mitzenmacher and Jon Katz). I thought I would contribute my own perspective, since I've been in labs for about a year, and went through university/lab and lab/lab transitions recently.

Location. For those of us with families, location is one of the main factors. It is not easy to get a job in a top lab, but it is much easier than in a top university, simply because a lot more people go through the lab system (see below). Consider the three prime markets: NY, Bay Area, and Boston.
  • In the Bay Area, Berkeley / Stanford weren't interested in interviewing me, but IBM gave me jobs (both a temporary and a full-time one, which was great).
  • In the NY area, Princeton / NYU / Columbia weren't interested, but, again, ATT gave me a job.
  • In Boston, the problem remains unsolved since MSR New England is not in the mood to hire young people. But arguably there are many more non-top-but-good universities, so this compensates (around San Francisco, for instance, this alternative is entirely lacking).
For me, location made the decision between IBM and ATT (since California tries quite hard to keep foreign medical doctors away).

To see the difference between the chance of getting a job in labs vs universities, think about the numbers: IBM, ATT, and MSR Silicon Valley were willing to hire in theory (and they did) on my particular year, but among the top universities only MIT did.

As for the non-prime locations, there is a wide range between almost-prime and really-avoid. I had offers from some almost-prime ones (Atlanta and San Diego), and I think I would've been happy with them.

However, I want to add that I don't buy Jon Katz's argument that non-prime locations are cheaper. Think about what you want; the cost depends very much on your utility function. For me, things that matter include flight time (and cost) to Europe, availability of Romanian/Eastern European wine and food, and closeness to mountains (the worst thing about NY). Things that don't matter include the price of houses in suburbs.

Career prospects. Let me make this explicit: the chance that you will grow old in a lab is slim. Think of your lab career as a 5-year postdoc, and be prepared to reapply to faculty jobs.

Sure, labs will go through a great deal of effort to tell you that this is not true. But look around: the vast majority old people in labs are either the big founder-of-the-group types, or people who are post-faculty positions (they had one and left). The number of people who go through the lab system is significantly higher than the number of people who stay (which is great for young job seekers, as I mentioned above).

I am not sure what causes this empirical fact, but I can offer some hypotheses:
  • Tradition and culture encourage you to leave for universities at some point;
  • Labs reliably go through periods of instability, where things turn really bad, and most of the group leaves. Some labs never recover, while others recovered quite successfully, but with a significantly changed group (see IBM Almaden and ATT).
  • If you spend too many years in a lab, there is a danger that you fade into TCS oblivion. (You get integrated more into practical groups, and stop being a theorist; you lose contact with the recent trends; etc.)
  • The perspective of having students seems much more attractive once you get tired of the nitty gritty details and would like to delegate some.
Thus, my recommendation to job seekers is to consider labs as very high risk venture, compared to a job in a university. On the one hand, if you choose the lab option, you will most likely seek to move to a university later, so make sure that your track record stays very competitive. On the other hand, if you choose a university, CS departments are exceedingly friendly and rumour has it that tenure is easy to come by (even if your record as Assistant Professor is one notch lower than it was as a PhD student, when you were hired --- as someone put it, "people who get jobs at top places are brilliant, while people who get tenure at top places are very good").

Freedom for in-depth work. If you're reading the discussion above as saying that a university job is always better, you're missing the fact that "risk" is always two-sided. The one aspect where labs excel is the ability to do in-depth work.

As faculty, you have to worry about your classes, your students, and your grants. These will slowly push you to be more stable, reliable, and risk-avoiding (turning you from brilliant to very good). No matter how insensitive you are, chances are you will care about your students at least a little bit, and you will think twice before hanging their life paths on some super-risky venture. (Not to mention that you have to train them before they can join you on said super-risky venture.) And ignoring the students is also hard to do in practice; they drain a lot of mental energy from you.

In a lab, you have to worry about not getting fired, and nothing else. Theory-wise, you can take large risks if you care to (you're not affecting anybody else), and you don't owe anybody any significant share of your brain.

In-breadth work. As I showed above, labs are much better for in-depth, risky, theoretical work. How about if you fancy yourself doing non-theoretical work? The situation is exactly the opposite.

Labs are the ideal place to collaborate on standard problems with people across Computer Science. There are many people in the lab doing practical things. You get brownie points for working with them, and they are very interested in working with you (I think they also get brownie points). They don't have an empire of students that they can't really leave; they have time for you. Their problems make sense, i.e. you won't dismiss them as "practice" (as someone put it, in universities, most of "practice" doesn't apply to practice, which is a big turn-off for some theoreticians who try to stick their heads outside theory). You can question their model as much as you like, since lab people have the real data, and they are open to revising their understanding of the world if you see that data in a different light.

