Computer Science Grad Student Job Application & Interview Guide

Westley Weimer (original, 2005)
Claire Le Goues (edited, 2013) and Zak Fry (edited, 2014)


This document summarizes experience, opinions, and advice (and advice received from others) on looking for jobs in academia and industrial research labs in the field of computer science. It contains both general advice and information on three particular job searches: Wes's search for a programming languages / software engineering position in the Spring of 2005, Claire's search for the same in Spring of 2013, and Zak's search for industrial research positions in 2014. It is structured as a how-to guide for graduate students. When editorializing more than usual, we have noted who is "speaking" both by bolding names and by color-coding. Wes is reddish, Claire is blueish, and Zak is greenish.



Many wise and wonderful people were kind enough to grant Wes the boon of their wisdom on this subject. They include, but are not limited to: Claire did not consult many people for her contributions to this document, as she modified it after it had long been written. However, beyond Wes, she would particularly like to acknowledge the support and assistance of: ... and the many others who offered advice and support throughout her own job search.

You may safely assume that all of the good ideas here come from them and that all bad advice comes from us.

Zak had a similarly short list of consultations, as he targeted exclusively industrial research positions and arguably had a more "homogeneous" job search experience overall:

This guide includes some publicly-available application materials for comparison and convenience. You could get them off of yourself if you so desired.

Letters of Recommendation

You will need four letters of recommendation, one of which will come from your advisor. The typical dilemma here involves finding the other three. You may well have only published papers with your advisor and the supervisor from you summer internship. Where do you find two others?

Start now! Email some of the other professors in your department and make appointments to talk to them about your research and your plans. Ask them if they have any ideas, talk about possible collaborations, convince them to critique drafts of your papers, whatever. The more they know you the better and you may even get research ideas out of it.

If you plan to do your job search interviews in the Spring of Year X, talk to your advisor about who should write your letters in the Summer of Year X-1 (or earlier!) and then ask them by the end of that summer. Give them plenty of warning.

Wes: At the end of the day, I can only offer myself as a data point for what was "good enough". I had never written a paper with Alex Aiken but I had corresponded with him since the end of my undergraduate days. We had similar research interests, I almost ended up as his advisee, we got along well at research group lunches, I went to his office more than once to talk about research and ideas, and he invited me to Stanford to give a practice talk. I had written a paper with Tom Henzinger, sat in on one of his classes, and visited his office once or twice to talk about things and ask for advice. I had never written a paper with Jim Larus but he supervised my internship at Microsoft Research and was familiar with my research work. Left to my own devices, I would have chosen Sriram Rajamani (also from my internship) instead of Jim since he knew me better personally, but it was suggested that Jim's more senior position and experience in both industry and academia would lead to a more useful reference. Talk to your advisors.

Claire: Wes's advice about letter writers basically guided my selection thereof: Wes was my adviser; Stephanie Forrest and I have worked and written papers together for many years; I have taken classes, written at least one paper, and supported grants with John Knight throughout my graduate career; and Mark Harman and I have been in contact about my work since before I received my Masters. I was told by at least one department chair that the strength of my letters was critically important to securing the interview(s) in question. I encourage you to select your letter writers carefully.

Zak: The jobs I applied for required a maximum of three letters and I was fortunate enough to get letters from a subset of Claire's letter writers: Wes Weimer (primary advisor), Stephanie Forrest (mentor and co-author on three papers), and John Knight (with whom I took a class and often solicited advice from throughout my grad career). To highlight a potential pitfall, I will note that one of my undergraduate advisors (with whom I was co-author on several papers) agreed to write me a letter of recommendation, but noted that it might be somewhat weak because of the time that had lapsed since our professional interaction. Wes's sage advice was that anyone who flat-out admits that they may not be able to write you the strongest recommendation letter should be used as a last resort. While I very much appreciate the generosity and honesty of my previous advisor, I am glad that I eventually chose someone with a more comprehensive knowledge of my most recent work.

Where To Apply In General

If you plan to be doing your job search interviews in the Spring of Year X you must submit applications in the Fall of Year X-1 (or by January 15-ish of Year X). You must decide where you will be applying early because different categories of institutions have different deadlines.

Despite the canonical "industry versus academia" phrasing, there are actually a number of choices:

Having enumerated all of those possible options, we will now conveniently forget all of them except research academia and industrial research labs.

Ultimately you must decide what sort of positions you will apply for on your own. A research position is not inherently "better" or "worse" than a teaching position -- they are made up of different things. Find out what makes you happy.

Where To Apply In Particular

Now that you know the sorts of jobs you're looking for you still have to find actual jobs to apply for. Here are some approaches:

In 2005, Wes applied to 21 places and got 8 interviews and 5 job offers. In 2013, Claire applied to 28 schools and 1 research lab, got 10 invitations to interview, went on 9 interviews, and received 8 offers. Rumor has it that getting interviews at 33% of your places is average and that the best person in a particular field-year will get around 50%. A very strong candidate in Wes's field-year (in his opinion the strongest candidate) applied to 30 places, got 17 interview offers, went on 15 interviews and got 7 job offers.

When considering these data points, note that Spring 2005 was considered to have "strong competition" and "many strong applicants" in PL/SE (almost everywhere Wes interviewed remarked on it). Claire's current impression is that 2013 was a candidate's market: the hiring freeze post-financial crisis was thawing, and the wave of candidates who had started postdocs in 2008 and applied for faculty positions 2 or 3 years later had thinned.

If you are in a "non-standard" CS field like HCI the numbers are probably completely different. If you are trying to solve the academic two-body problem you should be applying to at least 40 places. Some couples do 60.

Claire was told by different people at different points in the year that the number of positions to which she applied was (A) far too many, (B) far too few, and (C) exactly right. Make of that what you will.

