Learn more about the outcomes and best practices from CRA/CCC’s previous CIFellows program and the Postdoc Best Practice Program.
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Postdoc Best Practices
Developing new talent to carry out high impact research is of paramount importance to the computer science & engineering research enterprise. An appointment as a postdoctoral researcher is an increasingly common starting point for a research career. The National Science Foundation (NSF) Computer & Information Science and Engineering (CISE) Directorate and the the Computing Research Association’s (CRA) Computing Community Consortium (CCC) recognized the critical importance in having an excellent postdoc training experience to help junior researchers advance their careers.
With NSF’s backing, the CCC created a program to develop, implement and institutionalize the implementation of best practices for supporting postdocs. This program awarded grants to institutions and consortia of institutions to implement best practices for strengthening the postdoc experience in computer science and computing-related fields. These supporting programs have enabled PhD graduates to transition effectively to research roles in a variety of sectors.
The PostdocBP Steering Committee provided financial, administrative, and technical oversight for the Postdoc Best Practices Program. The Steering Committee was appointed by the CCC Council. Working with the Selection Committee, the Steering Committee was responsible for making all final award decisions. The steering committee included: Anita Jones (Chair), Susan Graham, Ran Libeskind-Hadas, J Strother Moore, Bob Sproull, and Ann Drobnis.
Resources collected via the Postdoc Best Practices program can be found below:
Independent Development Plans (IDPs) were introduced by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB)’s Science Policy Committee and supply a framework for identifying professional development needs and career objectives. The IDPs are an important part of the three CCC Best Practice consortia’s current programming. Below you can find resources related to the development of a successful IDP.
IDP Templates from Multiple Sources:
- Other Universities:
- MyIDP: In 2003, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) proposed an IDP framework for postdoctoral fellows in the sciences. Expanding on that framework, myIDP is a unique, web-based career-planning tool tailored to meet the needs of PhD students and postdocs in the sciences.
The following links are related to best practices for general career development and come from CRA committees and the Postdoc Best Practices programs.
Resources from CRA:
- Slides from the Career Mentoring Workshop held by CRA-W in 2015 are available here. The slides cover a number of topics relating to professional development, including effective mentorship.
- A number of videos were recorded at the 2014 CI Fellows workshop. A playlist of the videos can be viewed on Youtube.
- The slides on writing a compelling proposal from the CI Fellows workshop are available here.
- The slides on sharing your research with a broader audience from the CI Fellows workshop are available here.
Resources from NYC ASCENT:
- One of the career development related resources that NYC Ascent has made available on their website is the Columbia University career planning guide. It is available here.
Resources from UW:
The following links cover a varied spectrum of best practices related to best practices for postdocs.
Good Books to Read:
- The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age – This book provides an insight into one of the very important questions in a workplace i.e . How to manage the employer-employee relationship ? It is a great resource to help postdocs develop workplace management skills. The book is available for purchase online.
- Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business – This book talks about many secrets of working in a productive way in both professional and personal life. It will help postdocs work more efficiently. The book is available for purchase online.
- The Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning courses:
- The Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning (CIRTL) is an NSF Center for Learning and Teaching in higher education.
- CIRTL uses graduate education as the leverage point to develop a national STEM faculty committed to implementing and advancing effective teaching practices for diverse student audiences as part of successful professional careers.
- The goal of CIRTL is to improve the STEM learning of all students at every college and university, and thereby to increase the diversity in STEM fields and the STEM literacy of the nation.
- More details about CIRTL courses is available here.
Communication Development Resources:
- Alan Alda Center for Communication Workshops – The Alda Center’s Science Communication offers paid workshops to improve communication skills. The goal of Workshops is to help participants learn to communicate more effectively with people outside their field . It will help postdocs to communicate their research and help them in networking. More details on the workshops is available here.
Below you can find key takeaways identified by the program’s and the CRA’s Center for Evaluating the Research Pipeline (CERP).
Key Lessons Learned:
- Regularly review progress with the postdocs: Systematic evaluation of progress helps postdocs stay on track and increases the quality of mentoring. Conducting these reviews using 3-6 month progress reports or individual development plans (IDP) can facilitate a productive assessment of progress. Adapting the reporting tools and/or IDP for the computing field will increase their usability.
- Match skill-sets with professional development opportunities: Postdocs may choose to attend activities on topics they feel more comfortable with or perceive as more immediately relevant to their careers; however, it is important to build all skills necessary for successful careers. Advisors and mentors should help identify the skills that are in greater need of improvement by closely reviewing progress reports and IDPs with each postdoc. Then, actively encourage professional development opportunities that are targeted towards refining those specific skills.
