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I am a recent fresh graduate who came from math and physics. Recently (< 4 weeks), I've taken on a junior research role in a research institute within a University. This particularly university - and those in this country - have extremely strong collaborations with industry partners so work in Universities in this country is divided into pure/ fundamental research and industry-driven research. The University houses corporate research labs.

The project I am working on right now is in the area of air traffic. I report to a fellow (academic title) who comes from industry who is only focused on research in operations/ convincing stakeholders and sponsors. Research because everything he proposes and investigates are qualitative and conceptual without any justifications with mathematics in an area which presumably requires mathematical models to validate ideas.

Granted that I have been in this role for <4 weeks, I am miserable and I believe I will continue to feel so.

1) I believed I was overpromised. I was promised that I would be working alongside professors to develop new mathematical models for air traffic. It turns out I am the only person from math and physics. The rest are from engineering or industrial design field.

2) Much of my time would be involved with producing white papers and policy recommendations for management of future air traffic

3) I am pushed to pursue a PhD (comes with scholarship) which, with internal discussion, would allow me to move into a PhD program even with an average BSc grades since the director of the research institute is the PI for the PhD program. However, my thesis would have to be in the area of air traffic. My interest is in Abstract Algebra, Topology and Quantum mechanics and I'll like to pursue this in a year or two time when I return back to University.

4) The fellow I report too is really a project manager in disguise. Every discussions with him mainly revolves around stakeholder expectations and targeted objectives.

A good case scenario is this: He engages a visiting scholar who has done a PhD thesis in air traffic modelling, look to see how the idea in the thesis could be extended to specific circumstances (without much modification to the mathematical model in the thesis) for national interest before suggesting a feasibility write up on why this works. From here, it is already obvious that nothing of substance could be published in respectable journals.

I am afraid that my current research role will not provide me with a stronger exposure to math or physics in the fundamental sense.

What is the best course of action?

  • I am a Math person. I also used to work in ATM. I guess I understand your feelings. I think ATM is a good industry career, but not necessarily a good theoretical area for you to do fundamental research in. It's application oriented. No matter how good your theory or idea is, it will be rejected if enough pilots/ATC controllers are against.it. So, yes, don't do it if you dislike it. On the other hand, I guess you understand how tough it will be if you want to stay on fundamental research. It's up to you. Good luck. – scaaahu Apr 14 '18 at 7:21
  • @scaaahu How easy would it be for a person with my academic background and a few years of experience in ATM to move into the more fundamental research area in defence? – Academia.jpg Apr 14 '18 at 7:30
  • @scaaahu I am located in the asia pacific/ asia region – Academia.jpg Apr 14 '18 at 7:51
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    Do not do a PhD in a field you are not interested in. And do not choose a field of research for your degree just because of convenience (offer/opportunity). I cannot emphasise that enough. In addition, switching topics drastically after a PhD is very difficult. It is possible, but I have seen it rarely succeed. Usually, people start with a related topic and then drift away in the direction they are interested in. However, drifting from ATC to Topology/QM does not look obvious; Quantum airplanes? Topological path planning? Braid groups for flight patterns? Perhaps... – Captain Emacs Apr 14 '18 at 9:21
  • @CaptainEmacs I truly like your comment above. Your ideas are marvelous. – scaaahu Apr 14 '18 at 9:42
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Sadly, it seems that the link between industry and academia is weak even in universities where, in your words, industry collaborations are strong.

I'm not from the same field, so this isn't domain specific. But having had some similar experience along the industry-institute faultline, maybe I can point out a few things to think about:

(1) There is a big gap between what you were expecting and what you're getting, and this may not change significantly as you go along. Best to accept that. You may like to take a rigorous look at academic careers and see how much of your expectation will be met there, and whether other hurdles could offset these advantages.

(2) Graduate courses in these fields, one way or another, prime us to think of academic careers as a default option. Truth be told, not everyone is cut out for those. So you could take a hard look at whether this line is your own goal or your conditioning.

(3) You mentioned getting a PhD offer despite average grades- this is a lesson that in the long term, the initial years may matter less. Maybe this could apply to your career as well, this research project being the initial years and your career being the long term. Perhaps the 'national interest' bit is significant; it can be a strong motivator if it really is true.

(4) There is an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the fellow you report to; this can be symptomatic of cultural (institute culture, not national/community culture) differences. Such research institutes often have very specific mandates, and people who work there fall in line despite their initial desires. Some find satisfaction after doing so, others don't. It's difficult to know in advance where you will stand. But you can be sure of one thing- if you cannot align yourself culturally, you are unlikely to be happy.

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    The weakest link is in the source of funding. The matter is made worst by program directors/ fellows who comes from industry with zero idea the realities and culture in research. Project managers have an incentives to satisfy corporate milestones. – Academia.jpg Apr 14 '18 at 9:51
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    ...and they feel the same about us. The common belief is that researchers have zero idea about real world realities, and our incentives are publication milestones. I told you, it's a faultline, across which the other side seems wrong. Truth is, neither view is helpful at the end of the day. But seeing how strongly you feel about this, it seems like a no-brainer for you to drop this. :) – user153812 Apr 14 '18 at 10:05
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    @user153812 That may be. But while industry has to operate under pressure of time and operational constraints, the whole point of having academia is to provide for investigating possible open routes without being coerced to make things operational at the end. Let's face it - it is perfectly ok if people want to work for applications, or in applied science, but the pressure for applications is now pervading almost all fields of science and is seriously degrading the opportunities for blue-sky investigations. It's often breakthroughs in the latter that are key for "disruptive" technologies. – Captain Emacs Apr 14 '18 at 16:23
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    @Captain Emacs - At no point am I suggesting that blue-sky research is less important than applied research. The acrimony and divide between the two is what I don't stand for. I'm urging OP not to take a polarised view against the institute, which I detect undercurrents of. This too, is suggested because OP is evidently looking at some applied work (hence the chosen project field), and a balanced view will only help him/her with that. – user153812 Apr 14 '18 at 17:10
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    @user153812 Indeed. When at a more blue-sky environment in the past, I pleaded for keeping an eye out for applications. However, the current situation is not entirely even-handed. Political pressures supersede other considerations. Under these circumstances I do not see myself being able to stay entirely neutral, because, when political agendas are at work, this is pretty much equivalent to indifference. Even once blue-sky institutions are now under increasing pressure to become more application-oriented, so pushback is simply necessary to maintain the balance. In any case, I agree about OP. – Captain Emacs Apr 14 '18 at 17:25
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My answer is rather a statement about what not to do rather what to do:

Do not do a PhD in a field you are not interested in. And do not choose a field of research for your degree just because of convenience (offer/opportunity). I cannot emphasise that enough.

In addition, switching topics drastically after a PhD is very difficult. It is possible, but I have seen it rarely succeed.

Usually, people start with a related topic and then drift away in the direction they are interested in. However, drifting from ATC to Topology/QM does not look obvious; Quantum airplanes? Topological path planning? Braid groups for flight patterns? Perhaps...

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    In addition: do not do a PhD in a research group / with an adviser you do not feel comfortable working with for the duration of a PhD. If you do not feel like you're getting much (scientifically, academically) with your current "manager in disguise", it is unlikely it is going to improve. And attempting a PhD on a topic that's not your preference, in an environment that doesn't suit you and an advisor who is a bad fit... I've seen it attempted, but it stayed an "attempted PhD" (with the person finding a different PhD offer and quitting the "bad fit" one after a year of struggling). – penelope Apr 16 '18 at 11:25

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