Zak applied to 15 jobs, had interviews at five, and received two offers. For industrial-specific positions, he has three pieces of advice. First, cast a wide net by asking everyone you can about places they know that have hired people in the past. The idea here is that industrial jobs are somewhat less "searchable" than academic positions and word-of-mouth often tends to be much more helpful when finding places to apply. Second, consider places that might not immediately seem like a fit. It turns out that jobs in industry can be somewhat more fluid and that it is often easy to find a fit once you start talking to people at a given company. It certainly cannot hurt you to consider a wide range of companies initially and narrow the pool down once you start talking to people at said companies and getting a better feel for the types of positions they have to offer. Finally, the schedule for industrial hiring seemed very much more fluid than the somewhat rigid academic semester-based timeline. Some of the companies I initially talked to eventually contacted me about positions well into the summer of 2014, even after I had started my eventual job. Different companies work on different hiring schedules and there were several I was disappointed to find out simply weren't hiring when I was looking for jobs. I'd recommend starting the search very early and contacting people at each potential employer to get an idea for how often and when they tend to hire.

Research Area and Where to Apply

All of the job postings you find in academia will use basically the same boilerplate ad copy (e.g., "we encourage all qualified applicants from all areas of computer science to apply, we are an equal-opportunity ..."). Beyond that, there are two ways the ads are typically formed:

If your work spans more than one subfield, carefully consider the way you position yourself and your work. Departments have areas in mind when they interview and assign applications to faculty in specific areas for batch-processing. Claire's publication record was, as of 2012/2013, fairly evenly split between evolutionary computation and software engineering venues. However, she considers herself primarily an SE researcher, and wanted to be considered as such as an applicant. She thus pitched herself as an "SE person" who borrows insights from other fields (evolutionary computation/GP) as opposed to a person who floats in the void between research areas.

One notable exception to the "apply largely to schools specifically hiring in your area" rule is the class of "top 1" schools. CMU CS, for example, is huge, and its school of computing has multiple departments. Thus, its job ad is typically very general in its call, and applications are routed based on area to relevant departments or faculty. These programs (especially the very big ones) very rarely need to hire, and just do so when they find someone they like. Thus, even if their calls are open, it's probably worth applying, because apparently you never know.

(Digression: Claire actually asked Wes if it was even worth sending applications to those places given that "it wasn't going to happen." He insisted she apply, which is funny in retrospect. She is of the opinion that her sincere belief that she wouldn't receive an offer from CMU helped during the interview, because she wasn't especially nervous or stressed out about messing up.)

Claire: It is my personal opinion that as a software engineering researcher, where you apply can matter a great deal. It is "accepted wisdom" in the community that SE researchers do not receive invitations to interview for open job calls that do not mention SE (or possibly PL). By and large, I observed this to be true. All but maybe two of my interviews were at places that listed SE or PL in their job ads explicitly. One of the exceptions was Waterloo, which has a long and storied software engineering tradition (as do most Canadian institutions).

To generalize, I would encourage you to apply to places that you have reason to believe are interested in your research area, either based on word-of-mouth or the job ad copy itself. Examples: in 2012, NC State had an established SE faculty leave for another position, while UIUC had an established SE faculty retire. Both specifically mentioned SE in their 2013 ads. I did apply to a few places with "open calls" based on location (and I would encourage you to do the same), but it mostly didn't pan out.

One more somewhat editorial note: there's typically a subfield that's "hot" in a given hiring year, such as big data or health care informatics in 2013. Please don't pretend to do these things if you don't. It's tacky and obvious.

Organizing Things For Your Letter-Writers

The standard practice these days is to make a web page or chart listing all of the places to which letters must be sent as well as the due dates.

As of 2013, most schools use some kind of special online web-system for applications. If you are like Claire at all, you will be annoyed by the fact that the systems are all basically the same, and yet you still need to generate a new account at every one. A few use These are by far the easiest positions to apply for.

Regardless of system used, schools typically accept letters of recommendation via email (i.e., "please submit letters to the following address."; make it easy to cut and paste the addresses on your web page) but they may issue an email to your letter-writers instructing them to use an alternative form. As of 2013, no positions required letters to be sent physically, and most expressly disallowed it. A couple of schools ask for letters only after a first cut of applications, in which case they will contact your letter-writers directly.

Loosely, your letter-writers will write the letters a day or two before the first one is due and then send them all out.

You can see Wes's letter-writer chart here. It's not perfect and I'm sure you could improve on the format but no one complained. It should also give you an idea of how the due dates vary between top-tier teaching-ish schools (e.g., Oberlin at November 19) and standard research schools (e.g. CMU at January 15).

As an aside, it is very common for letters of recommendation to fail to make it all the way to the people who need to see them. It is typically very difficult to distinguish between a world in which your letter-writer did not submit a letter despite a request from a school; a world in which no such request was issued; a world in which the letter-writer submitted a letter but for some reason it was lost; and a world in which letters were all successfully submitted. Wes had at least six places email to say only one or two of his letters got through, and asking to have the others emailed directly to some address. Some UC-system schools are infamous for letter mishaps (e.g., losing more or less every letter from one year's worth of applicants). It is quite reasonable to send follow-up email to your target departments asking if all of your letters have made it in to your applicant file (this also shows interest in the position, but it's unlikely anyone will notice at this stage).

Preparing Your Application: Cover Letter and Resume

Your application will almost invariably consist of a resume, a teaching statement, a research statement and a cover letter. Some schools also request up to three "indicative publications."

The cover letter is the least important element, but if you get it wrong your entire application may be mistakenly misfiled and not considered. The key points to cover include who you are, what you are applying for (include any special numbers) and what you are including. If someone on the inside told you to apply, mention that. Here are concrete examples:

Resume-writing is well-established, although many of the standard techniques aren't as applicable at this level (e.g., it is our personal impression that your previous work experience doesn't really matter). You want to emphasize your publications and any teaching experience you might have. Also list all of your references one more time (sometimes people actually call your references to get more information). If Wes were doing this again he would list publication venues all at once in some topic sentence (e.g., "I have published in POPL, PLDI, TOPLAS, OOPSLA, ...") because he saw people at interviews skim his resume for exactly that summary while he sat before them.

Along these lines, more than one person advised Claire to organize her publication list by "type": "Journal Articles," "Refereed Conference Publications," "Invited Articles", "Workshops," etc. She was told that listing all publications chronologically without distinguishing by venue type can appear disingenuous, and that it is annoying for the reader (who must evaluate dozens of applications at once) to spend time mentally sorting the list (since workshops "count less" than other venue types). She included journal impact factors and conference acceptance rates. She highlighted venue acronyms and applicable awards in the left-hand column of the publication list. These decisions were intended to make her CV easier to scan for this type of information, because interviewers look for it.

