October 23, 2019

Career advice from former Facebook Fellows Elissa Redmiles and Greg Steinbrecher

By: Facebook Research

Over the past seven years, the Facebook Fellowship program has provided financial support and networking opportunities to over 100 PhD students pursuing innovative research in computer science and engineering. Many of these students have continued their relationship with Facebook after completing their studies.

To learn more about the post-fellowship experience, we checked in with two of our 2017 Fellows, Greg Steinbrecher and Elissa Redmiles, who were featured in last year’s Fellowship and Emerging Scholar Summit 2018 spotlight and who graduated this past year. Greg is now a Research Scientist on the Network Hardware team, and Elissa is doing consulting work on the Core Data Science – Facebook and Society team during her postdoc at Microsoft Research.

From what to do when you’re rejected to how to forge professional relationships, Greg and Elissa give an inside look at their journey with Facebook and offer some advice for PhD students hoping to follow a similar path.

Build professional relationships

For those looking to get involved with a company or an academic institution before or after graduation, Elissa and Greg have the same piece of advice: Proactively network at conferences or events. “I always had this rule that you have to go to dinner with someone new every night of the conference,” says Elissa. “Talking to industry folks as well as academics at conferences was very helpful for me.”

For Greg, a fortunate connection with Omar Baldonado (Director of Engineering) at an optics conference put him on the path toward his current position at Facebook. After a panel talk by Omar, the two struck up a conversation about mutual research interests, which prompted Omar to connect Greg with Hans-Juergen Schmidtke (Director of Hardware Engineering) about a hardware engineering internship. After the internship, Greg landed a software engineering position on the team responsible for the design, deployment, and maintenance of the hardware that runs the networks in Facebook’s data centers. Greg attributes this fruitful connection to in-person networking. “In my experience, cold emails don’t have a high success rate,” says Greg. “Talking to someone in person and having them introduce me to the right people was phenomenally helpful.”

Elissa reports having a similar experience at the ACM Economics and Computation conference, where she met Mike Bailey, a Research Scientist Manager on the CDS team. She recalls approaching Mike after he had presented a new research award opportunity. “Even though I wasn’t eligible to apply [being a PhD student], the topic was really interesting to me,” she says. “So I decided to ask him about potential collaboration opportunities.” This connection resulted in Elissa’s current position, studying what factors influence internet skill in different parts of the world.

Showcase your work

Before going back to school for her PhD, Elissa spent some time as a Marketing Manager at IBM. This experience, according to Elissa, taught her the value of having a social media presence. She finds Twitter in particular to be a productive tool for building connections. “I’ve definitely met people at conferences who I know through Twitter,” she says. “Having an online presence allows people to get a general sense of who you are and the research you do — and lets them stay in touch.”

To effectively collaborate with industry on research, Elissa encourages PhD students to analyze how their research relates to a company’s mission. “If you want to publish as part of an industry collaboration,” Elissa says, “it’s important to figure out whether the collaboration would be a mutually beneficial relationship.” In Elissa’s case, it was. Her work as a PhD student, which involved looking at inequity with regard to security behavior, is closely related to the work she’s doing now at Facebook.

“My current project deals with inequity in a broader sense as it pertains to internet skill,” she says. “We look at countries throughout the world to try and figure out who needs extra help, and how we would go about helping them.”

In collaboration with the Community Integrity research team, Elissa also published a paper at ICWSM about safety perceptions on social media (read the summary on our blog) and a paper at CHI about the demand for spam.

Find a mentor — or two

Greg mentions the importance of having mentors throughout your professional career as well as your academic career. He notes the particular benefits of being mentored by a professor who is not your formal adviser. “Because you don’t work for them, they can give you unbiased career advice,” he explains. “They’ve also advised students of their own, so they usually know where your adviser is coming from.”

At Facebook, Greg found great mentors both during his internship and his current position as a Research Scientist, but wanted to highlight the luck and privilege of being mentored by someone with a background similar to his own. Greg’s current manager, Hans-Juergen, got his PhD in optics, a field closely related to Greg’s. “It’s great being able to talk to someone who has experience in the world of academia, but who also has 20 years of industry experience,” says Greg. “Hans-Juergen has had incredibly useful advice and perspective, and he’s been generous enough to give it to me in a very honest way.”

Try again next year

The 2020 Fellowship application recently closed, and awards will be announced at the beginning of 2020. While applications are being reviewed, Elissa encourages potential fellows to not get discouraged by a rejection email. “I didn’t get the fellowship the first time I applied,” she says, “but I applied again the next year and did. A lot of growth can happen in a year — and over time, you just get better at writing these applications.”

Facebook Fellowship awards are distributed by research area, including computer vision, computational social science, systems and networking, and more. “Year after year, this program grows and more research areas get added — so the number of applications we get per research area really varies,” explains Sharon Ayalde, Research Program Manager. “We could get 40 applications in one research area and 200 applications in another, so you really never know how close you could be to getting that fellowship. Apply again next year!”

“You really have nothing to lose by applying,” adds Elissa.

To stay updated about the Facebook Fellowship program, join our community on Facebook @academics.