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Advice for academic refugees

  • 144 points
  • 13 days ago

  • @barry-cotter
  • Created a post

Advice for academic refugees

@peter_l_downs 13 days

Replying to @barry-cotter 🎙

This is great advice for anyone working at a startup, particularly the part about not waiting for an assignment. "Literally just do things, as long as they're not the wrong things" is the hardest thing to teach or learn.


@jltsiren 13 days

There were a few places where the text sounded weird.

> He had a plum position, and he was years away from tenure review. It’s hard to walk away from a place like that after a lifetime of striving.

The nominal academic career is ~45 years, as successful academics rarely retire early. In most fields, getting a tenure-track faculty job signals the transition from early to mid-career. But this seems to be about CS in the US, where it's common to get a faculty job with minimal postdoctoral experience. Getting tenure is then the true starting point for mid-career, and this was more likely about an early-career researcher choosing to leave the academia.

> Academics for their part tend to lean into this by playing the “let’s see how quickly I can destroy this entire presentation” game.

There are some toxic fields of research, but I don't think this attitude is particularly common in the academia. There are many fields with a true sense of community. People generally realize that it's better to be nice to your colleagues, even if you are competing against them, because you will be stuck with them for decades.

> Academia is characterized by well-trodden problems, hashed over for decades, and negligible novel data for resolving them.

Here my experience is the opposite. The academia is characterized by world's top experts in a narrow niche investigating speculative problems few people have any idea of. More often than not, that research turns out to be a dead end, "wasting" years of work.


@armchairhacker 13 days

> Academia is characterized by well-trodden problems, hashed over for decades, and negligible novel data for resolving them. Industry is by comparison a mass of green field areas of inquiry with large budgets, minimal bureaucracy, and ample data.

IMO I thought it was the opposite.

Academia is filled with people going out of their way to do something "novel", even if it's useless and/or over-complicated. Because a) that's how you get papers, and b) moreover most PhD programs literally require you to make a novel discovery to graduate. Case in point: all those theory papers with weird techniques, limited use cases, and demos which barely work; any "game" made by academics.

In contrast, industry has a ton of resources, but they don't like allocating them to anything which isn't expected to make a project. Most industries are just "new" approaches to old problems which are really just improvements. Industries use tried-and-true tools and technologies, and don't use the theoretical cutting-edge stuff until enough research is done and tools are created that it's no longer cutting-edge (e.g. linear types in Rust). Case in point: another ride-sharing app, database-management tool, Twitter introducing medium-style notes, Dropbox introducing Patreon-like pay-for-access, AAA games.

This is a pessimistic take: there are plenty of academics who try to work on truly practical problems even if there's not much "novelty", and startups who work to create something radically new. And then there's corporate research labs like Microsoft Research whose goal is essentially to make stuff that's a) novel and b) practical.

But those fourty-year-old problems and techniques you learned in undergrad? Those aren't what you're working on once you get into a PhD. And I would not paint industry as "minimal bureaucracy", maybe some industries but definitely not FAANG.


@photochemsyn 12 days

Academics and industry both have their share of problematic personality types of various flavors. If there's a single piece of advice I'd relate to young people going into either academics or industry, it would be to adopt professionalism - which is unfortunately a bit difficult to define precisely and which varies a bit from place to place and job to job.

For example, in an academic laboratory or and industrial laboratory setting, one basic common rule is just don't create problems that other people have to clean up. Clean up your own messes and try to avoid making new ones. This doesn't just apply to dishes in the sink, but also to interpersonal relationships.

Another part of professionalism is to learn to recognize dead-end no-win situations. Typically this would involve an academic adviser who is a dishonest fraudulent con artist who sabotages anyone who points out flaws in their work, or an industry supervisor who is an egotistic twit who plays favorites and needs a daily ego massage, or something like that. Just exit immediately once you realize what's up, don't waste your time fighting battles with such clods, unless you like tilting at windmills. A careful study of the potential employer in academia or industry can help with recognizing the danger signs before you sign up. Again, that's professionalism: don't commit to a situation until you feel good about it, and if not, politely decline and move on.

If you do happen to luck into a decent situation where you're not stuck with working for a psychopathic personality type, still stick to a professional attitude. If you do go to someone for help, and they take an hour of their time to explain things to you, be absolutely sure that you then spend three hours of your own time solidifying that knowledge - don't go asking the same question again because you forgot to take notes or whatever, that's sure to irritate people and make future help less likely.