At many places the resume appeared to be the only thing that actually made it through the application bureaucracy to people. At least four times, Wes saw people explicitly looking over his resume either as he was coming in to the interview or while he was sitting down. By contrast, he never heard anyone mention his research statement. Claire had similar experiences, but notes that at at least two schools, at least one interviewer had read at least one of her publications before sitting down with her.

Anyway, here are our resumes from when we were applying, which again serve largely as a lower-bound on required content and style. Also included are a few other examples.

Note that if you are applying for any sort of teaching job (e.g., top-tier teaching academia, small liberal arts college, instructor position) your teaching qualifications (courses taught and letters talking about it) should be at least as good as Wes's and hopefully much better (more like Andy Begel's above, say). Wes's were the bare minimum required (e.g., they sufficed to get him an interview at Wesleyan) but they were mentioned as a concern (until he was able to convince them with his presentation) and he has no doubt that other teaching places rejected him because of them. Teaching jobs will also want multiple numerical evaluations (e.g., Wes was asked explicitly what his numerical teaching evaluations were at Wesleyan, and we imagine that they're even more serious about it at other departments).

Preparing Your Application: Teaching and Research Statements

The traditional approach here is to craft your research statement by summarizing your thesis proposal and to craft your teaching statements by looking at what others have written and fumbling around. Here are some concrete examples:

References aren't required in a research statement, but they don't hurt if you feel better with them (or if you have a bunch of publications and want to highlight that).

Almost all teaching statements seem to end up looking somewhat identical (see Lerner, Jhala and Whaley above). At Wesleyan, the only place Wes went that mentioned his teaching statement at all, they mentioned that it was creative and the best one they had seen in a while. Given how interesting his isn't, that gives you a good idea for how low the bar is set if you want to do something personal with your teaching statement. Being yourself is still key, however. Not everyone should go for a teaching statement in which they claim not to be nice. Andy Begel's emphasis on education results in something of an upper bound on teaching statement impressiveness (unless you're actually in CS education), and a statement like his would fit in well if you're aiming for a teaching job.

It's worth noting that many people feel that their statements don't really reflect who they are as people. Some are of the opinion that job application materials necessarily adopt a "putting yourself forward" or "please hire me" tone that's not indicative of how the person really behaves in general. Writing these statements can take a surprisingly long time because your own draft efforts will invariably sound stupid to you.

Aside from asking your friends to show you their statements, a good way to get these things is to download them one year early. Almost everyone puts their job application materials up on their web page when they are applying for a job. In May/June, Googling for programming languages "teaching statement" yields hundreds of results. Just download some and save them. Of course, if you get random people from the Internet you probably won't have heard of them and thus won't know if they are good or bad examples. So try to soak up all of the documents from people in your department that you can get a read on.

As of 2013, there exists a larger collection of such materials floating around in the email archives of recently-hired junior faculty in Software Engineering. Contact Claire if you're seriously on the market, and she will see if she can access it for you, so long as you solemnly vow to share your own materials after your search concludes.

Make sure that yours are available on-line as well. Many places, even places to which you have officially sent materials, will get the versions off of your web page because the official application materials get lost in the bureaucracy or were printed out somewhere or somesuch. Wes was involved in multiple phone and sit-down interviews where people mentioned reading the materials from his web page as they were talking. Half of your interviewers will look for/at your materials the day/hour before they speak with you, and they will look on your website first.

While we're on the subject, people will, in fact, read the details of your web page when they are considering you as a candidate. For example, Dave Evans at Virginia mentioned (somewhat tongue-in-cheek, somewhat not) that one of the reasons he knew Wes would fit in and be a solid hire is that he read and liked the parody programming languages examination test on his web page. Both Wes and Claire had multiple people comment on the photos or hobbies mentioned on their web pages, even if those mentions were exceedingly brief (such as Claire's involvement with her local roller derby league).

Submitting Your Application

Nothing surprising here. Email it in or otherwise make use of the online form system in question. Often they will ask for everything to be in PDF format. Sometimes they'll even want everything in a single PDF file, so be prepared to achieve that.

The Waiting Game

You probably submitted your materials in the middle of December. However, you won't really hear anything from anyone until at least the middle of January when the faculty can get together and review the applications. Be sure to check your email during this time, including your spam folder! At the end of December 2004, Michigan sent Wes an email saying that there was a mix up with his application and asking him to resend my letters of recommendation. Unfortunately, it was sorted to his spam folder and he didn't find it until March, at which point it was too late. Try to avoid losing potential interviews for reasons not related to your merits.

While you're waiting you may receive a bunch of emails that say "we received your application, we're starting a folder for it" or "we have received all of your letters of recommendation".

Claire says: Try to resist compulsively checking your website's stats on where your pageviews are coming from, because it will not make you feel better, even though it is at least a little bit fascinating.

Here's (a subset of) Wes's application information timeline:

Here's a similar subset of Claire's timeline:

1Lincoln expressly deferred making an offer to try to line up with the academic interview timeline.

There are a few things to notice about these otherwise-boring timelines:

Deadlines and Hard-Sell Tactics

Official offers will often come with deadlines, especially if you are the institution's current first choice but they have others "in line" in case you reject the offer. This can lead to uncomfortable situations where you have to decide on one offer without knowing about your other potential offers.

It is basically impossible to avoid this by scheduling all of your interviews in one massive clump. Your interview offers will trickle in at a varying rate, and even if all of the dates are available for you, not all of the dates will be available at every university. Moreover, the practical limit is about 2.5 interviews per week -- and 2 is much more reasonable. The travel time and the effort of being "on" for the entire interview are hard to appreciate until you've actually done it. Claire only had one 2-interview week, and she strongly encourages you to avoid it.

Another way to cope is to ask for more time. If you explain the situation honestly, many places will push back their deadlines. For example, Purdue was willing to push their deadline for Wes back to effectively May 2. Unfortunately, that can often still not be long enough (it wasn't for Wes, as his timeline indicates). Waterloo extended Claire's decision deadline to give her the chance to do a second visit at UIUC.

