It’s rare these days for a college not to have a computer science department. During my job search, I’ve only found two. Occidental is one of them, the other being Whitman College in Wallawalla, WA. There are some others others with new CS departments – Franklin & Marshall, for example – and of course a number of others that are not looking to hire people.
Ever since I saw the Whitman posting – which was back in early September, way before my application materials were ready, although I later learned that they already had someone in mind – I enjoyed the fantasy of starting a new department. Every programmer has had a case of not-invented-here syndrome, the desire to build something from scratch and the (blind) optimism that the result will be superior to the existing products. I don’t think my desire to start a department was that exactly, but I think some of the novelty of a new project definitely applies. In retrospect, if I had known that Whitman was considering someone who was already a tenured professor elsewhere, I might have been more apprehensive of the opportunity.
If you’re looking for advice when applying to academic jobs, I’m afraid I don’t have much to say. That I got the offer at all required some luck on my part. The first piece of that luck is that my computer science position is being extended by the cognitive science department, unlike most new computer science faculty, who would join the mathematics department. Since my research is much more cognitive than it is mathematical, this meant I spent my time thinking about many of the same things that the faculty of the hiring department did. This pairing is also something I wanted, as one of my backup plans was to get apply to postdoc positions in cognitive modeling, to bolster my credentials in that field; with Occidental’s large cognitive science faculty, I can both have my cake (get a tenure-track faculty position) and eat it too (learn to be a cognitive scientist).
There is a second element of luck – at least, I think it was in my favor – in that for my visit, my teaching demonstration came before my research talk. From what I can tell, it’s common teaching demonstrations to go better than the research talk, if only because it’s more widely acknowledged that audience participation is a good thing. That I did really well – my subject was algorithms and search, and I focused on the universality of search to diverse problems – which I think made me more confident for the more lackluster research talk. That said, I think my interviews with individual professors went well as well, although I would be hard pressed to tell you wasn’t what I did that led to that result.
The chance to start a department from scratch, and the opportunity to work with cognitive science people – these two reasons make Occidental a good fit for me. The many conversations I’ve had during my visit also convinced me the college as a whole is putting the correct emphasis on computer science, and that the discipline will have a place in the college’s future. This gives me hope that, despite my inexperience, I can actually do something useful for both my students and for the college.
Which, when it comes down to it, is more than one can ask for in a job.