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On privacy, research, and privacy research.

« So, how does your part-time PhD arrangement actually work? »

— updated

Since December 2016, I work as an engineer for Google 50% of my time, and I do a PhD at the ETH in Zürich on the remaining 50%. Recently, some people have asked me a bunch of questions about this arrangement. So here's a blog post answering them, in no particular order.

Note: everything in this post is only from my own experience, and represents in no way the opinion of my employers.

So Google does part-time PhDs, hm?

Not really.

When I first thought about this project, I tried to look for Googlers who did this before me. I couldn't find anyone. Some folks studied (for Bachelor's, Master's degrees, etc.) while working at Google. Some got hired before completing their PhD, and finished it while working full-time or 80%. But I couldn't find anybody who did a PhD from start to finish while working there.

So I sort of made up my own project. After a lot of work, I got it approved, and now I'm in the middle of it. I can't detail the approval process publicly, but this was definitely neither standard nor easy. One important takeaway: I couldn't have done this as a new hire. Being a productive, full-time engineer for a couple of years gave me the credibility I needed.

In short: it is possible to negotiate a part-time PhD arrangement when you work at Google. But it depends on a lot of factors, many of which you have little to no influence over. You should not base your career plans on the assumption that you'll be able to do this at Google.

Why would you do this?

Because I was grumpy and unhappy with the other options :D

Many academics are doing research that has no real-world impact. Some of them don't care, and that's fine. But even for the others, it's difficult to figure out what problems are worth looking at. When you start doing research, you don't know what's impactful and what's useless. So, you pick a novel and interesting topic, and you hope it'll end up being useful. Then, before your realize it, you get corrupted by the many things that are wrong with academia. A few more years, and you completely forget that usefulness was ever a goal1.

At the same time, I thought that the tech industry is in general not a great place to do research. Your job is to fix problems that your company has. Figuring out whether you're the first to solve them, generalizing the solution, publishing it for more people to use, educating yourself on vaguely related work… That's not really what they pay you for. If you're an experienced researcher working for a tech company, you might get this stuff done. You know the value of such work, and you're able to do it and sell it to higher-ups. When you don't know how to do research yet, it's not the same story.

My solution was to do both things at once. First, use my industry job to figure out which problems are worth solving. Then, solve them thoroughly, not only in the context of one team inside one company. Also, share the results with the world. And let's be honest: in the process, I also hoped to become an expert in the field =)

In short, I wanted to get all the good parts of a PhD, while avoiding the standard traps of academic research. I didn't want to stop having a constant stream of real-world problems to solve2.

plus, what could possibly go wrong, right

How do you organize your time?

I usually work one week at Google, and the next week at the university.

During the first few months, I was pretty strict with my schedule. It worked okay. Nowadays, I often have research meetings during my Google time, or vice-versa. It makes things easier for everyone, and doesn't hurt my productivity too much, especially for early or late meetings. In addition, I sometimes switch entire weeks, for example when I travel abroad to do Google work for several weeks in a row.

What about context switching costs?

They're not a huge problem for me. Context switches affect different people differently. Like most people, I can't get any serious work done in a half-hour break between two meetings. But it's not that painful for me to work on a different thing than the day/week before.

In my humble opinion, the ability to work on several things in parallel is a core engineering skill. I suspect it's a crucial skill for many other jobs. You should aim to be good at it no matter what you do. Having two jobs makes it more obvious, but not fundamentally different.

[To be clear: I'm encouraging you to try and get better at this if you can. But like any other skill, this is workable for some people and not so much for others. Neurodiverse folks might have a harder time. If you're in a position of leadership, build teams that accommodate specific needs.]

What are the challenges?

Some things don't get divided by two when you start working part-time.

The obvious one is overhead. The number of Google emails didn't get halved when I started working half-time. Expense reports, performance reviews, administrative nonsense… Mandatory and pointless tasks cost you twice as much productivity.

Second, anxiety and impostor syndrome. I was prone to these when I started working at Google, but I sort of learned to live with them over time. They came back full-force when I started my PhD, and not only because of the unique challenges of research work3. I instinctively compared myself to peers a lot — I always did. But of course, working half-time, I couldn't get the same amount of work done, so I felt shitty about it.

