My job situation

A lot has happened this past week concerning my job prospects for next year. I didn’t want to comment on the situation while it was still in flux, but now that the options are all on the table, I might as well let people know, and solicit advice about what to do.

First the bad news: against my and many other people’s expectations, I will not be starting a tenure-track position in CS this coming fall. Several of my interviews were cancelled, while at the schools where I did interview, I’ve been told that other candidates were chosen. Again and again I heard the same story: that while there was initially strong support for my application (particularly among theorists), concerns had arisen about some of my “extra-academic activities.”

A phone conversation last night, with someone I’ll call Prof. X from University Y, was typical. Prof. X started by explaining that, while the whole “blog” phenomenon had passed by him personally, some questions had come up during a hiring committee meeting with the more junior faculty — and, to get straight to the point, was it true that I wrote one of these “blogs” myself?

Yes, I said.

And was it true that this “blog” was known, in large part, for a debate about “battling vaginas”?

Biting vaginas, I corrected him.

And was it also true that I made frequent pronouncements about C*-algebras, modern art, and even string theory and loop quantum gravity, despite knowing next to nothing about any of these things?

Yes, I said.

And was it also true that, in the past few days, I’d spent much of my time defending the General Theory of Relativity against someone who calls himself “assman”?

Yes, I said.

Prof. X said he hoped I’d understand that, as far as he was concerned, I could write whatever I damn well pleased, but that, in an age of increasing sensitivities, and particularly in the wake of the well-known Luboš Motl debacle at Harvard, concerns had naturally arisen over whether a department could afford to gamble on someone with an “erratic personality.”

As you can imagine, this was all pretty depressing and unexpected for me. But I haven’t yet told you the second part of the story — which is that, over the last two days, some interesting new options have opened up.

On Thursday I got a call from Geordie Rose, asking whether I wanted to come work for D-Wave Systems in Vancouver. He said D-Wave had been stung by the criticism from experts following its announcement of the “world’s first commercial quantum computer,” and wanted to prevent a recurrence. So their idea was to hire an “in-house skeptic,” similar to the “white hats” hired by computer security companies to try and break their systems. I told Geordie I’d think about it, but that it mostly just depended on what sort of compensation package they could put together.

Meanwhile a second option has come up. Yesterday I got a call from the provost at Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, who wanted to know if I’d come to MUM to jump-start their quantum computing group. Apparently the Maharishi himself recently came across my paper on NP-complete Problems and Physical Reality, and, based on its contents, thought I’d make a perfect fit for MUM’s physics department. In particular, he wants me to lead a new project on whether NP-complete problems can be solved in polynomial time via “NDTM” (Nondeterministic Transcendental Meditation), thereby — as I wrote in the paper — making humanity one with God. The provost also reminded me that all the food at MUM is organic and vegetarian, so I wouldn’t have to worry about pork.

I have mixed feelings about all of this. On the one hand, I’ve been on a “conventional academic track” my whole life, so leaving that behind will be a big adjustment for me. On the other hand, perhaps this is a decision I already made a while ago — specifically, the moment I started this blog.

43 Responses to “My job situation”

  1. aravind Says:

    thanks scott, we all know it is april 1 🙂
    seriously, i wish you all the best with your academic prospects, and am looking forward to a continued long period of nice research and blogging from you.


  2. anonymous Says:

    Wow, you really had me, right up until the Maharishi part. I was feeling pretty bad that your blog might be holding back your career. Is there any truth to that part? I hope not.

  3. anonyrat Says:

    “A phone conversation last night, with someone I’ll call Prof. X…”

    Gives the game away.

  4. anonymous Says:

    Of course Scott’s blog is holding back his career. I mean, just reading his blog is taking a huge toll on my personal and professional life!
    Is there a 12 step method for blogaddicts?

  5. KT Gorf Says:

    Scott, don’t tempt fate by making an April Fool’s joke about having only marginal employment opportunities… unless you’ve got some good news you’re close to revealing.

  6. Aggie Says:

    I believed you! I really did! Until I clicked on the comments and saw the date on aravind’s post. Well done! 🙂

  7. anon Says:

    Yeah. I heard from a senior faculty member of the physics department at Stanford that they were leaning heavily towards making you an offer, but they decided instead to hire a string theorist from Princeton.

