Bridging the Gap From Academic Research to Industry Research

Sep 12, 2012

As a researcher in an academic environment, one gets used to a certain kind of pace. Because we are somewhat the final arbiters of our own fate, we can determine what we will do and at what pace our research should reasonably progress. However, conducting research in a startup environment is drastically different.

Firstly, unlike academia where you get to pick the research project that tickles your fancy. In a startup and am sure this applies to industry as well, you have to align your project to the needs of the organization. If your organisation is the education space, you can’t very well decide that you will spend your internship building a model that predicts the probability of Daenerys Targaryen becoming the ruler of the seven kingdoms in the game of thrones. No, no, that won’t do. Instead, suppress the urge for such a project and spend your time adding value to the organisation by solving some of its pressing problems.

Secondly, a ten week research internship, poses it own pragmatic constraints. Unlike academia, the time line of your research project is drastically shorter. What this implies is that you have to hit the ground running. In order to do this, you have got to become your own project manager. Luckily for me, before I started this internship, I had the pleasure of spending two hours with Dr Ronald Kay, the founder of ICSI (International Computer Science Institute), the institute where I conduct my doctoral research. In our conversation, we spent quite a while discussing the re-release of his book, Managing Creativity in Science and Hi-Tech. To sum up our conversation, he realized that scientist could do with some help in the area of managing their teams and projects. His book was a Godsend because it has chapters that clearly lay out a road map which one can follow to quickly assess a potential research area, craft a research topic, assess its viability, its potential impact on the organization, and its potential impact on one’s career. These are the tools that every autonomous to semi-autonomous project leader should have in their toolbox. For the purposes of making one’s research internship successful in a startup here are the three essential things that you should do:

You have to learn the problems the organization:
Spend a bit of time learning the problem space of your organization before the internship begins. The first week of your internship, spend time with the group leaders to identify some pressing issues they are facing. In a startup environment, identify areas of improvement should be fairly straightforward.

You have to quickly determine and build the team you will need:
In the first week at your internship be intentional in learning the personality types of your colleagues. Identify people with whom you could collaborate. Identify point persons that can shed light on certain aspects of company culture and how things get done. The more you adapt to the already established ways of work in your internship, the more successful you will be.

You have to define the project:
Within your first month, you should have a clearly defined project that you will be executing for the rest of your internship. For some, the idea that you have already spent a month without a clear project might seem wasteful and inefficient. Contrary to that notion, this month learning the organization and its needs is an essential prerequisite in guaranteeing the success and impact of your internship.

To give you a starting point on crafting your project, determine what you would like to get out of the internship. What do you want it to do for you? For some interns, they want to become more competent in writing enterprise level code, others want to create something that will continue to give value to the organisation after they have left, while others are doing the internship with the hopes of getting a job offer from the organisation and so on.

You should spend time identifying your overarching goal of your internship. Once that is out of the way, identify an area where there is a need, and where your expertise can be used to meet that need, then slice off a chunk for which a solution can be executed within 4 to 6 weeks. At this point, you should meet with your leader to discuss your project and have them give you feedback. Pick your team members and have them buy into the project just as much as you. At this point, all you guys have to do is execute.