Essay #1: Ask-me-anything at UIST 2022 about "Being a new faculty/starting a new lab" by Prof. Pedro Lopes
28th October, 2023
TLDR: At the ACM UIST 2022 conference I was humbled by being invited
to give a special Ask-Me-Anything talk about my experience of starting on
the tenure track and starting a new lab. Recently, I was immensely moved by the
support of my colleagues at the University of Chicago's Computer Science
Department who granted me early tenure in July 2023. This whole tenure
adventure, plus the fact that UIST 2023 is starting now, motivated me to finally1
summarize my AMA for those who were not able to attend UIST 2022—many of whom
wrote me or the UIST 2022 Social Chairs asking if the AMA would be publicly
available—happy to say that despite how it makes me nervous to share this
online0, it now is available and you can watch the first half of the AMA here (25 minutes with slides).
For those unfamiliar with the acronym, AMA stands for Ask-Me-Anything—a
format in which audience members can ask questions to the speaker on a given
topic. This format, which started as interactive discussions on social media
platforms such as Reddit, become immensely popular in the media in recent years2.
What is worth emphasizing is that the AMA is a way to instigate authenticity on
subjects we might not always talk about.
Subjects that we-do-not-often-talk-about are plentiful in academia,
from the lack of diversity & inclusion to the many unwritten rules of
hiring—just to cite a few. Fortunately, in the past years, the culture in
academia seems to be changing to one that more openly discusses many of these
previously unspoken questions—you can see this change in the way researchers
discuss hard questions of academic life in social media & podcasts3.
Pushing this openness forward, I was thrilled that the ACM UIST (possibly my
favorite conference4) has taken valuable time from its busy
program to openly explore some of these hidden parts of academia with its
audience, allowing researchers to ask questions to one another on topics
such as applying for the HCI job market (AMA with Prof. Stefanie Mueller5),
conceptualizing a thesis statement (AMA with Prof. Wendy Mackay6),
to the challenges of setting a multidisciplinary research agenda (AMA with
Prof. Lining Yao7).
AMA: "Being a new faculty
& starting a new lab"
This brings us to the AMA
session I was invited to give at UIST on "Being a new faculty &
starting a new lab". Together with the Social Chairs at UIST 2022, we
decided that it would be best to do this in two parts: (1) an initial talk with slides, where I
would summarize who I am and my experience as a tenure-track faculty in the US
for four years; and, (2) the actual Ask-Me-Anything section where I
tried-my-best-to-give-folks-useful-answers. You can watch the first part on YouTube (courtesy of
Donald Degraen10 and Kashyap Todi11). Before I dive into
details about the talk, I want to clarify why the second part (i.e., the actual
Ask-Me-Anything) was not recorded. The organizers and I talked about it
and felt it would prevent the AMA from being a mechanism for an open
discussion; in other words, recording could make some shy away from asking
their important questions12.
1st takeaway from my
AMA: find your style. It matters.
The main takeaway from this AMA was to find your own
style. Running a lab or starting a faculty job will be much more
interesting and joyful if you do it according to your style.
This might be where my advice departs from what people told
me they read online. There are many guides for success filled with technical
details and productivity tricks, such as Reddit
books, and also the insightful advice of exceptionally successful
researchers in our field (e.g., Prof. Amy J. Ko’s incredible
essays, many of which also dive into personal experiences with tenure and
the hidden sides of being a professor, or Prof. Phillip
Guo’s great notes on the tenure-track—just to cite a few). With all these
exceptional detailed sets of advice already online, I opted to emphasize
something that I think does not get enough discussion: finding your own
I hope you are critically saying back to me: “Starting
by thinking about style? Shouldn’t I start by doing what successful people in
my field did?”. Let me argue against this for a second and then I will end
by arguing for it too, as a way to bring both sides together.
Finding your style will bring you joy every day. This matters because faculty work
takes place every day—not just on the day you get that incredible result in an
experiment or an award. It happens every weekday and it can entail an
astonishing level of multitasking. Devoting yourself to all these numerous tasks in a way that
does not bring you joy and/or does not align with your inner self
(your principles & core beliefs) may feel out of place.
Instead, I argue that being a new faculty and running your
lab in your own style will feel much more enjoyable—I do not use this
word lightly, I think joy is also an important part of why many do research.
Most pieces of advice that you have been given (my advice
included) are well-intentioned, but cannot be empirically proven13,
i.e., what parts of my advice contributed to any kind of actual success will
remain a mystery to me. There are ample reasons for chance and a million of
other factors to have contributed more than any advice I would try to single
out. Importantly, in the AMA, I was not arguing that we should not embrace the
advice of others (as an advisor to six PhD students, I believe a lot in
giving advice). Instead, the AMA tried to articulate that you might first try
advice to see how it fits your style.