Finally, certain classes of offers rarely come with deadlines. Industrial research labs (e.g., IBM and Microsoft) can typically afford to sit on an offer for as long as you would reasonably like once it has been extended to you. Claire's Lincoln Labs offer had a basically infinitely-extensible deadline. Similarly, some academic offers effectively say "you are our first choice and there is no one we will extend an offer to this year if you turn us down, so take as long as you like to think about it."

That said, it is reasonable to turn down a position as soon as you know you are not going to accept it. You don't have to/shouldn't wait until right up against their deadline "just to be polite." The sooner they know, the easier it is for them to make an offer to their next-favorite candidate.

Wes: It is my personal opinion (as opposed to the rest of this, but this bit is really an editorial) that any offer with a deadline that you view as too restrictive should be rejected. I realize that there are economic realities and that most offers come with eventual deadlines, but you owe it to yourself to check out all of your options. In essence, an offer that says "you're so impressive to us that I want you to come here, get tenure, and work with us for the rest of your life, but I'm not willing to give you another two weeks to get all of the relevant information and think about things" is saying "I don't want you to use you brain or it isn't worth it to me to let you use you brain, and I think that my best shot at hiring you involves pressuring you into a situation where you will make a snap judgment in my favor." Morality and honor typically involve restricting your actions for some higher goal and often come with a price (e.g., deciding not to steal rules out a bunch of actions that could get you more money, choosing not to lie can make it difficult to explain certain situations). For me, the price of potentially losing a more lucrative (or otherwise better-appearing) potential job is one that I am willing to pay in order to take the "honorable" action of avoiding such hard sell tactics. In the end, I wouldn't want to work at a place that didn't want me to take my time and use my mind when considering where to work.

Claire: I feel perhaps slightly less strongly on this issue, though I never faced the choice of having to turn down one offer without another offer in hand. I have been told by various people that this behavior is more common from and attractive to "lower ranked" schools, because they typically have to work harder to interview and attract candidates. Put differently: Stanford can be reasonably confident that a candidate will accept their offer. Ranked-75th-University may have to put out more offers to get a bite. That said, this is a difficult feature of the job search and I wish schools could synchronize their schedules a bit more to avoid it.

Zak: I will elide my timeline, as it does not add much beyond the information present in Wes and Claire's outlines of the process. However, to echo an earlier point: the industrial positions I applied to did not follow a very neat schedule. I had to ask to extend an offer by more than a month to allow for ample time to hear back from other companies. The company in question was mostly happy to oblige a reasonable extension (as I'm told most are), but this is a part of the process to be aware of, as it can be tedious. I'd agree with Wes's sentiments that any place that imposes an overly strict deadline may not be a fun place to work, unless they are in a very advantageous bargaining position.

Preparing Your Job Talk

Make sure that you schedule a practice job talk of some sort, if only with your local research group. Everyone else will be able to give you advice on it. Make sure that people who are not in your field or office come to your practice talk. During your actual job talks, in general at most one or two other people will be from your field and the rest of the room will be made up of people from other domains within computer science. Besides, the people in your subfield are probably the reason you're being interviewed; people outside your subfield need to be convinced. The exception to this is industry. In large industrial research labs, for example, you will basically only present to people in your general area.

The general structure or content of a job talk are easily available. We will note that you should definitely include a future work section. If you are lucky enough to be at a department that hires regularly, attend all the talks, even/especially the ones outside your field. Take notes on how much introductory material, related work, detailed material, and future work are presented. Then forget about it for nine months until you have to craft your own.

Although the average is "fifty minutes for the talk and ten minutes for questions", different places will have different time requirements. At one stop Wes was asked to fit the entire thing into 50 minutes. At another he had 75 minutes. Claire found a similar spread. Prepare your talk in a modular manner so that you can add or remove sections. Bonus points if you can do this on the fly -- frequent interruptions are common and can suck up quite a bit of time. Try to avoid giving lengthy answers to questions posed in the middle of your talk (answer the question, but be succinct). At one venue Wes actually had audio-visual difficulties (!) delay (and thus shrink) his talk for ten minutes. Claire recommends you travel with your own laptop and VGA adapter to defend against such hassles. The exception is the FFRDCs (like Lincoln Labs), where defense department rules will require you to email your slides as PDFs ahead of time.

Claire changed her talk modestly between interviews. Moving things around a bit between presentations helped keep the talk fresh. After you've done it a few times, the jokes become very unfunny to you. Do what you can to avoid boring yourself.

At some schools, even for a research faculty position, you will be asked to prepare either a short commentary on your teaching style (in 2013, Iowa State requested 10 minutes of the job talk be dedicated to teaching), or an actual teaching demo (Waterloo requested a 20-30 minute example lecture, given separately from the job talk). Claire advises you to not skimp on teaching demo preparation. It can make a big difference in helping you stand out from the crowd, the rest of which probably did skimp.

If possible, do a dry run at a school to which you're not applying. For example, in September 2012, Claire gave a colloquium talk at Virginia Tech. It wasn't nearly so intense as a real interview, and it was nice to practice the talk with an unfamiliar audience before doing it for real.

There are different opinions on the "one-third one-third one-third" rule of thumb. A common version suggests that one-third of your talk should be understood by everyone in the room, one-third should be understood by people in your general area (e.g., graphics, programming languages, systems) and one-third should be understood "only by you".

The trick here is that your job talk must serve many purposes. It must convince them that you are a good lecturer (i.e., the talk must be engaging and speak to your teaching abilities). It will also be their first exposure to your work (as above, many people will be reading you resume at the beginning of your interview -- unless you're at a small department, don't expect anyone beyond your host to know anything about you or your work unless you say it to them) and must help to convince them that your research has substance. This point is actually somewhat tricky, because if they asked you for an interview they probably already believe your work is good enough (based on you resume, letters, and the local evaluation of the department members closest to your subfield).

