Job opening : Chair at the Hamilton Institute

Vijay Subramanian passed along this job opening in case readers know of someone who would be interested…


The Hamilton Institute at the National University of Ireland Maynooth invites applications for a Chair position starting in Summer 2013. Appointment will be at full professor level. Exceptional candidates in all areas will be considered, although we especially encourage candidates working in areas that complement existing activity in the mathematics of networks (distributed optimisation, feedback control, stochastic processes on graphs) as applied to smart transport, smart city data analytics and wireless networks.

The Hamilton Institute is a dynamic and vibrant centre of excellence for applied mathematics research. The successful candidate will be a leading international researcher with a demonstrated ability to lead and develop new research directions. A strong commitment to research excellence and a successful track record in building strategic partnerships and securing independent funding from public competitive sources and/or through private investment are essential.

Informal enquires can be directed to Prof. Doug Leith (, Director of the Hamilton Institute. Details on the Hamilton Institute can be found at

Further information on the post and the application procedure can be found here.

The deadline for applications is 11th Feb 2013.

Approaches to the research statement

It’s job season again and I am revising my research statement. I was pretty happy with the last iteration of it, but as things change I might need to find a new story for my life. As I get farther along, it has become a bit harder to cram all of the things I’ve worked on into a single consistent story. There are even some grad students I know who have worked on several distinct things and they probably have the same problem. There’s a tension in the research statement between coming up with a coherent story and accurately representing your work. There are a few generic ways of handling this, it seems.

The omnibus. You can write many mini-stories, one about each of the major projects, and then have a section for “miscellaneous other papers.” This approach eschews the overarching framework idea and instead just goes for local internal consistency.

The proposal. Instead of talking about all of your work (or mentioning it), you propose one research direction and give short shrift to the rest. This has the advantage of letting you write more fully about one topic and provide sufficient context and exciting new research directions, but then again you’re mis-representing the actual balance of your research interests.

The tractatus. You develop some principles or philosophical underpinnings for your work and then try to connect everything you’ve done to these and explain your future work ideas as further developing these themes. This approach goes for consistency above all else. The advantage is coherence, and the disadvantage is that some projects may have to get strong-armed into it.

I am sure there are more varieties out there, but on the whole the research statement is a weird document — part description, part proposal. You can’t make it only about your existing work because that’s looking to the past, but you can’t make it a proposal because the reader is actually trying to learn what you are interested in.

Postdoc job openings

Some people have told me about postdoctoral position openings that are opening up, and I figured I’d repost some of them here as they come along. Of course, there are other places to post announcements, but I find that postdoc opportunities are a bit harder to advertise/hear about. I think a lot of systems EE people applying for academic positions right out of grad school tend to put off applying for postdocs until they hear back about their faculty interviews — I’d tend to say this is a mistake:

  • If your graduation date may be a little flexible, pinging someone early on (e.g. in the fall) about possible postdoc opportunities can be a good plan. NSF grant deadlines are in the fall, and so they could write a postdoc position into a current proposal.
  • Of course you’re going to apply for faculty positions, and the people you’re talking to about postdoc positions know that. However, if you get to May and haven’t talked to anyone about postdoc options, you may find that those positions have filled up.
  • Don’t think of a postdoc as a “fallback plan” (akin to a “safety school”) — it’s an opportunity and a chance to make a strategic decision. Do you want to switch areas or learn about something new? Do you want to dig deeper into things you’ve already been working on? Do you want a springboard to get a job in a specific country? Do you want to build closer ties to industry? Do you want closer mentorship?

I went to a panel at Allerton once on “whether you should do a postdoc” starring (among other people) Aaron Wagner and Todd Coleman, I believe. Everyone was very enthusiastic about doing a postdoc. Everyone on the panel had faculty positions lined up for after their postdoc and deferred their start date to do that postdoc. This is the best of all possible worlds but is pretty unusual, so don’t count on it.

This is all dodging the issue of whether or not you should even do a postdoc. That might be a topic for a different post (or a debate for the comments) — I know people have strong feelings on both sides. I tend to think our system is broken or veering into brokenness.

However, more information is more power, so if you have a postdoc announcement (details are helpful) and want me to post it here, please do send it my way. You can also try to post to the IT Society website.

In the somewhat, but not too distant future…

I have accepted an offer to join the Toyota Technological Institute at Chicago this fall as a Research Assistant Professor. I’m excited by all of the opportunities there; it’s a great chance to dig deeper into some exciting research problems while learning a lot of new things from the great people they have there. It’s in Hyde Park, which is a great stepping stone for future career opportunities

the job market : so many applicants

I just got a rejection from the CS department at Brown, and they sadly neglected to Bcc the recipients, so I now know that they rejected 362 people in one fell swoop. Just glancing through the addresses I recognized several of the recipients. I think, based on my limited expertise in privacy-preserving algorithms, that this is pretty much satisfies the Dinur-Nissim definition of blatant non-privacy: if there are n applicants, I have reconstructed n - o(n) of them, since I can’t imagine that they would interview more than o(n). Ok that was a little more nerdy than I intended. I do think that they deserve a wag of the finger.

