Machinations


Jobville Hunting
March 30, 2012, 7:44 pm
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[This is a guest post by my former PhD student Amitabh Trehan.  Amitabh is now finishing up a post doc at Technion and rumor has it that he’s been giving job talks at some of the IIT branches in India (The IITs are like the MITs of India) – Ed]

Matt Damon was a genius janitor solving math problems posted on blackboards in ‘Good Will Hunting’ – I wonder how his character would have done in ‘Job Ville Hunting’!

Well, returning to the reality of us more mortal types, there comes a stage when every PhD student needs to go where they’ve been postponing going before – Jobville. Having been through the process in the recent years and still actively driving around in Jobville, I thought I will summarize my thoughts. I will mostly skip the details of failed attempts, missed deadlines and numerous faux pas in the favor of some well distilled advice. I suppose this will be most useful for students looking for postdoc positions and a career in academia, but some of the advice maybe generally useful too.

What has worked for me so far could be called a social networking approach, though I will not say that I had planned it such. In other words, there may not be a single approach which may work for all, but the bottom line is that if you do good work and you let people know you are a promising candidate, they may open the doors for you. I consider myself fairly lucky in the opportunities I have been given and the appreciation I have received for my work.  Here are some tips.

What works? Personal interaction counts. Be ready to talk, present and travel. If you plan to be in academia, this is going to be the major portion of your professional life anyway. So, start early – meeting people, talking and presenting your work not only helps setup future collaborations and gets people interested in working with you, it may interest them to have you as a postdoc or a faculty closer to their own place of work. Research is an increasingly collaborative venture and even in the age of skype, physical distance counts. But, remember to be enthusiastic and organized. There is another rule of thumb : if interested, send an email. This works for almost anybody in any part of the world, for any job. However, be sincere when you send that mail; do not spam. After all, an academic career is built on reputation.

Now, for some more technical details 🙂

Start early: Yes, yes, we’ve been conditioned to procastinate and that’s why this is even more important. The process takes much longer than you would imagine, so start early. Of course, it’s entirely possible it may not take much time for you to get a postdoc offer (the faculty process may involve more formalities) but even that would happen when you advertise that you are ready. The time you want to start with your warmup exercises  also depends on which part of the world you are interested in going (see the next point). I would suggest getting serious about the process in the summer before the year you plan to be in the market.

Know the global market and application cycles: Less than a decade ago, I had heard that as a CS PhD, you don’t even need a postdoc to be offered a faculty position. That seems to have changed in a hurry. A friend mentioned to me that if somebody had told him finding a faculty postion post PhD would be so tough, he may have settled for a MS and a job in the software industry.

The academic market is now closely related to the global economic conditions as witnessed by the slowdown in the US economy. You may be interested in exploring globally e.g. Europe, Singapore, India. However, different countries have different applications cycles, application rules and procedures (some of which can be pretty frustrating). For example, a postdoc in Israel may be required to start in October (September is the holiday month there) but the positions may be finalized as early as February or March. Similarly, the faculty position openings in the US start advertising in the winter of the previous year whereas in India they may start around March of the year. I also heard the following: In some places (this was in Europe), you may need three independent referees to certify that the place you claimed to have done your PhD from really exists (and the person who endured this is from MIT).

Try to do good work: Though this goes without saying, researchers face a dilemma: quality or quantity? Is ‘publish or perish’ here to stay? A fellow applicant pointed out that it seems that some applicants now have as many papers as seasoned researchers of the past have over their career. However, if you have a few publications in high quality conferences and journals, it is likely to count much more than a host of medium level publications.

Get your thoughts together i.e. the research statement: Very important. Each time you write your research statement, you discover a lot about yourself and your research, even if you discovered a lot about yourself last year! This is another of the items that seems to take forever to write: It seems you should be done tomorrow, but you will remember that you had felt the same a month ago! You also have to maintain a polished CV and teaching statement.

Join mailing lists and websites: You need a source to discover new openings. There are some good resources on the Internet: www.cra.org is a great resource – they have a very useful mailing list called CRA job openings. http://www.mathjobs.org/jobs is another useful place for Computer Scientists – in fact, you can apply through here for many positions using the same set of basic documents (CV, research statement, teaching statement etc).

So, if you are ready to embark on an adventure in jobville, all the best, and remember to try to solve any problems you see written on blackboards! (I am usually too lazy to do that, but you should give it a try 🙂



The Origami Geometer
March 27, 2012, 3:50 pm
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There’s a nice article on Eric Demaine’s work on origami in Nature recently, along with some beautiful pictures.  I like the fact that it’s probably the only article in Nature that has ever contained the phrase “balloon animals”.

 

 



Turing at 100
March 6, 2012, 4:41 pm
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There is a nice set of articles on Alan Turing in Nature this month, in celebration of his 100th birthday.  This short article “The Man Behind the Machine” is a good place to start.  Much of the short article will be familiar to computer scientists, but there’s a funny bit about umlauts being initially added to his name in the phrase “Turing Machine”, “due, presumably, to an impression that anything so incomprehensible must be Teutonic”.  Also there’s an interesting later article on Turing’s biological work on morphogenesis.