But if you want to go broader and riskier, you're out of luck. You simply cannot work in theoretical linguistics, both because there's nobody around you whom you can talk to, and because nobody in the management wants to hear about you doing this. And you cannot even work on anything too non-standard in computer science -- companies are surprisingly risk averse and slow. (You may remember the story of a theory guy who came up with the Google page-rank scheme around the same time; he was in an industrial lab, while the Google founders were at a university. Which of them turned this into a billion-dollar product?)

Thus, if you fancy yourself as revolutionary outside theory, go for a university (and start by getting tenure). If you want to solve really cool problems inside a bigger system, a lab is the place to be. In a university, you will simply never hear about those problems, and in a start-up you will not face them. (A start-up has to do one thing very well, and other things less than horribly; they don't have much variety for deep thinkers.)

Salary. If that matters a lot for you, I have bad news. Salaries in labs are really not what they're rumoured to be. They are, indeed, higher than in universities, but only marginally so. From the data points I have, this seems to hold true at any level (e.g. comparing middle age lab people with Associate Professors.)

In fact, be prepared to negotiate for any salary advantage. My initial offer was equal to the initial offer I got for a 9-months salary at a university! It got increased significantly after I laughed them off. (I heard a very good phrase that I recommend: "I certainly prefer to come to your place on intellectual grounds alone; but my wife would find it very strange that I am refusing this other job with such nice benefits." -- somehow HR people never argue with the stereotype of a wife interested in money :)

Intellectual honesty. In some sense, the lab offers you a great feeling of intellectual honesty: you have seen the real problems (even if you don't work on them). You have informed opinions on what is really important outside theory, and you may get to do such work yourself.

But the labs can also be awful on the same grounds of intellectual honesty. You have to ask for permission and IP-clearance before you publish anything. If you do anything that might be interpreted as important, there is a risk that you are forced to patent it (a horrible thing from my own ethical perspective, due to the way patents are abused and misused in the US). And if you want to write a library for the world to use, chances are it will be very hard to release it.

Personal freedom and appreciation of your work. People complain about boring faculty meetings, and other such annoyances in the life of a professors. Well, labs are worse. There are, for instance, the unbelievably ridiculous things, like hour-long mandatory courses on the effectiveness of sending polite emails to coworkers. As opposed to a professors, whose relation to the university is more like a member in a coop, in a lab there are people above you who have no respect for you or your time.

Then there are the moderately ridiculous things, like cutting coffee to save money. Again, it comes down to the fact the decisions are made by people who don't know you or have any respect for you.

Finally, there is the issue of travel. Faculty may complain (rightly) about the horrors of periodic begging for grants, but it is nowhere are demeaning as begging for every single trip you want to make (whether your lab should pay, or some external source is paying). I'm not saying travel approvals are harder to write -- they are much easier than grant proposals; but their periodic, and insignificant nature makes them demeaning. (This issue is especially bad during times of economic hardship. Muthu once mentioned a deal of the form "add $15K to my salary and I'll never file a reimbursement form." In certain times, the deal you get at labs is really like "we'll add $0 to your salary, and you never file a reimbursement form.")

Of course, objectively things are not bad. We have high enough salaries to afford coffee, and even all scientific travel when it comes to that (it's tax deductible, so it's half the dollar cost to you). It's all about the fact that somebody far above you sees no difference between your job and a dishwasher's.

There are probably many aspects of the lab vs. university comparison that I missed, so feel free to comment or ask.


Michael Mitzenmacher said...

Thanks Mihai for this in-depth look at things. It also points out the large contrasts between possible states at research labs (compared with, say, danah boyd's take on Microsoft). Best of luck where you are!

Martin Vechev said...

Having spent two years @IBM Research now, I think this blog post pretty much summarizes my views on this matter as well. Very nice post.

Anonymous said...

Indeed, a wonderful and insightful post. Nicely done.

Anonymous said...

Love the post! I'll be graduating in 2010 and so have been looking for perspective from experienced people on this matter. Thanks a lot!

Standa said...

Thanks Mihai for an interesting post! I don't know much about the American academic market, but your long list of publications seems very strong, so would you say that you didn't get even an interview at the top universities you applied for mostly because there weren't interested in a theorist that year, or just your CV wasn't strong enough, or something else (of course, modulo other things you can never influence, like good luck, other strong candidates etc.)? Also, did you apply for an assistant professorship (which I assume is not a permanent job in US) or an associate professorship (which I assume is a permanent job - I guees this might be different at various universities). Thanks and best of luck. Standa.

Anonymous said...

