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Computer Science PostDocs

By John R. Platt

By all accounts, the number of computer science graduates who take postdoctoral fellowships — also known as PostDocs — is quite small: just a few hundred per year. But thanks to the extended poor economic outlook, PostDocs are on the rise in academic circles, while the number of full-time academic positions is on the decline. In fact, the number of PostDoc positions taken by computer science professionals in 2010 was almost three times the number from 2006, according to the annual Taulbee Survey conducted by the Computing Research Association (CRA). That same year, according to the CRA, the number of PostDocs hired was significantly higher than the number of people hired for full-time academic positions.

What's Up, PostDoc?

So what exactly is a PostDoc? A postdoctoral fellowship is a short-term position — usually one, two or even three years, sometimes renewable each year — for a person who has achieved their doctorate but is not yet moving into a full-term academic, research or industry position. PostDocs are typically seen as training positions where the fellow can gain valuable experience, be mentored, or broaden the scope of their knowledge into a second or complementary field, usually while working to support the research of a more experienced professor or other position. For many, PostDocs are a stepping stone to tenured positions.

While PostDocs are paid positions, their salaries tend to be quite a bit lower than full-time positions, averaging less than $60,000 in 2009, according to the CRA. But the positions can offer health insurance as well as other fringe benefits, such as paid travel to conferences. Another advantage is that they can offer short-term employment while a spouse finishes his or her degree.

A Changing Climate

"Historically, computer science has not had a large population of postdoctoral fellows, going back several decades," says Erwin Gianchandani, director of the Computing Community Consortium, a cooperative organization organized by the CRA and the National Science Foundation. "But in 2008, when the economy started to turn, we saw a cadre of educated recent Ph.D.s in computing for whom there were no academic or maybe even industry positions." This corresponded with the increase in short-term, lower salaried PostDoc positions.

Even as the CRA was observing the number of computer science PostDocs increase, it responded to the economic climate by creating its own PostDoc program called the Computing Innovation Fellows Project, which established a few dozen fellowships at universities across the country. That program was only intended to last for a few years and is now winding down, but PostDocs in general are not.

"Even if you take the CI Fellows out, we're still seeing an increase in PostDocs," says Gianchandani.

CRA, noticing the trend, decided to look into it more deeply, first publishing a white paper about computer science PostDocs in February 2011 using data from the Taulbee Survey. This was followed up by a series of discussions, which in turn led to a community consensus document, published in March 2012. "As an organization, we wanted to make sure that people understood the issues about PostDocs, the statistics, and what we were seeing from our data," Gianchandani says.

The initial white paper established why it is important to look at this trend now, pointing out that the Life Sciences field has gotten "out of balance," with too many PostDocs and too much time before PostDocs take permanent positions. In the computer science field, the paper observed that that tenure-track faculty positions are already becoming more geared toward accepting candidates who have done PostDocs than those straight out of graduate school.

Valuing the PostDoc

Joe Fowler, a post-doctoral researcher at the Department of Computer Science at the University of Arizona, considers this last trend one of the reasons why he took his PostDoc. "Since I'm a theorist, it is difficult to be seriously considered for an assistant teaching position without some PostDoc experience," he says. The PostDoc also allows him to broaden his research horizons beyond what he calls his "fairly focused and narrow" thesis and gives him the time and opportunity to increase the number of conference publications on his CV. "This PostDoc also gives me the opportunity to apply for NSF other funded proposals," which he expects will make him a stronger candidate for a tenured position.

Thomas R. Kiehl, a postdoctoral associate at the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering at the University of Albany — a CI Fellow position — says that putting in a few years on a project that he helped design will "demonstrate that I have the skills desired to be a valuable faculty member."

Kiehl returned to school after working 10 years doing research in a computational intelligence lab at GE. He says his PostDoc allows him to get more experience in biology, and he is benefitting from the multidisciplinary approach at CNSE, which exposes him to chemists, mathematicians, and people from a variety of other fields.

He has also found a good outlet for his corporate experience. In his old job, he often needed to convey complex ideas to upper management, a skill that set him up for moving to education. "Part of the reason I left GE is because I enjoyed teaching," he says.

Becoming interdisciplinary is a key goal for many people taking PostDoc positions, says Gianchandani. "It's a great way to spend a year or two in a different lab so they can learn new techniques, new tools, new approaches, and then go off and get into faculty."

At the same time as they expand their skills, PostDocs have other opportunities to benefit their long-term careers. "As a PostDoc at a university, you have the opportunity to network, meet and collaborate with others within and outside the university, which can very valuable," says Fowler.

The PostDoc Risk

Because of their short time frames and lower salaries, PostDoc positions might be considered risky options by many people. "The salary and fringe benefits are much less than you'd have in a permanent position," Gianchandani says. In an environment where two or even three PostDocs might become common, constantly moving from one location to another might be hard, especially on young people considering starting a family. This is particularly troubling for women. "In a field that struggles to recruit women, that's something we feel we need to be cognizant of," says Gianchandani.

The CRA consensus paper also acknowledges that some PostDocs could be taken advantage of as low-cost labor without a trade-off in gaining experience. "That was one thing about CIF that we were most happy about," Gianchandani says. "They were really independent. They were able to grow, go to conferences, give talks, and write papers. It's a mutually beneficial relationship."

Getting the Most of Your PostDoc

According to the consensus document, a candidate for a postdoctoral position should expect three things:

  1. To receive mentoring and guidance that directly supports professional development, and not simply serve as a contract researcher;

  2. To have significant opportunities to explore independent research topics, in addition to supporting existing research efforts of the mentor’s group – ideally this would include an opportunity to manage operational aspects of a research project under the supervision of the mentor; and

  3. To enhance the breadth of their research experience by exploring new fields or new perspectives on their base area, and not simply refine material from their doctoral studies.

Gianchandani recommends asking as many questions as you can when applying for a PostDoc. "I would certainly make sure that I was going into an environment where I knew I would get to do research that would build upon what I did as a grad student. Talk to your advisor, make sure you'll focus on grant writing, that you can publish, that those publications are building upon what you've already done, not just assignments to further the work of the advisor. I would have a conversation with a prospective mentor to ensure the position gives me some level of intellectual freedom, that I can grow myself and further my own research."

"The most useful thing I did was to get out and talk to people," says Kiehl. "Go online and look through the faculty bios. Look at their publications and see what they're spending their time on. Find people that line up with your interests, then contact them directly. Find something that will be advantageous to both of you."

Once you're in your PostDoc, make sure you get the most out of it. "I had a brief PostDoc position that only last 3 months when I first got my degree," Fowler says. "I regret now not taking more advantage of the opportunity I had." He says it can be difficult to know where to focus your time, since a PostDoc can offer so many different ways to spend your time. "I have certain responsibilities regarding my project in terms of what programming needs to get done, but there is still a lot of opportunity to write papers and proposals as well as network with other people independent from the project itself.  My best advice would be that one really needs to know what one's focus is at all times, and not to lose that focus along the way."



Comments on this story may be emailed directly to Today's Engineer or submitted through our online form.


John R. Platt is a freelance writer and entrepreneur, as well as a frequent contributor to Today's Engineer, Scientific American, Mother Nature Network and other publications.


Copyright © 2012 IEEE

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