It is the personal opinion of both Wes and Claire (thus, no color-coding!) that basically the entire talk should be understandable to everyone in the room. Motivation is key. Remind people of why the entire field of programming languages (or whatnot) is worth considering. A tenured AI professor (as a random example) may well think that "compilers are a solved problem" and it won't hurt to remind such a person that there is exciting stuff going on here. Claire often used the phrase "This is really exciting because" to help her audience roadmap key contributions. Keeping everyone interested will help to convince them of you teaching potential. In addition, if people cannot understand your talk they have no way to spot potential collaborations. Our job talks were both designed to be easily understood by everyone (heavy on motivation, context, analogies and pictures). We both received many comments from people about just how understandable they were and we also got quite a few offers for collaboration based on them (e.g., graphics and database people were able to see possible fits, not just PL/SE people). Wes specifically asked people after his talk if the lack of "Greek letters" or "complicated-looking material" hurt his case. Typical responses included "it wasn't a problem because were able to see how intelligently you handled yourself when answering the questions" or "it was fine because we already know how good your work is" or "no, not at all." However, Claire was advised of the 1/3-1/3-1/3 rule many times throughout her job search. Thus we cannot give you a blanket guarantee that following our approach won't hurt your employability. We were willing to take that risk to stand up for something we believed in. We encourage you to consider it carefully. Finally, the exception here is industrial research (e.g., Microsoft, IBM): skimp on motivation in such settings -- it will just bore them. It probably won't count against you (because they explicitly mention that they realize that no one prepares two job talks and that the intro is appropriate in academia) but you can possibly earn bonus points by tailoring your talk to those audiences.

Interview Visits

A typical interview is 1.5 days long, depending largely on the size of the department (bigger department=more people to meet=longer interview). You will arrive near dinner time on day X. Someone may or may not meet you at the airport and may or may not take you to dinner with one or two others. You sleep and wake up on day X+1, someone may optionally arrive to take you to breakfast, you head to the venue, and do the interviews. You first meeting (dinner, breakfast, or interview) is typically with your host. After that it's random. It is completely legitimate to take notes the entire time (we both did). This will be helpful later when you are trying to recall the conversations you had and the people you met. There's a break for lunch at a nice restaurant with two to four others, then more interviews. This will last until around 5pm, at which point they'll take you to dinner (unless they did it before, but multiple dinners are not uncommon) and then you sleep. For a long interview (e.g., IBM research, Georgia Tech, UIUC, or large departments in general) things continue the next morning until lunch. You may optionally arrange for the department to set up a visit with a real-estate agent for you (if you're staying an extra half-day, for example). Despite the fact that this seems incredibly presumptuous (since they haven't hired you yet), it's not insulting or awkward. Even if they don't extend you an offer, getting a feel for that area will give you a broader basis for comparison when you are considering your actual offers. Claire made such arrangements during her second visits.

Almost all of your time will be spent in offices talking to people individually. There are really only three main factors that vary between interview visits. One is the length of each individual interview: anywhere from 30 minutes to 60 minutes is common. The next is how many individual interviews you have scheduled. The last is whether your job talk is early or late. If the talk is later in the day you will have to include a five minute "elevator" summary of your research at each of your individual interviews. If the talk is late and the interview slots are thirty minutes, don't expect to get anything done. If the talk is early you can use that time to discuss potential collaborations or answer questions they have (and they will have them!) about your talk.

You will probably have a meeting (or lunch) with the dean (or department head or upper-level division manager or somesuch). This meeting tends to be slightly different from all of your other interview chats. At many places (e.g., Purdue) you will hear about exciting developments and expensive multi-disciplinary centers being built. Initially this may well sound irrelevant to you. You should view this sort of thing as a listing of possible collaborations and sources of funding. You may well receive a copy of the department's "strategic plan". Other places are of the opinion that you can either spend your time writing strategic plans or you can spend your time doing actual work. Ask the dean where the department is going (invariably the department is growing and going up in the rankings, unless you're already MIT or McGill, at which point the department is working hard to maintain its number-one-in-the-country ranking) and what has changed in the last few years. Ask the dean to forecast things seven years into the future (you'll have tenure then). Ask the dean about the hiring plans for the next few years. If all else fails, ask the dean about the retirement plan (it shows long term interest and you probably don't know anything about them yet as a grad student).

Claire met with at least three deans who had reviewed her application and had questions about her research. This was more common when the dean was a computer scientist. Tidbit: as of 2013, the dean at CMU's School of CS still maintains an active research program (focusing largely on systems). Their conversation was quite similar to a standard interview meeting, and Claire has since learned that the dean in question is absolutely invested in the technical contributions of anyone to whom the school makes an offer. This was non-typical.

Separate from the dean interview is the interview with the department chair (or local hiring manager). This is typically the last interview in the trip. The chair should suggest that they are still in the middle of their interview process but that they will have completed all of their interviews and concluded their deliberations in X days. Get this figure as firmly as you can and write it down. The chair will also want to know what your time frame for making decisions is (e.g., when will you be done with your interviews). Ask why they are hiring. Is it to develop courses? Bring in students? Do more research? Bring in grant money? Grow the department? Ask if they expect to continue to hire in the future, and how much they have hired in the past.

When you are emailing back and forth to set up the interview, arrange for a meeting with grad students if it is not otherwise on offer (most schools arrange such a thing by default). This can be over lunch or in some common meeting room during one of your slots. Be wary of any academic place that won't let you meet alone with grad students (or undergrads if you're at a college). You'll probably get at least three or four students at once; Claire had meetings with up to 10-15. The more people in these meetings, the more difficult they can be, because the candidate has to lead the discussion.

Sometimes the students will have seen your talk and will have (often very good) questions. Claire's toughest grilling during her interviews by far was at the hands of graduate students. However, much of the time the students will be young (first or second year) and often won't really have anything to say. Occasionally they will ask tough questions like "what will you bring to this department that we don't already have?" or "how does your research influence your teaching?" or "what courses will you offer when you first arrive?" or "how will you choose your grad students?". You should have answers to all of these anyway -- don't be like Wes and get surprised by them in real-time.

Aside from that, you should take time to ask a bunch of questions, such as about their research, the program requirements, their background, and so on. Claire tried to think of issues that mattered to her as a graduate student and ask about them, such as if they felt the faculty was responsive to their concerns or how much their input on this particular meeting mattered in the hiring process. See below for more ideas about what you might ask.

