How graduate school can lead to an open source job

A graduate degree could springboard you into an open source job

A graduate degree could springboard you into an open source job
Image by :

Tech companies often prefer hiring those who have open source experience because quite simply open source experience is more valuable. This preference is only growing stronger now that open source software dominates the industry and free and open source hardware is gaining momentum. For example, a salary analysis shows that jobs with the keywords "Microsoft Windows" have an average salary of $64,000, while jobs with the keyword "Linux" have an average salary of $99,000. Enough said. 

There are many good open source jobs available to those with Bachelor's degrees, but if you want to control your destiny, a higher degree will give you the freedom to be paid more for following your interests.

This was very important to me when deciding what education I would choose, and I think it is true of most other PhDs. However, even if you do not put much stock in intellectual freedom, there is a pretty easy case to be made for "doing it for the Benjamins."

If you care about economic security, as an undergraduate you should consider graduate school. According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' Current Population Survey, your average income is going to go up by over 20% if you get a Master's degree and by about 50% if you get a PhD. Similarly the unemployment rate for those with a Bachelor's degree was about 5%, drops to 3.6% for a Master's degree and is cut in half to 2.5% for those with a PhD.

Of course, all graduate programs and schools are not equal. Most open source advocates would likely find themselves in some kind of engineering program. This is actually also pretty good news on the money front. IEEE's Where the Jobs Are 2014 report says that engineering unemployment is just 1.9% and down to pre-recession levels. Similarly a survey by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) and the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) found that during the recession (from 2011 to 2013) the average salary for engineers actually rose almost 5%.

Ironically, many students do not consider graduate school for economic reasons. On its face, grad school appears expensive and working your way through it without shouldering a lot of debt seems impossible. For example, MIT is $24,000 per term, and this does not even include room and board. Even at my more humble university graduate school (Michigan Tech, located in the snow-blasted upper peninsula of Michigan) will set you back more than $40,000 a year to be an electrical or computer engineer. Despite these costs, graduate school in technical disciplines almost always has an exceptionally high return on investment.

Also, I have even more good news: If you are a solid student, graduate school will be more than free.

In general, the best students are offered research assistantships that pay their way through graduate school completely, even at the nation's top schools. PhD and Master's degree students are generally fully funded, including tuition and monthly stipends. You will not get rich, but your ramen noodles will be covered. The real beauty of this path is that in general the research that you are paid for will go directly to your own thesis.

If you are looking for a graduate degree that will springboard you into an open source job, simply any graduate program will not do. A place to start is with the top 100 universities to support FOSS.

There are also many institutions that have a fairly well-developed open source culture. Students at RIT can now earn a minor in free and open source software and free culture, and at Michigan Tech you can join the Open Hardware Enterprise, which is essentially a student-run business. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology hosts OpenCourseware, an open source approach to educational materials. However, be aware that although an academic pedigree is important it is not the primary concern. This is because in graduate school (and particularly for funding) you are applying to a research group (i.e., a single professor) in addition to applying to the university and program.

How to get a job in an open source lab

While many academics ascribe to open source principles and many schools are supportive of open source overall, the group of hard core open source lab groups is fairly selective. NetworkWorld offers six examples, Wikipedia keeps an incomplete list, and I maintain a list of contributors to open source hardware for science on Appropedia. There are many more to choose from (for example, anyone who attends the open science conferences, GOSH, etc.).

I run one of these labs myself, and I hope to offer some insight into the process of acquiring funding for potential graduate students. My group studies solar cells and open hardware. Solar photovoltaic technology represents one of the fastest growing industries and the open source hardware movement (particularly RepRap 3D printers) is exploding. Because my lab, the Michigan Tech Open Sustainability Technology (MOST) Lab, is on the cutting edge of two popular fields, entrance into the group is extremely competitive. This is generally the case with most other open source research groups, which I am happy to report are increasing in both size and overall density within the academic community.

There are two routes you can take to getting a job in an open source lab: 1) the direct route and 2) the indirect route.

First, the direct route.

Make personal contact and stand out

Applying to an open source academic lab usually starts with emailing the professor who runs the lab directly. To start, make sure your email is actually addressed to the professor by name and catches his or her interest in the subject and first line. This is necessary because, in general, professors want students working in their labs who share an interest in their research areas. They do not simply want to hire someone that is looking for a job. There are thousands of students looking for positions, so professors can be fairly picky about their selections. You need to prove your interest. Professors literally get dozens of email applications a week, so you must make sure you stand out.

