Working in academia is a privilege.
I’ve been on the (tenure track) hiring committee for computer science at Northeastern University during the past few years and wanted to share personal notes on the process.
If you are on the market, I hope this helps, and of course, please consider applying to Northeastern.
First, in summary:
- Be succinct.
- Reach out to people you know.
- Apply even if you think you are not ready. Many schools including ours now offer various forms of fellowships for scientists who are early in their career.
Make your application succinct
Last year, our hiring committee evaluated at least 600 applications for 7 tenure-track lines (some were joint appointments). Each application received several reviews, with the top 150 receiving at least 3. At this stage, however, the committee members I informally polled spent about 10–15 minutes to read through an application package.
Thus, an important aspect of an application is how quickly and clearly it conveys who you are and what makes your research and teaching special. Make the CV and statements easy to follow. Unless a diagram is very helpful, you may not want it on the first page of your research statement. In particular, the first paragraph of the research statement is the most important, likely more so than everything else that follows. It’s worth spending the time to make it shine.
As you read your own statement, identify and remove generic sentences. Have someone you trust (advisor, friend) look over your statements to help edit out cringe and ambiguity.
Some people use bold and underline on their statements. After seeing 100s of statements, my experience is that this practice nudges a reviewer to just look at those parts. As a stylistic suggestion, consider using normal weight fonts and sparingly use italic to emphasize important words or phrases.
Get sample research/teaching/service/inclusion statements from friends/colleagues who were recently on the market. Don’t be shy about asking.
From my own memory, I think most of our junior (i.e., right out of grad school or postdoc) candidates had roughly 8–10 papers at top conferences; some had nearly double (but with many at 2nd tier conferences). Quality, however, will usually always come through, especially if you have a great research statement.
Reach out to colleagues you know
For Northeastern, it is a good idea to contact colleagues to express your interest and ask for their insights. If your advisor knows someone, they should reach out. Nobody told me this, but you can (and should) also do this yourself, explicitly, at conferences like this: “Hey abhi, i’m XX from YY, I gave the talk last session on ZZ. I’m on the market next year, and wanted to know more about Northeastern…” There is no shame in promoting yourself during hiring season!
On the other hand, from my experience, most of the 60 video interviews we conduct are with people who did not have any direct contact with the hiring committee. We spend a lot of time evaluating all applications.
If an application is scored highly by a few reviewers, someone on the committee can make a case for a video interview with 4-5 faculty members.
We write a fixed set of 5 questions that we ask all of the candidates, and at the end, the candidate has a chance to ask any questions. The interview is strictly timed to 25minutes, so you should be careful with your answers.
The best interviews I remember involved a back-and-forth, especially on the research questions. Let other people talk. Answer questions precisely. If someone asks about X and you deflect and answer about Y, people will notice.
My informal feedback is not to prepare slides for this stage. Instead, listen carefully to the questions and try to answer them directly, precisely and concisely. Your ability to communicate in words is an important aspect of scholarship.
Explain your work
One key question I suspect all committees ask is for the candidate to explain their research, perhaps one important paper, and what the candidate’s contribution was to that paper. This family of questions is important because it signals how much you understand about your research area and the process of research. It helps if it turns out that your key contributions are easier to explain or make more sense to the panelists—and this may seem arbitrary because research can be nuanced and complex.
Another key question is, “why do you want to be here?” This question receives more weight than it should. Do you have a strong reason to be at Northeastern, in Boston, or on the east coast?
Do not lie though. If Northeastern is indeed, “your top choice,” then feel free to share that and explain. But it becomes transparent if you are saying that to all of your interviews. You are joining a small, professional community, so your integrity at this step is important to maintain.
Northeastern is interested in fostering inter-disciplinary work. The president and provost believe that is how our school can have more impact. If you have demonstrated success in that style of research, and want to continue, this is a good point to emphasize.
Prior success is a good predictor of the future in this case. I find it shallow for people to expound on their future plans for this kind of work if they haven’t spent any of the PhD or post-doc engaging in it. It is hard to find collaborators; I’ve tried this many times and only 1 effort succeeded. People who have tried also know this.
We performed between 50–60 video interviews last year. Unfortunately, there are only about 32 slots for campus interviews, and as expected, the candidates are extremely strong and difficult to rank. The 32 slots arise from a scheduling constraint. Interviews begin in late Jan and continue until about April 1, with one week for Spring break. That is only 8 weeks, or a total of 40 interview days, some of which get blocked for holidays and other school calendar constraints. For sanity, we only schedule 1 candidate per day.
The decision to invite for a campus interview is difficult and made by a committee. It is a pre-requisite that your application and interview convinces a few people on the committee (or in addition, a few people at the given University who work in your area) that you would make a great addition. Some abstract qualities that help are, “helps to build critical mass in an area”, or “builds on a strength…,” or “is very likely to accept if given an offer because…” At this level, at Northeastern, all of the applicants are quite exceptional, so tie-breaking becomes challenging.