It really doesn't matter what you wear, so wear what makes you the most comfortable. No one will remember if you wore coordinated separates instead of a full suit. They might remember if you were obviously uncomfortable in your clothes or if you couldn't walk because of your shoes. If you are comfortable in a suit and have one that fits you and you want to wear it, go ahead. If you are purchasing your first suit since high school to interview, abort. Both Claire and Wes pulled their interview outfits from their existing wardrobes. If you do want to wear a suit of some kind, practice giving talks and sitting around in it before your interviews.

It is basically impossible to communicate in advance how tiring the interview process is, especially since interview season is also prime get-stuck-because-of-snow season. Flying every other day (especially from coast to coast) is exhausting (East Coasters have a real advantage in terms of jet lag). Plus you'll lose an hour taking the BART to the airport and then getting the rental car and whatnot. With time zone shifts you'll never really be able to get a good meal in transit (except for the ones they take you to) so you'll be eating too much airport food. Aim for a salad over McDonald's, and pack some snacks. Beyond that, though, being "on" for a day and a half can be draining. Aside from these interviews it's rare to spend nine hours (!) consecutively talking to people about complicated topics, knowing that your future employment is on the line. You must smile and be friendly and in a good humor the whole time. It's not difficult but it does take more energy than you think. Talking to professors you don't know for a nine hours is not like talking to your friends for nine hours. Consider taking Dramamine or sleeping pills or somesuch just to ensure that you get some rest on the plane. Claire always travels with ear plugs, an eye mask, melatonin, and a kindle/book to help sleep, as well as a bathing suit and workout clothing to take advantage of hotel gyms when available. Take care of yourself physically. You do yourself no favors if you are so tired and strung out that your are no longer at your mental best.

Interview Questions

The majority of the interview is made up of one-on-one sessions between you and an elder researcher you've never met before. Expect the worst-case scenario: you will have to fill the entire 45 minutes yourself by asking questions. Here are some questions (and follow-ups) one or both of us asked (and, where applicable, the canonical cross-institution answer).

Generally, try to have a set of these questions lined up. For two days, people will repeatedly ask you if you have questions for them. Claire just repeated hers when necessary.

Questions they may ask you:

Several of these questions are secretly trying to determine if you have a clue about how the faculty job works, especially regarding the aspects to which graduate students are not always exposed. For example, "have you considered funding sources for your work?" is mostly an attempt to determine if you have the remotest idea how the grant system works.

Wes typically used up almost all of the time asking questions of the other person. Remember, you are there to interview them as well. Moreover, apparently there are candidates who can't keep a conversation going after the first five minutes, which is the kiss of (awkward) death (Claire heard this from people interviewing her in several departments). You would like to convince the faculty that you are a person they wouldn't mind working/sharing a hall with. Being able to hold a reasonable conversation for 30 minutes is a good start.

Zak: Zak would first note that for any type of interview, having looked up the people on your schedule and noted at least some work they've done recently goes a long way in the one-on-one interviews. Many people seemed genuinely surprised when I brought up a recent paper and had questions and comments about it. Additionally, I cannot speak to the types of questions asked in academic job interviews, but I was somewhat surprised at the number and range of technical questions asked of me during interviews. Studying up on common interview topics (theory and algorithms, mostly) will only benefit you in the regard.

Dual-Career Couples/Divulging Your Partnered Status

Context: Wes was single when he was on the market; Claire had a partner who was planning to move with her and find a job in the software industry. Wes mentioned his relationship status in his cover letters; Claire did not. The advice in this section applies to both regular dual-career couples and those facing the actual academic two-body problem. However, as we are less experienced with the latter situation, we cannot provide as much insight on the subject. If you are in that position, we encourage you to talk to others who have done a two-body academic search for more concrete and informed advice.

As mentioned above, you may be asked about your marital status during your interviews. Claire actually never had anyone ask her this outright. Perhaps times changed since 2005, or perhaps interviewers are more sensitive about the issue with a female candidate than they are with a male candidate. Regardless, this question is illegal.

Wes says: everyone may ask anyway (even if you have put the answer explicitly on the front of your resume). Just deal with it. I have at least two data points of people being put in very awkward positions here (one was loosely "we have a lot of great women on campus and if you can't find someone within a few years there's something wrong with you" and the other was loosely "what's you religion and sexual orientation?"). Have a nice way to back out of such conversational cul-de-sacs. If you are asked anything more intrusive than "are you married?" feel free to mention it to your host. It's better to point this out to someone who likes you than to have the evil questioner's possibly negative opinion of you hurt your chances.

Claire says: everyone really wants to know and you should almost certainly tell them. During my interviews, I would find a way to drop my partner's existence and job ambitions into an early conversation. In every case, I was met with a relieved "Oh I'm so glad you told me that because we really want to know and we can't ask." I strongly encourage you to be open and honest about any two-body or dual-career situation you may have. The sooner a department knows about your partner's job needs, the more likely it is that they can find something for your partner in time to convince you that accepting the position is beneficial for you and your family. There is a school of thought that one should wait until one knows a department is interested before divulging a two-body situation. However, I have seen this backfire for other couples more than once, in that by the time an offer is on the table, it is too late to arrange for an interview with another department. This is obviously a bigger problem if your partner is also in academia.

I freely admit that I am lucky in that my spouse has made very portable career choices. That said, I was extremely upfront about my partner and his job aspirations, and departments that made me offers simultaneously made connections for him at local companies. He even did some onsite interviews during second visits.

The interview process is a giant two-party courtship exercise in which the interviewee is trying to convince the department to make a job offer, and the interviewer is trying to convince the interviewee that the department/location is the ideal place to live/work. As such, a legitimate department at which you want to work should fall over backwards to convince you that they can get your spouse/partner a job. Anecdotal example: The dean at UIUC opened his meeting with me by saying "I am not interested in your family circumstances, and it would be inappropriate and illegal for me to ask you about them. However, I would like to share with you unprompted all of UIUC's policies regarding dual-career couples..."