  8. wolfgang Says:

    > don’t tempt fate
    are you already working for the Maharishi ? 😎

  9. John Sidles Says:

    Hmmm … Scott’s post could be an April Fool’s joke, but on the other hand, there is a rigorous mathematical reason that requires that it be taken seriously.

    I am referring, of course, to the Pigeonhole Principle. Namely, there are many more young people in Scott’s position, than there are academic positions to support them.

    For young people who want to think for themselves about the overall science and technology ecosystem, with a view toward charting a fulfilling career for themselves, a very good place to start is the two-volume NSF Science and Engineering Indicators 2006.

    Some may say — hey, this NSF report is more than a thousand pages long! How do I boil this mass of information down to realistic career options for me? Well, science and technology is a big elephant, and there are lots of ways to embrace it.

  10. anonymous Says:

    “in the wake of the well-known Luboš Motl debacle at Harvard…”

    I did a search to find out what you were referring to, and I came across some forums claiming that Lubos was fired from Harvard a few weeks ago… is this true?

  11. Bram Cohen Says:

    Hey Scott, that was a good one. You had me pretty good there, probably mostly because of the sorts of job offers which economists get out of school, many of which sound downright sane compared to your maharashi job offer.

  12. anon Says:

    I think Stanford might still give you a job. Your main detractor there is Laughlin. I think if you phoned him and talked to him personally, you might be able to change his mind. How about it Scott. Call him. You could challenge him to a public debate on the merits of quantum computation.

  13. Luke Says:

    I think that if Luboš Motl had been fired, he would have informed us, and it would be in the Crimson.

  14. KWRegan Says:

    My old Oxford contacts just tell me Nick Bostrom and Max Tegmark were so impressed by your research on b.v.’s that they’re putting together a novel offer package. (They have Google implemented as automatic web-wide trackback on all mentions of their fairly distinctive names, so they noticed my comment in your Mar. 28 global-warming item.)

    The package splits into worlds where you’re hired at Oxford, worlds at MIT, and since they’re generous to the community, Stanford, Princeton, and other places my contacts didn’t name—even Harvard. At some schools you have superposed offers in several departments, with amplitudes according to base salary and research support. Bostrom also got you hired at the places in Phoenix etc. that offer online PhD degrees, though that would involve only computer simulations of yourself.

    Please seriously consider the whole ensemble offer when it comes, as it would maximize your chances of getting tenure. The only condition is that you would have to first travel to MIT to take part in a certain experiment.

  15. Kea Says:

    Hi Scott. Oh, I always enjoy April Fool’s Day! I’m sure there’ll be a quantum computing centre somewhere that will give you a really nice job.

  16. Domenic Denicola Says:

    I too was had right up until the Maharishi part. I didn’t even realize it was April Fools day, but at that point I was just saying to myself “this has to be some sort of joke…”

    Well done!

  17. John Sidles Says:

    Well, I’ll call it. In contrast to every other poster, I will venture the opinion that Scott’s column is not an April Fool’s joke, but rather is 100% factual.

    Considering like Jeeves “the psychology of the individual”, a double-level of April Fooling would be true to Scott’s persona as a highly intelligent and creative “trickster” — he’s an heir to Feynman in this regard.

    But the reference to quantum physics at Maharishi University is what really gives Scott’s post away IMHO. My family farms in nearby Appanoose County, Iowa, which is so rural that we regard Fairfield as “bright lights, big city”, and so I can testify that Scott’s description of the Maharishi’s quantum physics was dead-on accurate.

  18. Daniel Says:

    Scott, I do not know you — but a good joke none the less. However, you have to be careful as your blog being known mainly for discussing “battling/biting v…..s” could now become a self-fulfilling prophecy!!!

  19. John Sidles Says:

    This post is addressed at folks who are in the career situation that Scott’s memo seems to describe, namely, folks who are looking for a tenured job at a reputable research/teaching university, but can’t find one.

    By the Pigeonhole Principle, such a person might be either Scott himself (p<0.05, with apologies if I am rudely wrong), or anyone else who reads this blog (p>0.95).

