PL Perspectives

Perspectives on computing and technology from and for those with an interest in programming languages.

Dear Soon-to-be-doctor-so-and-so,

Thanks for reaching out. I’m happy (if daunted) to give my thoughts and advice in navigating the faculty job market at this unique time.

Before I say anything, let me say this situation sucks and my heart breaks for you and everyone else trying to make it right now. I’m rooting for you. I know that everything is harder right now. Writing papers is harder. Making deadlines is harder. Staying connected is harder. Eating dinner is harder. Everything is harder.

I don’t actually know what the impact on the academic job market will be, but this is my best guess.

It’s going to be tough. Lots and lots of opportunities that were available last year will simply evaporate. I suspect there will be a lot of austerity measures, including hiring freezes, particularly at public universities. Schools with deep pockets may use this as an opportunity to sweep up a bunch of talent and hire more than usual. I don’t doubt some very good positions will be available, but competition for the few spots will be higher than usual.

Here’s my advice, which should be taken with the usual caveats about advice. Please keep in mind that I work at a research university in the US, so that’s the system I know best and is the lens through which I see things.

Heed the standard advice.

It’s still a faculty job search, even if we are struggling through a global pandemic, the greatest period of social unrest in response to racial injustice since at the least the 1960s, US democratic institutions teetering on the brink, and the mounting consequences of catastrophic climate change, etc. etc.

Seek mentorship, both from your peers and seniors.

There’s lots of good advice out there about how to conduct a successful faculty search from the before times. Seek it out, consider if it makes sense for you, and ask yourself what’s changed in our current situation. I particularly like Nicolas Papernot and Elissa Redmiles‘s guide: The academic job search for computer scientists in 10 questions. It’s excellent.

Perhaps the one thing I would add to that guide is: the most important thing to show in your application is that you’ve done good and important work in the past. Let’s take that as a given. The next most important thing are the letters that speak to your quality of work. See if you can get an outside letter writer. No matter how grounded and fact-based your advisor’s letter, it will still be discounted. (That said: The more facts and anecdotes—details—that letter can include, the better.) An outsider’s perspective on your research impact can be helpful to add perspective and weight to what’s said in the other letters.

Cast a wide net.

Even in normal times, hiring is an unpredictable process. Try to maximize your chances to get lucky.

Keep an open mind to at least consider things you might’ve overlooked in the past. Why not apply for some industry jobs? Either you find that it suits you better (yay!) or you affirm your decision to be an independent teacher / researcher (also yay!). If it works for you, consider relaxing your geographic constraints. Look outside the US and North America. (But if you do, seek advice from others who know the system there better.)

If what you really want to do is teach, consider doing a faculty position search at teaching-oriented universities and colleges and primarily undergraduate institutions. You can find an excellent collection of job listings here. The first thing you will want to do is talk to someone at such a place and get their advice and a good sense of the job. I know enough to know that I can’t give good advice for such a search. Find someone who can. There are many great teachers and researchers within the SIGPLAN community who work at primarily-undergraduate institutions. OK, maybe I know one thing: if you application reads like “what I really want to do is research, but I could also teach if that doesn’t work out” you will not make it far.

My only reservations here about casting a wide net are:

  1. don’t take a job you know isn’t right for you. You might feel like you’ll be lucky to have anything, so you should take whatever comes your way. I don’t think that’s a strategy that works out in the long run. You’re better off weathering the storm (more below) in some other way.
  2. be skeptical of the teaching-oriented universities that want you to make them a player in the research world. These places can have unrealistic expectations about your workload and fail to provide you an environment in which to flourish. This is not to say that you shouldn’t consider places that aren’t big names in the research world. Lots of great people work in off-the-beaten-path departments. They can be lovely environments to do good work. And this is not to say you should consider teaching-oriented places if that’s what motivates you and if you think you’ll be happy mostly working on research with outside collaborators. Just be weary of the places that expect you to do the impossible, some do.

