Summary: Have a vision. Stay foolish.
On May 11th 2011 the VMI (the organization of the scientific staff at the CS department at ETH Zurich where I'm currently the president) organized an informational event on how to start and how to structure your academic career. If you are pursuing a PhD then at one point in time you will think about continuing your academic career by either becoming a professor or by working at a research lab. Many people on the other hand will turn away from an academic career at a later point. We asked ourselves what it takes to pursue the academic career, what are pros and cons of becoming a professor vs. either working in a research lab or vs. working in the industry.
Three speakers presented their academic careers and told us about their ideas and how they structured their academic life. An open question session also allowed the audience to ask personal and detailed questions why they made individual decisions. Andreas Krause, a new assistant professor at ETH Zurich gave an impression of the beginnings of an academic career at an university, Christian Cachin then talked about working at a research lab at IBM Research Zurich. The third speaker was Markus Gross, full professor at ETH Zurich and head of Disney Research Zurich.
In this blog post I try to summarize the information they gave us, but I'll twist that information with my own thoughts and my own (incomplete) experience about the topic after being in the PhD program for almost 5 years.
How to evolve
It is surprising that many academic careers evolve out of similar roots and environments. Many academics were big nerds in their teens, disassembled hardware, and were fiddling around with technology all the time. This brings back memories from my own youth where I was dumpster diving for old hardware. I was also well known for disassembling any electronic hardware I got into my hand. Sometimes I blew the fuses of our house, but more often it seemed to work. At one point in time this curiosity came across the first computer and the average technology nerd then tries to figure out how this magical machine works. So all in all curiosity and affinity to electronic hardware appears to be a good foundation for future academic career. You have to keep that curiosity to figure out unknown and unresolved problems and you need to stay foolish enough to try out things nobody has tried before.
Both research labs and universities have their individual advantages and disadvantages if you are interested in research. At the university you have absolute freedom what you research and you are only bound indirectly by the funding you are able to attract. If you are not able to attract funding then you are limited in the amount of research you can carry out. On the other hand if you work in a research lab then the boss of that research lab will control in what are you will do research (so better choose your lab wisely).
Additionally, one of the biggest differences between academia and research labs is that research labs are interested in patents. You are measured by the amount of patents you put out, not by the amount of papers that you present at academic conferences. Writing a patent will take up as much time as writing a scientific paper, including all revisions.
One drawback of academia is that research is only a (small) part of your daily life. Due to teaching lectures, mentoring students, and balancing other responsibilities research will only be one of many activities that you need to worry about. On the other hand at a research lab you are able to work full time
on your ideas (minus maybe some mentoring overhead if you are a group leader or a tech. lead).
If you want to carry out research in academia you need money first. In some universities there are some fixed positions or paid positions per assistant professor or full professor, additional positions must be financed through external funding.
On the other hand in research labs you are often bound by project budgets and you are limited how much time you spend for a specific project until it must pay off.
So both in academia and in research labs you need to worry to some extent about money to fund your research.
In academia you need to give lectures as well. Planning lectures and creating the curriculum takes up a lot of time. If you do not like teaching then academia is definitively the wrong place for you. Both professors agreed that they really like teaching and that it is a very satisfying feeling to work with the brightest young students and teaching them new things.
Building your own group
The basic idea is that good people attract other good people. If you are a good lecturer then you will attract the bright students. If you publish good results then you will get good post docs. In addition you need to approach the good students directly.
Advice to kick-start your academic career
Some advice to kick-start your academic career is to go for fellowships, e.g., Microsoft Research, IBM Research, Google, Yahoo! Key Scientific Challenges and governmental fellowships (e.g., SNF, NSF).
At conferences you should give tutorials and organize interesting workshops at top conferences. As a (PhD) student you should search for interesting (research) internship positions at interesting places. This helps you to build your network of professional mentors that you can use later on for reference letters, to meet new people, to attract funding, and fellowships.
A drawback of academia is that it is a probabilistic system. There is no guarantee that if you have x good publications and y good talks and references then you will get tenure. Always go for new ideas and be the first or one of the first. Have a vision. Stay foolish.
One of the most important factors of academic careers is time management and resource planning. No matter weather you go for a research position in a lab or at a university you need to plan your available time. Otherwise the combination of all your auxiliary tasks will use up all your available time and you will have no more time for fun things like research, teaching, or spending time with your friends and family.
Is it worth it?
From the view of both professors (one halfway into his career, the other at the beginning of his career) and from my view in front of the PhD finishing line: absolutely yes. Your mileage may vary of course.