Tips for Computer Science Faculty Applications
(last updated Nov 10th, 2021)
This article is a collection of tips for improving your faculty application package (tailored to computer science). This article is going to be a living document and will be updated over time. This article is also biased towards how applications are evaluated at research universities in the US and Canada.
The cover letter is primarily a routing tool to get the application looked at by the right reviewers. A second goal is to highlight any special circumstances in your application. With that in mind, it’s good to state things like:
Position you’re applying for. This includes rank (assistant, associate, etc.), as well as specific title of the position opening as listed on the job posting.
Your area of expertise. Stating this clearly helps get your application routed to the appropriate reviewer. A mis-routing here can lead to significant delays or even errors in the evaluation.
Whether you’re applying confidentially. This point mainly applies to senior applicants.
Whether you want to disclose a 2-body problem. It might make sense to disclose this information if you and your partner are both applying at the same time. There are many (most?) situations where it’s in your best interest not to disclose this type of information until after you receive an offer, but occasionally it does make sense to disclose up front.
The research statement is your primary vehicle for articulating a research vision. You should count on your letter writers to speak highly of your previous accomplishments. So your research statement should mention your prior work as evidence of the potential of a grand research vision. In other words, don’t try to sell your skillset piece-meal, but rather sell your vision.
For reference, here is my research statement when I was applying in 2012–2013.
Significance. What is the significance of the research agenda you wish to pursue? Note that this is different from intellectual merit (discussed next). In other words, how will your research agenda, if successful, change the world? In my field of machine learning, a common strategy is to think about practical limitations of existing methods (which requires significant tuning & engineering to get things working), define a research agenda will make that aspect better understood and more systematic, and what new applications are enabled as a consequence. Another related strategy is to seek novel connections between machine learning and some other field, in a way where the whole can be greater than the sum of the parts.
Intellectual Merit. Academic research jobs are ultimately about pursuing intellectually rich research. Thus, your research vision should reveal rich intellectual questions (as well as have significance as discussed above). Your prior work is most useful here, as it can be used as evidence of intellectual merit of this research agenda.
Extrapolate Boldly yet Thoughtfully. Your research vision is about what can be possible, so it’s important to have a vision that extends into the future. The prior work is evidence that this vision has legs, but the future work is place where you are charting a path forward. I think this is the most distinctive piece of information that the research statement provides. A few strategies that I like to pursue are discussed next.
An Interesting “Medium-Level” Agenda. It’s relatively easy to craft a good high-level agenda (e.g., AI for Science, or Real-World Robotics). It’s also pretty easy to get into the details of your research (e.g., summarizing the key findings in individual papers). However, it is the medium-level story that often ties your research agenda together in an intellectually interesting way. The alternative is to jump straight from a relative vague/abstract high-level story into what might feel like simply a laundry list of projects and results. What are the key insights that propel you forward when you seek out new projects? Why are your previous results realizations or instantiations of these insights?
Adversarial Bullshitting. To be blunt, extrapolating boldly will require some amount of projecting a future that might never exist. So go ahead! Of course, one then needs to examine the proposed bold ideas critically to see if they can be made to flow logically from the research vision. One can think of this as an adversarial minimax game of making bold extrapolations (maximization) while criticizing them for being too unrealistic (minimization). Hopefully, the equilibrium solution is one that strikes the right balance in terms of being visionary yet grounded.
Frame Future Work in Terms of PhD Thesis Topics. A heuristic I like to follow is to list future directions that can be compelling thesis topics. The supporting sentences in the paragraph on each future direction might then point to specific results (e.g., specific papers you might write).
Rule of Threes. This point is very much a personal preference, but I like to organize according to groupings of threes. Sometimes, this doesn’t make sense, e.g., if there are only two natural groupings of your research. But I’ve found this to be a useful heuristic, as groups of three tend to occupy the right level of granularity to show both cohesion (not too many groups) and specificity (your agenda has details & substance). This point is very closely related to having an interesting medium-level agenda.
Present Refined Research Taste. The cumulative effect of the above points is to paint a picture of a researcher who has great research taste. We all have more problems to work on than we have time to do, so how do you choose to what to work on with your limited time?
The teaching statement is the place where you express your teaching philosophy. For reference, here is my teaching statement when I was applying in 2012–2013.