That said, once you are invited, we pay for you to fly here, and stay one night. This is not us being cheap, but rather, for equity purposes among all candidates we interview.
Do plenty of practice sessions with your advisor and colleagues. Listen to all their feedback and consider it carefully, but ignore feedback that you ultimately disagree with, even if it comes from someone prominent: you have thought about your talk a lot more than they did and if it doesn’t fit with your vision you won’t be able to turn it into a convincing talk.
One goal is to convince those in your area of your contributions and convince those not in your area to support your candidacy. Thus, you need to show both breadth and depth at the same time.
I’ve found it is good to make sure this comes through in the first 5 minutes: Explain a problem area, why it is important and hard, and your clever contributions. It is hard to recover if you lose people early because they don’t understand what you’re working on or why they should care.
At some point in the middle, it is good to get into 10 minutes of technical depth, speaking to the handful of evaluators who are in the field.
Talks are now recorded, so many people watch them at 2x offline. Because we try to pack 32 interviews into 40 days, many people are teaching during your interview talk.
To get a campus interview, some current faculty member must volunteer to be your host. Ask your host for help and advice! They will happily share inside information with you.
Don’t be intimidated by anyone, especially not other applicants who may appear to have “better” CVs on paper. Giving a great interview can easily make you the most favored candidate even if, judging by CV alone, it might not appear so.
You will have about 5–8 one-on-one interviews. These people write detailed reviews which are used when deciding who to make offers to. However, usually your host has hand-selected these people to be supporters of your work.
If you need special accommodations during on-campus visit (such as extra breaks, accessibility, extra food) due to health or other personal reasons, just ask. Some hosts are overly enthusiastic and try to pack the schedule, but this is easily changed if this is not the best fit.
Each meal is still an interview; however most of the people who go to the meals are already fans of your work. I’ve been to several dozen of these in the last few years. There is usually a portion of the meal spent on technical discussions about the person’s work (often arising out of the talk, but sometimes from papers) or about future directions. Another big topic is “why Northeastern or Boston” and then there is evaluation of the candidate as a colleague. We also do a lot of selling of our school. Overall, however, candidates are being evaluated on is what type of researcher, teacher, and colleague they will be. Here again, an ability to discuss ideas and genuinely convey enthusiasm is important.
You may have some video interviews even during the on-campus visit. This is the new reality of post Covid world. In fact we continue to be flexible and still offer a full day Zoom interview you prefer that.
When should you mention a two-body opportunity? The hiring committee cannot ask about this information, so it is up to you. Here are some of the issues:
- At Northeastern, we consider these opportunities. E.g., my partner Cammy and I were hired together as a pair and I can think of at least 3 other pairs hired in the last few years. So it may help to mention this early at a place like Northeastern.
- If you wait to mention it until after you have an offer, it may make it a bit harder for the university to take advantage of the opportunity.
- At some places, however, it may initially work against you.
After your interview, the hiring committee collects as much feedback as possible. It votes on making an offer recommendation to the dean. Such a recommendation is accompanied by a strong case justifying why the candidate makes an important contribution to the faculty.
At this point, the dean performs the calculus by maintaing queues, juggling the number of hiring lines, number of outstanding offers, liklihoods of yield, and permissions from the Provost’s office.
You should not be shy about checking in with the host periodically about status. However, many factors outside of your qualifications/application impact timing of decision making.
Deadlines are not strict
At least at Northeastern, you can apply a few days after the posted deadline and still be considered. Don’t avoid applying because you think you missed it. The process goes on forever.
Private versus public schools
Before Northeastern, I worked at U.Virginia. Both are fantastic schools with different, unique academic environments.
One main difference, however, is that U.Virginia is a public school that is effectively controlled by the State of Virginia. The state of Virginia determines enrollment caps and funding levels. This keeps U.Virginia smaller than it should be.
In comparison, Northeastern, as private school with less administrative overhead is able to rapidly grow departments and areas like computer science. Our Khoury College of Computer science is its own college, effectively running independently of other departments in the university. This allows us to grow quickly and act quickly.
Another very interesting recent phenomena is that Northeastern has opened several major campuses in other cities. There is New College of Humanities in London and the Mills Campus in Oakland; both places are looking for tenure-track faculty for permanent positions. Even if your home is Boston, it is possible to spend semesters at these other campuses. For example, in theoretical computer science, it turns out that the Mills campus is only 8miles away from the Simons Institute.
Apply to Northeastern
In the end, you should consider applying to Northeastern if you are interested in a CS or inter-disciplinary position. I’d be happy to share more thoughts in a 1:1 if you have questions.
Thanks for Olga Vitek, Stephen Intille, Daniel Wichs and Alan Mislove for looking over this post.