- Organize skill development activities in a variety of formats: Because postdocs are busy and may not be able to attend each event organized by their institution (or partnering institution), offering a variety of formats for skill development activities may help accommodate postdocs’ schedules and increase attendance rates. For example, live-streaming workshops or hosting webinars would help engage postdocs in professional development activities who still need to manage the demands on their time. Furthermore, this approach can reduce the amount of resources and time required of the faculty/department. These online formats, in addition to hands-on activities held in person (e.g., job market preparation; grant writing), are important aspects to the overall postdoc training experience.
- Facilitate networking: Networking is a key component of postdoc professional development and future success as researchers in the field. During advising or mentoring sessions, identify opportunities for the postdoc to participate in that are tailored to building strong communication and networking skills. Further, incorporate networking opportunities into organized workshops and seminars, even for specialized topics.
- Keep in mind the geographical proximity of activities to the postdocs: Lessons Learned from the Postdoc Best Practices Program While organizing activities as part of a postdoc program, it is important to considert the geographical location of the activities. For instance, when multiple institutions with a large geographical spread form a partnership for postdoctoral affairs, if events are primarily held a single location, many postdocs are unable to attend.
In early 2009, forecasts showed that the deteriorating economic climate would force a large number of new Ph.D.s in computer science and related fields to delay or altogether abandon a research career. Projected Ph.D. production was high, and jobs in academia and industry were few. Leaders of the computing research community feared a cohort of able researchers would be permanently lost to the profession.
With encouragement from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Directorate for Computer Science and Engineering (CISE), the Computing Community Consortium (CCC) proposed to develop and administer a short-term program that would provide postdoctoral positions for about 60 Ph.D.s – called Computing Innovation Fellows, or CIFellows – for one to two years. In its proposal, the CCC cited among the motivations for the program:
“The nation’s universities and industrial research labs are facing unprecedented budget pressure as part of the international financial crisis. The result is considerably fewer openings for computing research and teaching positions than anyone imagined even six months ago.”
“The nation’s research universities will be producing a record number of new Ph.D.s in computer science and computing-related fields – approximately 1,800.”
“Award recipients will remain in research positions, enabling them to advance the field while simultaneously gaining an opportunity for further training and learning.”
“Finally, it is important to keep in mind that the primary goal of this program is to put talented people in situations that allow them to innovate. As a group, they persue new endeavors that, in turn, create new opportunities.”
The proposal spelled out some key properties of the competition and awards:
Applicants must propose matches with specific mentors, who must be from institutions other than a given applicant’s Ph.D.-granting institution. To facilitate mentor identification, potential mentors may indicate willingness to supervise postdocs by signing up on a webpage and including a summary of their research interests. Applicants are encouraged to propose more than one possible mentor and are urged to contact mentors to discuss possible research directions. Mentors must endorse a paired applicant.
Industrial hosts are encouraged, provided an intellectual property agreement allows the CIFellow to publish based on his or her work.
A postdoc award is portable; the CIFellow may move to another institution provided a mentor pairing exists.
Awards are for one year, with the possibility of extension to a second year.
In its first year, 2009, the program was organized and executed very rapidly. The proposal was submitted to NSF on March 26; NSF approved a slightly modified proposal on May 15. The program was announced that same day – May 15, together with websites prepared to accept mentors and applicants. Two committees, spanning 35 leading researchers in academia and industry, were recruited and organized to steer the program and review the applications. By the application deadline of June 9, over 1,200 mentors had signed up and 522 applications completed, comprising 945 separate applicant-mentor pairings. On July 8, CCC announced the selection of 60 CIFellows.
Because economic conditions did not improve rapidly, the program was continued in 2010 and 2011 with additional funding from NSF/CISE. Overall, 127 CIFellows were funded – 60 in 2009, 47 in 2010, and 20 in 2011. As it was always intended to be a short-term effort, the program was ramped down in each successive year, and there will be no new CIFellowships awarded in 2012.
In 2014 a workshop was held in San Francisco, California that offered an opportunity for the former CIFellows to learn more about professional development from each other and dignitaries from the field as they continue on their career path.
After the workshop, CRA’s Center for Evaluating the Research Pipeline (CERP) did a 2014 Comparative Evaluation Report. See below.
After the 2014 CI Fellows workshop, CRA’s Center for Evaluating the Research Pipeline (CERP) did a 2014 Comparative Evaluation Report. See below.
