Computer Architecture Today

Informing the broad computing community about current activities, advances and future directions in computer architecture.

Part I: Submitting Applications and First-Round Interviews

Interviewing for academic jobs was one of the most intellectually and socially enriching experiences that I have ever had. In a series of two blog posts, of which this is the first, I hope to demystify various aspects of the academic job search so that you can focus your efforts on enjoying all of the fun that the experience has to offer. This blog post will cover aspects of the academic job search that precede the on-campus interview.

Application Documents for Academia

The core components of an academic application packet are a Curriculum Vitae (CV), a Research Statement, a Teaching Statement, (possibly) a Diversity Statement, a Cover Letter, and a number of Letters of Reference. Here, I highlight the strategies I found most useful for producing effective application documents, focusing on those over which you have direct control (i.e., excluding Letters of Reference). Notably, a common thread of advice is to tailor each statement (with the exception of your CV and Research Statement) for each particular school/department you are applying to.

Curriculum Vitae

While I had a CV prior to applying for academic jobs, I gave it a significant makeover for my applications. I recommend starting your CV with the following sections to quickly orient readers with who you are as a researcher.

  • Personal Information. Clearly state your name, contact information (including phone number, email address, and mailing address), and personal webpage.
  • Education. List your undergraduate and graduate institutions and degrees. Where applicable, specify thesis titles and advisors.
  • PhD Dissertation Research. This section should feature a few sentence summary of the problem your PhD research aims to solve. 
  • Awards and Honors (Optional). If you have any awards or honors that you would like reviewers to be aware of, enumerate them here. Publications technically fall into this category but will get their own section.
  • Publications. Augment your enumerated list of publications with a short one-sentence summary of each published work immediately following its citation information.

Research Statement

Your statement should 1) appeal to a broad departmental audience who must be able to appreciate the impact of your past and future research, and 2) feature sufficient technical details to ensure that experts in your own research area are able to appreciate the significance of your research contributions. I organized my research statement as follows.

  • Context. I began my research statement by asserting the ubiquity of computers and the importance of computing research. I went on to motivate the role of computer architects, emphasizing the importance of my particular sub-discipline of computer architecture and succinctly stating my research vision. 
  • Dissertation research. Before discussing specific research projects, I highlighted key themes of my work that I wanted all departmental readers to appreciate. This overview of my research included an itemized list of ways in which my work has had scientific impact. I then transitioned to motivating and discussing my research projects in greater technical depth, referring back to the established themes.
  • Future research. Departments intend for faculty hires to eventually receive tenure. Therefore, you should summarize your tenure-track research plans in the form of a brief proposal for the work you are hoping to do once hired.

Teaching Statement

I divided my teaching statement into the following sections, centered around a teaching philosophy that I developed by reflecting on my past teaching experiences.

  • Introduction. I introduced my approach to teaching in the context of several teaching experiences I had accumulated, citing scientific articles to support my approach.
  • Your Teaching Experience. I then provided more details on my specific teaching experiences. First, I included an enumerated list of explicit teaching experiences, including students I had mentored, technical tutorials I had co-hosted, specific undergraduate/graduate lectures I had given, and courses where I had served as a teaching assistant (TA). Next, I discussed specific examples of how I felt that student feedback indicated my approach to teaching was effective. For example, I provided excerpts of teaching reviews I received during my time as a TA. Finally, I ended this section of my statement with a one sentence summary of my teaching philosophy. I will note here that the teaching experiences of graduate students may vary widely and do not necessarily take place in a classroom setting (think mentoring younger students, giving conference talks, etc). This section can additionally give you an opportunity to discuss your plans for being an effective teacher in the future.
  • Future Teaching. Think of this section as your teaching proposal. First, I included a concise table indicating the classes I was most excited to teach from the current departmental offerings, explicitly tailored to each school I applied to. Second, the bulk of this section featured a short special topics course proposal for a graduate course that I hoped to develop and teach.

Diversity Statement

My diversity statement consisted of four sections discussing four concrete ways in which I believe we can improve diversity in computer science and engineering. I tailored the last paragraph to each school by researching established departmental or local organizations that promote diversity in computer science and engineering and identifying those that I would be the most excited to be involved in.

Cover Letter

Your cover letter should summarize your application packet. I first motivated my work in a broader societal and departmental context and clearly stated my research vision. I then reiterated my enumerated impact list from my research statement. I devoted a paragraph to summarizing my teaching statement, and finally a paragraph to discussing my fit in the department, that was tailored to each department that I applied to. To craft this paragraph, I researched every faculty member in the department I was applying to, read or skimmed their relevant publications, and ultimately identified those who I felt would be my most natural collaborators. I explicitly named these faculty members in my cover letter as well as the reason for their inclusion.

The Video Conference Interview

Many schools now hold video conference (VC) interviews prior to on-campus interviews. Be ready to discuss the following topics.

  • Research. Prepare a short elevator pitch of your research and be able to highlight the greatest impact of your work and your most significant research contributions. Institutions want to give tenure to people they hire. Therefore, a key component of their evaluation of you is understanding your future research vision and (5-7 year) plan.
  • Teaching. Identify which currently-offered undergraduate/graduate courses you are the most excited to teach. Also, be prepared to discuss your ideas for developing new courses at the undergraduate/graduate levels.
  • Department. By the time you are interviewing, you should first be able to articulate why this department is a good fit for you. Make a list of the features that you like most about the department. Investigate the research collaborations the faculty in the department are involved in (e.g., within the department, across departments, or with industry partners). If you are involved in cross-disciplinary research, determine whether or not there appears to be departmental collaborations between faculty in your relevant disciplines (e.g., look for cross-disciplinary co-authored papers). Are there any ongoing departmental or campus initiatives that seem interesting to you? Why do you feel like your skills would be a particularly good compliment to the department? Most importantly, be able to articulate who you view as your most natural collaborators within the department. 
  • Funding. Be able to list organizations to which you will apply for research funding. For my own research, these include the CISE directorate at NSF, DARPA, and industry.

Here are a few other tips on the phone interview:

  • Know your interviewers. Acquire a list of your interviewers ahead of time and familiarize yourself with their backgrounds and areas of expertise. Identify the components of your work that you think they will find most relatable and interesting.
  • Prepare to ask questions. At the end of the VC interview, you will be given the opportunity to ask questions to the reviewers. Plan at least 3-4 questions to ask ahead of your interview (others will develop during your interview discussion).

Coming Soon…

Please look out for my next blog post on navigating the on-campus interview and second visits!

About the Author: Caroline Trippel is an Assistant Professor of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering at Stanford University.  Her research on architectural concurrency and security verification has been recognized with IEEE Top Picks distinctions and the 2020 ACM SIGARCH/IEEE CS TCCA Outstanding Dissertation Award.

Disclaimer: These posts are written by individual contributors to share their thoughts on the Computer Architecture Today blog for the benefit of the community. Any views or opinions represented in this blog are personal, belong solely to the blog author and do not represent those of ACM SIGARCH or its parent organization, ACM.