Finally, I got (at least) twice as many interesting work-related opportunities. And since I had a tendency to work too much and accept too many responsibilities and tasks… This definitely got worse.

How do you deal with those?

For overhead, aggressive email filtering and management is part of the solution. I also learned to notice when my brain can't handle intellectual, creative, or stressful work anymore. When I catch myself procrastinating, I don't force myself to go back to the thing I was supposed to do. Instead, I do something that doesn't require as much brain, but is still productive. Answering emails, solving administrative stuff, writing blog posts… This way, I don't waste too much time, and the overhead doesn't cannibalize my real work too much.

To avoid overworking, I have some practical rules. I don't work on evenings, weekends or vacation days. I use a different laptop for my Google work (where I get most interruptions). I lock myself out of my work email outside office hours. I force myself to do sports. Those "practical" tricks help. But of course, the psychological aspect is the difficult part…

I try to remind myself that I'm not responsible for the stuff that I'm not in charge of. Most importantly, I started saying no to things. This is so difficult for me. It's not that my colleagues (or manager, advisor…) demand too much of me — they're awesome and respect boundaries. But there are always things to be done, ideas to research, stuff to try out, people to help and collaborate with. Be smarter than me: learn how to set limits for yourself, and say no to people, before starting a project like this.

On anxiety & impostor syndrome, here I some things I found helpful.

  • Getting feedback from peers as often as possible. That helped me a lot. I tend to have unrealistic expectations for myself. Having an external perspective prevents me from getting stuck into weird self-critical loops.
  • When considering my own recent work, I try to look back a couple of months rather than a couple of days/weeks. Being unproductive for a few days feels much worse when you're only doing this 50% of your time. Even though you know it's normal and happens to everyone, especially in research! Averaging over larger time periods always feels better.
  • I started to talk to a mental health professional, and it was one of the best decisions I took recently. I very much recommend doing so, if that's an option for you. Even if you feel okay, it's never a bad idea to monitor how well your brain is doing (and it's difficult to do on your own).

That sounds bad. Is it that bad?

It's challenging, so I would not go around recommending random people do the same. But no, it's not that bad =) I definitely don't regret starting this. Here are some of my favorite things about this arrangement.

  • I'm doing cool research that I know is impactful. When you're in academia, the main indicator you have for that are publications and grants. My research ends up changing policies and practices of a massive company. I'm improving the level of data protection for billions of users! It definitely makes it easier not to care too much about paper rejections ^^
  • I'm working my way towards becoming an expert in my field. Don't get me wrong: I'm definitely not there yet. But I'm learning every day. I'm getting a deep knowledge of some things, and a reasonably solid overview of many other things.
  • I became the go-to person people in my Google team to answer research-related questions. What's the state of the art for a given problem in my field, what are known impossibility results, how to publish papers and engage with the community… I can provide a unique perspective, which is rewarding and useful.
  • In my research lab, I also sort of became the go-to person to answer industry-related questions. I help colleagues understand the applicability of their work, and I can suggest potentially impactful research directions.
  • Talking about the same problems in both places leads to very different discussions. I get ideas from Google, bounce them off university colleagues, or vice-versa. The diversity of viewpoints I get this way is always fruitful and fascinating.

On a day-to-day basis, the main benefit is getting progress from both sides at once. When I use my research at Google, my productivity basically doubles. It's the same way when I can use my Google work to write papers or advance my research. And it happens quite often! More than often enough to compensate for the overhead problem I mentioned earlier.

What's the best thing about the arrangement?

I was anticipating all the good bits described above. It was very nice to see that I wasn't too optimistic, but this wasn't a big surprise. Those were why I wanted to do a PhD in the first place =)

What I didn't expect, though, was the perspective it gave me. Let me explain. The mindset in the tech industry is so different from academia. I know, it's obvious, but… this rift was much bigger than what I imagined. The two worlds have completely different values, social structures, incentives… And that translates to incredibly distinct cultures and practices.

When you get into one of these worlds, you tend to adopt its implicit culture and assumptions. The assimilation is real, even if your team is diverse and inclusive. Want to get an intuitive idea of how strong this phenomenon is? Go talk to a people who worked at the same big tech company for a while, or to tenured professors.