Update: I just got a followup saying that the sender “would like to recall the message…” Alas, no.

Update 2: Another followup came in saying to “please ignore and delete” the previous message. Does this mean I still have a chance?!? (Again, alas, no).

CISE is hiring

I got this in my email:

NSF’s Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE) seeks candidates for the position of Deputy Assistant Director. The incumbent participates with the Assistant Director in providing leadership and direction to the staff and activities of the directorate and in coordinating activities with the Directorate’s senior managers. The Deputy Assistant Director also serves as a key assistant to the Assistant Director in all phases of the Directorate’s activities and programs.

The full ad is here.

Most amusing rejection so far

Thank you for applying to the Department of Computer Science at Columbia University. I am sorry to tell you that we will be unable to offer you a position this year. The Computer Science department’s recent call for applications for new faculty members generated several hundred responses. Our delight at receiving so many applications was muted by the realization that we would be unable to talk with a large number of excellent candidates.

phone interviews

Suresh posted a few months ago about academic phone interviews and asked “maybe it’s because there are more people chasing each slot and so these filters are more necessary now?” I’ve had a few phone interviews this year, with some turning into on-campus interviews and some not. Although it’s considered a thing that only smaller departments will do, I actually think the phone interview has a lot of positive features that make sense for lots of departments:

  • You can screen a much larger set of candidates — it’s probably quite difficult to decide on 6 people to invite for on-site visits out of 300 applicants. Phone interviews let you screen out those who seem under-prepared, un-interested in your job (i.e. they applied just because it was there). If someone’s research is not really in your area (e.g. a department with no information theory people), it is a good chance to get the candidate to explain it to you rather than puzzling through the research statement. This also saves money.
  • You can talk to unknown candidates — of course if your advisor is great friends with someone at school X then chances are that person will know your name (or at least your advisor’s name on your CV). But hiring people you know personally may be a suboptimal strategy long-term, so phone interviews let you broaden your search.
  • It can be done in a decentralized manner — you don’t need the whole committee to be there on the phone call. Divide and conquer!
  • If your search is pretty broad, then you can talk to a few people in several different areas. This means you can find the best-sounding candidate in each area and then the committee can try to compare good apples and good oranges instead of the whole motley cornucopia.
  • From the interviewee’s perspective, you get to learn quite a bit more about the department, its priorities, and the culture from a 30 minute chat on the phone. You get this from the questions they ask as well as the questions you get to ask. That’s definitely the sort of thing which you can’t get from the website.
  • It provides good feedback for the interviewee — if you get a phone interview, you know you’ve made some sort of list (medium, short, whatever) and that knowledge is helpful, given the uncertainty mentioned in my previous post.

That’s not to say I necessarily enjoyed all of the phone interviews; the phone is an awkward medium. But I do think on balance that they are a good way to improve the search process from the employer and job-seeker side. Besides, I’m not sure I look my best in Skype video chats…

Some thoughts on the job market

I’m interviewing this spring to find my next gig after this postdoc, which is a convenient way for me to excuse my lack of posting. Applying for jobs is in a way a job in itself, with attendant time sinks and things popping up, etc. One thing that struck me is the sheer inefficiency of the process. This is my third time applying, and I think I sent in about 60 applications (most of which I had no chance for, in retrospect) for academic and research lab positions. Most of my comments here relate to the academic market.

Different places want different things. Some schools don’t want a cover letter. Some do. Some want you to email the application as a single PDF. Some want you to fill out half the information on your CV into a web form and then also submit your CV. Some schools want a combined two-page research and teaching statement, and some want them separately (or with page requirements for each). Some don’t want any teaching statement. Some schools want letters sent directly, some will email a link to your recommenders, some want hardcopy letters, and some will request letters only from a few applicants. Some want 3 letters, some 5, and some up to 8. Some places have a common interface like AJO. Many schools use the same software package (like RAPS at Columbia).

The bewildering variety of formats makes it hard for applicants to keep their recommenders (who are busy people) informed. I sent my recommenders endless emails with lists of which schools wanted what, which schools they should have heard from, and which schools will only contact them if I made the first cut (in which case, could they let me know for my own records?). What if your application somewhere is rejected because they sent an automated email to your letter writers without informing you and it was eaten by their spam filter? This would hardly be fair, but I imagine that it does happen. I’m not sure what is to be done, but it seems like moving to a common format like the AMS Coversheet may not be a bad move, or using some kind of letter warehousing service.

Another related factor which contributes to inefficiency and psychological distress is the lack of feedback regarding the status of one’s application. I got a rejection letter from last year’s job search in October of this year. Did they really made the decision only then, or were they just flushing their buffer? I’d prefer a form rejection letter early to the ambiguity even from the place that wants a “mixed-signal circuit” expert but welcomes “excellent candidates in all areas.” Just getting an email saying “sorry, you’re not a good fit” can help refocus the applicant’s attention on those openings which are still “open.” It’s a buyers market — there are 300 applicants for each open position, so perhaps departments don’t have time to send all of those letters. But emails are cheap!

There’s no real way to make the application process less time-consuming, but I think it can be made less confusing and less draining. The question is how, and what is the incentive for employers?