As far as academics vs. industry, I'd say academics is where the real nasty political infighting is more common, although I'm sure industry has its share. People fight over lab space, imagined or real slights, grants, you name it. Woe to the grad student or postdoc who gets caught up between two pissy professors out to do damage to each other by any means necessary, for example. Really every incoming grad student should have to take Institutional Politics 101 just to know what to watch out for.


@cshenton 13 days

As someone about to pause an industry career for a PhD, I still think this is good advice!


@bruce511 12 days

OK, clearly there are a lot of generalisations in the article - you may or may not recognizes the academic or industry positions in the article, so clearly ymmv.

Perhaps a better simplification is - Life is a Game, Learn the Rules. And in that context recognise that the game you are playing just changed, and there are new riles, and new ways of scoring, so pay attention and learn quickly.

This is true got any job change, but is especially true for the academic/industry switch (in either direction). There are also likely to be a bunch of "local rules" (some unwritten) to figure out.

What works the least is bringing rules from the old game and trying to convince the new team to play by the old rules. That path never ends well.

Yes, I think most people should ask more questions (regardless of industry or academia), yes I think academics get paid up front (grants) regardless of outcomes - industry gets paid by results (revenue) and thats a different set of goal posts.

You might come out of, or go into, an academic, or industry position, with supportive, or abusive colleagues, with or without lots of office politics, with or without smarter, or less-smart peers, who may or may not care.

Oh, and there will be a new set of jargon :)


@knolan 12 days

I’ve been back in academia for a few years now. I’m lucky to be permanent and my colleagues are generally lovely and supportive. There’s a big push on Equality Diversity and Inclusion here so people are aware of treating students better. I don’t doubt there is some serious toxicity here and I’ve seen severe cases of it elsewhere.

My problem with the whole thing is the constant rejection when it comes to securing research funding. You have all these high achieving people being subject to endless failure often with useless feedback or none at all. You feel people doing incremental research (or sometimes what looks like the same research they’re always do) get big grants. When you propose, in your self inflated opinion of yourself, something novel but risky you get nothing.

Research money should not fund safe and guaranteed to work, it is always a gamble on something out there. If something is that obvious and safe its not academic research. So there comes the time where you start to lose you ambition and find the safe boring research that will funded and allow you to progress in your career.

Sometimes I think academia is ripe for UBI. Pay PhDs and PostDocs a UBI and give academics a guaranteed but small amount of research money per year. Let them self organise so this money can fund lab equipment and let them research whatever they want. Success can be measured based on the output achieved and that can drive promotion and then the ability to attract others to work with you.


@kcexn 11 days

This particular article seems quite biased to an American working culture. In many working cultures, just doing things and producing results too quickly is frowned upon. Cooperative working where ideas are carefully considered first and resources formally allocated before work begins is also a very normal way of working in many cultures. It's sometimes considered to be slower than the go and do it way of work. But also produces fewer total failures, and creates the kind of slow, steady, sustainable growth that is unsexy to workers in Silicon Valley.


@cs137 13 days

There are a lot of problems with academia, but this post shows such a rosy-eyed view of industry, I have a hard time taking it or its conclusions seriously.

An industry job is fine if you're protected from the politics and valued for your knowledge and intelligence, but that's rare, and it usually doesn't last. The people making major decisions don't value intelligence or curiosity and, worse yet, they often have malevolent intentions. Getting "screwed" in academia means getting a B because of a tricky question on a final, or having to publish in a less prestigious journal than you think you deserve. Getting screwed in industry means you lose your right to an income and might never get it back.

The thing is, people in industry (meaning for-profit businesses that expect every member to work on some line-of-business concern... I'm not talking about research labs) have better social skills than academics are used to, so a lot of ex-academics jump into it thinking they're getting into a non-toxic environment, because the corrosive behaviors are not immediately visible. It takes a few years before people realize they haven't just entered "industry"--they've gone into literal corporate America.


@chrisseaton 12 days

> now-former professor

Isn't 'Professor' a title you keep for life? Like 'General'? It is in the UK.


@theobeers 12 days

Does eigenrobot—a pseudonymous influencer, as far as I know; I have no clue who s/he is—have an earned doctorate? Comparisons of the academy and industry are better made by people who actually have experience in both realms. This post reads to me as though the author thinks s/he understands the culture of professors and researchers, but in reality does not. The “let’s see how quickly I can destroy this entire presentation” line, for example, is a tell. People tend to lose that attitude by the later stages of a PhD program (if not sooner).

edit: I should add, another funny thing about this post is that much of the advice would also be good for someone intending to stay in the academy. Among the successful scholars that I know, for every genius, there are several normal-smart people who learned how to get out of their own way and keep their projects moving forward on a day-to-day basis.