Look at it this way: The only reason not to be up front about this issue is that you are worried that doing so will hurt your job prospects. However, if a department (illegally) decides not to hire you because your spouse needs a job, you probably would not have gone there anyway, because your spouse would not have had a job in time for the decision to be reasonable. Moreover, and I freely admit that this statement arises from my privileged position of working in an academic field that is, by and large, hiring: I personally do not want to work with people who will not hire me because I am in a romantic partnership or because I have or may one day have family obligations. If anyone decided not to interview me or offer me a position for these reasons, they would have saved me the trouble of having to uncover their misogyny some other way.

Zak says: On the topic of being honest about things and covering somewhat personal topics, I feel as though I should mention that coming across like a real person is helpful in a heavily technical field like ours. While I may be biased, as I felt like I came from a somewhat less-strong technical foundation, I found that people genuinely appreciated me trying to make idle conversation and be personable. There are plenty of tips in, for instance, the business world about being personable, but I think people in all industries look for potential employees that they think they could work with every day on a personal level.

One final note on partners and jobs: emigrating to Canada with a partner appears to be pretty trivial, based on Claire's (serious) conversations with Waterloo on the subject. The Canadian immigration system is much more straightforward than the US system (as of July 2013), and their HR departments are practiced in providing support for the process.

Salary and Startup Negotiations

At some point someone will make you an official offer. This will include your nine-month salary and a startup package. The startup package should include money for graduate students (two students for two years each is typical), travel and equipment. It should also include discretionary funds. Your initial contract will probably be for three years, at which point they will evaluate things and then re-hire you, and then a few years later you go up for tenure. The year in which one goes up for tenure is fairly standard, but can vary (e.g., at 5 years in Canada, 9 at CMU, 10 at Yale/Hopkins, etc.). Be sure to check, just to be informed.

Everyone knows everyone else and what the going rate is, so if you don't do anything about it all of your offers from the same job category will be quite similar. Thus, haggling.

The first thing to note is that haggling is controversial and unsettling. Some people believe that you should just do good work for the good money they offer you and not become known as one of those grasping department members who always has to have more than everyone else. In general, salary negotiations do not take place, because graduate students have no experience with haggling and find the process uncomfortable. Talking so bluntly about money and putting yourself forward to get more of it can be distasteful. Since your new salary will be four or five times what you are making as a grad student, it may seem like it's not worth making yourself uncomfortable to get another thousand or two.

The trick here is that almost all of your raises will be cumulative and percentage-based. By the laws of compound interest your starting salary becomes critically important, especially since you're going to be there for at least twenty years. With one exception, everyone Wes and Claire have talked to was in favor of haggling for your starting salary. Responses were either "I didn't do it and now I regret it" or "I did it and it didn't work, but you should try it" or "I did it and it worked and I'm glad". The common consensus seems to be that you owe it to your family and future kids and mortgages to try to get paid what you are worth.

OK, now that we've decided that selfishness is a virtue (sorry, couldn't resist), how do we go about haggling?

The first thing to note is that although you will be conducting this process with the department chair (or hiring manager or whatnot) who sent you the official offer, it doesn't hurt them and they are not really involved. If you ask for $5k you're not taking $5k out of the chair's salary or even the chair's budget. The chair will go to the dean and convey your request (and typically argue for it). The dean will come back with something and the chair will relay that you. Do not adopt a zero-sum mentality here -- you'll hamstring yourself. In industry the situation is even more clear-cut -- you're not negotiating with your manager, you're often negotiating with someone in HR or Accounting or somesuch.

Claire: This is true for both salary and startup negotiations. Negotiating is standard, and they will not think less of you, unless (I suspect) you're "unreasonable" or rude. I will claim that I did my best to be fair and make reasonable requests and to do so politely. I have been told that my requests to at least one school were "all reasonable, professional, and polite." I have also been told that this is not always the case: "some hires send seven pages of detailed demands." I don't know what the line is between reasonable and unreasonable, nor if I succeeded at staying on the correct side of it in all cases, but I certainly made a good-faith effort.

Anyway, so they've given you an offer with a starting salary of X. How do you ask more without just saying "give me more money"? There are two traditional approaches.

Evaluate benefits, especially health care, along with salary offers. One of the offers Claire received included a fairly high salary compared to her other offers, but provided notably expensive health insurance that largely counteracted the salary advantage as compared to other schools (especially given her chronic medical condition). You can mention this type of issue in negotiation conversations.

Regardless, you never want to turn things into an "or-else" or "ultimatum" situation. Phrasing is key: "your offer is not the most attractive offer available to me" rather than "give me more or I'm leaving." The fact that they made you an offer means that they want you. They are sort of on your side even though they are negotiating. It's also valid to ask to what extent the salary is negotiable. In many places (e.g., Berkeley, Microsoft) you obtain permission to hire someone at a certain "level" or "rank" or "band" and that strictly limits the starting salary range to within two or three thousand dollars.

Claire found that there was wide variability in the flexibility that schools had regarding salaries, especially between state schools. In her experience, state and public schools are free and open with the details of their offers with everyone, because their salaries are typically public knowledge. Department chairs at private schools often keep those details very close to the vest.

It may be difficult to adjust your starting salary, but you'll probably find it easier to change your startup package. You can try to ask for more students, more discretionary funding, or for the entire startup package to be discretionary (e.g., "I will be able to live with the amount of money you're offering me if you allow me to spend it any way I like").

This is easier if you can justify your request(s). For example, Claire blocked out some travel plans (for some reason, SE conferences in 2013-2015 are all in far-flung locations, a fact that she mentioned in startup discussions) and detailed computing equipment. Ask about department policies on both student and faculty equipment. Some departments replace faculty and student computers every couple of years out of a special fund. In others, all such replacements come from faculty budgets. Ask about the computing facilities and what kinds of availability guarantees they provide, and whether costs such as IT support, compute time, or printing are charged to faculty funds. By the way, everyone will tell you that they have state-of-the-art computing facilities that will meet your needs perfectly. Your goal is to identify exactly what you need to make sure that it's actually available. For example, Claire often needs to execute and manage large numbers of virtual machines based on a custom image (think Amazon EC2). Very few departments can provide this kind of support as of 2013. She planned to purchase a minimal cloud setup from startup funds and used the specs to support her requests during startup negotiations.

