Posts tagged ‘jobmarket’
This is the second in a series of posts with advice for computer science academic job candidates.
One shot, one opportunity
The philosopher Marshall Mathers once asked rhetorically, “Look, if you had one shot, or one opportunity / To seize everything you ever wanted in one moment / Would you capture it or just let it slip?”
He added, “Yo.” 
I don’t mean to imply that an academic position is everything you ever wanted, but it’s a pretty good life (although not for these reasons). Like it or not, it’s set up so that your career up until this point comes down to one moment. After years of hard work, your ability as a researcher will be judged primarily based on how you sell yourself in the fleeting span of an hour. Of course, you’ll (hopefully) give your talk at many places, but it’s going to be the same talk!
There’s a reason I’m saying this, and it’s not to stress you out even more. Rather, if at any point the level of preparedness that I suggest seems excessive or disproportionate, remember the wise words quoted above.
Public speaking is a performance
My first piece of advice is to read the book Confessions of a Public Speaker. As in, don’t even think about giving your job talk without having read it. You can read it in a sitting; putting it into practice will of course take longer. I cannot overstate the impact this book had on my talk (and my public speaking in general). There are probably other books that capture much of the wisdom in Confessions, and I’d love to hear other recommendations, but if you’re going to read one book it would have to be this one.
There are numerous very useful little details in the book, but it has one central idea that can be boiled down to the phrase “public speaking is a performance.” Job talks are are even more of a performance than public speaking in general, since the audience is specifically there to judge you. This is a generative metaphor — it allows you predict things about your job talk based on what you know about performing. Fully appreciating the metaphor will require reading the book, but here are two such predictions that might otherwise be surprising.
Your first priority is to entertain
Certainly you must both entertain and inform, but the point is that you don’t really have a shot at the latter if you fail at the former. Sitting in a lecture, as everyone who remembers their student days is surely aware, can be excruciating; it’s an extremely unnatural situation from an evolutionary perspective (again, read Confessions to appreciate why.) The chart below from the book What’s the Use of Lectures? shows students’ heart rate over time as they sat in a lecture. It’s only a drop of a few beats per minute, but it translates to an enormous difference in alertness.If you don’t do anything different in your talk and simply present your material, your audience’s attention level will be greatly diminished by the half-hour mark, and by the end of your talk people will basically be comatose. Anything you can do to break the routine, linear, hyper-boring pattern of a lecture will help jolt the audience out of their stupor. (That includes asking questions — I usually asked two or three in my talk.) Otherwise they won’t be excited about you nor remember much after the talk.
Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse
You may have heard “practice, practice, practice.” I’d rather cast it in the language of performance, as there are some subtle differences. For example, when people tell you to practice, they tell you not to overdo it because you’d lose your spontaneity. I disagree. In a rehearsal, everything is practiced down to the last detail. In fact, the apparently spontaneous things that I said my talk were the most well-rehearsed parts.
Rehearsal should include videotaping yourself and watching it. Yes, it’s painful and majorly cringe-inducing, but it’s absolutely, absolutely essential. In addition to all the obvious facets of good presentation style that I won’t repeat, one of the subtle but important things you should watch for is nervous tics or other repetitive behaviors — almost everyone has one or more of those, and they can almost derail your talk by distracting your audience.
The reason rehearsal makes such a huge difference is that when you’re delivering a rehearsed talk, your every word and gesture is subconscious, freeing up your mental bandwidth for observing and reacting in real-time to the facial expressions of your audience. There are never more than 40-50 people in these talks, a small enough number that you can instantly notice if someone looks confused, skeptical, or bored. But this won’t be possible if you have to think through your slides instead. The reduction in cognitive load also minimizes the chance of “hitting the wall,” a phenomenon of sudden mental fatigue that’s a serious danger in long-ish talks and can leave you helpless.
Let me close with an example of a little theatrical thing I did that shows the value of rehearsal and the performance metaphor. One of the goals in my location privacy project is to minimize smartphone power consumption. When I got to that part, I’d say, “those of you with Android phones know how bad the battery life is. In fact I usually carry a spare battery around… actually, I think I have it on me.” Then I’d pull a smartphone battery out of my jacket pocket with a bit of a dramatic touch. Somehow the use of a physical prop seemed to reframe their thinking from “yet another academic paper” to “solving a real problem.” It would also usually elicit a laugh and elevate their attention level.
There is so much more to say about job talks, not to mention other aspects of the job interview. I might do follow up posts on a mathematical model of audience behavior and/or an explanation of why slide transitions are (by far) the most important part of your slides.
 This post was written while listening to Lose Yourself in a loop.
 If it needs to be said, I have no stake in the book, financial or otherwise.
 I hasten to add that teaching is very different from public speaking and is emphatically not a performance.