    I’m senior enough (sounds nicer than “old as dirt”) to be able to personally recall multiple science and technology booms.

    For the past 60 years, each boom has seamlessly segued into the next boom: nuclear weapons, computers, the space race, VLSI technology, high energy physics, the internet, biotechnology … it’s been a fabulous run.

    At any given time, there has been at least one field in science and technology that was both huge and undergoing double-digit yearly expansion. This created what ecologists call the critical habitat that is necessary for a healthy generation of mathematicians, scientists, and engineers.

    Without in the least wishing to argue the point, what the stock market shows, is that there is such a boom going on right now, in a field that (like most young fields) does not yet have a name, but might be called “vertically integrated engineering.”

    There’s lots of literature on this new field, but you have to look for it. Skill at finding this literature, and reading between the lines in it, and perceiving opportunity, is one of the defining characteristics of people who would enjoy this career and be good at it.

    Here’s one such article. Where’s the quantum mechanics, you say? Where’s the information theory? That’s where the part about “reading between the lines” enters! 🙂

    Also, my sincere apologies are offered, in the unhappy event that Scott’s post is neither a single-level nor a double-level April Fool’s joke, but rather, is genuinely as woeful as it appears upon first reading.

  20. anonymous Says:

    This is what I read (it was dated Jan. 23, 2007):

    “Lubos was, in reality, fired last week or so from Harvard Physics
    Department (outwardly he “resigned” – but no one willingly resigns from
    Harvard in mid-year obviously) for precisely this kind of unprofessional
    public activity. Too much blogging and calling people bad names and too
    little research. Not wise for a young man without tenure.”

    Can someone confirm/deny this?

  21. KWRegan Says:

    I dunno, John (if I may)—it sounds like the Ultimate Boeing 787 Argument to me. Or maybe “Quantum-OR” (p2 of your article) to go with “Quantum-IR”, as an anonymous reviewer requested? IMHO the kind of opportunity Scott could be seizing is playing Tomb Raider with Terence Tao, literally post-selectively!

    Now as to the computational depth of Scott’s fooling, sure it’s based on some experience—just like after Topalov accused Kramnik of cheating at chess, I was not surprised when Topalov was the next accused (having been previously accused). Yes, I am applying quantum information distributional divergence measures to tell how far those claims have substance—which embodies your quantum-applications philosophy also! (These calculations are not yet on my webpages, mainly because I’m experimenter and theorist both here.) I’ve also published a correct prediction for which no one has yet built the theory—see my e-mail quoted in the July 13 2006 entry of “The Talented Mr. Roto”, the most central fantasy-baseball blog hosted by itself. Then Google david wright shoulder injury home run derby, or subsets theoreof, and ask whether this proves “Many Worlds” with no quantum-suicide: in what Universe branch do all of baseball’s beat reporters have no clue??

    Given how Daniel says Scott has already committed himself—and mindful of the story of the Math PhD thesis on a nonexistent family of functions—the question I posed is clearly the most vital one for helping his prospects: Do those damn b.v.’s exist? April 2 now, it’s a serious question! If tenured people with funding quote T.H. White for “whatever is not forbidden is mandatory”, who can say otherwise on my question? In papers and books and blogs I find the following easily asserted:

    () My universe is {0,1}* (Scott, bottom comment last entry—sorry, 4th hyperlink causes moderation)
    () Strong AI: we are all codable over {0,1}^*
    () Creatio ex mathematica (indeed, Tegmark seems to create the megaverse from “logic broth”)
    () Physics emerges from the mathematics
    () Biochemistry emerges from the physics
    () Consciousness emerges from the biochemistry.

    Not to mention () information is never lost, not even in black holes, or () we may be in a hologram or simulation. What I’ve not found to my satisfaction on the Net—maybe it’s in “Anthropic” books I haven’t read or coming out soon—is a full assessment of what follows when one takes all of these principles together. Anyone?

