Some Advice on Doing a PostDoc in Software Engineering


May 23, 2013

Post-doc positions in CS are a growing part of the research landscape, as seen in this figure from the CRA:

[caption id=“” align=“alignnone” width=“445”][]( CRA 2011 Research positions[/caption]

So if you are a senior doctoral student, should you take a post-doc offering? Herewith a few tips based on my own experience (7 year doctoral student in Toronto, 1.5 years postdoc at UBC, now with SEI as researcher).

  1. Figure out your long-term goal. Do you want a research intensive faculty post? Or a teaching-intensive job? Industrial research lab? Industry development job? I would not bother with a post-doc if I wanted a programming job (even a PHD is a hindrance here, in most cases).

  2. Think about networking. Most of the people who get the top jobs in the field are well-connected to the main community, via supervisor connections, industry internships, collaborations. You will need to secure 3-4 people who will write highly of you. You need to get onto the short list. I am assuming you already understand what the bar is for high quality research.

  3. Avoid teaching positions if you want to do research, and vice-versa. I did a dual position, and while I love teaching, research suffered. There is plenty of time to think about teaching later, and in my experience, top research schools almost never ask about teaching experience. On the other hand, if you apply to teaching universities, then demonstrable ability to manage a large class should serve you well, as will good evaluations.

  4. Evaluate how well the position will accommodate your existing research contributions. You simply do not have time in the standard 2 year postdoc to shift your research interests dramatically. To me this is one big difference with life science postdocs, where you get lab experience and the positions are typically for 3-4 years. Ideally, you will be able to submit to ICSE, CAV, FMCAD, PLDI etc. immediately after starting. I’m not convinced that hiring committees are at all sympathetic to any gaps in your publication record.

  5. Be realistic about the quality of the lab’s past research. Are they publishing in the top venues? Is there a history of collaborative work, where you might be able to tail along on a paper as you start your post?

  6. Finally, all the other criteria: is it a nice city? Are the people friendly? What is the salary? 50K Canadian is at the upper end for most positions.

These tips are mainly pragmatic and from a research hiring point of view, where the main reason to do a post-doc is to improve your publication record and increase your social network. That being said, one of the things I most liked about my postdoc was meeting and working with great people. That sticks with you longer than any paper submissions will.

EDIT: I’ve been reminded of another criterion, namely, does your partner (if any) support your decision!