In early 2009, forecasts showed that the deteriorating economic climate would force a large number of new Ph.D.s in computer science and related fields to delay or altogether abandon a research career. Projected Ph.D. production was high, and jobs in academia and industry were few. Leaders of the computing research community feared a cohort of able researchers would be permanently lost to the profession.

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With encouragement from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Directorate for Computer Science and Engineering (CISE), the Computing Community Consortium (CCC) proposed to develop and administer a short-term program that would provide postdoctoral positions for about 60 Ph.D.s – called Computing Innovation Fellows, or CIFellows – for one to two years. In its proposal, the CCC cited among the motivations for the program:

“The nation’s universities and industrial research labs are facing unprecedented budget pressure as part of the international financial crisis. The result is considerably fewer openings for computing research and teaching positions than anyone imagined even six months ago.”

“The nation’s research universities will be producing a record number of new Ph.D.s in computer science and computing-related fields – approximately 1,800.”

“Award recipients will remain in research positions, enabling them to advance the field while simultaneously gaining an opportunity for further training and learning.”

“Finally, it is important to keep in mind that the primary goal of this program is to put talented people in situations that allow them to innovate. As a group, they persue new endeavors that, in turn, create new opportunities.”

The proposal spelled out some key properties of the competition and awards:

Applicants must propose matches with specific mentors, who must be from institutions other than a given applicant’s Ph.D.-granting institution. To facilitate mentor identification, potential mentors may indicate willingness to supervise postdocs by signing up on a webpage and including a summary of their research interests. Applicants are encouraged to propose more than one possible mentor and are urged to contact mentors to discuss possible research directions. Mentors must endorse a paired applicant.

Industrial hosts are encouraged, provided an intellectual property agreement allows the CIFellow to publish based on his or her work.

A postdoc award is portable; the CIFellow may move to another institution provided a mentor pairing exists.

Awards are for one year, with the possibility of extension to a second year.

In its first year, 2009, the program was organized and executed very rapidly. The proposal was submitted to NSF on March 26; NSF approved a slightly modified proposal on May 15. The program was announced that same day – May 15, together with websites prepared to accept mentors and applicants. Two committees, spanning 35 leading researchers in academia and industry, were recruited and organized to steer the program and review the applications. By the application deadline of June 9, over 1,200 mentors had signed up and 522 applications completed, comprising 945 separate applicant-mentor pairings. On July 8, CCC announced the selection of 60 CIFellows.

Because economic conditions did not improve rapidly, the program was continued in 2010 and 2011 with additional funding from NSF/CISE. Overall, 127 CIFellows were funded – 60 in 2009, 47 in 2010, and 20 in 2011. As it was always intended to be a short-term effort, the program was ramped down in each successive year, and there will be no new CIFellowships awarded in 2012.

In 2014 a workshop was held in San Francisco, California that offered an opportunity for the former CIFellows to learn more about professional development from each other and dignitaries from the field as they continue on their career path.