By some combination of these approaches (considering and comparing across all offers) Wes was able to increase his (lowest) starting salary by 3.6% and double his (lowest) startup funds. Claire did not track her "haggling success" in this way, but she negotiated at least a little bit with every department that made an offer on both salary and startup, and in all cases was met at least in the middle on at least some portion of her requests.

You can expect industrial salaries to be 12/9ths of a nine-month academic salary. However, raises in industry are much more common. For example, a friend of Wes's has gotten a 10% raise every year for the last five or six years. Industry raises range between 0% and 15% yearly. You also get bonuses in industry.

Company trivia: Friends of Wes's at IBM have suggested that on a starting salary offer of $110,000 you should ask for another $10,000 right off the bat (and that they'll do it without blinking an eye). If for some reason you can't bring yourself to do that that it would be "criminal" not to ask for $5,000. However, multiple data points at Microsoft Research suggest that it is very difficult to haggle for starting salaries there because of internal strictures; the same goes for Google. Wes only knows of one success story haggling at Microsoft, and Claire has never heard of anyone succeed at Google.

Find out when your startup funds expire. In addition, make sure (in writing) that your grad student funding includes the summer months. A friend of Wes's ended up in a situation where he "took their word" that it extended to include the summer and they came back to him later and made a fuss because it wasn't written in the contract. This advice ("get it in writing") applies to basically everything, perhaps especially the teaching leave you can expect as a new hire.

On the subject of Canada: you can definitely negotiate with Canadian schools just as much (if not more so, in some cases) as you can with US schools. Note, however, that offers from Canada are basically incomparable in every way to offers from the US, because their funding system is completely different, so comparative negotiation is hard. Note also that Canadian schools are especially careful about avoiding salary inversion, but that, like the vast majority of US state schools, their salary information is public. Look it up for your negotiation purposes.

Claire: In the interest of full disclosure, I didn't ask for a higher salary at all schools. Whether I did or not depended on the offer, especially as compared to my other offers. I did negotiate with every department that made me an offer, however, at least on startup. Honestly, I found negotiating very difficult. However, it grew easier with practice. The first couple of negotiation emails I wrote took me hours to compose and send. By contrast, for my final set of negotiations, I initiated the conversation on the phone with the department chair during the "initial offer" conversation.

Finally, if you think you want to haggle but you need more advice about it, email your local department head (or past department heads). They have probably seen it many times from both sides of the fence and are often willing to give advice (it worked for Wes).

Dealing With Rejection

After you have had an interview with a place there are basically only two reasons for them to reject you. You should tread carefully in the time period after your interviews but before your official offers. Many department chairs have told Wes that they view it as part of their job (or their responsibility to the department) to put the brightest face on this possible and essentially to "string you along" or "never say no" (and thus keep as many good options for the department open as possible). Thus a department chair saying "we're still deliberating" may well mean "we've made a job offer to someone else already and we're waiting to see how that goes". It has been suggested that grad students who are naive about the interview process will interpret "we'll get back to you in a week or two" the wrong way and may thus end up waiting too long for a job offer that never arrives. In such a case you should talk to your host or other department members in your area to get the inside scoop.

Wes: It is my personal opinion (and experience) that this isn't really the case. All of the places that said to me variants of "we're still interviewing candidates and we'll have our faculty meeting to decide in 2 weeks" ended up making me an offer in 2 weeks -- it wasn't some sort of smokescreen. Similarly, places that didn't think they were going to be able to make me an offer (e.g. McGill) told me the rumor early (e.g., "we're having trouble building consensus, I can't give you any reason to wait for us") when I asked -- long before they sent an official reject letter. This is another case where being more direct or honorable can cost you job offers. I was willing to deal with people in good faith and assume that they were not lying to me when they said they would get back to me later. For me it turned out that they were not lying, but I was willing to take the risk that they were (and thus that I would wait too long for something that would never materialize and lose my good offers along the way). A place that mentions that they play the "positive spin, never say no" game may well be dealing intelligently with a harsh economic reality, but you may not want to work there (cf. office politics).

Claire: Similarly, I found that most schools and chairs were very straightforward with my position on their "list" and the likelihood of an offer.


If you're having a hard time deciding, it's quite legitimate to go on a second visit (or two). Claire found these quite informative. She and her partner went on such visits together and arranged a "date night" at each one in an effort to simulate what it might be like to live in the place in question. As mentioned, Claire's partner also did onsite interviews with companies or otherwise consulted with department members or others about employment opportunities on such visits. Other than that:

Wes: Talk to everyone. Don't forget to consult yourself. I can't really help you here generically.

Claire: I waited to have complete information for all offers before making a decision. I also asked for advice from as many people as possible, though for the most part this didn't help. I did not choose my position on rank alone, and it's unlikely that you should. Wes suggests that I should say more on this because I ended up at highly-ranked CMU. This decision is mostly related to what matters to you in life and what makes you happy. I sincerely believe that I could have worked and lived happily in all of my options. In the end, some combination of department quality and composition and, very critically, location, led CMU to win the day. I like cities, and Pittsburgh is cool, and it is conveniently located for both my family and my partner's family. It also has a fairly large tech scene, allowing my spouse to get a job. The fact that CMU CS is a highly ranked department was not irrelevant, but it is not the only reason I accepted the position. See below for more commentary on department rankings.

I found deciding very difficult. You will end up connecting, hanging out, and talking with a large number of people at every school, and it's hard to turn down new friends. One aspect of the job decision process that surprised me was how much time I spent on the phone with faculty at various departments, discussing their lives. Unlike negotiation, writing the "turn down the offers" emails never got any easier.

Zak: Talk to everyone, several times. I had my mind made up based on my assumptions about both places from which I had offers. After talking to Wes a lot, I was contacted by the place I had decided not to go to and, after two subsequent conversations, I now work there. It's impossible to ask all the right questions or get all the information about any given place, but if you have concerns about a certain place then talk to them about it. They should be more than eager to talk to you about things (if not, that's a bad sign) and you might find that you made hasty, or even incorrect, assumptions in this difficult, emotional time.


Here are some random things that didn't fit in elsewhere.