Not sure where to look off the beaten path? Try starting with places that have people you know or can make a professional connection with. Take a look at the committees (steering, program, etc.) and proceedings of recent SIGPLAN conferences and see where they are. Many of them are at universities that you might not think of first as having great PL researchers. Often they are eager to find good colleagues they can work with. Ask around. You’ll start to find that PL folks are everywhere. Want to dig a bit deeper? Pick a geographic area, look up all the universities, track down CS department web pages and see who’s doing what. Reach out if something seems interesting. Not sure what it’s like at a smaller research-oriented university or a liberal arts college? Find someone and ask. Not sure who to ask, let me know what your interested in and I can send you a list. Looking overseas and not sure how to evaluate institutions? Try to find someone, ideally originally from the US, that works in the region. Again, I can help if you’re not sure.

Suppose you cast a wide net and come up with some offers. It’s still important to keep in mind that the interview process is a two-way street: you are evaluating them as much as they are evaluating you. Some departments are dysfunctional and can be very unpleasant places to work. Some such departments are big-name, high-rank places and you’d never know it unless you dig, so dig. It will be harder to suss this out in COVID times, but you try none the less. Does the department seem to operate well? Are people friendly and getting along? Do they know about each others’ work? Are you going to be part of a whole or an island to yourself? Figure out what you want and try to see yourself in the place your interviewing. Every department will have its issues and challenges, but try to figure out if it’s a healthy environment for you.

Work every connection you have.

It’s perfectly OK to email faculty at places you’re interested in and ask “are you hiring?” Having a connection at a department can often mean the difference between being overlooked by the hiring committee and making the short list of invitees.

Follow accounts like @csfacultyjobs on twitter. Sign up for job postings from the CRA.

Soon, hiring committees will be formed and “priority areas” will be discussed. Getting in touch with people now can’t hurt and sometimes knowing there’s a good candidate can help faculty argue internally to prioritize an area.

Get your work out there.

Do you have things under review? Recent rejections? Drafts that are ready for people to see, but not quite submission-ready? Make them available. Put them on your website. Put them on arxiv. Get the work out. You can’t control the conference acceptance process, and everyone understands things take time to get out in top-tier venues, but they can recognize good work when they see it. Let ’em see it.

Take advantage of remote everything.

People have adjusted to the virtual research talk thing, so use that to your advantage. If you have talk videos, advertise them. If you don’t, make them. Make longer form talks that synthesize several pieces of work and articulate a bigger vision than just a single paper. Everything is remote, so travel is “free.” Invite yourself to give talks at the top groups around the country. (Come give a talk to the PLUM lab!) Record the remote talks you give and post them. This does two things for you:

  1. it makes you more visible just at the time you want to be seen.
  2. it helps you practice giving remote talks and engaging with people you don’t know just like in an interview.

Are you nervous about remote talks? I was too. I’ve now done a few remote lectures and research talks. I struggled, but I’m finding my footing. So the best thing to do is practice. I’ve found that after a few rounds, the format can be very comfortable and there are aspects I like better. In person, there’s a serious element of showmanship, projecting confidence, speaking loudly, etc. Remotely, you can relax a bit, speak softer. It can be more intimate and substantive. (Compare, for example, an in-person vs remote DNC convention speech for a sense of what I mean.) Practicing will help you identify what’s useful about the format and exploit it. Definitely don’t (like I did at first) just do what you would do at a lectern in a big conference hotel. Remember, people on the other end are also sitting in quiet rooms, alone. Draw them in. It’s tougher to read the room, obviously, but try to connect. Make sure people can interrupt and ask questions. Do as much of this as you can in low-stakes settings so that it’s just second nature when it’s time to do it “for real.”

Do mock interviews.

Once you’ve got a job talk drafted, set up one or two mock interviews. Ask a faculty member (at another university) to arrange a colloquium talk and one-on-one meetings with people outside of PL. (I would be happy to do this for you.) Try to emulate the interview process as closely as possible. Use it as a opportunity to meet people and hear about their work (and talk about yours). It’s low stress since there’s nothing at stake, but you’ll do all the things you do in an interview. Matt Might did this for me at Utah and it was the best thing. When I met with Suresh Venkatasubramanian, right off the bat, he did a full-court press, really pushing me on a bunch of technical issues. When I saw Matt, I was like “what’s up with that?” and he said, oh yeah, I told him to do that. When I encountered this tactic in a real interview (and yes, it does happen sometimes), I was like, oh I know this routine.

Teach.

