Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Job Search, Another Perspective

I am chairing the search committee for Harvard this year, motivating me to comment on the view from the other side of the search process. Everything here should be taken as general commentary, my own opinion, not the opinion of my employer or this search committee, and not necessarily specific to our search, which of course I can't discuss in any detail. (The following comments are not theory-specific, though I use theory-examples.)

A general search begins with getting several hundred applications for a small number of interviews and an even smaller number of eventual offers. Candidate quality is quite high, to the point where it's very difficult to whittle the folders down to a number that can be reasonably considered for interviews. [I'm personally doubtful that there will be enough academic/research lab jobs available this year (in, say, North American academic institutions) for all the highly qualified candidates. All the good people will get a job, I'm sure -- perhaps just not in academia, or in research labs. We'll lose people to non-research industry. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but I'm sure there are plenty of people who would like to stay in research that won't be able to. Of course, even if you get an academic job, it's not clear these days there's enough research funding to go around for everyone, anyway...]

Candidates need to find a way to stand out. More precisely, their research record needs to stand out. Somehow, unfortunately, it's not even enough to have a number of papers in top-tier conferences. In theory, for example, there's a number of people with multiple FOCS/STOC/SODA papers. Let's hypothetically say there's a dozen candidates with 3 or more papers in top-tier conferences in an area. What will make you stand out as one of the top two or three that gets an interview?

Letter-writers confirming the quality of your research (and your contributions on multi-author papers) are one obvious answer, and this partially explains the often observed hiring bias in favor of students from top-tier institutions; they have top-tier letter-writers. It is, generally, helpful to come from a top-tier institution, but it's less clear that it matters which particular one. Research quantity is another way to stand out. Those rare extreme cases of people who manage to publish 20 or so papers in top conferences do get noticed, certainly.

Quality, however, matters much more than quantity. Are you working on exciting problems, that can have a significant impact in some way? Are you following the crowd, or getting ahead of it? In essence, the question is "What is candidate X famous for?" If there's a good answer to that question when you replace "candidate X" with your name, you're much more likely to get an interview. And the statement "Candidate X is famous for writing a lot of papers" isn't really sufficient in itself.

Finally, I think there are further intangibles that contribute to this notion of reputation that need to be thought about earlier on in graduate school that impact the hiring process. Giving good conference talks gets you and your work more notice, increasing the fame factor. Working with many people, including people from outside your home institution, increases the visibility of your work (and improves your collection of letters).

In the end, of course, all this advice seems obvious. Then again, being on the search committee and writing this up clarified it my mind, and will make me reflect on my own recent work practices.


Anonymous said...

Regarding the comment about there not being enough jobs for all the qualified candidates: if someone really wants to stay in research and they cannot get a job in the US, they can always go to Europe. Unlike the US, many countries in Europe (UK, France, Germany, Switzerland) have TONS of money right now for research funding. This has to do with the EU rule that 3.5% of the GDP must be spent on research.

Actually, given that the US economy is not doing that great, it is important that as a theory community, people think about the future. For example, at various STOC/FOCS business meetings, people have discussed how theory is a leaf rather than a high up internal node on the NSF CS funding tree and why this is a problem. Right now is the time when the European funding tree is being drawn, because there are many new funds being given out to research. If there are not enough theory people there, then perhaps theory will also end up as a leaf on that tree as well. It's not like there is not money available for research--it is just not in the US.

Anonymous said...

This perspective is depressing :|

Anonymous said...

yesterday was the positive perspective--today is the negative perspective. somehow this post struck me as very arrogant.

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

Anonymous #1 -- You bring up very interesting points; thanks for the European perspective!

Anonymous #2 (grad student) -- I agree, it is depressing. I think you have to find the balance with the previous post, which is as anonymous 3 suggests was the positive one.

Anonymous #3 -- no arrogance intended. I was simply trying to describe what things look like from the point of view of a hiring committee. Perhaps you found yesterday's post more humble?

Anonymous said...

if someone really wants to stay in research and they cannot get a job in the US, they can always go to Europe.

This is hilarious.

Anonymous #1 -- From where do you have this idea? It is MUCH harder to get a permanent academic position in Europe than in America. I do not know what the situation is in all European countries, but in my country (which is one of the countries you mention) there is rather a decline in the number of academic positions. That is, for any new job created, usually someone else has to retire. This seems not to be the case in America to this extend. For instance, I don't believe that there are that many people retiring from Harvard Computer Science Department this year.

And another question: Do you speak all European languages on a level that you are able to teach in them? Don't think that you can everywhere give your lectures in English!

Anonymous said...

Anonymous #1 says:

I was not necessarily referring to permanent academic positions. Mr. Mitzenmacher related how his experience in a non-permanent position that he obtained our of graduate school served as "bridge time" after which he got a permanent-track position. I won't say which European country I live in, but all Europeans like to tell you that it is MUCH harder to get a job in their country. I do not find this to be true. There are more positions in the US, but there is a much larger and better applicant pool. To get a permanent position, it is better to speak the language of the country you are in, but it is not impossible to learn a new language. If you just take one of these countries and look at the qualifications of people who have permanent positions, they are much lower than people in similar positions in the US.

Anonymous said...

I know a guy in a theory-ish area that made a "lateral move" (in terms of departmental ranking, student quality, etc) to a European institution that offered him much better pay and more possibilities for collaboration.

He gets to teach in English, but of course needs to practice the native language of his host country so he can get around.

It is possible for a US born, US educated person to get a job in Europe, and it can be better than the options that you might find in the states.

Anonymous said...

Regarding "arrogance":

If you are at a top twenty U.S. program (to pick an arbitrary and quite imprecise cut-off) looking at applications, this is precisely how it will appear to you: many more candidates with lots of papers in top conferences than you could possibly bring in to interview. (On a positive note, even among the top twenty programs each place will see applications from a slightly different subset of candidates and will have different priorities in the search process.)

The "arrogance" part comes from the graduates and how they are trained by the top twenty programs. In CS, these top programs produce a huge percentage of all CS PhDs and many of them are educated to believe that the only academic jobs that they should aspire to are at these same institutions or those only slightly further down the list. There are over 100 institutions participating in the ACM Taulbee survey. I wonder how many CS graduates from top schools even apply to many institutions in the lower half of these rankings.

Anonymous said...

"The 'arrogance' part comes from the graduates and how they are trained by the top twenty programs. ... I wonder how many CS graduates from top schools even apply to many institutions in the lower half of these rankings."

This isn't fair. How many of the institutions in the lower half of these rankings are recruiting theory CS candidates? The lower you go, the more likely you are to find schools looking only for video game design experts.

Anonymous said...

What will make you stand out as one of the top two or three that gets an interview?

A more interesting question is how the current requirements (lots of papers in FOCS/STOCS) have met their purpose. Say for example what would be the correlation between the ranking of top 50 PhD students 10-20 years ago by STOC/FOCS paper count and the ranking of 50 most influential theoreticians 10-20 years out of their PhD today.