Friday, October 28, 2011

How to get an academic job?

How should students go about getting a job? The question came up in some recent comment. It's a tough one, but brought back a memory.

Once a relative asked her uncle: "You are so successful. How did you do it? How should I go about it? What job should I have, and what career should I pursue?" I waited with interest to hear what he might have to say. Here is what the successful young man answered: "No matter what you do, you will not be successful if you are not really into it. You've got to enjoy your work. So, why don't you figure out the things that interest you the most and make a list of the four or five most exciting jobs for you? Then, within that short list, you can look at other criteria such as opportunities, salary and career paths. But you've got to first give priority to your personal interests."

I loved that answer.

So, by analogy I would say: I believe that there is no way for people to be leading researchers unless they love what they do. A student thinking about going into academia should first think of the research areas that he or she is most interested in, make a short list of the fields that are most exciting for him or her personally. Then they can take into consideration the job market, trying to estimate, five years down the line, which subjects will be most important and will have the most openings.

That's my little piece of wisdom for the day! Not particularly surprising, not particularly unorthodox, but it might be good advice.


  1. This certainly seems like a necessary condition... I think it would be fair to say that this and hard work and being good is not sufficient! Certainly not these days anyway. (Even though luck is important in all aspects of life, sadly one needs a lot of luck to get an academic job.)

  2. I am an ex-CS prof (trained at 1st rank schools, taught and researched at many institutions, left tenure-track position after reappointment).

    I would not advise any of my students today who are motivated to teach to go for academic jobs, unless it's a pure teaching school and they are prepared to accept that they are part of a service industry.

    It's lousy pay compared to industry salaries (my field is computer security, a special case I will admit), university life has morphed into a service industry with an ever growing unproductive bureaucratic class (the middle managers, read "The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matter") who care very little about student learning.

    Tenure is eroding very quickly; which was the last racket for the working man in the US. This is actually a good thing in general (tenured deadwood abounds), but not for aspiring professors.

    Junior faculty are whipped into grant business when they should be honing their pedagogical skills and frequently are made to carry the loads of lazy senior faculty. Adjuncts are abused as a matter of course.

    Cheating is rampant bc students are led to believe that education is a service business, and as paying customers they are entitled to degrees. Chasing out of state tuition fees makes this even more acute (foreign students copy and paste stuff whole sale, much more than US students, bc of this impression).

    Last but not least, the politics on campus, what the Left calls Progressivism, with all that it entails, are nauseating: Anti-Americanism with all the classic trappings, anti-Semitism in the guise of hatred for the Jewish state at top institutions, the praise of anti-Western values and ideologies and the disdain for Western Enlightenment and the cowardice of those who should speak is sickening. ( This is not generally a problem with CS department which tend to be apolitical, this happens more in the humanities).

  3. Excellent advice, one that I would give myself. I'd add one more thing -- even if you know what the job market is like now, it is very difficult to predict which areas would have the most openings 5 years down the line. So pick an area that you like, and an area that has some industry job so that you have a backup plan, and go enjoy yourself!

  4. > five years down the line, which subjects will be most important and will have the most openings.

    Also, be aware of that which school you graduate from and who was your advisor is quite important. Go for the top 5 programs (in theory they are: MIT, Berkeley, Cornell, Princeton, and CMU) and/or carefully vet your potential advisors (track the career path of their last 5 students---you will likely follow a similar path).

  5. I grew up in an academic household - my father was a history prof - but despite this I did not understand the extent to which success in the research side of academia requires one to be entrepreneurial. It may not be a surprise that this is the case for CS but it is also true in other fields - you are competing in the marketplace of ideas to convince others that your subject and ideas are important. (The grant process complained about by the second poster is a reflection of this, not a driver of it.) This is part of the reason that doing what you love is so important - if you are excited about something and strongly believe in its importance you will be much better at convincing others.

    If you do choose academia, the advantages of great freedom of investigation as well as freedom in how to spend your time should be important enough to you to be willing to complete in that marketplace of ideas and to offset the (much) greater financial rewards outside academia.

    I would add one item to Claire's suggestion: While you should choose what to do carefully, once you have chosen it, do not put blinders on and ignore everything else around you. Keep up on a broad range in the wider areas that interest you. One reason is that in getting an academic job it is important to be able to communicate with others outside your chosen research area. As importantly, you also may find great connections, exciting developments, and interesting things to work on that you never envisaged when you started.

  6. Anonymous 10:06am: I don't have a comparison point because I have no insider's perspective on non-academic jobs (except, to some extent, teaching and farming).

    Your experience as an academic does not match mine, though. Obviously you've had a tough time with it. I am privileged to be in an environment that is very supportive.

    I hope that your current environment does not have anti-Semitism. I hope that many of us, although we may be prone to criticizing the government of Israel if we dare voice our thoughts, are totally committed to the state of Israel and would be willing to defend it ourselves if its existence came to be in danger.

  7. "If you do choose academia, the advantages of great freedom of investigation as well as freedom in how to spend your time should be important enough to you to be willing to complete in that marketplace of ideas and to offset the (much) greater financial rewards outside academia."

    This sentence is fairly dishonest. Freedom versus financial rewards is not the real conflict. This is only the way advisors phrase it to draw their idealist students in.

    A more honest phrasing would start with, "If you do choose to TRY TO pursue a career in academia." It would continue with, "Your chances of being able to make it work are at best 1 in 10."

    And that is the real problem. Most scientists don't have a problem giving up money for more valuable things. But nothing is more valuable than time. And if you choose to enter academia, there is a 9 in 10 chance that in five years, after many sacrifices (personal life, money, etc.), you will be forced to give it up and be in a position behind where you started.

  8. Previous anonymous: Statistically, the chances of getting tenure in CS are quite high. I don't know the figures exactly but definitely above 50% and probably much closer to 75%. I am not sure where you got the 1/10 figure from. The main difficulty is getting the academic job. There the chances are quite low and it is very important to tell students that information up front so that they can make a realistic assessment.

  9. Thanks for sharing your info. I really appreciate your efforts and I will be waiting for your further write ups thanks once again.


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