Google Analytics

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Theory at NSF

From Sanjeev Arora
Bill Steiger of Rutgers is the new NSF program officer in charge of Theoretical Computer Science (TCS) and he has assumed this position now. There appear to be other ongoing changes within the Theoretical Foundations cluster. As CCF director Foster explained at STOC, up to 30% of the funds in the cluster will be placed in a fund which will give out grants via a centralized mechanism. (It is still unclear what the final effect will be on TCS funding.)

NSF program directors would also like to make members of the theoretical computer science research community aware of the following upcoming proposal deadlines:

Proposals that explore fundamentally new (emphasis mine) ideas about network design and information security are sought, and participation by the TCS community is welcome.

Realistically, these will probably involve TCS researchers teaming up with experimentalists to develop proposals that focus on rigorous approaches to well motivated problems in networking and security and that have a significant theoretical component as well as a significant experimental component.

What Arora leaves unsaid is that there are no NSF general programs in core theoretical computer science accepting new solicitations this year.

5 comments:

  1. I'm a recent C.S. graduate looking to become a graduate student and concentrate in theory. (I've been waiting for a post like this to ask this question of a larger audience.)

    I'm interested in becoming a researcher, specifically in theory, and I'm confident enough to give it a try. But I'm realistic enough to know that many people don't complete their Ph.D's and going after one is a calculated risk. What I want to know is, in the estimation of the people who read this blog, just how hard is it to make a living as a theorist? How "good" do you have to be to make contributions that people are interested in funding? By that I mean, how competitive is it? The Taulbee survey indicates that almost all of those coming out with a concentration in theory were employed, but do people typically start researching things in related applied areas once they're employed? Are they all cryptographers now? Maybe that would be okay, but I'm always trying to get an idea of what's out there to better understand the decisions I'm making. Thanks for any of your opinions!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Answering John Bronson

    You are asking several different questions.

    I'm realistic enough to know that many people don't complete their Ph.D's
    If this were your only concern, the answer is easy: go for it! Go to the program that is best for you, and give it 200%. At worst, you will have a tremendous amount of fun--thinking about neat problems, and working very hard.

    just how hard is it to make a living as a theorist?

    Somewhat misleading answer: it is a lot easier than making a living as a mathematician, and orders of magnitude easier than doing so as a historian, or as a classical music composer.

    The field is VERY competitive. There are a dozen or so outstanding CS departments with strong Theory groups. Being in one of these, and making tenure is a great way to live. Realistically, you will have to be one of the very best theoreticians in your cohort to be able to do this (look at past years' ads--at most a quarter of these institutions were hiring in Theory in an average year.)

    What are the other choices?

    A very few industrial labs employ a few theoreticians, but thes positions are at least as hard to get as the ones in the previous paragraph.

    There are another 20-30 good to very good CS departments. They also have theoreticians, and many of these are outstanding. The way they are treated varies widely. I spent seven very productive years at PSU and had great colleagues.

    Finally, there are other universities that may employ theoreticians, including some excellent liberal arts colleges. Teaching loads may be higher, and you will not have PhD students, but there may still be lots of time to do research.


    There are productive and happy theoreticians in each of these tiers.

    There is the not directly related question of funding. First, funding is not an absolute necessity. For much of Theory, one needs mostly time.

    Getting funding explicitly for Theoretical CS is very hard indeed (although a high percentage of the most prestigious grants--NSF postgraduate Fellowships, NSF CAREER
    awards, Packard and Sloan Fellowships--go to theoreticians.)

    People do not typically start doing research in related applied areas, just to get grants. One of the beauties of CS is that in many cases the distance from very abstract theory to concrete applications is not too big (Example: the techniques of the Godel Prize winning paper of 2005 found many very concrete applications in stream computing, a very practical set of applications.)

    So, being a theoretician is not necessarily a horrible fate.

    I should add that it IS true that it is easier to get a job in many areas other than Theory.

    It is also true that there is little justification for mediocre Theory. A competent but not outstanding database specialist has many oprtunities to do honest, not boring, and possibly very lucrative things, but what does a competent but not very good theorist have to offer?

    ReplyDelete
  3. Janos Simon says: "It is also true that there is little justification for mediocre Theory. A competent but not outstanding database specialist has many oprtunities to do honest, not boring, and possibly very lucrative things, but what does a competent but not very good theorist have to offer?"

    Janos is confusing database specialists with experimental database researchers. I see no reason why the above statement does not apply as well to experimental database researchers.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Clarifying what I wanted to say.

    "There is lots of practical experimental stuff to be done that is pedestrian, yet quite useful."

    I did not mean to say that experimental research (say in databases) is easy or trivial. If anything, it is harder to do truly superb research if one cannot ignore practicalities.

    Still, there are many experimental questions that we would like to know the answer to, that require resources, time and competence, but not brilliant insights.

    In Theory, an "on-line theorem" (one whose proof can be obtained as its author writes its statement) is useless, as typically we use the technique of the proof, not the statement of the theorem.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Thanks for your response! Your comment about "mediocre theory" is well-taken, and I hadn't thought about it that way before. I'm not just worried about not completing a Ph.D., I'm worried about job prospects afterwards. I have a good job as a programmer, so I need to justify the indirect costs. Finding work that challenges and interests me mathematically would be worth it, and I'd like to teach, too. But if I'm going to just get plopped back into a similar job with only a slightly higher salary, it's not worth it. So it's just a question of risk.

    ReplyDelete