How are academic researchers navigating the tech job market?

Job hunting can become a time-consuming process as each university or company is looking for something unique in the candidate

August 21, 2023 12:18 pm | Updated 06:13 pm IST

A seemingly harmless posting for a research position at NVIDIA lit up X [File photo]

A seemingly harmless posting for a research position at NVIDIA lit up X [File photo] | Photo Credit: The Hindu

On July 25, a seemingly harmless job posting for a research position at NVIDIA lit up microblogging platform X. The position required applicants to have published at least eight research papers in prominent conferences like the International Conference on Machine Learning (ICML), Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition (CVPR), aside from knowing machine learning frameworks like PyTorch and Tensorflow.

How the graphic card-making company arrived at that particular number baffled several academic researchers. The general disapproval from the community forced NVIDIA to eventually apologise calling the bullet point an “error,” and clarifying that they did not want to sacrifice quality for quantity. The incident is but one example of how confusing things can appear for academic researchers looking for a job. 

Quantity over quality

“Advanced research labs typically have high standards for hiring candidates with research capabilities,” said Ankit Rai, an AI specialist working at an advanced computing lab. “Publications ensure that the candidate has a strong background and is capable of conducting high quality research. However, these high publication requirements may also at times overlook other skill sets like practical experience, teamwork, and set unrealistic expectations at times.”

Arvind Narayanan, professor of computer science at Princeton said, “The NVIDIA requirement of eight publications is obviously silly, especially for a non-academic job. The correlation between paper publishing and real-world skills is minimal.” 

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For those outside of academia, it is hard to understand the rigmarole of having a paper published in a globally recognised conference.

“Submitting your paper with an important conference is a lengthy, tiring process - most deep learning conferences like CVPR have around 10,000 submissions,” explained Abhinav Upadhyay, Technology leader at Accenture Labs.  “A researcher works on a paper for between 10-12 months, and it takes 3 months to review one. So, no, putting down a number as the minimum requirement is not the right way to look at things.”

A networking choice

Around the same time when NVIDIA job post issue played out, another divisive debate erupted on social media on how necessary it was for a researcher to maintain a personal website. Some researchers noted that there were good reasons to have a personal site as a LinkedIn profile is not enough to showcase research work.

“Having a website shouldn’t be marked as mandatory but it is good to have one. You can organise your entire profile and your body of work on a website in a much better way than just a LinkedIn profile,” Upadhyay noted.

Rai noted that this would depend on where one is looking to apply: in a tech company or academia. “Academic positions have very different application processes, and having a website to maintain a portfolio can help your application stand out whereas industry jobs are very well posted on career networking sites. However, in the past few years career networking sites are also showing an increase in the number of academic job listings,” he said. 

Streamlining the route?

Job hunting can become a time-consuming process as each university or company is looking for something unique in the candidate.

“In the United States, some disciplines such as economics have a streamlined academic job market process. It has both benefits and drawbacks,” Narayanan noted. “ One drawback is that more streamlined also means more rigid. There is less room for experimenting with the format or having flexibility in defining the boundaries of the discipline. A streamlined process probably won’t work at all for non-academic jobs, since companies and roles are so different from each other.” 

Upadhyay thinks streamlining is out of the question considering how amorphous the process of research itself is.

“It depends on the project you’ve been hired for, like for example, in India, the stipend sometimes is project-based, sometimes its funded by the government. There are many variants. So, it’s very hard to define a specific set of rules,” he stated. 

There’s also a need for a deeper understanding to judge the merit of a researcher. “Nowadays companies want a researcher who know PyTorch, Tensorflow, and everything . It’s a very corporate and set way, which is not the most suitable for this field,” Upadhyay noted. 

“There are researchers who have completed multiple courses on LinkedIn, but this doesn’t reflect when you speak with them. The process has become a marketing gimmick,” he said explaining the dissonance in the job market. 

Upadhyay continued, “I’ve also seen PhD students who study with BTech or MTech students get help when it comes to their coding work. This harms the researcher eventually because once you’re hired, it’s not just as a consultant for deep learning projects, you are expected to be a major contributor to it.”

A change in the horizon

But despite the squabbles, most take solace in the fact that there is definite change for the better.  

“Industry-academia collaboration was limited a few years back, however, this has significantly increased in the past few years and has led to a more structured job process where PhD students can experience both sides of the world and have more opportunities,” Rai said. 

“Things have definitely changed from 5-10 years ago, for the better. I remember when IIT-Kanpur had four or five PhD students. There are many more PhD students now,” Upadhyay claims. 

And the demand is only trending upward. 

“Overall, the job prospects for PhD researchers in the tech sector are generally positive. The demand for interdisciplinary research has grown substantially, where researchers need to collaborate across multiple domains, just look at the healthcare industry,” Rai noted. 

Tech companies, Upadhyay says, have the money and are hungry for talent. “I am confident that once the market improves, there will be much more hiring for researchers. The spotlight is on AI and companies need people who understand the foundations of it,” he said.

Narayanan says that aside from their own advisors, there are many avenues for career guidance for PhD students. “Some conferences are also starting to have events like doctoral colloquia which are networking events for doctoral students to get feedback and advice from senior scholars as well as peers,” he added.

While searching for a job after completing PhD can vary depending on several factors like, the domain of study, demand for researchers in a particular domain or geographic location, building a personal network and attending conferences can help candidates make more informed decisions, Rai noted. 

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