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

Why do you want to be a CS professor?

I've recently been helping friends prepare for computer science faculty job interviews, mostly at research-intensive universities. And soon I'll even be interviewing candidates ... scary, eh?

At this super-early stage in my career, I have little confidence in my ability to judge whether someone is good for this job. So I'll defer to senior faculty who have been involved in dozens of interviews and subsequent hiring decisions. But one thing I can contribute is my own perspectives as a recent applicant.

Out of all the interview advice guides I read last year, John Regehr's Of Course It's an Interview was the simplest yet most memorable. This article builds upon some of John's ideas.

Every candidate should have a compelling answer to this simple question: Why do you want to be a CS professor?

If you've been invited to faculty job interviews, that means you could be working at any top software company, starting or joining an early-stage startup, quanting as a quant on Wall Street, hobnobbing with CEOs and VPs as a management consultant, or doing cutting-edge research at an industrial research lab. Given all of these compelling career options, why the hell do you want to be in academia?!?

This isn't hypothetical. Since I was a software engineer at Google when I applied for faculty jobs, many people straight-up asked me some form of this question: “Why the hell would you leave all of the perks of Google to become a professor?” (The free food! The gourmet coffee! The massages!)

You need to come up with your own answer, but here are some potentially helpful thoughts.

Loving research, and ...

Chances are, you loved doing academic research as a grad student, and that's why you're applying for faculty jobs.

Loving research is a necessary but nowhere near sufficient condition for thriving in a faculty career. From what I've seen, the happiest senior faculty all excel in multiple roles. Thus, before interviewing, think deep and hard about whether you like:

  • technical writing – You'll do a ton of writing as a professor. A shit ton. So you better like writing for work.

  • public speaking – You'll be teaching a few times per week, giving conference talks a few times per year, delivering pitches and updates to potential funders, and visiting other universities to give talks. If you don't like public speaking or are terrible at it, then you'll be in a world of pain.

  • talking with students – You'll be talking to students all day, every day. Undergrads, master's students, Ph.D. students. Good students, mediocre students, terrible students. Inspiring students, boring students, aggravating students. In class, at office hours, in your research lab. About coursework, about careers, about research, about programming, about life. If you don't like talking with diverse types of students (not just ones like you!), then you'll also be in a world of pain.

  • mentoring junior employees – As you rise up the ranks in industry, you eventually manage a team of experienced employees. However, as a professor at any level, you are always mentoring junior employees (i.e., students) with much less experience than you. And as soon as one of your Ph.D. students gains enough experience to become truly effective, they graduate. Poof, gone! This setup provides an exciting opportunity since you will get to heavily influence the early careers of many young people. But it's also a lot of work that you can avoid in industry, since you can usually outsource it to managers at a level below you.

  • being a critic – As a professor, you'll be critiquing paper submissions, grant proposals, student theses, presentations, rough drafts, and tons of other artifacts. Can you be a fair, compassionate, and helpful critic rather than just taking out your frustrations on hapless souls at the other end? And can you do it year after year throughout your career?

  • fundraising – Okay, you don't have to love fundraising, but you can't hate it either, since you'll need to constantly apply for grants and maintain relationships with funders. Grant writing can take a surprising amount of time and frustration depending on the current funding climate in your field.

  • teaching – Ah yes, the T word! Although faculty at research-intensive universities are rewarded for research input and output (grants and publications, respectively), teaching is an integral part of the job. If you don't like teaching, then even if you get tenure, you'll spend the rest of your life doing something you hate nearly every single day. Wow, that super sucks! At my interviews, one department chair put it best when he said, “If you don't like teaching, what the hell are you doing at a university? You can make more money and still do research in industry.” Finally, the general public thinks of you primarily as a teacher, so if you aren't proud of your teaching, then that leads to cognitive dissonance when interfacing with civilians outside of academia.

You don't have to love all of these activities, but the more of them that you like, the happier you'll be in this line of work. So when you're at interviews, keep those in mind.

You were invited to interview because your research credentials were outstanding. So the question now becomes: Are you going to thrive in this new career, which differs a lot from what you were doing as a grad student or postdoc?

And finally, listen to Taylor Swift talking about her music career. In academia, you have to love your research so much that you're willing to do all of the other stuff that this job requires:

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Created: 2014-01-30
Last modified: 2014-01-30
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