CS faculty job search: a social experiment

There are numerous guides (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8) on how to go about getting a CS faculty job. Anyone who has ever gotten a faculty job would swear they wouldn’t have gone far without these. While some of that content is timeless (say, preparing the applications or structuring the job talk), there are a multitude of factors that make every year unique for every candidate. In particular, these guides do not address two major challenges:

1. Academic job searches are notoriously solitary experiences. They are not exactly Hunger Games, but you certainly won’t have many friends joining you in the treasure hunt. Maybe occasionally you will exchange notes with a school mate, a conference acquaintance, or a mentor but that’s pretty much it. In many cases, you wouldn’t even know the other folks who are going through the same journey as you.

2. No access to timely job market information. You applied for your favorite department in November, and now it is late February. You have no surefire way to know if they already invited others for interviews, altered their hiring focus areas, or even paused their search! Myriad of regulations make it hard for the department chairs/hosts to reveal this in a timely manner. You will face such conundrums from the application phase through the negotiation phase. So, unless someone takes pity on you, you’re as clueless as Inspector Clouseau.

So, Vijay Chidambaram, my then postdoc mentor, thought of a social experiment to mitigate these challenges. I volunteered to help him out. Following is an account of how it went.

The Year-1 Experience

First, the choice of platform. Given our goals, it seemed reasonable to set up an invite-only group comprised of faculty candidates, and make all its content private (and also expire after the hiring season). We zeroed in on Slack, and created a private group within the systems-research Slack channel. As this was experimental, we didn’t want to specify a lot of rules on the internal dynamics of the group. But we were steadfast on two ground rules:

  1. Admission control: limit access to only current year faculty candidates. This meant no faculty members, no future candidates, and no candidates from past-years.
  2. All information sharing must be strictly voluntary i.e., no one could coerce others to divulge information or share materials.

Following our announcements on academic Twitter and Slack, 63 faculty candidates signed up to be part of this. Active communications started around mid December, at which point most candidates had already sent across their applications. We brainstormed on a few approaches to information sharing and decided on an event log document. This allowed candidates to share job events (for example, interviewed over phone, invited to campus, offered orally, offer accepted, waitlisted, rejected by department, rejected by candidate etc.) in a timely fashion without revealing their identity. Say, a hypothetical candidate got a notification on Feb-15 that the University of Iowa would like to interview them. They would create an entry like this:

2/15/2020, University of Iowa, systems, campus invite, email from the chair

Our event log document grew in size as the hiring season proceeded: by May 2020, it had 230 entries covering 59 universities from across US, Europe and Canada. There was a unanimous consent in the group that this document made the hiring process more transparent.

The second big part of our cohort was the slack conversations. To put it in numbers, we had 500+ messages exchanged over five months. Folks were allowed to post questions, make comments, and engage in discussions either anonymously or with their identity revealed. We gravitated to this arrangement since different people had different comfort and sensitivity levels. Here are the three topics that generated most traffic: (i) how to give effective job talks over zoom, (ii) anonymized discussions on the specifics of given job offers/negotiations, and (iii) candidates announcing their final job accepts. There were other meaningful (and sometimes contentious) conversations on travel and geopolitics, interview cancellations, rescinding of offers, two-body problems, Europe vs US practices etc. Not surprisingly, Covid-19 was a constant presence since it added a new dimension to every problem.

Final thoughts: even though the faculty job market is fiercely competitive and most folks in the 2020-cohort didn’t know each other previously, we ended up having a friendly environment that allowed an open exchange of ideas and information. While I cannot publicly share any specific information from the 2020-cohort, I can wholeheartedly vouch for its utility.

Here is a brief list of other faculty candidates who found this experience worthwhile and where their journey took them: Jonathan Balkind (UC Santa Barbara), Paul Grubbs (Michigan), Muhammad Ali Gulzar (Virginia Tech), Akanksha Jain (UT Austin), Sanidhya Kashyap (EPFL), Alan Liu (Boston), Rohan Padhye (CMU), Mohammad Shahrad (University of British Columbia), Shweta Shinde (ETH Zurich), Elahe Soltanaghaei (CMU), and Jeff Zhang (Harvard).

What’s Next?

With so much uncertainty surrounding the 2020–21 season, approaching the market individually will be a more stressful experience than in the previous years. So, we should not only form a faculty candidate cohort for 2021 but also make it bigger. The 2020 cohort primarily consisted of folks from systems, architecture, PL/SE, and security. Since the primary focus of this group is not technical in nature, scaling it across broad communities (theory, AI, ML, robotics, HCI, quantum etc.) will give it better perspectives and not reduce its effectiveness. However, it would be prudent to retain the geographical focus on the US, Europe and Canada (and create different groups for other geographies).

A note on the platform. We have created a new dedicated workspace called Future Faculty Forum (hosted at future-faculty-forum.slack.com). Don’t worry, we are not turning it into a start up or anything… just setting up a more permanent base. So, if you are in the 2021 academic job market, reach out to us to be added to your cohort. We assure you that it would be worth your time!

PS: Thanks to Vijay Chidambaram, Mohammad Shahrad, and Shurui Zhou for their feedback on drafts of this article.

Experimental computer scientist; Assistant Professor at the University of Iowa.

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