Get good grades and study for the GREs

In addition, you need to cover all the obvious bases. You are going to be judged first by your numbers. You must maintain high grades and get good GRE scores. Even if you are an awesome person, if you do not have scores and grades high enough to impress, you will not meet the minimum requirements for the graduate program and not even make the list for research assistantships. For my lab, competitive graduate students need to be in the top 10% in grades and test scores (GRE ninetieth percentile scores are above 162 for verbal, 164 for quantitative, and 5 or higher in analytical writing. International students will need TOEFL scores greater than 100 and IELTS scores greater than 7.5).

You can find less competitive groups, but grades and scores will largely determine your chances, particularly the GRE if you are coming from outside the country. There are simply too many universities throughout the world to allow for the evaluation of the quality of a particular grade in a particular school in a particular class. Thus, and I realize this is absurdly reductionist, the practicalities of graduate school admission mean that the GRE becomes a way of quickly vetting students. Realize, however, that you can study for the GRE to improve your scores. Some international students are known for taking a year off to study and then knocking out perfect scores. You do not need to take it that far because the nature of U.S. funding favors domestic students over international students, but you should study hard for the tests.

Even if your scores are not perfect, you can raise your chances considerably by proving your research interests. This is where the open source philosophy really pays some dividends. Unlike peers who intern at a proprietary company and can say generally, but not specifically, what they worked on, if you work in open source, a professor can see and vet your contributions to a project directly. Ideal applicants have a history and a portfolio already built up in the areas of the research group or closely related areas.

Show and share your work

To gain entrance to my research group, and those like it, we really want to see your work. This means you should make some sort of personal webpage and load it up with your successful projects. You should have undertaken some major project in the research area you want to join. For my group it might be publishing a paper in a peer-reviewed journal as an undergrad, developing a new open scientific method, or making valuable contributions to a large FOSS project, such as Debian. The project may be applied; for example, it could be in an applied sustainability project, such as organized Engineers Without Borders chapters at your school, or open hardware, such as founding a hackerspace.

However, not all of your accomplishments need to be huge or need to be academic undergraduate research. If you restored a car, I want to know about it. If you have designed a cool video game, I want to play it. If you made a mod on the RepRap that I 3D print with or were a major developer of FOSS our group uses, I can more or less guarantee you a position if I have one.

If you are a good student you will be accepted into many graduate programs, but if funding is low you may not be offered a research assistantship immediately. Do not take rejection personally. You might be the perfect student for a whole range of research projects and a professor may really want you, but simply may not have the funding when you apply. Unfortunately, there have been a stream of pretty vicious cutbacks to academia in the U.S. in recent years, so research assistantships are not as numerous as they once were. You should apply to several programs and to many professors because you never know who is going to have funding that is matched up to your graduate school career.

This brings us to the second path to getting a good job in an open source graduate lab, the indirect one.

Sneak in

The first step for this approach is ensuring you meet the minimum requirements for the particular graduate school and apply. These requirements tend to be much lower than advertised by an open source lab director. Once you are accepted to a university you can be placed in the teaching assistant (TA) pool. This also is a way to pay for graduate school, although it lacks the benefit of being paid to work on your thesis, which you will have to do on your own time. While you are establishing yourself at the university by getting good grades and being a good TA, you can attempt to volunteer in the open source lab of your choosing. Most professors with capacity in their lab will take on such self-funded students. If there really is no money, often the professor will offer you some form of independent study credits for your work. These can be used to reduce your class load, giving you time to do research. Take these credits, work hard, and prove yourself.

This gets your foot is in the door. Your chances at pulling a research assistantship will skyrocket at this point. In general professors are always applying for funding that is randomly being awarded. Often professors must fill a research position in a short amount of time when this happens. If you are good and physically there, your chances are much better for winning those funds. Even in the worst-case scenario, in which you are able to work in an open source lab, but funding does not come, again the nature of open source research will help you. Your projects will be more easily accessible by other professors (who may have funding) and all of your research (even if only paid hourly) will be disclosed to the public. This is a major benefit that is lost to all of those working on proprietary or secret military-related projects. If your work is good, access to your technical work can help you land a position at another group, a program, a school (for example, as a Master's student applying to a PhD program elsewhere), or a better higher-paying job.

Work hard and share your research aggressively following the open source model and it will pay off.

Good luck!

About the author

Joshua Pearce
Joshua Pearce - Dr. Joshua Pearce is cross appointed as an Associate Professor in the Materials Science & Engineering and the Electrical & Computer Engineering at Michigan Tech. He currently runs the Michigan Tech in Open Sustainability Technology (MOST) group. He is the author of the Open Source Lab.