Five years ago, when I was thinking about the choice of my Master’s degree, I remember asking many people for advice. I was very grateful to my friends, as well as random people on LinkedIn and Reddit, who helped me make many important decisions.

Fast forward to today. Having graduated from the university almost two years ago, I have pretty fresh and current experience of being a “young professional” in the tech industry. Now I am honoured to be in the position where some (prospective) students reach out to me for support. I have gathered a humble collection of experiences and reflections, which seem to be (at least to my mind) somewhat accurate and valuable. Since some of the questions are pretty common and are frequently brought up, I have decided to share some of my thoughts.

Please note that those opinions are merely the reflection of my experience. It is very likely that people who walked a different path might disagree. Another thing are the circumstances. My reflections come from the pre-pandemic times and may be now somehow obsolete. However, I hope that once the pandemic fades out, this blog post still remains useful.

The UK vs Continental Europe

While in Europe we do not obsess over the “eliteness” of the universities too much, there is a set of institutions which are being perceived as “the best”. It is easy to check, that high-ranking universities are based in the UK, Germany, Switzerland, Netherlands, as well as in some Scandinavian countries.

One of the recurring questions is “Should I do my MSc in CS in the UK” ? In general, the UK is being perceived as the go-to place to study CS for many, often very valid reasons. It has the most famous universities worldwide, top academic staff and offers plenty in terms of engineering and financial industries (London has an impressive density of FAANG-like companies compared to the continental Europe). It is also relatively easy to establish social life due to the language and culture.

However I would strongly advise to research the universities in the continental Europe. They certainly have superior quality-cost ratio: you study practically for free compared to the UK, plus you “get” more semesters to study (yes, I perceive this as an advantage). Additionally, many universities are hands down on par with the best UK institutions when it comes to the quality of education. Europe is super rich in terms of culture, so it makes sense to spend some time living in non-english speaking country and learn a foreign language. Most of the CS MSc courses are in English anyway, so you “lose” little if you fail to master the local dialect. It is also geographically very favourable - the recent pandemics has shown that the physical distance matters and flying is not always an option.

Many argue that the renowned name of the UK university may matter: this is what you put on your CV and it has huge influence on your professional/scientific career. I think that this is not true in practice. Yes, some of the recruiters may be biased towards you graduating from certain universities, but obsessing over that issue is quite short-sighted. I believe that what matters is reflected in this quote by Scott Galloway:

“Get to a place where your ‘A’ game has to be an ‘A-plus’ game.”

I am quite confident that, especially as a student, you tip the success scale by (apart from working hard) networking with the brightest minds.

Digression: (At least before the Covid era) I would advice people to look for universities in big, vibrant cities. This is where you find the best companies, various startups, entrepreneurial opportunities (e.g. incubators), meet-ups etc. Smart people tend to gravitate towards other smart people. Your success as post-grad is not only a function of your knowledge, but also the obtained social network.

The corollary is that you should not look at the prestige of the university, but at the quality of people who work there on the particular topics you are interested in. And some expensive UK university may offer you exactly this, but it keep an open mind to alternatives.

Should I Do PhD or Not?

Clearly, it is very much understandable that some students my have hard time deciding whether they should do PhD or not. I also spent fair time prior to my graduation scratching my head and asking my university and work colleagues for advice. Especially in the “ML hype” era, many students feel like they are missing out on best positions in FAANG-like companies if they don’t have a formal scientific training. I had similar fears but ultimately came to the following conclusion.

I think that if your primary reason to pursue PhD is to join the best research groups in Facebook or Google and make a lot of money, I would argue whether your motivation is right. If you want to become successful researcher, you are bound to work hard as a PhD student. And it is a very particular type of work. I quote Andrej Karpathy, who wrote a brilliant, extensive blog post on this topic:

You’ll sit exhausted and alone in the lab on a beautiful, sunny Saturday scrolling through Facebook pictures of your friends having fun on exotic trips, paid for by their 5-10x larger salaries. You will have to throw away 3 months of your work while somehow keeping your mental health intact. You’ll struggle with the realisation that months of your work were spent on a paper with a few citations while your friends do exciting startups with TechCrunch articles or push products to millions of people.

I believe that you should really think if you have the pure passion for the “PhD student life”, including its ups and downs. Or maybe you’d rather prefer some other career path to committing several years of your life to research? If you’re unsure you should lean slightly negative by default. Ideally you should consider getting a taste of research as an undergraduate on a summer research program before you decide to commit.

After applying for some PhD positions and having discussions with several professors I have decided to abandon the idea. If you do not love something, you will likely not thrive professionally. I am not trying to say that PhD is a bad idea, I just think it makes sense to hold some honest, internal discussions with yourself, prior to making the decision.

On the bright side, contrary to what you may think, not doing PhD is not the end to your scientific career in the future. You can enter academia through industry experience: working on amazing projects in the company or applying for (AI/ML) residency program. The number of residencies in Europe is still scarce, but Microsoft does it in Cambridge and (since last year) Apple does it in various European cities.

A bit off-topic, but whenever you get to make a difficult, impactful and long-lasting decision, you might find the “regret minimisation framework” by Jeff Bezos very handy:

I project myself forward to age 80 and say, ‘OK, I’m looking back on my life. I want to minimise the number of regrets I have.’ And I knew that when I was 80, I was not going to regret having tried this. I was not going to regret trying to participate in this thing called the Internet that I thought was going to be a really big deal. I knew that if I failed, I wouldn’t regret that. But I knew the one thing I might regret is not ever having tried. I knew that that would haunt me every day.

