Beki Grinter

CRA Postdocs Report

In academic management, computer science, discipline, women on March 8, 2011 at 3:49 pm

The CRA recently released a report about post-docs for discussion among the community.

Why now?

In the last few years, the number of post-docs has risen dramatically within the field of Computer Science and simultaneously the number of tenure-track Faculty positions has declined. One concern that the authors have is that of avoiding the situation that the Life Sciences found itself in, having a large number of post-docs who had to hold repeated post-docs before finding permanent employment. They also suggest that Universities are looking for faculty candidates who increasingly have a C.V. commensurate with the experience that a post-doc would provide. Another interesting context they highlight is that by the time tuition is factored into the cost of a student, post-docs and graduate students become almost equal in cost to the faculty advisor sponsoring them.

There’s far more in the report, and I would encourage Computing researchers to read it, but I want to take up an issue that I think is highly related to the report but could use some examination. It’s the way that we, faculty, organize our disciplinary business and how that is rewarded. We have established practices that turn on the creation of groups of students, with whom we individually and collectively produce the research that leads to publications. Additionally, I think our culture of evaluation turns, partially, on where those students go, particularly if they choose to become faculty members.

But, what if the marketplace is changing? What if many departments are not growing much anymore? What if there is only one faculty position that a faculty member can place a student into, their own when they retire? That’s the extreme of course, but it is an interesting counter-position to what we have been used to, a culture of growth in Computing. Is it time to set expectations that alter the value of that placement, or at least calibrate it (particularly for newer faculty in the field)? Is it time to reconsider the size of a research group (i.e., bring the denominator down)?

I think there are other reasons to consider the way that we in Computing do disciplinary business. Recently, the NSF released it’s 2012 budget request and one of the things I was struck by in the report was the dependence of Computer Science on NSF funding. Eighty two percent of all Computer Science research is funded by the NSF. I am excited by the request for investment, I wouldn’t be in Computing if I wasn’t. But I keep wondering about the interaction between this discretionary investment and the American people’s desire to see the Government reduce if not eliminate the deficit.

Another is the continued declining enrollments in Computer Science education. As they decline, will the question be asked, how many people do we need to teach those who remain interested in Computer Science? I’m excited about the continued efforts to support the growth of interest in Computing related education. I think that there’s a really important set of futures in Computing industry, but we have work to do to convince people to take up those career paths.

One final reason of particular interest to me is that I suspect the labor market has changed in another way. The report mentions one reason that people post-doc, because they are part of a dual body opportunity and the post-doc helps the pair align their careers. I wonder to what extent dual body opportunities are becoming the new normal in hiring, and what implications that has in the short and long term. I don’t think I’ve ever seen data that tracks this, and yet, as a dual body myself, I know its implications for finding employment and the trade-off between career and relationship as the possibilities of long-distance are weighed against future aspirations.

So, I think this report is just about post-docs. It’s about the organization and culture of Computing research. And like any merit system, the easiest way to do that is look at what drives behaviour, the system of rewards. Without examining the culture of evaluation, and the consequences that it has for the way in which we do business, I think it’ll be hard to make change if that’s what is needed.

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  1. […] 9, 2011 My colleague Beki Grinter asked me to review a white paper that the Computing Research Association (CRA) has produced on the […]

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