Next in series: The job talk is a performance
I’ve just about settled into a rhythm at Princeton — classes started two weeks ago — and next year’s academic job search cycle is already underway! Indeed, I started my job search in earnest almost exactly a year ago. So I guess surprise number zero from this whole process is how time-consuming it was. There’s been no ‘normal’ or ‘routine’ during this year; each month has been unlike the previous. If you’re starting your academic job search, buckle up, it’s gonna be a wild ride!
There’s lots of advice online about the process; you should read all of it. Instead of duplicating what’s been said, I will focus on the things that surprised me in spite of having prepared as well as I possibly could. So if the rest of this post appears a bit contrarian, it’s just selection bias.
1. You’ll need someone to hold your hand. I can’t overstate how much of a difference it makes to have someone who’s been through the process whom you can talk to on a regular basis during your job search. Whether it’s achieving the right depth-breadth balance in your job talk, or wording emails strategically/diplomatically, or knowing how to best space out your interviews, you can’t figure it out by yourself or by reading online advice.
Typically the person helping you will be your advisor, but if they are busy you should find someone else. The good news is that many people will be willing to help out and pay it forward. It doesn’t have to be one person, you can split it between two or three people. I know that I would have screwed it up many times over if it hadn’t been for my advisor and everyone else who helped me out.
Some candidates networked extensively both to compare notes with other job searchers and to obtain and share privileged information. I avoided this entirely because I didn’t want the stress associated with it, and I’m very happy with my decision. That said, maybe I missed out in some way, I don’t know.
2. It’s not an interview. Perhaps this should have been obvious, but I was taken aback during my first “interview.” People already assume you’re an expert in your subfield, and so they aren’t trying to assess your technical competence. At all. I was tested exactly once in my whole tour — a professor asked me to state and sketch a proof of any theorem (of my choice) from my Netflix paper. Another professor apparently found this egregious, so he later wrote me a rather apologetic email. I found the whole thing rather amusing.
Best as I can tell, what they’re trying to assess is your personality (more bluntly, they want to make sure you’re not an asshole), and whether they can collaborate with you. So everyone was extremely polite to me and never asked adversarial questions or gave me much pushback.
One consequence of this interview style is that no one reads your papers, because they don’t need to. I already knew that no one read my papers in the normal course of things, but before the interview season I thought, “Finally, a few dozen people are going to read my papers!” Didn’t happen. Maybe it has something to do with me, but I think a big part of the reason is that in computer science we don’t seem to have a culture of reading beyond the abstract or introduction of papers (except in reviews, or reading groups, or when directly extending previous work.) Knowing this, authors don’t have an incentive to write in a readable manner, and the cycle is self-perpetuating. But I digress.
A happy side-effect of non-interview interviews was that the process wasn’t mentally exhausting. It was sort of like meeting a bunch of people for coffee and chatting for half an hour with each one. Since all the advice I’d gotten suggested that interviews would leave me dead tired, I was initially worried that I might be doing something wrong — maybe I wasn’t having sufficiently technical conversations? I suspect the real difference is that most people get exhausted due to being pumped full of adrenaline; due to a biological luck of the draw I don’t generate any noticeable adrenaline in these situations (including right before talks, which I’ve found a bit surprising).
3. You don’t have to interview them. Everyone else dispensing online advice seems to think, “you’re not just being interviewed; you’re also interviewing them.” I disagree. In one or two cases it was obvious during my interview that the school or department wouldn’t be a good fit for me without even having to ask them specific questions, but absent any obvious issues, I’m skeptical of how much you can determine by asking. Of course you should discuss areas of possible collaboration with people you meet, but to determine things like how good the students are, how effective the administrative staff are, etc., asking directly is not very useful.
The reason is that people will always spin things in a favorable way (this is not a criticism — most of the time they do it because they’ve been there long enough that they’ve adjusted to the situation and they actually see things the way they spin them.) And you’re not experienced enough to parse what you’re told to figure out what the reality is. You should definitely ask them questions lest they think you’re uninterested, but receive all information with a skeptical ear.
Instead, what was extremely useful for me is to talk to people who’d previously been at the departments I was considering, ask them what they didn’t like, then present that information back to people in my interview loop and ask them for their take, and finally try to reconcile the two views.
4. The job talk is a strategic piece of communication. There is so much subtext it blew my mind. For one, your job talk is all about telling people how awesome your work is, but of course you can’t state that directly. You’ll need to humblebrag without being obvious. For example, in my closing slide, I put up a collage of 24 faces, and said, “Finally, I’m incredibly grateful to my amazing co-authors without whom none of my work would have been possible.” That statement was certainly true, but also important was the subtext: “I collaborate like it’s going out of style.” This one was balanced precariously on the obvious threshold — I got called out in one of my talks!
But there’s more. You have to consider every single thing that you say from the point of view of someone in your field, someone not in your field but familiar with it, and someone not familiar with your field. It has to make sense at different levels to all of them. Also, you have to consider how each statement will sound to someone who spaced out for a bit and just started paying attention. And so on.