@anonymousDan 13 days

As someone who left academia for industry, and then made the somewhat crazy decision to return to academia, I agree with a lot of this. Especially in terms of academia, you are often expected to be independent and able to figure things out yourself, which can sometimes lead to you avoiding asking for help when you should. One thing that really shook me out of this in my first company was when they switched to an Agile process and I was literally forced to talk to people everyday.


@barry-cotter 13 days

> Recently I met a new coworker, a now-former professor who left academia. Like many, he seemed wounded by the experience. This is his first private-sector job.

> I have to give him respect: he left willingly. He had a plum position, and he was years away from tenure review. It’s hard to walk away from a place like that after a lifetime of striving. But he was unhappy, and he’d grown disenchanted with his research agenda, and didn’t enjoy the labor itself anymore, and it was degrading his ability to enjoy his private life; so he quit. Not everyone is brave enough to do that.

> When I was talking to him about onboarding and getting acquainted, I realized I was speaking to a more-accomplished version of my past self. There are certain pernicious behavioral patterns and outlooks that are instilled in a graduate student. Over the coming weeks I’ll do my best to shepherd my coworker into the private sector and help him overcome what’s been done to him; but today I had only a half hour, and was constrained by professional norms, and could only touch on the surface


@gnicholas 13 days

> No One Cares That You Are Smart

When I was a young lawyer, I worked with a group of four attorneys, three of whom had PhDs in other fields. The most senior lawyer, who had no PhD, commented on the challenge of leading such a group: "each man thought he was the smartest guy in the room".

Humility is underrated!


@SilverBirch 12 days

>Academia is curious in that performance, both relative and cardinal, is evaluated explicitly and sometimes publicly; you develop a reputation quickly, and making errors especially in a classroom or seminar setting can be humiliating. Academics for their part tend to lean into this by playing the “let’s see how quickly I can destroy this entire presentation” game.

This actually just hit me because it highlighted something my (new) boss does that completely caught me by surprise. He goes away and does research on an idea and comes to an extremely strong opinion about something, and only then will he discuss it with you, and I think that is highly related to this (his background is academia).

In some ways this is great, he'll present things he's really thought about, but the flipside of it is that he wants absolutely no discussion. It's always communicated as "I've looked into this and decided x" and the result is that there's no real interrogation of the idea. And since the area we subject area we work in is new to him, it often means there are things he just doesn't have the experience or intuition to reason about. This has resulted in several situations where the team has had to do enormous amounts of work based on questionable assumptions that later turn out to not hold up to scrutiny.

In every other team I've worked in people present their ideas without ego, are open to discussion and feedback and value the different perspectives. It takes a lot of effort to find ways to influence him and highlight issues, you kind of have to create a situation where you're making sure you're giving him feedback and thoughts about ideas before he has stated an opinion.


@noobermin 12 days

I'm all for anti-academia content, but a lot of this did not seem relatable to me. A lot of the advice concerns may be a subset of academics but hopefully not all, because I was specifically advised NOT to be like this. For example, I am not afraid to ask questions, if anything my academic experience taught me to ask questions without hesitation. Same for presenting your work for a specific audience, the "no one cares that you're smart." Every presentation I gave was framed with that in my mind, who your talk / presentation is for. The academic speak really isn't because it makes you sound smart, it's honestly just easier than speaking either for a general audience or for someone for whom the results that are distilled down to be used for a decision or something else, as they said. THAT is much more difficult but it's what you learn as an academic, at least it's what I learned.

Also, taking "assignments" is probably the thing I relate to least. I feel like a lot of research groups out there are top-down like that but I'm lucky I've never been in one.


@jrumbut 13 days

I wonder how many refugees could have saved themselves a lot of pain if they tried some of this advice before burning out and leaving.


@Fomite 12 days

A couple thoughts, from an academic who doesn't mind working with industry partners:

"In industry, though, no skeptical journal editor will review your work. It’s going to be a bunch of PMs and engineers, who will take you at your word that the analysis is what you say it is."

This is at odds with the tremendous amount of consulting I end up doing essentially double-checking industry analysis. I've had at least three projects where I am functionally cast in the role of "skeptical peer reviewer".

