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12 Careers in Government and Industry

Dianne Prost O'Leary
©1996,1999,2009
Last modified 21 August 2009.


There are many exciting career opportunities in government and industry. Even if you firmly believe that you will spend your life as an academic, you may find yourself making a career change later, or doing some part-time consulting. Since the average person makes several job changes over the course of a career, it is important to keep your options open. In this section we focus on the attractions of non-academic jobs and on the job search process.

12.1 Types of Careers

There are some major differences between the university environment and the industrial/laboratory one:

There are many varieties of nonacademic jobs:

Some organizations engage in classified research - particularly, some Department of Defense labs, National Security Agency, and Department of Energy labs. At installations such as this, some percentage of your time might be spent in research that cannot be made public. This work is important and interesting, but will do nothing to enhance your prospects for a move to a non-classified installation. If job mobility is important to you, then it is vital that you keep a high public profile as well, continuing to do research that can be published openly, and continuing to attend conferences in your research area.

Private industry hires people who can contribute in some way to the company's ``bottom line" of profits. Different companies evaluate the contribution in different ways. At one end of the spectrum are companies who operate labs like IBM Yorktown, Xerox Parc, or Bell Labs, where management has believed that a relatively unfettered research environment will lead to unexpected advances, some of which will generate new commercial products. Although people are encouraged to become involved in some less speculative work, a major part of their time can be spent in work much like that of universities. At the other end of the spectrum are companies that focus on short-term, product-specific tasks that lead to research questions whose answers will have immediate impact.

Again, an important consideration is how openly you will be allowed to talk about your work. Some companies do classified research, and others protect their research and their products as trade secrets or by copyright or patent.

Success in a research job may ultimately lead to a job in management of research. Many corporations make the mistake of making the management track the only path to high salaries, although more enlightened companies recognize the importance of rewarding senior researchers who do not choose (or have no aptitude for) management. A good manager understands the concerns of the researchers he/she manages and acts as buffer and advocate. A good manager is a filter, suppressing the ``noise'' from higher level management while keeping the unit informed of important news. At the same time, a good manager presents the unit's case for resources and keeps higher management aware of the unit's accomplishments and value.

12.2 What Are Industrial Jobs Like?

In an medium or large size organization, your first tasks will probably involve close team work with a more experienced colleague with similar background. You may participate in a project that is well underway, making a specific contribution to software, mathematical formulation, or modeling. Or you may be brought into a beginning project that you will help to shape and then make a fairly well-defined contribution. Evaluation of your work will include the quality of your contribution, your attention to deadlines, your ability to work harmoniously with others, and your oral and written communication skills.

After you have some experience, you may be asked to work more independently, perhaps serving as the sole person on a project with your particular specialty. For instance, Margaret Wright of Bell Labs speaks of a project that involved studying radio signal propagation in a building. The team involved one engineer, expert in radio signal modeling, two mathematicians, expert in numerical optimization, and one computer scientist, expert in graph algorithms. An important ingredient in such projects is mutual respect among the team members so that they can trust that the pieces of the project that they only vaguely understand are being handled well. Team members must contribute responsibly and be wise enough to ask help from people outside the team when they are unsure of themselves.

Further on, you may be asked to lead a team or perhaps direct a research division. This requires a whole new set of skills and you should be prepared for some retraining to meet a new set of challenges.

12.3 How Should You Prepare for an Industrial Career?

There are several things you can do (beginning in your first year of graduate study!) that will make the prospects of success in an industrial environment more likely. Check the list in the academic career section (Section 11) - all of that advice applies here. Work experience is invaluable. Look for opportunities to work in industry for a summer or a semester. Look for industrial workshops that will give you a chance to work on applied problems for an intensive session, preferably in a multi-disciplinary environment.

Obtain some breadth of background. In interacting with engineers or biologists or physical scientists, it is invaluable to know the vocabulary and to be able to understand the underlying principles. Broaden your areas of expertise through course work or seminar attendance.

12.4 How Do You Find a Job?

Industrial and government positions tend to work on a shorter time scale than academic ones. It might take several months to have the paperwork progress through the system and be called for an interview, but (at least for unclassified work) the time between interview, offer, and starting data is often quite short.

As in finding an academic job, consult your advisor and other faculty members, and use any contacts you have to inquire about positions.

12.4.1 Applying

12.4.2 Interviewing

Interviewing can be exhausting. Often appointments and talks span a 13 hour period each day. The first few interviews are fun, but it is difficult to keep up enthusiasm over a long series. Choose carefully if you have many invitations.

Check the advice in the academic career section (Section 11) for information on interviews and the aftermath.


next up previous contents
Next: 13 Professional Ethics Up: gradstudy Previous: 11 A Professorship in   Contents
Dianne O'Leary 2009-08-21