Overall, this isn’t going to be like any talk you’ve given. I think I spent 3-4 weeks working primarily (albeit not exclusively) on my talk, with regular tweaking afterwards.
5. You will fall sick. Airports and airplanes spread germs, plus you’re much more susceptible to infection when your sleep and diet are irregular, as they likely will be during your tour. Assuming you have a moderately busy schedule, falling sick is just a matter of time. I mentioned being sick to about 4-5 people, and each of them recalled how they had fallen sick during their own job search.
Naturally, then, you should treat proper sleep and diet as a priority. You should schedule your interviews so that you have time to recover when it happens. Also, try not to schedule your two most important interviews too close together. Finally, there’s a lot you can do in terms of symptom relief (e.g., benzocaine cough drops instead of menthol) to minimize the impact on your thinking and speaking during your interviews, so be medically prepared ahead of time.
That’s it for now. There are several topics that I’d like to address in more detail in separate posts, time permitting: 1. how to prepare for and deliver the talk; 2. what to say in your 1-on-1 meetings; 3. travel tips, and 4. suggestions for interviewers from the point of view of a candidate. If you’ve been through this process recently, I’d love to hear how your experiences matched or differed from mine.
Finally, Princeton CS is hiring this year, and our searches aren’t targeted by subfield, so if you’re on the market you should apply!
I’ve had a wonderful time at Stanford these last couple of years, but it’s time to move on. I’m currently in the middle of my job search, looking for faculty and other research positions. In the next month or two I will be interviewing at several places. It’s been an interesting journey.
My Ph.D. years in Austin were productive and blissful. When I finished and came West, I knew I enjoyed research tremendously, but there were many aspects of research culture that made me worry if I’d fit in. I hoped my postdoc would give me some clarity.
Happily, that’s exactly what happened, especially after I started being an active participant in program committees and other community activities. It’s been an enlightening and humbling experience. I’ve come to realize that in many cases, there are perfectly good reasons why frequently-criticized aspects of the culture are just the way they are. Certainly there are still facets that are far from ideal, but my overall view of the culture of scientific research and the value of research to society is dramatically more positive than it was when I graduated.
Let me illustrate. One of my major complaints when I was in grad school was that almost nobody does interdisciplinary research (which is true — the percentage of research papers that span different disciplines is tiny). Then I actually tried doing it, and came to the obvious-in-retrospect realization that collaborating with people who don’t speak your language is hard.
Make no mistake, I’m as committed to cross-disciplinary research as I ever was (I just finished writing a grant proposal with Prof’s Helen Nissenbaum and Deirdre Mulligan). I’ve gradually been getting better at it and I expect to do a lot of it in my career. But if a researcher makes a decision to stick to their sub-discipline, I can’t really fault them for that.
As another example, consider the lack of a “publish-then-filter” model for research papers, a whole two decades after the Web made it technologically straightforward. Many people find this incomprehensibly backward and inefficient. Academia.edu founder Richard Price wrote an article two days ago arguing that the future of peer review will look like a mix of Pagerank and Twitter. Three years ago, that could have been me talking. Today my view is very different.
Science is not a popularity contest; Pagerank is irrelevant as a peer-review mechanism. Basically, scientific peer review is the only process that exists for systematically separating truths from untruths. Like democracy, it has its problems, but at least it works. Social media is probably the worst analogy — it seems to be better at amplifying falsehoods than facts. Wikipedia-style crowdsourcing has its strengths, but it can hit-or-miss.
To be clear, I think peer review is probably going to change; I would like it to be done in public, for one. But even this simple change is fraught with difficulty — how would you ensure that reviewers aren’t influenced by each others’ reviews? This is an important factor in the current system. During my program committee meetings, I came to realize just how many of these little procedures for minimizing bias are built into the system and how seriously people take the spirit of this process. Revamping peer review while keeping what works is going to be slow and challenging.
Moving on, some of my other concerns have been disappearing due to recent events. Restrictive publisher copyrights are a perfect example. I have more of a problem with this than most researchers do — I did my Master’s in India, which means I’ve been on the other side of the paywall. But it looks like that pot may finally have boiled over. I think it’s only a matter of time now before open access becomes the norm in all disciplines.
There are certainly areas where the status quo is not great and not getting any better. Today if a researcher makes a discovery that’s not significant enough to write a paper about, they choose not to share that discovery at all. Unfortunately, this is the rational behavior for a self-interested researcher, because there is no way to get credit for anything other than published papers. Michael Neilsen’s excellent book exploring the future of networked science gives me some hope that change may be on the horizon.
I hope this post has given you a more nuanced appreciation of the nature of scientific research. Misconceptions about research and especially about academia seem to be widespread among the people I talk to both online and offline; I harbored a few myself during my Ph.D., as I said earlier. So I’m thinking of doing posts like this one on a semi-regular basis on this blog or on Google+. But that will probably have to wait until after my job search is done.