The difference in quality between my research talks before and after I started teaching a big undergrad class was night and day. Teaching something, anything, on a regular basis is the best way to practice communicating your research ideas to others. Teaching a class is a huge amount of work, so it may not be the best thing to put on your plate, but maybe you can teach a tutorial on something. Or a small lecture series. You could take advantage of everything being remote to do a lecture series on some topic related to your work and make the videos available. But be sure it’s interactive; gauging understanding, despite the low-bandwidth setting, and responding in real-time to questions are skills you want to hone here.

Weather the storm.

If, and this is a big if, you are in a position to postpone your search, either by extending your PhD or doing a post-doc, this might be a strategy worth considering. This depends greatly on your own personal circumstances. Doing a post-doc was a great experience for me. I was able to work with a lot of great people, expand my research portfolio, and have a lot of fun doing it. It also had the benefit of keeping me employed during the abysmal academic job market of the great recession. (I was a CRA CI Fellow, a program which has now been revived to help people in exactly your situation; have a look if you’re interested in a post-doc.)

Some places have temporary positions (e.g. visiting assistant professorships), which is another way to weather the storm. This can be a good thing to consider. I would, however, do your due diligence in talking to others who have held the position before. Sometimes these positions are talked about as a kind of “try out” for a permanent position. The same can be said for some post-doc positions. I suggest just discounting any of these claims. If the position makes sense assuming when your term is up, you’re moving on—great—it’s worth considering. Otherwise, I think it’s a mistake to pass up a better opportunity for the promise of maybe being considered for something at some point in the future. Every now and then a temporary position leads to a permanent one at the same institution, but this is the exception that proves the rule.

Mind your health and well-being.

This is a long, often grueling process. It can fill you with self-doubt (it did me). It takes a lot of work and can very easily consume all your time and energy, both intellectual and emotional. There may be real disappointments. In 2011, my mother had advanced stage cancer. I got an interview at a top department in my home town. If I got the job it would mean being near my family and my sick mom. My kids, should I have them, would grow up with grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles. I poured myself into it. I interviewed without telling my mother to avoid getting her hopes up. I gave it my all, it went really well, but I came up second. It was devastating.

Things worked out. My mom got better. I took a year off from the search and was able to focus my professional energy into doing, you know, research. I ended up with an even better position the following year. But it was really hard at the time.

Eat well. Sleep. Exercise. Pay attention to your habits. Pay attention to your mental health. Make time to put aside the search. Have a support network and use them. If you have a good friend that is also going through this, that can be a tremendous source of comfort and commiseration. (For me, this was Sam Tobin-Hochstadt. Many an hour were spent at bars off the Fens doing a pretty good rendition of the scar scene from Jaws.)

Keep perspective.

Finally, this is not a rational process. Ask anyone who’s been on the other side of it. Things that have nothing to do with you and are totally outside of your control may have a huge impact on the outcome of your search, both positively or negatively. The outcomes are not a reflection of you as a person (again, both positively or negatively). They may not even be a reflection of you as a researcher. Take pride in the fact that you’re a serious contender for faculty positions at world-class universities. Your hard work got you to this point. It’s a serious accomplishment. What comes next is largely outside your control, but you did the things that made you a contender. And that’s really all you ever can do.

I mean this in all sincerity: I wish the best of luck to you. I am not in your situation only because of luck. It sucks. It’s not fair. I’m sorry. Try to keep your head up and if you find yourself feeling down and out, let me know.

David

Postscript

Thank you to Talia Ringer. This is not a letter to her specifically, so don’t read too much in to this acknowledgement, but she is the reason for it existing. I wrote this to try to do just a little bit of what she suggested to be supportive of graduate students at this moment in time. She’s been a tremendous steward of the PL community and personal role model of mine. She’s also a damn good researcher and on the market in these most unfortunate circumstances.

Thanks also to Mike Hicks, Leo Lampropoulos, Sam Tobin-Hochstadt, and Talia (again) for comments and suggestions.

To the faculty reading this letter, please check in on your students regularly if you’re not already. This is a tough time and an expression of compassion goes a long way.

Bio: David Van Horn is an associate professor at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Disclaimer: These posts are written by individual contributors to share their thoughts on the SIGPLAN blog for the benefit of the community. Any views or opinions represented in this blog are personal, belong solely to the blog author and do not represent those of ACM SIGPLAN or its parent organization, ACM.