December 20, 2021

Core Data Science researchers discuss opportunities for academics at Meta

By: Meta Research

Meta research scientists frequently collaborate with academics to evaluate and solve some of the world’s most challenging problems in science and technology. Many Meta research scientists are former academics themselves, who often maintain close ties to academia. In addition to full-time roles, Meta offers temporary employment for university staff as well as internships for PhD students who are looking to take a short break from academia to work in industry.

Research teams at Meta are often a blend of researchers with varying degrees of experience in academia and industry. Core Data Science (CDS) is one such team, with experts from a wide range of disciplines, including computer science, statistics, economics, and social science. “The CDS team is one of several places at Meta where industry and academia join forces,” explains Lada Adamic, Co-Director of CDS. “We collaborate on research studies and are effectively engineers on product teams who help build new features to improve Meta’s products, infrastructure, and processes.”

To highlight the various opportunities for academics at Meta, we spoke with Lada and three other CDS researchers with backgrounds in academia. From being a part-time lecturer to spending a sabbatical at Meta, their individual paths show that you don’t necessarily have to choose between industry and academia.

Empowering others in academia and industry

Lada Adamic began her career in industry after graduating from Stanford University with a PhD in applied physics. She worked at HP Labs for four years and then held an academic position at the University of Michigan for six years. Lada took a sabbatical year at Meta (then known as Facebook) 10 years ago to explore her interest in media and social networks and has been on the CDS team ever since. Shortly after transitioning to a full-time role, Lada began managing a small product science team, now known as Computational Social Science — a sub-team within CDS.

“CDS has several researchers who have transitioned from academia to industry, and each person brings their unique experience and expertise to our team,” Lada shares. “These backgrounds help us understand the needs of academic researchers and motivate us to share science and data.”

For academics who may be considering a role on the team and are unsure what to expect, Lada says there are similarities between conducting research in academia and industry. "We seek to understand and innovate," she explains, "but publishing scientific papers is rarely the sole goal. The primary aim is to solve really interesting and important challenges. We then might publish the results to learn more and let others build upon what we've found or developed."

Lada highlights that industry research affords team members the luxury of focus — something that isn’t always available in academia. When it comes to what she misses about academia, she mentions teaching and mentoring students. “I loved teaching because empowering others is so rewarding,” she says. “Although I miss it, I’ve found other ways to share my experience and knowledge both within the company and outside. And there are others on CDS (some of them in this very blog post!) who are able to successfully balance an academic position or a part-time teaching role with their work in industry.”

Balancing industry and academia with a dual affiliation

Shawndra Hill is a CDS Research Scientist and Manager and a part-time Senior Lecturer in Marketing at Columbia University. She has a PhD in information systems from NYU Stern School of Business and has pursued dual affiliations in academia and industry throughout her career. Prior to her role at Meta, Shawndra held positions with Microsoft Research and the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

Shawndra’s interests in marketing science and user response to advertisements on social networks led her to the CDS team. “The data opportunities for social network–based marketing science at CDS are unparalleled,” she explains. “In industry, and specifically at Meta, researchers are evaluated on making measurable impact. It’s exciting to see our research and analysis solve real business problems and answer important research questions at a global scale.”

According to Shawndra, one reason that academia and industry have become more connected in recent years is that students are placing a higher value on applied experience. “There’s more overlap in academia and industry now than ever before,” Shawndra shares. “Industry experience is valuable in academia because students are looking for faculty who have solved data-driven problems at scale. Universities are recognizing this demand, and companies also value the rigorous approaches employed by researchers who have experience in both areas and are actively approaching faculty for consulting positions.”

For those interested in a dual affiliation, Shawndra suggests following both interest and instinct. “In academia, it is possible to test theories without real-world application,” she says. “If you’re passionate about making a more direct impact on business practice, you may want to consider industry. Once you have a vision for your career, treat it as a project. Assess where you are, where you want to be, and what you need to do to get there. Network and ask questions about what is required to be successful along the way.”

Making the switch from academia to industry

Winter Mason is a Research Scientist and Manager on the CDS team. After graduating with a PhD in social psychology and cognitive science from Indiana University, Winter was a visiting scientist at Yahoo! Research for four years and then an assistant professor at Stevens Institute of Technology for two years. The connections he made during his industry and academic positions led him to a position at CDS, where he studies computational social science with a focus on civic engagement, equity, and group dynamics.

“When a recruiter reached out to me, I actually passed on the first interview,” Winter remembers. “I was living in New Jersey at the time, and I wasn’t sold on working at the office in California. After months of conversation, Meta offered me an opportunity to stay on the East Coast and relocate to Washington, D.C., where I wanted to live.”

Now, having been at Meta for eight years, Winter says he’s most surprised by how much he has learned. “I really enjoyed my theoretical research in academia, but when I look back, I see that I didn’t realize how rewarding practical applications could be at this scale. I’m still in awe of the direct impact our work has on billions of people. My transition to industry at Meta broadened my horizons and showed me the distinctions between industry and academia work environments.”

For those interested in a similar path, Winter recommends connecting with your current network and exploring new connections whenever possible. “If you’re interested in working with CDS, build your social network and ask researchers about their experiences,” Winter adds. “We want to find diverse talent outside of our personal networks, and encourage you to connect with us.”

Bringing industry knowledge back to academia

CDS Research Scientist Julian Mestre has a PhD in computer science from the University of Maryland College Park. Julian is an Associate Professor at the University of Sydney and has taken a sabbatical to work with Meta’s CDS team as a Research Scientist for two years, through Meta’s short-term employment (STE) program. In this role, Julian is working on designing new algorithms for combinatorial optimization problems at scale.

Julian joined the STE program with CDS after someone he knew at Meta encouraged him to apply. Coming from academia, he was curious about how much autonomy he would have over his research. “I had been interested in industry for a while, but I believed I would be constrained on what I could study,” he explains. “I’ve been pleased to find that at Meta and within CDS, there are so many interesting and impactful algorithmic challenges to choose from that sometimes it is hard to prioritize which projects to focus on.”

Echoing Shawndra, Julian explains that his experience working on relevant research projects will also add value for his students when he returns to teaching. “Coming to industry through the STE program, I thought about how this short-term experience could help me become a better teacher. I’ve gained practical knowledge on algorithm engineering, and I look forward to sharing it with students in the classroom.”

Julian recommends developing your network if you’re interested in exploring short-term industry experience. “There isn’t a direct path to the STE program yet because this is a new temporary full-time position designed for academic researchers, so the best thing you can do is network,” he offers. “Ask questions to learn more about what researchers at different companies and within industry do, and learn as much as you can about how they’ve approached their career journey.”

Are you interested in applying for an internship or full-time position with the CDS team? Check out the careers page.