People say summer is the time to go on vacation, relax, and maybe even read some books for fun. However, I decided to do a full-time internship at CloudResearch during the day, while continuing to work on my PhD research in the evenings and weekends. It’s been hard, but totally worth it! My experience so far has been very different from grad school, and it’s helping me make an informed decision about staying in academia vs. going into industry. There’s a lot I love about academia, and someday I’ll write a blog post about my reasons for wanting to pursue a tenure-track position. But for now, here are my top three reasons for liking industry:
As a PhD student, I’m not really contributing to the world. It’s a sad thought, but it’s true. During the past couple of years, I’ve trudged along, reading hundreds of papers, designing studies, collecting data, analyzing data, collecting more data, and so on. Aside from one forthcoming publication, which maybe some people will read and cite, very little of what I do on a daily basis has had any impact. I do have undergrad students whom I mentor, but all I’m doing is helping them do the same kinds of things I’m doing.
It’s different at CloudResearch. Working for a company means that on a nearly daily basis I am doing something that’s useful to someone. I’m creating tangible value. For example, one of the main projects I’m working on this summer is organizing our Innovations in Online Research Conference and CloudResearch Grant Award. When I started back in May, these were both just ideas. Now, we’ve got the website up and running and are collecting abstracts and grant proposals. I’m also helping to develop SENTRY, a system for ensuring high-quality data, which is pretty important in research!
During my first few semesters at UNC, I worked mostly by myself. I met with my advisor once in a while and could always go to my lab members or cohort for help, but my projects were all my own. There is value in that approach—I have several promising projects in the pipeline on which I will be first author. But it can also be lonely. Although our department is not very competitive and everyone is very friendly and helpful, at the end of the day it still feels like everyone is looking out for themselves. To be clear, I think this is a feature of academia, and not anything about my specific program—in academia, your CV must be your top priority if you want to succeed.
One of the first things that struck me when I started working on research projects at CloudResearch was how collaborative it was. There’s a research team with five team members (including myself), and we have several papers we’re all working on. Of course, different people will take the lead on different parts, but there’s a general sense of collective ownership and responsibility. People don’t care too much about what order they are listed in as authors—the focus is on doing research well and getting the information out there.
Between classes, mentoring, and developing research projects, I feel like I have little time for anything else. Anyone who’s taken a grad class knows that you’re not actually supposed to read all the assigned readings; you skim what you can and hope for the best. What’s the point in that? If I do something, I want to do it well. And the same is true in research. People will sometimes send me articles to read so I can, for example, teach myself multilevel modeling. But I never feel like I have the time to do that, and there always seems to be something more important to be doing.
Since timelines and expectations are more realistic at CloudResearch than academia, I feel less rushed. This is probably the result of there being more opportunity for manager feedback that makes those timelines seem less overwhelming. I still do a lot of independent learning, but I don’t feel guilty about it since I’m doing what I was asked to do. If I’m asked to read through some papers, I can do it without thinking about the dozens of other things I could be doing with my time.
There are many other benefits to industry (hello paycheck!), and there are drawbacks too. With only a month left before the fall semester, I’m glad I’m taking the time to reflect on what I’m taking away from this experience, and what I still want to learn. So far, interning at CloudResearch has been a great learning opportunity, and I’m looking forward to seeing the conference come together October 1st. If you haven’t yet, please register and/or apply for a grant!