Theo Vassilakis, worked for Google for almost 8 years, climbing his way up to Engineering Director, before leaving to co-found Metanautix. He has a PhD in maths from Brown University.
You’ve just completed your undergraduate education. (Congratulations!) If you find yourself at a crossroad, pondering whether to pursue a graduate degree immediately or seek a job in the industry, here are a few considerations that may help you in your decision-making.
Reasons to choose grad school right after college:
- You have the momentum of having just been in an academic environment, mindset, and work style.
- If you’re interested in an academic career, you’ll maximise the time you spend in academia.
- Academia can feel like a clear path, unlike the unchartered territory of industry.
- Theoretical work can be fun and more self-contained than work done in industry.
Reasons to get a job before going to grad school:
Work experience will help you to develop an independent perspective — in your field of study, in industrial applications of research, and in life in general. If you become a professor, you’ll want to have a wide arsenal of experiences to guide your students. Like college, grad school can be a protective cocoon, offering less of an opportunity to grow in those dimensions, though growth is inevitable and will still happen no matter which path you take.
Going to grad school is subject to a variety of external pressures. Some of these pressures may be emotional, such as pleasing your parents, pleasing professors, a fear of a lack of any exposure to industry and a fear of the unknown. Other pressures may be practical ones, such as money concerns, visa issues, or spouse/partner careers. Do some introspection to determine whether those external pressures are making the decision for you. If so, chances are you won’t be happy at grad school. Conversely, you should also assess if external pressures are driving you to industry even though you are truly passionate about grad school.
It’s possible that what you do in grad school will be influenced heavily by your M.S./Ph.D. advisor’s financial power over you, which isn’t always conducive to a good grad school experience. Often college is either paid for by parents or by debt. Either way, unless you have a lucrative part-time job, you may not have your own sense of what it is like to earn money.
If you work for a while, chances are you may find:
- you like working in industry, and conclude that you don’t need grad school; or
- you still want to pursue grad school, and now you have no doubts; or
- you have the confidence to research the things you care about, once you’ve earned some money, paid some debts, and realised that you will have a job or team you can go back to.
It’s possible that you’d do far more cutting-edge work in a Microsoft Research project, or a Google environment, — or, yes, at Metanautix — than in a Ph.D. program.
Increasingly, the industry is paving the way on key areas like data science, distributed systems, and applications of statistics, because industry has the data, the money, the circumstances, the incentives, and all the raw material. That very trend is part of the reason why computer science programs are having a difficult time attracting, and retaining, top-quality faculty.
If you truly want to be a scholar, academia may be your destiny, but if you work for a few years first, you’ll be better off no matter which path — industry or academia — you decide to follow next.
I would have been a much better maths grad student if I had worked as an engineer for a few years beforehand. Work experience would have taught me better accountability, time management, and other lessons that come from the responsibility of having a job.
My officemate in grad school, who had dropped out of Berkeley, gone to work, and later realised that he really loved being in maths environments, eventually went back to grad school. He’s now a happy maths prof who taught me great lines like “there’s no such thing as understanding, just levels of misunderstanding.”
My business partner, Toli, shares a similar perspective.
He joined the Stanford Ph.D. program in computer science (CS) right out of Stanford’s undergraduate CS program, motivated largely by a sense of “this is just the natural next step for smart people, the same way 10th grade follows 9th grade.”
As a foreigner who came to the US from Greece to attend college, he also had a sense that industry means boredom and corruption, because that’s what he saw growing up.
Ultimately, Toli dropped out of the Ph.D. program to co-found or work for a series of startups and to build from scratch many interesting systems. In his view, the intellectual challenges of industry and the chance to teach and mentor other engineers have far surpassed any opportunities he experienced during his Ph.D. years.
Also, because he often lectures or teaches in academic settings, sharing his industry perspective, in Toli’s view, industry is not mutually exclusive to innovation, teaching, or ties to academia.
Ironically, it’s fair to point out that Toli and I met while Toli was teaching (as a fellow or assistant) during his Ph.D. years, and while I was an undergrad.
And a few of our key employees at Metanautix are ex-students of Toli’s. So Metanautix wouldn’t have existed in its current form if Toli hadn’t gone to grad school.
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