In the AMA I argued that there is a natural tendency (even
if at a subconscious level & even if motivated by great reasons) to follow
the advice of those who have been successful before us (e.g., peers, your
former advisor, a Nobel laureate on social media, and so forth). There is
nothing wrong about doing so, but you might first let yourself observe their
style after a dose of self-reflection. Otherwise, you might, even if
subconsciously, implement a style that might not entirely fit you.
What I argued in the AMA was that to find your style, you
need to first examine your guiding principles. These are the
reasons why you are starting a lab & starting an your
academic job. This exercise, which might seem too simplistic at first, takes an
enormous amount of time & energy. You need to sit there all by yourself and
answer: why do I really want to do this? Personally, I often found
myself doing things also out of sheer inertia (i.e.
because I had some momentum doing a similar thing before) and it can take a lot
of energy to halt that momentum and, instead, turn my focus somewhere else.
Guiding principles. In the AMA I discussed several questions that you might
want to ask yourself before you start your lab/faculty career.
1. Why do I really want to do this? This is an extremely personal
question but enlightening even if the answer still feels vague and partial. For
me, I found that I really wanted to find new things out about how we could
interact with computers in more embodied ways. So, understanding that my
research question was at the core of why I wanted to do this job helped me to
understand how certain aspects of my job could look like—namely, those aspects
that I was going to have control over (e.g., whom do I hire, how should I spend
my time, what type of physical lab infrastructure might we build, and more).
2. What do you value? This is potentially the most important aspect: what
are the values you believe in? Is it number of papers, kindness, or getting to
the bottom of something? As I mentioned in the AMA, I was not trying to cast a
judgment to say that any of these values are superior; instead, I was arguing
that once you know what are your values, this can guide everything you do as
faculty/lab director. For instance, if kindness is something you value, you
might find yourself actively creating opportunities for your students to
experience what a culture of kindness can do to the lab.
3. What inspires you? Understanding your sources of inspiration might
allow you to understand where your group will put a lot of its energy, such as
in terms of what fields and publications you will be examining, but also to
which fields and publications, you will be hoping to impart your insights onto.
If you never discuss with your group where your inspiration comes from, there
is a chance that your students might assume it comes from one source
exclusively, which could devalue important sources of inspiration for everyone.
For instance, in my case, I take as much inspiration from HCI papers as I take
from artworks or neuroscience. I noticed that my group often shares with each
other references that we think others might be inspired by, and looking at our
#related-work channel there is quite a bit of art, neuroscience,
sustainability, chemical sciences, and material sciences being shared—all of
which we find important in our work.
4. What type of researcher are you? This was a really difficult one for
me to reflect on since it can often come down to asking what kind of person you
are too. This helped me understand questions such as: what type of advising
style I would be comfortable executing (e.g., the iconic hands-on vs. hands-off
discussion); how much I enjoy collaborations with others or prefer my own
explorations; what research methods I want to employ right now (note that like
anything in these lists, these aspects change as one evolves—more on this
later); and much more.
5. Which skills do you have & need? When you set up a lab, you
contribute by teaching your skills to your students; conversely, they will contribute
back to the lab by sharing their skills. This is an opportunity for you to
think about what skills you would like everyone to be exposed to in your lab,
or even what skills might they bring to the lab that will greatly advance the
way you investigate questions that matter to you.
6. Cultivating culture. A research lab is an organism and it needs
cultivation & active care. If you start a group without thinking of the set
of values that are important to you, you risk that it might be very hard to
impart those at a later stage of the lab, once other values have settled in.
This is not to say that you can decide what a group of people will think (from
my experience, you certainly cannot) but you can cultivate & cherish values
that you think will be important to achieve your lab’s potential.
7. Measuring progress. Finally,you have now set up a whole group of
people, according to your guiding principles, and started running this lab.
But, how do you measure its progress? How do you know if the lab is doing well?
As I mentioned in the AMA, I find this question very difficult but, to me, it
returns to your values, which you now also use as metrics to validate
progress. In my case, I measure progress by the amount of creativity that we
generate, rather than by our everyday productivity.
Finding answers to these questions before I
started my lab allowed me to better understand what my style might look
like. With some of this in mind, I think I was able to better adopt or not the
advice of others—based on whether it might fit my style. In fact, I have heard
many amazing pieces of advice that I either never incorporated (i.e., I could
see ahead they did not fit my style) or, even, that I tried for some time and
stopped (i.e., I was able to see after trying that they did not fit my style).
