Lessons Learned: Alum Zak Kassas Shares Success and Advice on Landing a Faculty Position

Thursday, May 22, 2014

When around 70 percent of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) faculty nowadays come from the top four schools, the process of securing a faculty position, particularly as a new graduate, can be grueling.

WNCG Ph.D. graduate Zak Kassas recently accepted an offer as a tenure-track Assistant Professor at The University of California, Riverside (UCR), making him the first UT Austin graduate to join UCR’s faculty. Prof. Kassas shared with WNCG the lessons he learned through the faculty search process.

Q: What do hiring universities look for during the selection process? What gives prospective candidates a competitive edge?

A: In ECE there are 200-450 applicants for each open position. Overall, the selection process considers a number of qualifications. The most important are the school of your Ph.D. or Postdoc, your advisor, your research area and your publications. If strong in these, you can get to the top 50 candidates.

In terms of faculty position openings, universities have two types of searches. The first is an open search that accepts candidates in any ECE area. While this could be true for some schools, other schools could be particularly interested in specific research areas, which are not advertised in the position announcement. The second is a targeted search, which seeks candidates in specific research areas. In some instances, the position announcement states that exceptional candidates from all other ECE areas are welcome to apply. At first I thought, well I am an exceptional candidate, so I applied. I later learned that “exceptional candidate” means the door remains open for senior faculty from other institutions, not for junior faculty fresh from a Ph.D. program.

In my case, I only got traction where I was a very good fit and where my research aligned closely with specific institutions. The best combination was when there was a targeted search in my field. 

When it comes to publications, hiring institutions look at both the quantity and quality of your work. As a Ph.D. student, anything above five publications is good, but they must be in a relevant field and published in recognizable and reputable journals.

Once  these criteria  are met, there are other considerations that could tip the scale in your favor. These include industry and teaching experience, awards, visionary research and teaching statements and strong reference letters. However, universities typically only consider industry experience if your job was in research and you published while in industry.

Q: What did the application process involve?

A: The application process was an emotional rollercoaster. You feel frustration as you undergo the application process, boredom as you wait to hear back, happiness as you receive interview requests, hurt as rejections start pouring in and finally success once you receive offers.

The first step is to start early and prepare your application packet. Write a short, detailed cover letter that hits them with your heaviest artillery – your awards, industry experience, major achievements, etc. Prepare a concise yet detailed CV and research and teaching statements.

Your research statement will take time, so be prepared. I spent about 120 hours on mine. Get edits from friends, your advisor, and other faculty, as typos are unacceptable. Institutions will throw your application away if you have a graduate degree and cannot communicate effectively. For tenure-track positions, include your five-year vision for the future and be specific with where your funding will come from.

Some schools will ask for a list of references and publications, a set of publication samples, a diversity statement and a service statement. Create or clean up your personal website. Think carefully about who will write your reference letters. It is only helpful for industry professionals to write you a reference letter if they are in a high-up position and mention that your research is of direct interest to their company and they would be willing to fund you.

September through December is when jobs are announced so be prepared. Useful resources for announcements include IEEE Spectrum (particularly the November and December issues), individual department websites and AcademicKeys.com.

The university’s search committee typically invites the top three candidates for an on-campus interview. A campus visit includes 12-20 one-on-one interviews with faculty over one or two days, depending on the institution. You will need to practice for faculty interviews, which could include faculty from several departments, along with interviews with the Chair and the Dean. Rehearse your seminar and get feedback. Research the department and the school and arrive confident and knowledgeable, but don’t overdo it.

The timeline for receiving offers is from March to April, and there is not much time to decide once an offer is received. If the department’s top candidate declines, the  department wants to offer the position to their second candidate as quickly as possible. 

If you receive an offer, be sure to negotiate a second visit. The interview process will be a whirlwind and there won’t be much time to look at the location. A second visit allows you to meet with students in need of advisors, view neighborhoods, view your lab space so you can prepare the necessary information for your start up research funds and negotiate other aspects, such as salary.

Q: How has your time at WNCG prepared you for this new role? 

A: It takes a town to produce a faculty. I give the most thanks to Todd Humphreys for advising me. He’s young and vibrant, and I learned a lot from him. I got to see how he is building his research lab and research group from nothing. These lessons are extremely valuable as I move forward and build my own research lab. I also thank my co-advisor Ari Arapostathis and my mentors Brian Evans, Ahmed Tewfik, and Gustavo de Veciana.

Most of my mentors were WNCG faculty who gave me time and attention, were excited for me and genuinely cared. While my advisors would benefit from sending a student to become faculty, how would the others benefit? It’s not like they get a million dollar paycheck if I land a position.  

WNCG is a very special research center. Few schools possess similar research centers that are relevant, growing, vibrant and have close student-faculty interaction.  Students who go through the WNCG experience are prepared for industry and academia alike. I am glad I went through the WNCG experience.

Q: What personal advice can you offer current students with similar faculty aspirations?

A: If you want to go down that path you have to be extremely passionate, dedicated and disciplined. Be prepared for the challenges of landing a position and for what your upcoming life will look like. Going for tenure-track takes time and effort, but from what I hear it’s a very rewarding career. I never met a professor who was dissatisfied about his or her position.

Q: What do you look forward to most about your academic career? What do you foresee being the biggest challenge?

A: I worked in research and development at National Instruments (NI) for six years, so I know what industry jobs look like. While I enjoyed my tenure at NI, my true passion is research and exploration, coupled with teaching and advising students. The types of research questions I’m interested in are long-term, whereas most industry is interested in short-term questions.

Also, I love publishing. I love writing papers and putting the word out. Even when I was in industry, I published my work as much as I could versus patenting it. While I have a patent, I prefer to just put the knowledge out.

I think the biggest challenge as a new faculty will be balancing multiple tasks simultaneously. I see a professor as a chess master player who plays multiple games at once  You make a move and move on. You balance advising students, bringing funding, teaching, publishing, coming up with fresh and bold ideas and doing service for the university and research community. You are essentially an entrepreneur running a small company that happens to be an academic research lab. It’s very vibrant and every day is a new day. This is what discovery is.