A qualitative assessment by SRI International, completed in May 2011, concluded in part (emphasis added):
“The results of this evaluation suggest that the design of the program helped to provide the CIFellows with the foundations for productive careers as research leaders and principal investigators. Confirmation of this outcome will not be possible, however, until the subsequent careers of the CIFellows can be studied…
The CIFellows Project appears to have achieved its short-term objectives of providing interim employment to early-career computing researchers, at least some of whom might have left the field without such support [based on interviews with the CIFellows].”
Perhaps most importantly, the CIFellows have been afforded a unique level of independence and flexibility, as compared to their counterparts in traditional postdoctoral positions. As SRI International wrote in its assessment:
“[There is evidence to support that] the CIFellows Project provides an experience that is more likely to prepare postdoctoral fellows for careers as independent, innovative researchers, in contrast to typical postdoctoral training.
…Individuals involved in the Project argued that most postdoctoral positions in science and engineering require the postdoc to conduct whatever research his or her mentor requests. For postdoctoral positions [that] are funded through a specific research grant, the postdoc is expected to perform the research activities required under the grant. In contrast, the CIFellows are expected to pursue independent research under the guidance of [their mentors]. The CIFellows themselves have reported that the support of the CIFellows Project enables them to act in a manner different from other postdoctoral fellows at their host institutions; they have far more independence and flexibility than even colleagues in their labs. Based on their responses to the survey, the CIFellows noted that they have been involved in a wide range of activities beyond conducting research, including:
- Authoring scholarly articles (95% of respondents)
- Collaborative research with colleagues at the host institution (77%)
- Collaborative research with students (71%)
- Advising students or junior staff (68%)”
Together, the cross-flow and independence have contributed to exceptional experiences for the CIFellows and their mentors, furthering the careers of both in most cases. For example, Hanspeter Pfister, a graphics/visualization researcher at Harvard University, is mentoring 2009 CIFellow Miriah Meyer from the University of Utah. Hanspeter says that the CIFellows Project allowed Miriah (and him) to explore a new research area, for which they would have been unlikely to obtain grant support (given the initial stage of the project). The area in which they are working is visualizing data that do not have any inherent spatial characteristics, specifically genomics visualization. If one is visualizing a brain image, or a fluid flow simulation, it is pretty obvious how to “lay it out,” because the data are inherently spatial. By contrast, there exists a new challenge—a “design” challenge—in how best to lay out data that lack inherent spatial information, and that’s what Hanspeter and Miriah are exploring.
“The program was incredibly well thought out, providing funds for postdocs to cover the expenses associated with our research, and did an excellent job of pairing post-docs with mentors.”
Similarly, Yiling Chen, an economic mechanisms expert at Harvard, mentored CIFellow Jennifer Wortman Vaughan from the University of Pennsylvania during the 2009-10 academic year. Jennifer earned her Ph.D. from the group of Michael Kearns—a computer scientist and expert on machine learning and game theory renown for his work on the connections between networks and human behavior. Yiling, too, is effusive in her praise of CIFellows. Jennifer departed the CIFellows Project at the end of her first year, assuming a faculty position at UCLA this past fall—and, in an interesting example of cross-flow, she immediately took on a 2010 CIFellow, Ricky Sethi.
It is also worth noting that Hanspeter and Yiling are both new faculty members. They each had some previous experience under their belts (Hanspeter at Mitsubishi Research and Yiling at Yahoo! Research), but these are cases in which the CIFellows Project has paired an outstanding new graduate with an outstanding new faculty member and achieved a really excellent result.
Finally, Sitaram Asur, a CIFellow working at HP Labs under Bernardo Huberman, made tremendous progress on the development of a new algorithm that uses Twitter to gauge real-time interest in movies and accurately predict how they will perform at the box office on opening weekend. The work received substantial publicity in the popular press, including the Los Angeles Times. Sitaram’s outstanding contributions prompted HP Labs to hire him as a permanent Researcher effective summer 2010.
These accomplishments serve to illustrate how the CIFellows Project is having a broader impact for our computing research community.
Between 2009 and 2011, 127 PhD graduates in Computer Science and related fields were awarded Computing Innovation Fellowships, a short-term Postdoctoral Fellowship to help keep recent graduates in the field during the economic downturn. The program has ended and the former CIFellows are now in the early years of their formal careers. This workshop is an opportunity for the former CIFellows to learn from each other and dignitaries from the field as they continue on their career path.