Interview with Dean J Cole Smith: How to Adapt to COVID-19 Academic Job Market

In 2019, our former lead editor Rahul Swamy reached out to Dean J. Cole Smith of Syracuse University to discuss the unique challenges that job searching in academia presents. (The original article can be found here.) The COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting hiring freeze in almost every academic institute have many graduating students and academic professionals concerned and wondering about adaptation to the COVID-19 and post-COVID-19 academic job market. This month we met again with Dean Smith to seek his advice for current academia candidates.

Prof. J. Cole Smith
Dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Science
Syracuse University
Vice President of Publications at INFORMS

What does COVID-19 mean for OR/MS community members planning to enter the academic job market this year?

There is a danger in answering too broadly here, but the general trend is that many universities have been forced to delay hiring, or to even cancel faculty hiring for the short term. I am most familiar with the situation in the United States, but I know this applies to many other countries as well. Universities have been hit very hard financially, and many are trying to minimize furloughs and layoffs via hiring freezes. This applies to every university discipline, and thus applies to OR/MS hiring in sciences, engineering, business, computer science, or other fields.

Faculty hiring will return, probably in a reduced capacity in the Fall 2021 cycle. When it does, our field may actually be in a favorable position. For one, our research supports data science, analytics, and decision-making clusters that many universities are looking to build. For another, the startup costs for many of our researchers are more modest than some other areas, at least, in engineering and computer science fields. As Dean, if I were particularly cash-strapped, I may favor hiring someone in 2021 in the area of algorithms or operations research foundations, as opposed to someone who may require close to a million dollars in startup funding to create a lab. Those expensive labs may pay off quite well, but they are more challenging to finance in times like these.

What kinds of alternative careers leave the doors open for academia if and when any academic jobs open up?

I would start by reassuring readers that academic jobs will open up! The market for OR/MS faculty will persist.

My first advice would be to find a position that is designed to be temporary. That might be the case, for instance, in a postdoctoral fellowship or a visiting faculty position. Slightly less obvious would be as a teaching faculty member, i.e., a non-tenure-track faculty member whose primary role is instruction. In fact, these positions may indeed still exist in the short term, and I feel that many of our Ph.D. graduates might be extremely well-suited to teaching faculty roles. (Note that these roles have different terms across different institutions, e.g., clinical faculty, lecturers, and so on.) But it is reasonable to communicate the desire to gain instructional experience in the current environment with the intent to apply for a tenure-track job in the future. It might be appropriate to see if you can negotiate for some time to carry out at least a modest level of research, perhaps at least enough time to finish papers that come out of your dissertation if applicable.

Outside of academia, I would not advocate for taking a long-term position with the intent to make it a short stay. It is best to be upfront about what you are hoping to achieve while in the role. Indeed, this is probably a good time to consider what you want to contribute with your Ph.D. We sometimes get focused on the job we want rather than the contributions we wish to make, which inverts the sensible order of our decision-making. I have found that research laboratory roles make the most sense for people who wish to get involved in real-world problems while having a little more leeway to remain active in research. But in reality, one would have to ask the supervisor and your future co-workers where their focus is and what the norm is regarding research. If publications are allowed but never done in practice, that should tell you something. If your colleagues are coming to INFORMS meetings and engaging in research, that might be more promising. And again, perhaps this environment is more what you are looking for in the first place.

What should job seekers do to remain competitive on the faculty job market until hiring resumes?

I would suggest two primary items. One, keep doing your research, if you are looking for a tenure-track position (and if the expectations for the tenure-track positions you seek include research). If I were hiring, I would want to know that research is compelling to you, and that your innate interest in your research compels you to continue to whatever extent is practical. Having said that, it is important to acknowledge what “keep doing your research” means. If you work in abstract mathematics, then I suppose you can continue to research and publish with only modest delays. If your research requires human subjects, access to high-performance computing, and so on, then perhaps you cannot. In that case, stay current and keep a notebook of ideas for future research. The idea is to not lose momentum in your studies.

The goal is not to continue publishing at the same rate you would if you were getting paid to do so, and had the requisite resources at your fingertips. This is not reasonable and not sustainable.

The second item would be professional development. To some extent, that overlaps with “stay current” advice above, but I intend this to regard more the idea of how does your research impact society? Why is it important? What problems need to be addressed that are important? Our field did brilliantly in quickly addressing certain problems surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. Because this pandemic is ongoing, our studies will have lasting relevance. Now, what about ethical issues with respect to algorithms? What about addressing inequities in the systems we model and optimize, like healthcare, supply chain, transportation, and so on? Those are the questions we need to be asking. Giving thoughtful answers to how you can participate in that mission requires a lot of foresight, research into what has already been done, and more than a little idle thinking and brainstorming.

Related to this, take the time to educate yourself on newer forms of teaching that integrate technology in the classroom. How do you make good online videos? How do you flip a classroom (and when should you do so)? How do you serve students that are remote if your class is being delivered in-person? Bear in mind that there are inequities among students: Some can easily access technology-enhanced lectures, and others cannot. How does technology that you use serve to either narrow or expand those gaps?

What would you like to say to job seekers?

After your Ph.D., you deserved more quantity and diversity in job opportunities. Of course there are more dire consequences of COVID-19, but senior INFORMS members see the stress that it is causing those of you who are graduating now. There is an extra level of stress, too, in which many of you are trying to conduct research in an environment that is not optimal for being productive. (I hosted one recent leadership meeting, during which I heard my children in the background wondering which nearby materials are flammable. Good luck concentrating on your meeting when you hear this.) My advice to those of you who are trying to remain as productive as always while looking after children or elders, and being away from your labs: stop trying. Don’t work yourself ragged. This is not a reasonable or fair expectation.

This crisis will abate. When it does, those of you who are able to conceptualize why you want to have the careers you are seeking, and the influence you can make in those careers, will be the best positioned for long-term career and personal success thereafter.