How Much Do Grades Matter?

I have the impression that many students overestimate the importance of grades. To some extend, good grades do correlate with many key engineering skills. If you score high on your exams you probably do understand the topic in-depth (well, hopefully). Successful completion of the exam period may indicate that you treat your responsibilities seriously, hold yourself to a high standard and know how to organise yourself. Also, your possible future PhD supervisor may be interested in some grades to make sure, that you possess solid foundations in the certain field. However, I would strongly advise students to prioritise hands-on experience over their GPA. I am fairly confident that this advice applies to everyone, including aspiring PhD students.

Recruiters and technical managers at companies usually do not care about your grades. They look for (in no particular order) technical skills, relevant experience, general problem solving ability and appropriate attitude.

Technical skills and relevant experience are something which you obtain through participation in university projects, hackathons, research programmes and internships. If you want to build self-driving cars surely you need to understand the contents of your robotics classes. However, I think that in order for this knowledge to really sink in, you should become a member of robotics university group, sign up for on-hands project or apply for an internship in autonomous driving company. The value of the engineer is a direct function of his or her ability to solve the problem at hand - and this has little to do with just good grades.

I mentioned the attitude. I think that grades are overestimated by students, while the attitude and personality are largely underestimated. We do not only want to work with smart people, we want to really enjoy working with them. We should feel comfortable around them and ideally have a good laugh once in a while. Art Chmielewski, Project Manager in NASA’s JPL really stresses the importance of the social aspect of engineering career. The interview is unfortunately in Polish, but I have loosely translated his message:

We have many smart and gifted engineering students in Poland. When they join NASA, they bring great skills and ideas. However, if they wish to have a successful career here, they need to adapt to the American culture, e.g. employ the outgoing attitude (very difficult thing to do for a (Eastern) European person to do). Otherwise, such a person will always be perceived as a foreigner and will not join the proper social circle.

To FAANG or Not to FAANG

Fresh out the university, make use of your (still) malleable brain, as well as abundance of time and energy. I believe that a young professional/post-grad should essentially pursue one of the following two scenarios:

  • Getting on a very steep learning curve. Acquire new skills fast and try to find yourself surrounded by brilliant people. Your work peak is earlier than you think, therefore work hard in your 20s & 30s. I would quote Art Chmielewski here once again:

    Throw yourself into a mix of the brightest people you can find, do hard work for the smartest person you know, soak up the wisdom and before you can say ‘General Purpose Heat Source Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator’ you too will be radiating wisdom.

    While FAANG-like company may be this kind of environment, this does not have to be true. You may get a job at FAANG and end up doing mundane, boring stuff. I think that as a fresh grad you should keep your eyes open for companies, which offer quick boost of valuable experience, access to exceptional people, a mission which resonates with you and ideally also a competitive compensation.

  • Make use of the fact that you can still afford to take bets with high risk and large payoff. If you want to try to try kick-off your own startup, this could be the best time. I would quote here Jeff Bezos once again:

    Given a ten percent chance of a 100 times payoff, you should take that bet every time. But you’re still going to be wrong nine times out of ten.

    We all know that if you swing for the fences, you’re going to strike out a lot, but you’re also going to hit some home runs. The difference between baseball and business, however, is that baseball has a truncated outcome distribution. When you swing, no matter how well you connect with the ball, the most runs you can get is four. In business, every once in a while, when you step up to the plate, you can score 1,000 runs. This long-tailed distribution of returns is why it’s important to be bold. Big winners pay for so many experiments.

    This is essentially the explanation why, as a fresh grad, you should try to experiment with your career. Assume that your startup/unconventional project will fail. Still, you can afford it at this point. However, if you do succeed, there is theoretically no cap on the potential reward!

Most of the people are not likely to take up scenario number 2. So for most of the people I suggest aiming for scenario number 1. This can involve joining FAANG company, but not necessarily.

But people choose FAANG also for the compensation - here are my two cents.

I really like this short “instructions for life” by dynomight:

  • First priority in life: Your physical health. (No health → no life.)
  • Second priority: Reasonable financial security. (No food → no health.)
  • Third priority: Good relationships with friends and family. (Depressed → no mental health.)

After that you can do whatever. The game you’re playing doesn’t have any rules, and there’s no way to win.

I believe that as a software engineer/roboticist/techie, your experience, knowledge and skills will correlate with your financial wealth (this unfortunately does not hold for many professions like nurses or teachers). Even though you can heard many SWEs in Europe ranting about how low the salaries in Europe are, our situation is not that dire. Actually, the best engineers can be suprisingly well-off, employers increasingly introduce RSUs and options to the compensation packages and there is an increasing number of remote positions which allow for financial “geoarbitrage”.

This is why I would try to focus on doing meaningful, exciting and interesting work first and then worry about making “serious” amounts of money. This speech by Steve Jobs has already become such a cliché, but I do always get excited when I listen to it:

Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.

This is, at least mine, “you can do whatever” in life. This is why, as a young professional, if I were to choose between “doing great work” for less money and getting a substantial salary to do mundane stuff, I would rather choose the former over the latter.