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My experience when working in a ML research lab
Working in ML — Germany, Canada and USA
After my undergraduate degree I decided to work in a research lab for an year before joining Graduate school. I was working at TU Kaiserslautern, Germany. I also spent a month at the Lulea Technical University, Sweden and around 20 days in Edmonton, Canada attending the Reinforcement learning summer school. As after this I got my Master’s in the US I have some perspective about working as a ML engineer/ data scientist / research assistant in deep learning in 5 different countries (also counting India). I took a different route than most of my friends who were interested in the industry. Joining a research lab was an unconventional decision at that time but I would say it helped me a lot in my career in taking decisions and deciding what I want for myself.
Trying research full time
Sometimes we are very enthusiastic for research when in undergrad school. But I would say doing research full time is very different than doing it when you have classes and hundreds of assignment deadlines coming along.
Research can be highly rewarding but when things dont work out the pitfalls can be very low.
Working in a lab before joining graduate schools helps to know whether ‘it is for you’ or ‘this is something you would like to do’. Having a paper definitely helps in your applications but if things dont work out it might actually act otherwise.
It is important to understand the risk involved in terms of your applications when taking the decision to work in a research lab. Your prospective advisors in grad school would expect that you would have something published (even if they are negative results), but if that is not the case it might question your ability to do research. Thus, acting negatively.
Many see this as an option for getting a recommendation letter but it is not necessary that the Professor is ready to vouch for you just yet. If you are from India your undergraduate college would end sometime in May and college applications are due in October to December.
Building your trust in a new lab within 4–5 months could go both ways.
Being prepared for such repercussions would help in deciding the course of your application in case things dont work out.
Deciding direction for Graduate school
I have seen so many people having no idea about why they want to pursue graduate school or what subjects they would like to take.
Working in a research labs gives you a glimpse of grad school itself.
I even took some of the classes at TUKL which helped me decide my direction for my Master’s study.
Applying to schools looking to the courses even if you dont want to pursue research creates an automatic filter for which schools to apply to.
Which country suits you
You would most probably end up working in the country where you are pursuing your Master’s studies. This changes when doing your PhD but not that much. Since I was acquainted to labs in Europe, Canada and the US before joining my grad school, I had some perspective on what each has to offer and what I like personally. These are some of the things I learned (Please note that I have not made this section data backed up as I wanted to point what I have experienced or learned)-
- Financial burden– Germany has free education (or negligible fees for each semester). Some Universities in Canada also do not have such high tuition fees as compared to the US. When I got an admit from CMU (fees ~ 80k), after a day of feeling of sheer achievement, I was wondering why did I even apply here at the very first place as I couldn’t afford the tuition. In case of financial burden I would say US creates the most burden followed by Canada and Germany.
- Culture- Defining culture in itself is challenging but here’s my personal take-
- Work life balance — Europe offers a better work life balance without any question. The working hours are fixed. There are more holidays and paid leaves as compared to the US. Paid leaves was important for me student so as to decide the frequency of seeing my family in my home country.
- Food — US and Canada both have more multi cultural food options. I felt it was easier to find cuisines which suits my Indian palate in the US or in Canada. But that being said Europe has better wine, pizza, bread and ice creams 🙂
- Travel — Out of University exposure is a very important part of your graduate studies. Without an argument Europe provides better travel opportunities, with better transportation.
- Language — This is one of the biggest hurdles while pursuing your studies in Europe. With every country having its own language you need to learn their language if you want to live there in long term or mix up with the locals.
- Diversity — US and Canada can provide a more diverse environment than Europe (Again something I observed). I strongly believe working with people from different backgrounds is an essential part of personal growth.
3. Post Grad school opportunities-
Thinking about how much money you want to make from your job and what kind of companies you want to work in after school helps in deciding your course of life.
The bigger tech companies are all headquartered in the US and thus provide better opportunities if you want to go that route. There are some offices of these companies in Europe and Canada too, but the hiring capacity is much less.
4. Visa- Since I am from India, this section can differ depending on where are you from. PR for Canada can also be applied from outside of Canada (directly) and for Germany you usually get a PR after working there for 4 — 5 years. For the US getting a PR might take up to 8–17 years. Note that this also depends on your visa type and the company sponsoring your visa.
Taking the factor of how easy it is to get your work VISA / PR would ease things out for the long term or atleast you would know what you are getting into.
Time off before graduate school
Although working in a research lab doesn’t count as time off but I took time off because my job was flexible. Travelling and trying new activities was a part of my life that year.
It helps to bring much needed perspective to life before grad school.
I wont go into the debate of why time off is important or not. But in my opinion it is a time where you do not have hard visa / work commitments. So think again if you are directly joining grad school or specially a PhD.
Strengthening ML skills
Working under a Professor is the best way today to add to your ML/ Data Science skills. Even if your research doesn’t produce anything significant to the field, it gives you a chance to explore an area in depth with such freedom. You don’t have much pressure because its not your PhD and it also gives you the pleasure of trying something new.
My time there definitely helped me build a stronger in depth understanding from first principles of Machine Learning.
I am actually glad I didnt start from something more applied.
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