ECSEL recently hosted an assistant professor of computer science at Michigan as part of our monthly luncheon series with professional women in computing. One of the most memorable things she shared was that new faculty aren’t trained before starting the job. You’re pretty much thrown into the position, she said. This surprised me because Michigan faculty impact literally thousands of students through teaching and advising. To confirm, I asked several professors and lecturers whether they received training when they were hired by Michigan. No, but I wish I had was the unanimous answer.
I started to think about this when I sensed a similar dilemma among the PhD students. Aside from the college-wide Responsible Conduct of Research and Scholarship (RCRS) requirements, which mostly consist of free food and someone talking at you for two hours, we receive no standardized training beyond the variable and decentralized offerings of our advisers and mentors. To make things worse, grad school is a recipe for isolation. With deadlines competing against work that’s “never really done”, it’s easy to withdraw into bad academic and personal habits. You can go a long time without (in)formal guidance from colleagues.
To keep the conversation going, I asked a professor why CS PhD students aren’t required to take a research paper and proposal writing course. For reference, engineering undergrads in computer science are required to take technical communication, and liberal arts undergrads in computer science are required to take an upper-level writing course. Research writing — in other words, rigorously but clearly communicating the technical details of work no one’s ever seen before while telling a cohesive and compelling story — is hard! The professor’s answer: I agree with you that we should have one, but…
I conclude by emphasizing that computing research is unique and fairly young. We don’t necessarily do well-established “research” things like conducting field work or growing cells or surveying people. And those of us that do via interdisciplinary work face further challenges like following standards across multiple domains. We also publish in different venues. The rest of the research world aims for journals, but we emphasize conferences and even open publishing via Arxiv, itself a contentious topic among CS researchers. My point is that college-wide training like RCRS doesn’t target computer scientists and I believe we need training that does. Until then we’re fending for ourselves.