"They may have critiques, and good ones, but they will tend to stem from domain knowledge rather than a deep familiarity with the statistical properties of an estimator."

Similarly, in my work with industry partners, some of the most rigorous methodological discussions I've ever had have been with them.

"Writing for an academic audience, rather than plainly and directly for an audience of sharp non-experts"

This is definitely true. It's also good advice for folks in academia writing grant proposals to industry.

"Academia is characterized by well-trodden problems, hashed over for decades, and negligible novel data for resolving them. Industry is by comparison a mass of green field areas of inquiry with large budgets, minimal bureaucracy, and ample data."

None of this has been my experience. Indeed, most of my work with industry has been "How do we get this done on an absolute shoestring budget?"

"School tends to train people to inhabit a state where they passively wait for assignments."

This is a really weird statement. Any graduate student who has passed their preliminary exams should already be over this. If his friend was a faculty member? It's been years since he had an "assignment".

"You don’t need to ask permission to go to the bathroom and you can seize opportunities of your own volition rather than waiting for them to fall into your lap like an essay due a week from Friday."

Following on this - this is just a weird view of academia, especially given his example is someone at the faculty level.


@radarsat1 12 days

> You don’t need to signal brilliance; you need to generate good-enough results quickly.

As a previous academic now working in industry, this stuck out for me. "good-enough", and "quickly". On the whole I understand where the article is coming from, but I think some of the things it brings up, while maybe true, are actually rather unhealthy trends. I don't know for sure, but I feel like things used to be a little less like this 10, 15 years ago.

What I'm referring to is the refusal for companies to properly invest in knowledge. At least in my limited experience so far, I find that I've been asked multiple times now to start a project from scratch, or given a shoddily written codebase as a starting point, and told to add features / generate results as quickly as possible, take as many shortcuts as possible, just deliver some PoC or minimum viable solution so that we claim support for something or put it in our marketing material asap.

Meanwhile there is zero effort to take time between projects and actually develop general knowledge and excellence in a particular field. Many times now I have felt that the company would really, really benefit from just giving the team 3 to 6 months to fully study a topic, not as part of a project, but as a general knowledge gathering exercise, to experiment with different methods and implementations and just explore and see what is possible with the data that we have. The idea being, that when we do start a project for a client, we really know what we're doing and know what are the best tools to reach for to solve the problem quickly and well.

Instead what happens is that every now and then some idea comes down from on high, either from management or sales, that some "concept" must be proven immediately, like give me something in 2 weeks, don't worry about the code architecture for now (3 months later, still hacking on the poorly designed codebase that gets passed on to the next team..) and don't worry about studying the optimal solution, just jump right to implementing something. There is just no sense of, you know, let's invest some time to really properly study this and become proper experts so that we can be the best. Every single time it's just, let's solve this problem from scratch with barely any time to try more than 2 things, and then when we get mediocre results, we'll scratch our heads and have no idea what went wrong because we don't really know what we're doing.

Compared to academia, where if you don't fully understand what you're doing, someone is going to catch you with a bad analysis, or invalid assumptions etc. Instead the "closed" way things work in industry lets one away with hiding poor methods and choices from your competitors, and show publicly a very "shiny" version of what you really have.

Having said all that, there are many positives, like you can actually implement something that will be used, and you can work on interesting, applied problems, and get paid well for it, which is honestly really helpful for motivation. And, as the article says, it actually is less stressful not having to constantly defend your intelligence, or fight for publications and grant money, but just gaining trust in people by delivering good work in a timely manner. In that sense it is far simpler and, frankly, more lucrative, so the upsides do outweigh the downsides imho. But the lack of planning for the future and general long term thinking do rather bother me.


@adultSwim 12 days

I'm a little uncomfortable with the use of the term refugee in this context.


@throwawayarnty 12 days

As much as I love content that critiques academia, this one was really cringe and inaccurate for most of academia.

> Academia is characterized by well-trodden problems, hashed over for decades, and negligible novel data for resolving them. Industry is by comparison a mass of green field areas of inquiry with large budgets, minimal bureaucracy, and ample data.

These two sentences neither describes academia (science) nor industry.

Science expands the realm of what’s possible, and industry focuses more on scale and bringing a specific service to the masses.

Therefore, science is the realm with novel data, while data from industry is larger in quantity but more focused towards a customer or service.

In general I hate to the “academia bad, industry better” types of articles. It’s a high dimensional comparison with lots of overlap. There are many places where academia is preferable to industry, and many places where industry is preferable to academia.


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