When it comes to talent, the field of computer science is blessed—and cursed.
The number of students majoring in computer science has gone up over the past several years, but the number of professors needed to teach them is falling short. People who would make fantastic teachers are instead heading to private industry, drawn by the prospect of lucrative contracts, stock options, and even perks such as gourmet office cafeterias.
It’s understandable that talented faculty would want to follow the money, but the net effect on the tech talent pipeline is like a farmer eating his seed corn, as today’s meal comes at the expense of next year’s harvest. Fewer talented teachers could potentially constrict the flow of talent to the nation’s tech firms.
What is a school to do?
Yes, Things Are Getting Worse
For every five positions currently available among computer science faculty, only one gets filled, noted Stanford’s Dr. Eric Roberts, Charles Simyoni professor of computer science, emeritus. Roberts contributed to a recent study (PDF) that analyzes the current shortage, comparing it to other times in recent history when faculty hiring fell short.
Even at Stanford, the imbalance has become so bad that two percent of the faculty (i.e., those in the CS department) have ended up teaching 20 percent of the students (i.e., all the CS majors), Roberts noted. Lecturers, who are traditionally way down on the academic totem pole, are “treated well because they are essential,” he stressed.
The end result of this squeeze is insane workweeks for many faculty members, who are paid a fraction of what they might pull down at a large tech firm for comparable hours and stress. And it seems unlikely that relief is coming anytime soon: It takes five years to mint a Ph.D in computer science, and schools such as Stanford need more faculty now.
Possible solutions include a program that takes Ph.Ds in other disciplines and runs them through a yearlong course in computer science, which gives them a Master’s degree. That qualifies them to teach CS courses, Roberts explained, and sets them up in a department where the prospect for tenure is greater. “We need more of those,” he added. “Universities are in a bind. Market forces will not solve this problem.”
Bending to the Wind
“I am going to make the best of it by bending with the wind.” said Dr. Andrew Moore, dean of the school of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). Private industry is hungry to hire CS faculty, and some professors are eager to earn multiples of their academic salaries.
When Moore says that no school can resist this trend, he speaks from experience. Formerly a professor at CMU, Moore left academia for an eight-year stint at Google, starting as the director of the company’s Pittsburgh office. By the time he left the firm, he was VP for engineering at Google Commerce.
In order to “bend to the wind,” Moore is offering CS professors a leave of absence to work in private industry, just as he once did. Fortunately, CMU can adjust its enrollment, keeping the number of incoming students relative to faculty. “Shrinking the program is not an option,” he added.
CMU also “hires ahead”: Rather than waiting for a faculty vacancy, the school tries to hire professors with an eye toward maintaining a 5-10 percent surplus. That allows the administration to fill vacancies created when professors take detours to private companies.
Then comes another challenge: bringing faculty members back into the academic fold. Moore suggests that a higher purpose drives that return; if an academic wants to “change the world,” in his words, then CMU offers an environment where that can happen. Want to work on an algorithm that can save hundreds of lives? Sequence a genome for a life-threatening cancer? “This is a currency that is stronger than money,” Moore said.
Money Isn’t Everything
In academia, it is a given that the number of adjuncts far outnumber full-time faculty (1.3 million adjuncts vs. roughly 500,000 on tenure track); in computer science, roughly 10 percent of Ph.D graduates land in tenure-track positions, while close to 60 percent go to industry (PDF).
Yet even with the availability of those much-coveted tenure positions, colleges can have a hard time finding enough people to actually teach. Dr. Craig Wills, who heads the computer science department at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), conducted a survey to find out how many schools had such hiring problems. Of the 155 who responded to his survey, “forty percent of the institutions reported back they were less than successful,” Wills said. (He qualified “less than successful” as unable to fill all positions offered.)
“Tenure track hires are the most valuable commodity any institution has,” Wills stressed. Compounding the shortage of faculty is the student pipeline. Graduates go into industry, not graduate school, further draining the hiring pool for CS faculty.
As with Moore, Wills insists that the freedom to research and explore will convince professors to stay in place: “Especially in tenure-track positions where there is more freedom to do what you want, not what the company wants.”
WPI is looking for “Ph.Ds in industry [who] are looking to go back to being Ph.Ds,” Wills added. Plus, there’s the future to consider: Although the tech industry (and the economy) are doing well at the moment, any sort of downturn may drive tech pros back into the relatively stable arms of academia: “That tenure-track position is more constant in the long run.” he said.
For schools, another potential approach is to increase class sizes, although such an effort demands additional teaching assistants to handle labs, testing, and office hours. The creation of a hiring pipeline for teaching professors and adjuncts can take quite a bit of time (and money), which is often difficult for professors and deans to schedule and negotiate.
Although the economic collapses of 2000 and 2008 boosted computer faculty hiring, schools can’t wait for another downturn; school administrations must actively find professors now, or risk repeating a mistake from the 1980s, when colleges and universities were forced to cut CS enrollment because of a lack of available faculty. That’s a bad scenario for today’s tech industry, which needs all the talent it can gather.