Being in two places at once forces you to question the assumptions and cultural baggage. I think it's pretty unique. I don't approach problems the same way as when I was working full-time (at Google, or in research internships). The way I judge my own work also changed a lot. I don't know how to describe it well, but I feel much more "free" as a result.

So I should do the same thing you did, right?

Before I answer that question with an enthusiastic "Yes! :D", I want to mention a couple of more things. You should definitely be aware of them before making this kind of decision.

Alternative options

Why are you interested in doing a part-time PhD? Think long and hard about this question. In particular, consider all other options that achieve the same goal.

Want to become an expert in a given field? There are plenty of ways of doing that. Read books or scientific papers4. Attend courses, in-person or online. Get a personal project to practice what you're learning. This will likely get you to the level you want to be, faster and with less headaches.

Want the qualification because it's a shiny thing to put on your resume? In computer science? Honest career advice: don't bother. Three years working in the tech industry will look better on your resume. (And you'll also make more money.) Relevant experience with personal or open-source projects can also have a big impact.

Want a career in academia? Or maybe you're not sure, and you want to it figure out? Doing a PhD full-time is the obvious option. You should also do that if you need a PhD to get to your career goals in your field. It's less risky than my part-time arrangement, and easier to organize5.

Want to learn how to do research? If you're working in a big tech company, there might be more research-y teams to switch to. Maybe you can get mentorship from a colleague who used to work in academia? Or collaborate with an external professor on specific projects? If you're not sure that you want to spend a large part of your time doing research, but want to try it out, this can be a solid option.

Public awareness message

Finally, I want to insist on one last thing: my experience was very much influenced by a lot of luck, privilege, and other external factors. If you attempt the same thing, you might run into hurdles that I didn't have. To illustrate that point, I made a list of things that I feel lucky about.

  • I'm a cis white dude, so when I was advocating for my weird new kind of PhD arrangement, people took me seriously by default. Ha! Grave mistake. Nonetheless and in all seriousness, I'm sure it helped me get what I wanted.
  • I had a previous experience of research (via internships during my Master's degree). Because of that, I already knew that I liked this type of work, which made the project less risky. It also gave me credibility when I was trying to find an advisor.
  • I don't have kids, strong family obligations, or serious health issues. The time management aspect of things would surely be much harder otherwise.
  • At Google, my manager was awesome and supportive of my project from day one. I couldn't have gone through the approval process without her. Many other colleagues were also kind enough to spend time and resources to help me at the time.
  • My current Google manager and my PhD advisor both give me a ton of freedom. To a large degree, I can choose what to work on, which allows me to make sure both my two jobs stay aligned. I've met people who weren't so lucky, and who had awful part-time PhD experiences as a result.
  • Both of my jobs are a 15-minute bike ride away from where I live. Things would be more difficult if I had a terrible commute.

This list is most likely incomplete.

I have other questions!

Fire away! Disclaimers: I can't answer much about Google processes if you're not working there. And I don't guarantee a quick response time. But don't hesitate to ask! My contact info is below =)

  1. This does not accurately represent my current opinion of academia. At the time though, it was a real fear of mine. Nowadays, I have a more moderate view on the matter. Some academics manage to produce consistently impactful work. 

  2. We have a lot of those at Google, and in particular in the privacy team. We're recruiting, by the way. Drop me a line if you're interested or would like more information =) 

  3. I might write about these later, when I have a bit more experience, and a clearer picture of what they are exactly. 

  4. Scientific papers are awfully opaque when you start reading them, but it quickly gets much easier. You'd be surprised! Also, if you don't have access to scientific papers because of paywalls, you should check out Sci-Hub

  5. Also, don't fall for the sunk cost fallacy if it turns out not to be your thing. Quitting a PhD is okay. If you don't like it, go do things that make you happy instead. You won't be the first nor the last, and the experience will still be valuable. 

All opinions here are my own, not my employer's.   |   Feedback on these posts is very welcome! Please reach out via e-mail (se.niatnofsed@neimad) or Twitter (@TedOnPrivacy) for comments and suggestions.   |   Interested in deploying formal anonymization methods? My colleagues and I at Tumult Labs can help. Contact me at oi.tlmt@neimad, and let's chat!