Philip Guo (Phil Guo, Philip J. Guo, Philip Jia Guo, pgbovine)

How did I get my first batch of students?

A year ago, I started Year One as an assistant professor with zero students. My top priority – aside from the getting grants – was to quickly ramp up my research group to a steady-state size.

In the past year, I've worked with 11 students on research projects (7 undergrads, 3 masters, and 1 Ph.D.). Of those, 4 have graduated, 5 are planning to continue working with me in the coming year, and 2 are not continuing. The five who are continuing (Jeff, Jeremy, Joyce, Mitchell, and Renan) have all successfully published research papers with me. In addition, I added 2 new students this summer and will add 3 more in the fall, bringing my total up to 10 at the beginning of Year Two.

People who are about to begin a faculty job have asked me how I got my first batch of students when I started from scratch without knowing anyone. Here's how I found each of my students over the past year.

Starting in Fall 2014

Five students started working with me during Fall 2014, my first semester as an assistant professor:

  • Jeremy cold-emailed me in July 2014, right when I started my new job. He wrote a great cold-email that caught my eye.

  • Dan S. was interning at MIT Lincoln Labs in summer 2014, so he cold-emailed me and then met up with me in person in Cambridge as I was finishing up my postdoc at MIT.

  • Logan cold-emailed me as he was applying to Ph.D. programs in late 2013. Even though I didn't start until mid-2014, I alerted my (future) colleagues on the Ph.D. admissions committee about his application, and he ended up getting admitted.

  • Kate cold-emailed me at the beginning of the semester and came to my office hours a few times.

  • Sara came to my office hours at the beginning of the semester, and we discussed potential project ideas there.

Starting in Spring 2015

I teach two courses per year. Teaching both simultaneously in the fall semester was a great decision since it: a.) exposed me to more students so that I could recruit the most suitable ones for research, and b.) freed up my spring 2015 semester solely for research, since I didn't need to teach.

I found five new students from the two courses that I taught in Fall 2014: Joyce and Karina came from my undergrad web programming course, and Jeff, Renan, and Doug came from my grad programming languages course.

My sixth new student this semester, Mitchell, actually cold-emailed me last summer in June 2014. He wrote an impressive cold-email and also came highly recommended by his former research advisors. (He didn't start in Fall 2014 since he was away interning at Google.)

Starting in Summer 2015 (now)

I purposely didn't take many new students this summer since I was at Microsoft Research. But two caught my eye in particular:

  • Lenny had been coming to my office hours on and off to chat since the beginning of fall semester. His persistence paid off, and I decided to take him on as a new student this summer.

  • Dan H. was well-known in the local student hacking community, and he also developed a course scheduling assistant tool that was popular with students here. Due to his technical prowess, I decided to start loosely supervising him on his project, even though it's not on my critical path.

Starting in Fall 2015

Three new students will start working with me in Fall 2015, which marks the beginning of my second year as a professor.

  • Davide will be a visiting masters student from Europe. He cold-emailed our department administrator looking for a faculty host for his masters thesis, and she kindly forwarded his email to me. I scheduled time to chat with him on Skype, liked what I heard, and decided to take him on.

  • Jaime will be starting in our Ph.D. program in Fall 2015. He was a masters student at RIT (a neighboring school) and proactively came to my office hours a few times last year to pitch his research interests. His persistence paid off, and he was eventually admitted into our Ph.D. program.

  • Xiong will also be starting in our Ph.D. program in Fall 2015. He cold-emailed me as he was about to apply to our Ph.D. program last year as an international student from China. Out of the dozens of applicants who cold-emailed me, he made the best impression by far. The rest of the admissions committee also liked his application, so he was admitted.

Parting Thoughts

I feel good that I've reached a steady-state group size. Now I don't need to recruit nearly as aggressively and can be ultra-picky to add the right students at the right times to sustain momentum as my existing students graduate or move onto other endeavors. I also don't feel as awkward saying “No” to prospective students since I don't have the capacity to advise any more at the moment.

My main advice for new faculty wanting to quickly ramp up their research group is that you can't rely solely on the annual Ph.D. admissions cycle. You won't find enough students that way, and the turnaround time is one whole year, which is way too long!

Yes, you should serve on the Ph.D. admissions committee every year so that you can pick out the best candidates to build your fledgling group. But in the meantime, look around for the most promising undergrads and masters students to get your group started, since they're already right there in front of you.

In my limited experience so far, I've found that the best students want an advisor who will help them fulfill their own ambitions. Demonstrate your value to them, and you can get the best ones to work with you.

It's remarkable how quickly your reputation (either good or bad!) spreads via word-of-mouth throughout the entire student body. So if you make your genuine energy and enthusiasm well-known to students from day one, you'll have tons of them cold-emailing you and coming to your office hours wanting to work in your research group. Then it's up to you to pick the ones who will work best with you – those with the skills, interests, and goals that match what you're looking for.

Created: 2015-07-28
Last modified: 2015-07-29
Related pages tagged as assistant professor life: