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
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
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
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,
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.
Academic job listings (watch out for the academic cycle in the US!)
What they didn't tell you in grad school (Paul Grey and David E. Drew),
either buy it or get the PDF.