Thursday, May 29, 2008

Industry vs. Research

As a graduate student looking for jobs, a common question I heard was "Industry or research?" Industry jobs include developers, technical managers, and even applied researchers to a large degree. Fundamental research jobs are professors and research scientists at industrial labs, such as Microsoft Research and Yahoo! Research. The definitions are somewhat fuzzy (applied research is industry? industrial labs are research?), but a generally distinguishing characteristic is whether publishing papers is a primary aspect of the job.

It was this characteristic that made me realize the fundamental difference between industry and research. It's one I wish I had known when I started graduate school. In short,

Industry is primarily about selling products, while research is primarily about selling stories

This is why publishing papers is telling: papers are a medium for selling stories. Of course, a good story helps sell a product, and a working product helps sell a story. So there is definite overlap. However, it's telling how well the pros and cons of industry and research derive from this basic difference.

To illustrate, consider some classic pros and cons. In industry, since you sell products, your work has direct impact on people that use the product. Since people will typically pay for this impact, the product itself is the source of funding. And if your product is sufficiently impactful, it is the source of a lot of funding, and you get rich. However, this means it's critical to quickly and consistently create marketable products. The result is a dampening effect on the problems targeted by industry: they are dictated by the market, and typically have shorter-term visions with fewer (or at least more calculated) risks.

In contrast, research has significantly more freedom in the problems it tackles. They are often longer-term, riskier visions. Research can do this because it only has to sell stories describing core ideas, not fully working products. Thus, it can focus on interesting technical problems. However, "selling" a story does not usually mean for money, but rather convincing people that it describes a good idea (e.g., getting a paper accepted to a conference). Since neither the story nor the idea generates money directly, researchers must seek out external funding such as grants, or, in industrial labs, income from products (which, to be fair, often contain the final fruits of research).

Given such pros and cons, the distinction of product vs. story seems obvious in hindsight. However, what made me first realize it was a more subtle situation. My advisor asked me to devise a data model for the system we're building. I came back with two options: a very common model, and a novel model that was simpler and more expressive. I favored the novel model, but my advisor said we should use the common one. His reason was that the data model was not our primary contribution, and papers with too many innovations can confuse readers. And he was right. Even though the novel model would make for a better system, the common model makes for a better story — and I'm currently in the business of selling stories. At some later date, after we sell our current story, we may sell another story that focuses on a new data model.

To conclude, I want to say that this isn't meant to promote either industry or research. In my particular case, I've found that I lean more towards selling products than stories. However, I've spoken with both developers and researchers, and both agree with the product vs. story differentiation, and each prefers their side. Of course, I'd love to hear from anyone else on the topic. I just think that understanding this difference is vital to making an informed decision about graduate school, and life afterwards.


Anne Whitson said...

Got my Ph.D. in CS ten years ago at one of the UC's. I can see how the "product" versus "paper" distinction is a good way to explain to a newbie what they would be spending most of their time doing in each world. However, treating papers as products may ultimately be misleading. Consider who actually pays for the papers? In my experience, these are funding agencies, typically governmental. What do they really want out of the papers? Well, many peripheral things actually, like the development of specialist communities in various fields for defense and industry, but arguably the most tangible product of basic research is intellectual property. This IP is typically owned by the university with a free license going to the funding agency that supported the research. At UC, if an invention in a paper was deemed valuable, the Office of Tech Transfer could delay its publication. So I'd argue that papers aren't "products", but quality assurance documentation, which if published in a peer-reviewed journal, means the IP is (hopefully) validated. I think you can also argue that papers are advertising for the lab. If you get enough people linking to your paper (citations) you pop-up to the top of the grant agencies' search results. :)

BTW, I chose a third path you didn't mention - entrepreneurship! The main difference between this and "industry" (by this I mean big companies) is that if your product fails you have no income - this makes you very attentive to your users. You might imagine that if there is any time in this arena for research it must be very product-driven - and that's largely true - but there's also an enormous pressure to discover simple abstract solutions. Why? They cost much less to implement! For example, it took a lot work to implement and debug programming languages before context free grammars and their associated compilers came along in the 60's. The trick is limiting the time spent finding the abstract solution, or more typically, you find it before you start a company.

Pedro DeRose said...

Thank you for the fantastic comment, Jim!

I agree entirely that papers are not products. I think of them as a medium for telling, and selling, stories.

Part of this story is often a description of novel IP (though not always; consider surveys). However, it's usually more than just that. For instance, a dry but technically complete description of ground-breaking IP may make for an unpublishably bad paper. And while funding agencies certainly fund research for IP, academic researchers are generally measured by their publications (amongst other things, of course).

Thus, selling stories is still quite important. After all, IP is of less use to an academic if they can't publish it...unless they go into industry and start selling it in a product. :)

Anne Whitson said...

Thanks - glad you liked the comment. Your very interesting post inspired me to new long-winded heights. :)

One comment: Although I presented the "papers as quality assurance documents" viewpoint, I definitely agree that they are also stories - stories designed to market the authors, their lab, and their approach to a problem.

I think this is probably the most important thing for a would-be grad student to understand. Top undergraduate students (the people who get into grad school) tend to think technical mastery alone should be enough to succeed because that's what they experience in their technical coursework. However, the most successful professors I know are all masters of marketing and political campaigning. Of course as "serious scientists" most don't like to talk about this aspect of their work and the soft skills it entails - like story creation and presentation.

Unknown said...

It's all on an individual person, some people think that they can learn more things through research whereas some says that they can learn while working in industry. One who takes interest is always able learn something in either of the field.

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