I want to do something real
October 18, 2006 1:44 PM   Subscribe

I have a fresh B.S. in Computer Science, and I'm currently in graduate school. And I hate it. But, I want to do research. Can you help me find a "side door" into corporate R&D? Alternatively, add to my list of R&D labs.

I'm a very creative and ambitious person. And, not to brag, but I'm really very smart. I design and program systems in my spare time. Creating new things is what interests me in life. I'll consider myself a failure at the age of forty if I haven't contributed to the state of human knowledge.

Since I feel that way, it seemed that the proper path would be to get my PhD.

But academia is driving me mad. Not only are the classes as irksome as they were when I was an undergrad, but the complete lack of impact that my work has on the world is getting to me as well. I want to make things that people use, not just papers for other researchers to read.

My interest is in wearable and ubiquitous computing. I have designed, and partially built, several ubicomp systems entirely on my own, or in small groups. I really have some skill at this, although I readily admit that I have lots to learn. Of course, I would have more experience if I didn't have to decide between microchips and groceries.

A trusted professor suggested that I might have luck simply cold-calling research labs doing research in ubicomp and asking for a job. My list of such labs is woefully short; all I can think of are Bell Labs (Lucent), Sun Labs, Xerox PARC, and Microsoft. Additions are most appreciated.
posted by Netzapper to Work & Money (9 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
Response by poster: Oh, also, I'm not necessarily looking for giant corporations. Startups working in this field would also be perfectly acceptable (and it's more likely that my cold call approach will work with them).
posted by Netzapper at 1:47 PM on October 18, 2006


But academia is driving me mad. Not only are the classes as irksome as they were when I was an undergrad, but the complete lack of impact that my work has on the world is getting to me as well. I want to make things that people use, not just papers for other researchers to read.

Have you considered that maybe you're in the wrong kind of program for what you want to do? There are options beyond the MS/Ph.D route for you: NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program (I graduated last year with a MPS, the terminal degree), the MIT Media Lab or the Design Interaction department at RCA are fantastic places with great reputations for technologically-inclined, creative types who want the structure and support of a graduate program along with the freedom to research whatever it is they're interested in alongside people who are the same. All three are great places to be for wearable and ubicomp, and ITP especially has alumni everywhere you'd conceivably want to work. Going into a research lab without a graduate degree is a considerable handicap, not just because you won't have that fancy diploma but also because (and perhaps most importantly) you won't have the built-in social network of the people you want to be around.
posted by lia at 2:44 PM on October 18, 2006 [1 favorite]


You're not going to get far without a grad degree at the places you listed. You'd be much better off at a startup doing something you're interested in.

This is huge red flag territory: "the complete lack of impact that my work has on the world is getting to me as well. I want to make things that people use, not just papers for other researchers to read." Many, many corporate research labs are filled with academics who do not ever get their products out in the world beyond their field. You should really have a chat with people that work at these places. Quite often the "mother company" will only act interested in certain projects, and you'll have no say, even if your thing is amazing. You simply won't make those decisions. A startup (on your own maybe?) is a better deal if this pisses you off.

That said, to add to your list: for other grad schools. lia's suggestions are very good. Medialab especially as you'll have direct contact with potential customers / corporate partners on a daily/weekly basis and there is a huge ubicomp force at work there. Other corporate labs: MERL, FXPAL, Google, Yahoo/Overture/etc, IBM. Again, I don't know of many non-interns or support staff there that don't have at least a terminal master's or PhD.
posted by neustile at 3:06 PM on October 18, 2006


("there" in last sentence == "at those sorts of places")
posted by neustile at 3:09 PM on October 18, 2006


Well... there are many side doors into industrial research labs. For example, I used to intern at Sun Labs and know a lot of the people there, and if I knew someone who was interested in working there I could pass on a recommendation and a resume - but only in my field, which is not ubicomp, and only if I knew the person well enough to know that they really would be a good candidate.

For labs: I'm sure IBM has something going on, and probably HP as well. And I searched for 'Intel ubiquitous computing' and it looks like they have a group too. Google might (they've got a bit of everything going on.)

The culture at Sun Labs, and likely similar labs, is very much like an academic research group. Most (but not all) employees hold graduate degrees and most got in the door through academic networks. If you are planning on cold-calling you'd better have something pretty significant to offer and a proven track record. And if you can get a personal recommendation from a colleague of your prospective employer it carries ten times the weight.

on preview: neustile is absolutely correct. many research programs never see the light of day and a startup is a better bet if you want your work to have an immediate impact.

Most research labs have summer intern programs. You should look into these. Your chances of success are far higher - there is much less risk for the company - and if you are an intern you will meet everybody and get a chance to show what you can do. Many new hires are former interns.

And you should also do something about your grad program. The courses are supposde to help you gain background in your chosen field. If they aren't interesting then they're the wrong courses.
posted by PercussivePaul at 3:15 PM on October 18, 2006


Best answer: Ditch the PhD and get your butt into industry. If you want to build things that people actually use, a research lab is the last place you want to be.

I guarantee you that the Apple iPod did not come out of Apple's Research Division, because they don't have one. It was designed and built by engineers who have time and time again proved their ability to bring a commercially viable product to market. There is your wearable computing that's changing the world.

I'll consider myself a failure at the age of forty if I haven't contributed to the state of human knowledge.

So file a few patents while you're making real products. Your company will love you for it, and the ideas will eventually become public domain. Necessity truly is the mother of invention, and nothing sparks creativity quite like realizing that a competing startup has better technology than yours.
posted by tkolar at 3:20 PM on October 18, 2006


If you find a solution, please follow up. I'm a Computer Engineering undergrad with a pair of semesters left, and my interests are wearables and ubicomp as well.
posted by adamwolf at 6:16 PM on October 18, 2006


It sounds like you'd be happier in a commercial R&D lab, from what you've said.

OTOH, I've known people who've worked at big-company research labs (in ubicomp and the like, coincidentally), who hated the masturbatory ineffectuality of it all, and went back to academia.

My only advice is to avoid any lab that contains a "visionary".
posted by hattifattener at 8:24 PM on October 18, 2006 [1 favorite]


adamwolf, Netzapper asked me to write an email about ITP in more detail. Mail.app neglected to save me a copy but if you ask him I'm sure he'd be happy to forward you what I wrote, and feel free to email me if you have any questions yourself after that.
posted by lia at 9:53 PM on October 18, 2006


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