During COVID-19, I started working on problems focussed on understanding human behavior during unusual situations that arose during COVID-19. I was increasingly fascinated with the role of Natural Language Processing (NLProc) in Computational Social Science. I found myself taking inspiration from theories in psychology more often. Overall, it was just a completely new world and I loved it. However, there was a small problem. I found myself often stuck, lacking the perspective of social science studies and was limited to finetuning large language models (LLMs). This motivated me to look for research groups working at the intersection of CSS and NLProc. After considering the expanding job opportunities in CSS/NLProc, my own interest and the advantage of a truly interdisciplinary global research experience, I decided to look for postdoc opportunities.
I started applying in Jan 2022. After numerous applications and rejections, I finally received postdoctoral fellowship offers from University of Pennsylvania, The Alan Turing Institute and Aalto University. It’s been almost a month since I landed in Philadelphia for my postdoc at University of Pennsylvania. And, I am so glad to share that the journey has been full of learning and quite a few challenges. Through this post, I would like to share a few points which I found helpful during my application process.
Where to search?
The first big challenge is, being aware of professors, research groups which are of interest, and their ongoing work. Only when you have an idea about the kind of research groups you would like to join, you can start preparing your application. ACL conferences/workshops, ICWSM, EMNLP , IC2S2 are a few highly reputed venues and one may start with going through the work being published. There are numerous research groups doing wonderful work in CSS and NLProc. So, I suggest that you spend a good amount of time in identifying groups/researchers whose work inspires you. In addition,
Identify mailing groups: During my search, I found the “[email protected]” emails most helpful. This list has the most proactive group of people who actively post opportunities (phd, postdoc, faculty positions) in NLProc and CSS. You must subscribe to this group if you are looking for academic opportunities in NLProc. Machine Learning News Google group is another such resource.
Check for Job boards and domain specific platforms: In addition, I actively looked for positions on NLP job boards such as NLP People and ACL Employment Opportunities along with regularly tracking open positions on the websites of research groups of my interest.
Stay Connected: Being on Twitter and following the right research groups/researchers of your interest also help a lot. The postdoc applications often have an early deadline and the sooner you know, the more time you will have to customize your application. Moreover, Twitter, LinkedIn, ResearchGate are a few platforms to connect, see what’s going on in your field and be aware of the trends. You can always start with “following / connecting” researchers whose work is interesting to you and then check who else they follow.
Communication is the key. Don’t hesitate to contact the research group / professor if you have any questions about the ongoing research, or even the expectations from the postdoc. In fact, I suggest you to not wait for the advertisement if you are sure about a research group. Just introduce yourself and enquire over an email or even DM them on Twitter. I had a very positive experience, professors were super warm and even up for a meeting sometimes.
Once you have identified the research groups / positions, the next step is to prepare your application. In the advertisement itself, the list of documents for application will be clearly stated. The documents are often:
- cover letter,
- Research statement,
- degrees transcripts (masters, phd),
- Published papers/ phd thesis and,
- two to three references. For some applications, one of the references has to be your PhD supervisor.
For some positions, there will be a dedicated email id to send the documents whereas for others, you may be directed to a job portal where you will have to fill in the details and upload documents. If you are applying for postdoc positions in industry, it’s a good idea to let your references know in advance. The application is not considered complete without the references. When preparing CV and research statement,
- Read the eligibility requirements and skills carefully. For instance, if the advertisement asks for expertise in python, and you have no evidence in your CV that you ever worked with Python, then it is unlikely that you will be shortlisted for an interview.
- Identify the projects which demonstrate your expertise, how you could be a valuable asset to the group and accordingly highlight the skills/prior works in your CV. It is important that you have a look at recent papers published by the research group and understand the challenges the group is working on.
- Critically evaluate the content and determine if it is going to help you in securing the interview or not. Having a good CV and research statement is important. Always remember that you will be shortlisted for an interview on the basis of information you have shared.
It is definitely worth investing time and effort in customizing CV and research statements for every new position. There are a lot of sample research statements/CV online which can be referenced to understand what to write and what not. You may also ask your peers from similar domains to share their first impression on your research statement.
You can expect to hear soon about the status of your application after the deadline. It is sometimes the case that negative results are not conveyed. Until and unless it is explicitly stated in the advertisement, you can always enquire about the status of your application if you feel it’s been sufficiently long and there is no news on the research group website. Like I said, don’t shy away from communicating your concerns and questions.
Hiring process for postdoc position is often quick and does not give you much time to prepare once you are in the process. It is thus a great idea to
- Simultaneously prepare for your interview: Even if you don’t get a positive response for an application, the preparation will eventually help you in improving the contents of your research statements and CVs as you will be able to better gauge what’s important and what’s not.
- Be crisp, clear about your ideas and how every slide is going to support your candidature: Try explaining your work to peers/friends, modify your explanation to make it easy to understand and unambiguous. Being verbose does not help.
- Have a clear idea about the work being done at the research group you wish to join: Always works in your favor and demonstrates your sincerity
The interview could be with the head of the group or a team of members in the research group. I personally experienced both type of panels. I was given the choice to pick a slot of my convenience out of available slots. Due to possible different time zones, it is a good idea to give a thought when picking a slot. If possible, opt for day time, and keep yourself free before and after the interview to avoid feeling rushed. If not explicitly informed, it is always good to ask in advance if the panel will prefer a set of slides or if there is a programming exercise to complete. Please keep in mind the time duration when preparing slides. Being stopped in the middle due to shortage of time, may defeat the whole purpose of slides.
In my case, I was given a programming exercise before the interview for the position of “Research Associate” at The Alan Turing Institute. Read the description carefully and think of evaluating criteria behind the given task if not mentioned. Design your solution accordingly. For instance, in my case, accuracy was not the concern and the panel wanted an interpretable model. During the interview, I was asked to explain my approach through slides and code notebook.
During the hiring process at The Aalto University and University of Pennsylvania, I only presented my slides discussing my recent work with a focus on skills stated in the initial adverstisement. It is thus always good exercise to revisit the advertisement before interview to ensure that you are covering everything. Another point to note is that these interviews are a good opportunity to connect and make a sincere impression. Make sure to stay connected with the research group/ professor to stay updated. Even if you receive a negative outcome, you can still learn from them. Bless the Internet and social media.
In the end, do remember that the interview is also for you to judge the research group and how useful it will be in furthering your objective whether it’s finding a job or just research experience in new domain. It is also a good idea to check the career path of ex-postdocs from the research lab. So, do your research, prepare your questions and try to get an idea how the research group supports their postdocs whether they choose to stay in academia or switch to industry jobs.