    Admittedly I’m new and ignorant on the physical-science side of this, but I have both a scientific and personal reason for asking. Former: I’ve been on both the theory and experimental end of the discussion about Solomonoff-Levin / Li-Vitanyi / universal-prior distribution, currently very concretely, and I wonder if it applies to the Landscape. Latter: ah, let’s just say I put my heart and time into applied matters as well…

  22. milkshake Says:

    Writing about biting vaginas as an obstacle in landing a job: I would take it as sign from God that you should stay away from such an institution.
    I was interviewing at Celera for a drug discovery lab job and they made me to pee in a cup (to confirm I was not a drug addict). No other place ever asked me to do such a thing but the job situation was tough and I obliged. Celera turned out to be a Dilbertine place to work and I run away in few months. Here is a similar story:
    “I have been in the industry 25 years and I had interview with a major chemical company year ago. After being flown out to their site in a blizzard, I was told just before the interview that I would have to take a “mechanical and comprehensive reasoning test”. My ‘Are you serious – Is this some kind of a joke?’ response ended the interview.”

  23. Scott Says:

    Ken Regan: Please try to be more coherent.

  24. Not even Right Says:

    When you wrote:

    Prof. X said…well-known Luboš Motl debacle at Harvard…someone with an “erratic personality.”,

    I found that it was not likely that a Prof. would use such straightforward words as “well-known…debacle” and “erratic personality” to describe Lubos Motl, though he might want to in his mind. Then, I looked at the date of the post and recognized that it must be a joke!

  25. Jim Miles Says:

    Oh how I hate April Fools’ Day. It was about halfway through the comments before I realised.

  26. roland Says:

    okay scott, explain now.

  27. Scott Says:

    Explain what?

  28. roland Says:

    the joke.

  29. Scott Says:

    What is there to not get?

  30. roland Says:

    i there any truth in the joke or is it simply bogus ?

  31. John Sidles Says:

    Not to distract from the personal drama — for which I have enormous sympathy — but rather, to point in a promising direction those young folks who are in the (highly generic) career situation that Scott’s memo describes, it is IMHO very interesting to contemplate this page entitled Technologies To Help the 787 Take Flight.

    All of the software companies mentioned on this page are growing at 20%-40% per year. All of them foresee that this growth will continue or accelerate for at least another decade. All of them publish “manifestos” and “strategic plans” and “vision statements” that prepare for this growth. All of them have large research budgets.

    And all of these enterprises rely utterly on the academic literature for fundamental ideas in mathematics, physics, computer science, etc.

    If you ask yourself “where is all this going?” then you are IMHO asking a very interesting question about a sector of the global economy that is very rapidly innovating in mathematics, science, engineering, business, economics, and geopolitics.

    Most important, this new discipline is federatively uniting fundamental research results that span an enormous breadth of disciplines. The emerging federations are creating jobs, solving problems, and binding communities peacefully together on a billion-person and trillion-dollar scale. For recently evolved “humanzees” on a desperately crowded planet, this is job one.

  32. Andris Says:

    Google search indicates that “Lubos Motl has been fired” story comes from web posts by Jack Sarfatti:
    Not exactly a reliable source, in my opinion.

  33. Scott Says:

    i there any truth in the joke or is it simply bogus ?

    Roland, my friend, I hope you’re sitting down for this. It was an April Fools joke.

  34. Dave Bacon Says:

    Scott you made my April 2nd. This on NPR Sunday was priceless.

  35. Cheshire Cat Says:

    “It was an April Fools joke.”

    Nice try. We were caught out once, we’re not going to be caught out again…

  36. John Sidles Says:

    Please accept my sincere congratulations that the difficult job situation in your original post was not real, and also, my sincere hope that your real job-hunting situation is not even more absurd. 🙂

  37. Carl Says:

    Today is not Opposite Day! (But if it was, I wouldn’t tell you.)

  38. William Says:

    We all know Scott would never work for anyone who misrepresents the power of quantum mechanics for personal profit; obviously he’s going to choose the Maharishi’s offer.

  39. KWRegan Says:

    Scott and John (S), sorry, I tried to answer several things, and connected them poetically. Here’s the thread:

    1. I put in some effort “reading between lines” of John’s posts; I see the point was not as quantum-specific as I thought; still even for much of the “95%” I have a different answer: Go for bedrock problems. Even if they lead underground (after tenure?). I’m no great example, but I think many would agree. (Privately I’ll send both of you a personal example of melding this with John’s point.)