One research style for life? No. I want to add a word of caution of
course with my metaphor of style. I purposefully used the gerund of
find: findingyour style. This was meant to signal that
you will be finding your style over and over again. It probably will not
change every day but, will evolve as you evolve as a researcher. As I tell my
undergraduate students, as researchers we are comfortable doing the same thing
over and over—after all it is not called search, it is called research.
2nd takeaway from my
AMA: make time for yourself
The second focus of the AMA’s first part (the public
lecture that is on YouTube) was how
difficult the transition from PhD14 to faculty can be.
One of the aspects that I think are the hardest to get used
to when becoming faculty is how your day looks like. Prof. Amy J. Ko’s excellent
essays page, which I alluded to earlier, has a fantastic
piece demonstrating the level of multitasking that a professor might do on
a single day (from teaching to advising, to funding, to service, to everything
else one does in life, including parenting). As a new faculty, the number of
moving goalposts that you might have to start wrestling with might feel
overwhelming—not to say a PhD. is easy, but there are fewer responsibilities to
juggle. You might start finding it hard to go through a to-do list compromised
of a single time-sensitive item. However, as the days go by in your newly
appointed faculty job, this level of busyness can become ingrained. This is
both OK and extremely bad. It is OK in that you get better and, thus,
not so easily overwhelmed. However, this is extremely bad in that it
becomes far too easy to be so overworked with days full of back-to-back
meetings that you forget: “Why do I really want to do this?” (which
was our guiding principle #1).
Instead, I often found that having done that (now seemingly
simplistic) exercise of finding my own style (i.e., knowing my guiding
principles) I could better remind myself of why I was doing all this. This not
only greatly helps on challenging days but also when you find that you need to reverse
course so that you better dedicate yourself to whatever reason you answered
in step #1.
While in my AMA I fought very hard to not give any advice
that sounded generalizable (because as I mentioned in my first slides, I really
did not think of this as an AMA but as an AMA BRB YGT AMA ANA ATY—Ask Me
Anything But Remember Before You Generalize This
Advice My Assumptions Are Not Always Applicable To You), I did venture one that
I might urge you to try it: make time for yourself15. While I
mean this in the context of what you do on your own self-appointed research
time (i.e., the hours you dedicate to work and not the hours outside of it),
making time has a positive impact also on time outside of work and can be
important to protect you from feeling overworked or feeling burnout.
Finally, I discussed four other aspects of the faculty
day-to-day schedule that were challenging for me: (1) fragmentation—a
lot of rapid context-switching between meetings or between
service/teaching/research, which one needs to either be good at (not my case)
or find ways to alleviate (e.g., by making more time for yourself); (2) demands
flexibility—what is often advertised as one of the great advantages of an
academic job (true!) can also be a demand to some extent, i.e., it
demands that you can rapidly accommodate to new schedules (e.g., every quarter
I teach a new class with a new schedule) and plan around shifting situations
(e.g., a grant is accepted, bringing new funding but also extra administrative
work; a paper is accepted, bringing great joy to share those results but also
more work with revisions & talks; you were invited to a new committee,
bringing new positive changes but also more service work, etc.); (3) caring
for students—the biggest part of my job is caring for the career my PhD
students, while this is obviously something I do joyfully it can also be
overwhelming and will often leave me zero time to think of my own career or
other aspects of my research questions; (4) evolves fast—the faculty
schedule evolves extremely fast (e.g., what my schedule looked like in year one
and year two were wildly different, luckily you also evolve with it, making a
task that used to be hard much easier the second time).
What’s up with the positive
outlook on academia?
In the last part of my public segment of the AMA, I showed
faculty-fun = PhD-fun x 103
After the AMA several people asked if I really meant
an order of magnitude more fun? I really did. I really enjoyed my PhD16
and felt it was a lot of fun to explore a topic deeply and learn new skills
(e.g., electronics, user studies, and writing papers—all things I had not done
much until the PhD). However, with my lab, I get to do much more. Each of my
students explores a new topic with me and teaches me new an astonishing number
of new techniques17, I do more research with them than I used to
alone, and I get to be around more inspiring people every day (brilliant
students & brilliant faculty colleagues). This is the most joyful job I
could imagine, even when I account for all the parts I might dislike. This is not to say we should not share ways in which we think we can and should do better in academia, hopefully paving a way to fix many of the outstanding problems18. Yet, I also think it is important to share if you feel joyful about your job.
Post-script: why I focused on these
This was maybe the oddest talk I had the pleasure of
giving. Mostly because it was not about my research—I spent only 2 minutes and
35 seconds on my research at the start just to give some context of which
research field I am coming from, since I felt that also carries some contextual
cues and biases to my perspective.
