PhD and industry: Working together in perfect harmony

Pursuing a PhD is tough. It’s tough for a myriad of reasons, not least the important initial questions that have to be answered:

What’s the thing I want to spend my next X years researching?

Is completing a PhD a good investment for the future?

and, assuming the first two questions have been adequately answered,

What is the ideal environment that will accelerate my path to success?

These are just some of the things circulating a young researcher’s mind. At first glance, these questions seem quite separate, however, through my PhD I have realized they are significantly inter-related. Answering one affects the approach to any other question and vice versa.

Obviously, having a clear interest in a field and being self-driven helps with the challenges encountered before and during a PhD. It turns out, however, that finding the the ideal place to do it is much trickier than expected.

As this is my first post, I should introduce myself. I’m Ilias Vougioukas, I come from Greece, and I am a PhD candidate at the University of Southampton working in Arm Research. My research focuses on performance and efficiency in heterogeneous systems. As you can imagine, most people are intrigued by the peculiarity of pursuing a PhD with an industry partner, even more so when spending all my PhD time within the company. While there are many reasons certain people might be sceptics of this arrangement, I have found that this ‘dual citizenship’ can provide many advantages, when done right.


Research in academia 101.Image credit: Jorce Chum of http://phdcomics.com/ 

To understand when and why it makes sense, it is worth pointing out the areas in which academia and industry shine. Students in universities enjoy the limitless freedom to pursue ambitious research goals. The environment surrounding them is focused on finding novel, radical ideas that aim to identify and solve long-term problems.  In essence, the sole purpose of academic research is the expansion of knowledge. This liberty enables academic researchers to pursue high-risk, high-reward paths that industry traditionally avoids. The danger, of course, in particular for younger researchers with limited professional experience, can be losing focus, and chasing non-pragmatic goals.

Industry is very different. As a rule, any sort of decision or project must have a justifiable purpose or upside. As a direct consequence, research cycles within companies tend to be shorter, with more realistic restrictions. This benefit-driven approach, when executed correctly, improves the efficiency of researchers but can run the risk of restraining scientific curiosity, when the primary goal is the production of an actionable result. Finding a company that enables ‘pure’ research is challenging, but not impossible. In my experience, small companies cannot normally support full research departments, while some large companies aren’t reliant on pioneering their fields in order to profit. Finding the sweet spot is key... and in my case, it was Arm Research.

I have realised that surrounding yourself with the right people for your PhD makes a tremendous difference. In Arm Research, from the very first meeting, I was encouraged to choose the area of research in which to focus my efforts, and my industrial supervisors made sure to help me explore all possible routes before ‘locking in’.  My colleagues are always keen to share their expert knowledge, provide feedback and even get involved in projects whenever possible. Then there’s the other thing. Product engineers are a stone's throw away, and they are always happy to dispel any research misconceptions that don’t work in practical implementations.

Some people joke about how a PhD feels like a Sisyphean task, endless and unavailing. However, approaching the end of my PhD and looking back at my decision to take up the sponsorship offered by Arm Research, I can without any doubt or regrets say that this was the ideal setup for a PhD in Computer Architecture. Being given the opportunity to explore an area of research that I found interesting, surrounded by industry guidance and knowledge and wonderful people have made my experience here truly one of a kind. If you are a prospective doctorate candidate and are thinking about an industry-sponsored PhD, I could not make a more favourable recommendation.

To find out more about the Arm-ECS partnership, click here to visit the website.

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