My PhD in a Research Institution

People often associate PhD life with an academic career. While you need a university to award you with a PhD title, it doesn’t mean that you strictly have to carry out your research inside the university. But choosing a PhD can be a gruesome task, because you never know if it’s going to be a good fit for you. To help with that, I will talk about my experience as a PhD candidate in a research institution, how it differs from other types of PhD programmes, and what to expect from each of them.

Who am I to talk?

I am currently an Early Stage Researcher working in Centre Tecnològic de Telecomunicacions de Catalunya (CTTC) which is a non-profit research institution based in Barcelona, Spain. Our institution is divided into four divisions and those subdivided into departments. I am part of the Advanced Signal and Information Processing Department which is mainly focused on new signal processing and communications methods and currently develops several physical layer prototyping platforms. In my day-to-day life, I investigate different mechanisms to improve the air communication, specifically, we try to reduce interference in such communication. I also attend seminars by CTTC where I can discuss new trends on a specific topic with other researchers. Of course, I check up regularly with my supervisors to chat about my progress and ideas.

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This general description is somewhat a merge between what one would expect to find in the university and the industry. You can notice that most of my day is about researching which also happens in the university. But at the same time, the institutional structure/hierarchy reminds me of the industrial environment.

What is a Research Institution?

Before diving deeper into the differences between different types of PhD, let’s see what a research institution is. One could describe a research institution as an organization mainly focused on exploring and contributing to leading future technologies. Many research institutions are non-profit organizations (e.g., CTTC, Max Plank) funded either by the government or funding agencies. Others are privately funded (e.g., Nokia Bell Labs, Sri Lanka Institute of Nanotechnology). In general research institutions can be considered as “hybrid organizations” in the sense that they lie in between the public-private sector and the research-product oriented sector. This hybrid nature allows researchers to contribute to leading future technologies either theoretically or in a practical-product style. But many research institutions non-profit research institutions often conduct research on a variety of topics without some specific direction guided by market trends. 

So, what are the differences between a PhD in a research institution and a PhD in academia or industry?

Research Institution Vs. Academia

I have to admit – I did not do an academic PhD, so I don’t have first-hand experience. But I have a good idea about it, because I’ve thoroughly discussed this with fellow PhD students from different universities around the world (Brazil, Germany, Spain, Italy, Portugal …).

The most contrasting part seems to be teaching. This is a common day-to-day life at the university. Depending on the country/university, doctorate candidates are expected to give lectures, elaborate, and correct exercises, and aid in grading exams. I’ve talked to many people that love this part of their job. Many say that teaching others is a great way to retain the knowledge and to better reflect on the subject. Indeed, some studies and references therein] suggest that learning-by-teaching benefits from retrieving information during teaching time which then might promote long‐term knowledge retention. 

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To try and take advantages of this learning-by-teaching principle, many research institutions elaborate weekly seminars where researchers discuss about their domain or some recent trend in their field. Many PhD programs also require doctoral candidates to teach, even if you’re in a research institution or industry. One way or another, if your focus is teaching, you will probably have more opportunities in academia.

Although the benefits of teaching during your PhD are great for you and many other students, teaching can be time-consuming. Some of the PhD students I talked to mentioned that it consumes up to 30%-40% of their time. So, you have to be quite organized while carrying out your research. In research institutions which don’t require teaching, this time is usually used to carry out your research or to get involved with different projects within your department. For instance, many of my PhD colleagues at CTTC are directly or indirectly involved in different projects and have the opportunity of building partnerships with both public and private sectors.

Another difference between research institutions and universities is the job opportunities that comes after your PhD. Because research institutions sometimes have large projects simulating the environment of the industry, it helps the PhD students to get experience closer to the industry. For instance, many companies require knowledge on version control systems or versatility while working with large groups of colleagues. And I believe those skills are more strengthened when doing a PhD in a research industry rather than in the university.

Research Institution vs Industry 

The industry offers many opportunities for cooperation. There are the so-called Industrial Doctorates in which the PhD candidate carry out his/her research while being a full-time employee in a company. Another option is a mixed version in which the doctoral student is affiliated to the University and spends a fraction of his/her research in a company.

In my opinion, doing a PhD in the industry is a good way to transition from your academic life into industry life. During my master’s degree, I had the opportunity to do my master thesis in the car industry and I was guided by a PhD candidate working for the same company. I remember that most of the PhD students I met wanted to continue working for the same company or start a career in the industry. At the time, most of them were really happy and involved in many research projects.

But I also remember that some of them didn’t have enough time to conduct their own research. That is because in the industry, you often have to work on internal side-projects which are usually private and cannot be easily shared with the public. In other words, in the industry you often need to go through official (and sometimes bureaucratic) channels before publishing a paper.

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This probably exemplifies one of the biggest differences between industry and research institutions. Some companies tend to take the “knowledge sharing” (e.g., publications, open sources, blogs) in a very bureaucratic manner. Frequently, before submitting a paper, many companies require the document to be reviewed internally and for a patent to be filled. This might require some time and extra planning before submitting your papers to a journal or a conference. Both the internal side projects and the extra layer of bureaucracy are in complete contrast with doing a PhD in a research institution.

On the other hand, there are also similarities between the two. The most important lies in the technology-oriented mindset. In academia you usually focus on taking projects that are likely to become publications. In the industry and in research institutions you are more likely to pick up projects which lead to technologies of the future. So, you might publish less than you would at a university, if you take these types of PhDs.

Now you hopefully have a better idea about the differences in a PhD at a research institution, in the industry and at a university. I’ll admit I might be leaning more towards a PhD in a research institution, because that’s what I’m doing right now. But it goes without saying that none of the career paths is better than the other – it all depends on you and what your goals are. If you are thinking about doing a PhD, feel free to reach out to me at my email address: rpereira@cttc.cat

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Roberto Pereira

Roberto completed his Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science in his home Brazil, then went on to pursue his Master’s degree in Informatics at TU München in Germany. He is now based in Barcelona at his host institution CTTC, working on his doctoral thesis in the field of Machine Learning For High Dimensional Observations. His supervisors are Xavier Mestre and David Gregoratti.