I wrote this talk from personal reflection, looking back
(digging through my calendar & emails between 2019-2021 to see what was
most challenging in my new job), and by talking to colleagues during the
first three days of the UIST conference (thanks everyone who talked to me
about it)—I remember being at the opening reception and bumping into colleagues
who, like me, were also on the first years of their first academic job. All of
them were extremely kind to provide questions or stories for the talk. While I
knew I could only tell my story and not theirs, I noticed how many of
their questions I could boil down to find your own style—which is how
this became a central part of the talk.
Other topics that they mentioned were on the back of my
mind too, and after hearing their stories I pushed them to the foreground. One
such topic was the abrupt change from previous positions (e.g., from PhD) to
one with new responsibilities (e.g., assistant professor). As you can see in
the AMA, I dedicated a sizable amount of time to this topic—one year later, I'm
glad I did that, many came to talk to me about it right after the AMA and had
even more great questions about this. That being said, there were many topics
that I collected from colleagues that never made it into the short talk, nor
appeared in the 1h discussion that followed (the actual AMA part) and they
deserve as much attention as the topics we did bring up. Some of these topics
include: finding students to work with, hands-on vs. off advising, emotional aspects of the job,
setting up a lab infrastructure, knowledge transfer inside the lab, collaborations, teaching
load, budget, grants, space, committee and department service, running a lab in
the pandemic, and more.
I would like to thank the ACM UIST Social Chairs 2022 for
inviting me and trusting me with this AMA, I can only hope they did not regret
Secondly, I would like to repeat my acknowledgment slide,
which only included a small number of the large number of people at the
University of Chicago and beyond who helped me in my first years.
Absent from it is my friend Prof. Blase Ur,
who I cannot thank only academically because he also helped me with everything
else in my life in Chicago—thank you!
0 There were so many mental barriers to giving this talk. At the top of
the list was a wish to share some insights but to, also, not come across as preaching
like my advice was special in any way (it is not).
Secondly, twelve of my students were in
the audience. This was hard because no matter what I would say, it was about
“starting a lab”—their lab. While the talk portion did not contain much that they
could be embarrassed by, I knew the actual AMA part (the hour of discussion that followed) would be more personal—it was. There were questions were I had to highlight some story or experience that was
about one of them. I thank them for coming along to the talk and supporting me
as they always do.Below is a photo of
my team at that time and the highlight of everyone who was there at the talk,
which included: Akifumi
Takahashi (postdoc), Jas Brooks (PhD),
Shan-Yuan Teng (PhD), Jasmine Lu (PhD), Alex Mazursky (PhD), Romain Nith (PhD),
Yudai Tanaka (PhD),
and also Alumni, K. D. Wu (RA at the time), Beza
Desta (undergraduate at the time, now Princeton PhD); Prof. Jun Nishida (previously
Postdoc, now Assistant Professor at Maryland), Yujie
Tao (previously Master student, now Stanford PhD) and Arata Jingu
(previously summer intern, now Saarland PhD).
1 I say finally because, indeed, it took me a year to write this
up. I could blame it on the fact that 2023 was a strange year for me, riddled
with challenges such as health condition (of which I can’t say I truly escaped
but more that it seems like I’ll survive this round, win!) and, of course,
doing all the challenging research that brings me joy. But it took me a year
because, just like the AMA talk itself, these public reflections do not come
naturally to me, even with all the lovely feedback from those who said that the
AMA helped them already—thanks for saying that and for pushing me to write
2 The Atlantic wrote a piece
about the genealogy of AMAs if you are curious to learn more.
3 If you are looking for the latter, I'd like to use this opportunity to
highlight the spectacular work of Prof. Geraldine
Fitzpatrick with her podcast Changing Academic Life, which
is available wherever you get your podcasts atTM—in it, she addresses many
of these difficult challenges with academia and academic life in general; it’s
4Turns out choosing a favorite conference is not as easy as I initially
thought, but suffice it to say that no matter what side of the bed I wake up
every morning, ACM UIST is solidly among my top choices.
5 I do not know if Prof. Stefanie Mueller’s
AMA (“Applying for Faculty Positions”) was recorded or is available—you can
find the information at the UIST 2021 website—but
our lab listened to it together and we were all very much inspired by her
wisdom. While I cannot speak for her, I am certain that if you ask her9
more about her experience you might receive great advice from her; I know I
have on several occasions during my PhD.