State your experience, and do so to support your philosophy. It is important to state your prior experience, but to do so to support your teaching philosophy. In contrast to your research statement, I think it’s fine to brag a little more about prior teaching experience, as I find it less common for recommendation letters to go into substantial detail about teaching.
Separate out classroom teaching versus advising. Both aspects are important and worth commenting on separately.
State what classes you’re able to teach. For schools that have specific teaching needs, not being able to teach certain classes can really ding you. So be explicit about what classes you feel comfortable teaching.
I don’t have too much advice here, as how faculty search committees evaluate diversity statements is an evolving process. Some generic tips (which are completely my nascent personal opinion).
Communicate Thoughtfulness. We recognize that many (most?) applicants have not yet have substantial experience working on issues pertaining diversity, equity, and inclusion. However, statements that demonstrate thoughtfulness are still appreciated. Thoughtfulness is one of the most important indicators of future positive impact. To be clear, thoughtfulness basically goes hand-in-hand with educating oneself on the issues.
Communicate Dedication. While many applicants will not have had substantial experience in this space, we do look to see how applicants have made use of available opportunities. Dedication is the other important indicator of future positive impact.
Constructive Criticism & Paths Forward. We recognize that not everyone agrees with all the ideas being floated around regarding DEI. Some stances & policies, if taken too far, can cause other forms of harm. The best way to communicate these viewpoints is to offer constructive paths forward. Nuance is key here.
Communicate Guiding Principles/Philosophy. As a professor, you may only be able to dedicate, say, 5% of your time to promoting DEI. How do you go about prioritizing your limited time? What activities do you find most impactful or important?
Most schools ask for a list of representative publications (typically 3). You should expect reviewers to read at least one of these papers (especially if you get into the short list of applicants). You should also expect reviewers to look at the papers in order (1st representative paper, then 2nd, then 3rd).
Submit Your Best Work. One common misstep that many applicants make (and indeed that I made myself) is to submit the most recent papers that you’re most excited about, rather than the papers that represent your strongest contributions during your PhD (or Postdoc). What can happen then is either the reviewer is not impressed because the paper seems a bit unimpressive (relative to expectations of a representative paper), or the reviewer needs to dig to find the more seminal result of your previous research. Such a misstep is typically not a deal-breaker, but can make it harder for the reviewer to put together a holistic picture of your best moments. (Of course, sometimes your best work is your most recent work.)
Strike a Balance of Coverage vs Focus. On the one hand, you don’t want to submit papers that are redundant (e.g., a series of results that are from a linear research thread). On the other hand, it can be risky to submit preliminary results that you’ve only been recently exploring (which have the benefit of showing what directions you’re interested in pursuing in the future), but the paper is kind of weak. My rule-of-thumb is that it’s ok to have one such preliminary results paper in a set of 3 representative papers.
In most situations, recommendation letters are the most important part of your application package. Recommendation letters come from established researchers in the field who can speak to your contributions (and brag about them in a way that’s awkward for you to do so), and place them in context with respect to the other work happening in your field. While you don’t have direct control over the contents in the letters, you do have some things you can influence.
Avoid Dilution. Generically speaking, I think the maximum number of letters should be five. The most healthy number is usually four. You don’t want a reviewer to be left with the impression that half your letter writers think you’re simply “OK” if the goal is to shine through compared to other applicants.
Ask Letter Writers to Comment on Non-Standard Circumstances. If you had a non-traditional pathway or experience during your PhD and/or postdoc, it often goes over better if a letter writer is able to discuss those issues objectively. Issues can include, but are not limited to, dealing with disabilities, personal leave, unusual set-backs in research such as needing to switch areas, and poor relationships with previous advisors. Of course, it’s important to have a frank discussion with your letter writer to determine whether it’s helpful to comment on these aspects. But the first step is to bring these issues up for a discussion.
Writing Letters is the Commitment, not Submitting Letters. It takes more time to write a recommendation letter than to submit that letter to 30 places. If you’re asking someone to write a letter of recommendation for you, prefacing it with “it’s just a couple schools” doesn’t actually help. In some cases, it can actually create a negative feeling on the part of the letter writer in that they’re doing all this work only to submit the letter to 2–3 places.
Give Letter Writers Enough Time. Most letter writers prefer having a few weeks notice (unless they already have a previously written letter that they can re-use). It takes time to write a thoughtful recommendation letter.