The situation at IBM Watson is no better. You have to beg to attend even the topmost 1-2 conferences, if you have accepted papers there. Forget about attending if nothing gets in.

These old labs still manage to attract talented people based on their past glory. Not many would join if they knew the current reality.

Martin Vechev said...

Anon (from Sept 18),

Can you clarify what do you mean by "no better", better than who ?

As far as begging to attend conferences: I have been there for 2 years now, and I do not remember begging to attend anything at any point, even in these financially challenging times. From my experience, what you are saying is incorrect.

As far as your conclusion (assuming that indeed IBM would pay for 0 conferences per year), if this is your main driving criteria for joining a research organization, then you are confused.

The main criteria for joining _any_ organization (assuming the rest of the dimensions are not a disaster), is the working environment: the group you are joining, the people that work there and the people that you will be working with most of the time. They should be people that are good technically, have similar taste in problems, and you get along with them personality-wise.
As you can suspect, this is individual and will vary wildly in any of the top labs. Whether the lab is old or new, is completely irrelevant.

Mihai said...

your long list of publications seems very strong, so would you say that you didn't get even an interview at the top universities you applied for mostly because there weren't interested in a theorist that year, or just your CV wasn't strong enough, or something else

I am not 100% sure what happened. I was certainly expecting better interviews.

One thing that I do know about is that one of my letter writers wrote "dubious" things in the letter (the letter itself is confidential, but I got several descriptions from friends). It appears that in the US letters are the main component in the application, and having a bad letter is a killer. Fortunately, I only asked that person to write a letter for half the places I applied to :)

The other thing that I heard about was that nobody actively pushed my case. It is apparently related to my area of research not being too popular.

Also, did you apply for an assistant professorship (which I assume is not a permanent job in US)

Yes. Assistant Prof in the US means "tenure track," i.e. you will get tenure (a promotion to Associate Prof = a permanent job) unless you screw up badly.

Mihai said...

@Martin: I assume the anonymous means "better than ATT."

The main criteria for joining _any_ organization (assuming the rest of the dimensions are not a disaster), is the working environment: the group you are joining, the people that work there and the people that you will be working with most of the time.

I have certainly heard many people complain that the stinginess of some research labs is irrational, in the sense that it creates a bad working environment. Look, when you force people to attend some conferences on their own money, you are certainly sending a bad message to your people. I have no idea what the situation is at Watson; I've never visited.

As for the reason to join being the other people, I strongly disagree. I doubt there is a single place in the world which could lure me with the perspective of working with the people there (remember that I work on lower bounds).

If anything, the universities are better, because you can hope to get like-minded students.

Martin Vechev said...


I think for most cases, it is indeed the case that knowing the mechanics of the given group is important. Groups differ vastly in their focus: some are product oriented, others are academically oriented (publish a lot, supervise student's theses, etc). If one's expectations are that they will publish a lot but go to a group of the former type, there could be issues, and vice versa.

Re: local collaborators in labs vs. university students, they are mostly complementary in my experience. I really enjoy working with (good) students myself.

Anyway, I'd be happy to argue over a beer (ideally, a Bulgarian one :), on the lower bounds that a good lab should satisfy. :)

ryanw said...

On a lighter note... Martin, what's your favorite Bulgarian beer? I favor Shumensko, but I believe I'm a minority. Also, how on earth do you get these beers in the US? (I think I've seen Zagorka in the US, but that's it.)

Mihai said...

Anyway, I'd be happy to argue over a beer (ideally, a Bulgarian one :), on the lower bounds that a good lab should satisfy. :)

Can easily be arranged :)

Martin Vechev said...


I like Kamenitza, but I don't know how to get it here. I get some bulgarian stuff from this online shop: I am going to Bulgaria for few days soon, so I will take advantage. :)


If you visit Waston/NY, ping me, and we will go. On a different note, we can discuss some of the problems I had with concurrent data structures and concurrent transitive closures. Some time ago, I read some papers on transitive closures from Henzinger et. al, and was trying to see how they relate to concurrent TS computed in practice (by the concurrent GC in language runtimes).

Saga said...

I think a Professor in his/her own Lab is "the BOSS". A "Researcher" in a industry lab has a BOSS.

Do you want to be a boss?

luna said...

i really wonder now who from MIT u asked to write a letter ... i would never have guessed you get anything dubious but only stellar references. seems very strange.

Anonymous said...

The other thing that I heard about was that nobody actively pushed my case. It is apparently related to my area of research not being too popular.

IMHO, that is also related to the herd mentality of schools, when it comes to faculty hiring. When a certain topic is popular, everybody wishes to hire in that topic; 5 years later, the fad is gone, and nobody gives a damn.

I hope that you will not let this influence your choice of research is seriously not worth it.