6 I also do not know if Prof. Wendy
Mackay’s AMA (“How to Design Your Thesis Statement”) was recorded or is
available—you can find the information on UIST 2021 website—but
I learned so much from her by listening to her perspective & experience (I
was lucky to serve several time alongside her in several CHI/UIST PC meetings,
including my very first one in-person) that I would highly recommend you ask
her for her advice9 on thesis or anything UIST-related!
7 This is a string of I-don’t-know’s, but, indeed, I also do not know if Prof. Lining
Yao’s AMA (“Doing antidisciplinary research”) was
recorded or is available—you can find the information on the UIST
2022 website—but I sat in this talk and learned a lot. Those who know me
will not be surprised by this, since I think Prof. Yao is an incredible
researcher when it comes to creative energy that exceeds all boundaries of
fields, so she is definitely someone you should ask9 about doing
9 (I know references inside of
references feel like Infinite Jest.) What is very special about UIST and
Human-Computer Interaction is that while Prof. Stefanie Mueller, Prof. Wendy
Mackay & Prof. Lining Yao are absolute stars in this field, they are also
usually at UIST and many other conferences, so you can just ask them for
advice! I found that researchers in our field are extremely open & kind to
offering their advice to you.
10 Donald Degraen
is an exceptional researcher working at the intersection of haptics,
fabrication, and virtual reality, you should check his work out if you are interested in
this area. He also served as the UIST 2021 Social Chair and invited me to give
the AMA talk.
11Kashyap Todi is an exceptional researcher pushing the boundaries of
HCI and computational methods, (Kashyap has been doing the HCI+AI before it was
a hype!), you should check out his work
if you are interested in this area. He served as the SIGCHI Video Operations
Committee Member and was kind enough to provide me with the video recording of
my AMA talk, so it is all thanks to him that we can have this on YouTube. Also,
I would like to use this opportunity to also thank Kashyap for maintaining a
lot of knowledge in our community, such as the lovely what the HCIwebsite.
12 Perhaps you, personally, might not
feel like this, but many might feel pressure from being “on-camera” or
“recorded for posterity”. As a teacher who has recorded some lectures for those
who could not be there (e.g., during pandemics—with the consent of students), I
have seen this: many feel more at ease to ask any questions, especially
difficult ones when they are not on camera. We wanted this spirit for UIST
13 That is what makes these topics so
hard and so susceptible to survivorship
bias. Nobody can run an ethically-sound experiment on themselves and
their group to deeply investigate which factors contribute to success—and even
that experiment is likely not possible, given the complexity of the social
structures involved and the inability to time-travel or instantiate a perfectly
parallel reality. Thus, I am not trying to discredit the insights of others, in
fact, I am suggesting that openly discussing this is the best we have.
14 Note that I did not do a postdoc and
the transition to faculty might look different to those who did. In fact, the
reason why my AMA started with a very brief overview of my path was to clarify
how my trajectory went and also what type of work I do—this also has an impact
on many of my advices since they might not make sense in the framework of
somehow that, for instance, does not need to manage a physical lab full of
15 In the AMA I gave some examples of how I tried to free some of my
time, which I did not go into detail here but included: trusting my students to
undertake tasks that I was initially doing alone, asking colleagues for help,
using available recourses (e.g., teaching relief—which I did not use and was a
mistake in hindsight), and planning ahead when possible.
16 I was also really lucky to be able
to do my PhD with an advisor, Prof.
Patrick Baudisch, who gave me a lot of space to
explore a topic that was new to the two of us. He also would buy me an espresso
when I most needed to relax, e.g., while stressing about the job market or
after my first faculty interview. While I am immensely grateful for all of it,
I think he will not take it to heart that my equation says that faculty-fun so
far is an order of magnitude greater than my PhD-fun was.
17 I have learned about pharmacology
from Jas Brooks, about sustainability from Jasmine Lu, about neuroscience from Yudai Tanaka, about mechanics from Alex Mazursky, about
electronics from Romain Nith, and about prototyping
from Shan-Yuan Teng—just to cite one of many aspects I have learned from each
of my PhDs; the same goes for learning from our postdocs, undergrads, and
18I had many students telling me that "being a professor can only be horrible because of what they see on Twitter (namely #AcademicTwitter)". Again, this is not to say we should not share stories, personal experiences, grievances, and ways in which we think we can and should do better in academia—there are a lot of systemic issues that affect disproportionally a lot of people in academia (I'd like to note I am in a privileged position at the University of Chicago). Yet, hopefully, there is a way to share these grievances and form a community online to support each other (e.g., at #AcademicTwitter and hopefully in many virtual and physical spaces) and, simultaneously, share when you feel joyful about your academic job.