    2. Behind the banter about your being “a mathematician” in the other thread, I sense the following also from various physics blogs: “We” have not “paid our dues” in labs, equipment calibrations, graveyard shifts, Hamiltonians, boundary-value problems… I see your blog as paying some of those dues, no little sacrifice! My second paragraph was on how I’m paying some dues, in theory, experiment, even prediction. And near-aloneness, trusting my observation and Sci/Math, with stuff out in public and maybe lots at stake—not just re: David Wright/HR Derby but several times over in chess and more.

    3. I regard that as my ticket to muse about universal-prior distribution and the Landscape, or whether all (maladaptive but) (meta-)stable information structures must exist, or whether the standard reductionist hypotheses (even with emergence) collectively imply 0 = 1, Frank Tipler stuff, or biting you-know-whatsits (which I’m happy to pin on me if that will help 🙂 ). Yes these three things are outwardly incoherent, but personal involvement in aspects of all three has happened without my seeking. Aspects of the hypotheses have been discussed separately on your blog; my bringing them together is a kind of coherence, and I wish to know what people think—for both general interest and personal help. With thanks, —Ken Regan

  40. John Sidles Says:

    KWRegan says: … Go for bedrock problems. …

    With respect, KWRegan, your advice might be good, but the intended point of my post was precisely the opposite — “go for the applied problems.”

    A classic historical example is John von Neumann’s work on radar waveguides at MIT’s Radiation Laboratory (which is still in existence today as the MIT Research Laboratory for Electronics). The engineering problem that young von Neumann helped solve was the problem of efficiently conducting electromagnetic power through waveguides—macroscopic chunks of silver-plated brass whose behavior, seemingly, is wholly classical. Yet the Green function techniques that von Neumann developed to solve this macroscopic engineering problem were enormously influential in the subsequent development of quantum field theory. The point being, that von Neumann perceived a fundamental research opportunity in an engineering problem in which few others would have perceived it.

    Today as then, there are innumerable opportunities to do fundamental work in an applied context. It is a considerable challenge to recognize these opportunities, and there is not much literature on how to cultivate this skill. The best reference I know is Pólya’s How to Solve It:

    “One of the first and foremost duties of the teacher is not to give his students the impression that mathematical problems have little connection with each other, and no connection at all with anything else. … A good teacher should understand and impress on his students the view that no problem whatever is completely exhausted.”

    The Pigeonhole Principle ensures that there will be a diaspora of young quantum information theorists to other sectors of the science and technology community. The Pólya Principle ensures that young QITers will find abundant opportunity to do fundamental research—they need only recognize it.

  41. John Sidles Says:

    Whoops … duh … it was Schwinger, not von Neumann, who worked on radar at MIT, while von Neumann was working on shock waves at Los Alamos. The point being, both embraced applied work and found much of fundamental interest there; evidently nature is a good program manager.

  42. KWRegan Says:

    By a fun coincidence, there is a major paper dated March 31, 2007 on exactly John’s example. And indeed it says Schwinger’s radar involvement started at age 25 (in 1943), so it’s in the timeframe of the “pigeons”—as I would have demurred with von Neumann. I’ve had time only to skim the paper.

    This is an important dialectic. Although we could escalate it into a flame war that winds up mentioning Paris Hilton, as I said above the different answers can be melded. Moreover, I’m sending another necessarily-private example where I am partly also practicing exactly what John is preaching.

    [Preview is munged, apologies if text is too. Feel welcome to spell out the quantum connections to the aviation-software-modeling problems more, as I tried to do for the “Quantum IR” interest voiced by a poster in the quantum-gravity thread here.]

  43. John Small Says:

    MUM offering you a position? That’s very curious. It would be a case of “interesting times” for both sides. On the one hand they have some useful ideas buried underneath layers of pseudo-science and on the other they’re in dire need of outside people to put them straight. I’d opt for the daring and unconventional so I’d take it. But make sure you get a water tight contract and proper remuneration. They’re famously stingy.