CIFellows 2020 For the Record

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Appendix A: Concept Paper

April 6, 2020

The Need

The current pandemic caused by Coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) is disrupting aspects of daily life and work across all sectors, including the academic computing research community. And yet, advances that began with basic computing research are making it possible for many to work, learn, play, and remain connected, while following shelter in place recommendations. Despite staying at home with limited direct contact outside the family, people are managing. Perhaps most directly, video conferencing tools running over the Internet have quickly become the standard for work meetings, distance learning lectures, yoga classes, and playdates for children. Fortunately, past information technology research has enabled an IT ecosystem that has proven robust to rapidly increasing and changing demand.  

Among many other things, COVID-19 is having a serious impact on the current faculty recruiting season in the computing research community. Faculty recruiting visits have been moved online or cancelled altogether. Second visits to support better decision making by candidates are not currently possible. Because the computing faculty recruiting season tends to run well into April, or beyond, most universities were not close to completing interviews when travel restrictions went into place. Beyond the challenge of interviews, COVID-19 will have an economic impact on universities, though the specifics are difficult to project at this time. Some universities have already reduced or frozen hiring for the fall to hedge against economic uncertainty. See an associated document, which includes the results of a CRA survey of member institutions that was sent out Friday, March 27 and closed five days later on Wednesday, April 1.

This leaves the computing research community at risk of losing a class of PhDs and postdocs who cannot afford to wait out the current disruption for future hiring seasons and thus may leave the research career path permanently. It is not a stretch to anticipate that the loss of this workforce in the research pipeline will have long-lasting downstream effects on computing innovation and impact. Moreover, the COVID-19 economic downturn may result in disruption that persists beyond the next hiring cycle.

Building on Past Success: The Computing Innovation Fellows Program

While COVID-19 is unprecedented in modern times, disruption to the career trajectory of a class of computing PhDs and postdocs has some precedent. In the severe economic downturn of the 2008 time period, many universities shut down faculty hiring. In response to a similar concern about the loss of computing researchers, the Computing Research Association (CRA) applied for and received three NSF awards to administer three cohorts of Computing Innovation Fellows (CIFellows). In brief, CIFellows paired recent PhDs with mentors in industrial research labs or universities, for a 1-2 year postdoc position. In total, 127 young scholars took part in the program, and many went on to successful academic and industrial careers, enabled by the opportunity to develop as researchers. 

To quote David Mimno, Associate Professor at Cornell University, 2011-2013 CIFellow, “I want to emphasize how much the chance to stay in academia, granted to me by my CI Fellowship, has allowed me to give back to students. Both of my graduated PhD students have gone on to tenure-track faculty jobs…Teaching is more than a job for me, it’s a calling. I am so grateful that the CI Fellows program was there for me when I needed it.” 

Please see CI Fellows home page, 2014 cohort/career building workshop, and 2018 capstone/next-stage-mentoring symposium. See also an associated slide deck for more data and stories regarding the Computing Innovation Fellows.

We propose to take inspiration from the original CIFellows program but to adapt it to the current situation, thus providing a similar career development bridge experience for the current generation of graduating PhD students and postdocs. 

A Computing Innovation Fellowship Program for 2020

In recognition of differences between this crisis and the prior economic downturn, we propose a new CIFellows program for computing researchers who were on the academic job market, but are without a placement for the coming year. We recognize the need for flexibility given uncertainties about travel, the housing and rental markets, and the timeline for universities to welcome researchers back onto their campuses. Therefore, we deliberately under specify the mechanics for this round of the program: a CIFellow will engage in a 1-2 year postdoc experience that furthers their career development in new ways, under the supervision of a mentor. Examples of such arrangements could include moving to a new institution under a new mentor (the prior CIFellows model), working with a new mentor elsewhere while remote, working with a new mentor at the same institution (e.g., in an adjacent research area), or working on a distinct career-expanding project at the same institution (e.g., applying research to the circumstances of the new COVID and post-COVID world). Notably, the idea is not to support simply an extension of time in the current circumstance, but rather to encourage creative ideas for making the next 1-2 years into an enhancement to career.

Belonging to a cohort going through a similar experience proved a powerful component of the prior CIFellows program. The current circumstances and their attendant challenges make  cohort interactions all the more valuable, by providing peer support, enabling sharing of experiences and best practices, and creating a community of young researchers that can persist well past the current crisis. Further, we have the pool of prior CIFellows to tap. These fellows are now 8-10 years into faculty or industrial research positions, ideally situated to share their experiences.

We propose a set of cohort activities throughout the program beginning with a collaborative communication channel such as Slack.  Once the academic year begins and Fellows are settled into their new role, we will begin a monthly seminar series drawing on content from CRA and CCC’s previous symposia and workshops around career growth.  We will also facilitate regular virtual meet-ups on topics of interest to the Fellows (both professional and personal).  We will ask for involvement from former CIFellows, where appropriate.  With involvement from current and past Fellows, we will organize a workshop on a regular basis, either virtual or in person, and continue it after the Fellowship has ended.

Participation and Selection Criteria

The Computing Innovation Fellows Program is open to all researchers whose work falls under the umbrella of the NSF Computing and Information Science and Engineering (CISE) Directorate and will have completed their PhD between January 1, 2019 and December 31, 2020. 

Strong preference will be given to candidates that demonstrate that they were on the academic computing research job market this spring and that their job options were curtailed by COVID-19. 

Applications will consist of an academic CV, a letter of recommendation from the current advisor, one additional letter of recommendation, and a career development plan specifying the details for the postdoc experience (duration, mentor, location, research plan connecting to career development and computing impact). The proposed mentor must also submit a letter attesting to lack of funding for the recipient and committing to support the career development plan. 

A steering committee of prior CIFellows and senior computing researchers, including members of the CCC Council and CRA Board, will establish the criteria for new CIFellows, then evaluate the applications against the established criteria.  Criteria will include metrics for diversity (of individual, research area, research methods, institution, geography, etc.).  

The application review process will be rigorous and follow best practices for avoiding conflicts, obtaining multiple reviewers per application, standardizing a rating system across reviewers, etc. If possible, existing application and review systems already used by CRA such as for the CRA-WP DREU system will be reconfigured for this purpose. 

Preliminary Budget Sketch

The budget for the 2020 CIFellows program depends on both the evolving COVID-19 situation and the funds that can be targeted to the program. For this reason, we first give inputs for the budget “equation” and then provide a few examples.

Typical total cost for a one-year PostDoc is $130K to $150K at public and private institutions respectively.  We also include $10,000 per person in discretionary funds, to be used for travel, equipment, or other professional development costs. There would also be CRA indirect of $9750 on each subaward of this size, with one subaward per academic institution even if multiple fellows. 

 For a program of about the size and scale of an original CIFellows, we also estimate staff time of $90K (75% time for one year to administer the program and develop cohort supports; not all necessarily the same individual). There will be additional costs needed to support cohort symposia, ideally including travel to a single location once a year.  This will vary greatly depending on the number of Fellows involved, but to rough order, we estimate the cost at $2,500 per participant per year.

We propose the funding mechanism that worked well for CIFellows: NSF would award a grant to CRA which would in turn issue subawards to the institutions where the postdocs will be employed.