4 weeks in corporate research – initial thoughts

So I’ve spent the last 4 weeks in Cambridge working as an intern at Microsoft Research and I thought I’d share my observations on the differences between academia and corporate research.

Academia, I find, is far from the ivory tower that it once was. Forgetting the worrying need to find economic benefit for projects, most research is now being spun as a product.

Surely the last thing you want for a product is a buggy bloated research prototype, and surely the last thing you want for a research project is a polished product. I mean you want it for one thing, to prove a hypothesis for your thesis.

This of course, is a massive generalisation, and more applied to the recent batch of Ph.Ds coming through, especially as they come through doctoral training schemes which mesh (mostly unsuccessfully) different fields together. Still, scoring a blue-skies research project without lying through your teeth in the impact section of a proposal is like finding real ale in Essex.

Of course, there is the positive side of academia too. The freedom to tackle your problem via any means. Flexible working hours (unless you are an RA), flexible supervision, flexible scope. You can produce a highly polished massively overworked Ph.D, or the bare minimum which gets the job done. It is a very personal thing. Research projects are a bit more managed, you have a more rigid supervisory system, project meetings, but your section of stuff is pretty much yours to do as you will.

This environment breeds two types of people: the successful ones who generally ask for and give help to their peers, accept criticism with grace, and who thrive in a space where they make the rules; and the other ones who, having seen the gaping ravine of work in front of them, bottle it and fail. Maybe not straight away nor suddenly, as it could creep up after a year or two, but Ph.Ds have been known to just disappear into industry after 4 years, with not a word to anyone. It is very easy to lose sight of where you are aiming to get to, reaching a false summit of your thesis and calling it done.

Academia is very much a dog eat dog world. The UK has a much nicer tenure-free environment, but even the tenant of the American “publish or perish” culture still exists. Academics live off their reputation, and their reputation is written in the black ink of a bibliography.

Corporate research is exactly the same landscape but with a few key differences.

For a start, the “build a prototype” message is very clear, especially for systems which may one day be products. You are building and evaluating a proof of concept, as it should be.

Secondly, the atmosphere is completely different. Whereas in the academic environment it is almost taboo to ask on a struggling Ph.D how their work is going, in corporate research struggling researchers are actively propped up and discussions at lunch and the pub are refreshingly problem orientated.

Thirdly, your supervisor is your manager. Which from a managerial point of view is awesome, you have someone who is your boss and *knows* what they are talking about, whilst still being your supervisor and knowing all the issues that come from research and how best to stimulate ideas out of dead ends. From an intern perspective this is also good, as seeing your supervisor as your boss makes you want to impress them more, and meet deadlines days earlier.

Finally, the pay is miles better.

Those are the good bits, and of course, there are some bad bits too.

Corporate research labs tend to have a “eat your own dog food” policy, which means that if the company creates a tool that can do you job, you use it, unless you can find a valid research reason not to. Working at Microsoft and being a Linux user, you can see how this has led to initial slow productivity as I’ve readjusted to an alien tool-chain.

There are also some scary law type things which get attached to the job, such as losing a kidney if I speak of what I see on whiteboards and such. However, this style of development is slowly losing ground as projects like Gadgeteer are being released under an Apache licence.

As a final point, having worked in some small companies where you have the “family” feel, I still find that you get this here. It may be due to the organisation of the research lab, but everyone is very friendly and you associate with your research group quite strongly. But not in a “compete against other group” way, as everyone in the building is amazingly friendly.

So far I’m enjoying it, we’ll see if I still do in 8 weeks time 😉


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