My Way to Academia, Postdoc in Industry and Two-Body Problem
This post is about 8 years of my journey from the end of my PhD until the beginning of CS faculty life. I hope it is a little helpful for someone, particularly CS PhD students and postdocs, to pursue their research career.
Gearing up for a postdoc
After finishing my 3-year PhD in Japan in March 2012, Europe was the obvious choice to start my postdoc, because I spent a wonderful time during intern at Nokia in Finland and visitor at UCL, 6 month each. At that time I didn’t think about my career seriously; I just wanted to do research with good people. I joined NEC Labs Europe in Heidelberg, Germany, because my mentor at UCL recommended it. I joined the group led by their friend also from UCL, and was able to do what I wanted. I also met an amazing collaborator who has influenced me since. I often spent 1–2 weeks in their office in Pisa to code together.
After amazing 2.5 years, I wanted to go to the next step, and started my second postdoc at NetApp (ATG, closed in 2020) in Munich in December 2014. My intern mentor at Nokia had moved there, and I wanted to work with them. The US company-style working environment was so exciting and I had freedom. I also worked with amazing colleagues in Europe and US. After two years, for some reason (not lay off) I returned to NEC in November 2016. As both the employers participated in the same EU project, the move was rather smooth.
Bootstrapping CS career for partner
During my first employment at NEC Labs Europe, I met my wife, traveled from Tokyo to Heidelberg. We tried to find a way to stay together. A little light was her motivation for doing CS, as her job at that point was about building a cloud computing platform where she played an administrative but yet technical role. Ideally, she wanted to start a masters degree in Germany, but as it turned out, applying for that required a CS-like bachelor degree, which was incompatible with her existing one. Doing the second bachelor in Germany was not an option, because undergrad programs were offered only in German.
She thus quit her job and started her second bachelor in CS at a university in Japan, the same university that she (and I) graduated and offers a second degree in another major in two years. I bootstrapped her CS study by mentoring her semester projects and thesis, and suggested that she present her work in external venues, like a CoNEXT student workshop and FreeBSD developer conferences, as it was clearly her useful experience in the future. We stayed together in Munich during her semester breaks, and in Tokyo over Christmas holidays.
Following the completion of her second bachelor, she joined me in Heidelberg, where I was doing “third” postdoc at NEC Labs Europe, in March 2016. While doing intern, she started applying for a CS masters program, within a commutable distance. The problem was that very few universities offered a CS masters program in English, but fortunately, she was admitted to TU Darmstadt starting in October. It should be noted that tuition fee was free even for foreigners!
Publish, publish, publish!
What was next for me? To figure out my next milestone as a researcher, I looked at the track record of researchers who got the academic or industry jobs I aspired to, then I realized that they had experience with collaborating with excellent researchers, which I also had, and they had at least one first-author paper at NSDI, OSDI, SIGCOMM or SOSP, which I didn’t have. So, my next goal was clear — let’s do it!
I kept working. Fortunately the resulting paper was accepted at one of those venues in the end of 2017. At the same time, since I wanted to move to a new place and my freedom was about to end, it was really time to explore my next step, so that I can move as soon as my wife finishes her master’s study.
Applying for academic jobs, but how!?
I wanted a tenure track academic job, because I realized, in my experience, freedom in industry is brittle. The problem was that I didn’t know the application process at all. In July 2018, I thus reached out a person who I met in a conference a couple of times and joined a prestigious university in the US from industry. They were so kind and advised me a lot, and I got an enough sense of what the faculty application process would look like. Although there are some posts online about how to apply for CS academic jobs (this is very detailed, although it didn’t exist in my time. I think this is also very helpful), hearing words personally was much more realistic and aligned with my needs. Also, since I was on the academic job market secretly, I was not able to talk my application over with people who might leak it to my colleagues.
Over the winter faculty hiring season, I primarily applied for universities in the UK, where my wife would also get a job in English, and I could spend day-to-day life in English. One might think there were plenty of English tech job opportunities in non-English countries like Germany, but in reality, such opportunities were much fewer than those requiring the local language, even in the IT industry in big cities.
It was surreal to get the offer from Edinburgh. I deferred the starting date a bit so as to wait for my wife to finish her study, and I moved to Edinburgh in January 2020. She moved in April, and defended her masters thesis at TU Darmstadt in June, online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I am so proud of her! Then she sought a tech job in Edinburgh. It was extremely helpful that the university hired a local career consultant for the partner as a part of the relocation package. She got a software engineer job in the financial industry in February 2021, so we have finally settled in with both having a dream job!
So far I really like Edinburgh and feel it has my favorite aspects of every place I lived — Munich (city size), Heidelberg (cleanness & castle), London (English, diversity & food) and Helsinki (sea & cityscape). University life is great too. I have a great mentor who help me bootstrap the academic career, and friendly colleagues to collaborate or hang out with.
Although I don’t have much to conclude, the key things that helped me or I realized over my PhD and postdoc are the following:
- Make friends in conferences — random people you chat during a conference can be your long-term friend or even saver in the future. You may, or even will, face arrogant people, but you will certainly find nice folks too. I met fantastic folks who chat with me, although I’m not from an illustrious university, and kept meeting them from time to time in other venues, feeling more friendship now.
- Have your circle outside your institution or employer. This is your safety net. In my case it is in the research community and IETF community. Those folks relaxed me when I was in a tough situation. I also talked a lot to those folks in spring and summer 2018, before starting academic job search, and it was so helpful, for example, to make sure I wanted to go to academia.
- Find a couple of people you adore at the same or a slightly later career stage than you; better if you know them personally, but not necessary. Such folks are your prop. Having them in my mind helped me keep growing as a researcher, not as an employee.