Sharon Goldwater shares her advice on how to get involved in academia and what it takes to succeed in this field.
I grew up in Amherst, Massachusetts and attended Brown University, graduating in 1998 with Sc.B. in Mathematics and Computer Science while also taking several modules in linguistics.
I worked as a researcher in the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at SRI International from 1998-2000 before starting a PhD at Brown, supervised by Mark Johnson. I completed the PhD in 2006 and spent two years as a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University before moving to Edinburgh.
My research focuses on computational approaches to learning language: developing models of how children learn the structure of their native language from the linguistic data they observe, and exploring machine learning methods for solving similar tasks in natural language processing applications without large amounts of annotated training data.
My research is very interdisciplinary. This was valued where I got my PhD and postdoc, but I discovered when I went on the job market that not all departments are so welcoming of people ‘on the boundaries.’ It can also be harder to figure out where to get funding for this sort of research. On the other hand, there are some institutions that really promote interdisciplinarity (like the School of Informatics itself, and the James S McDonnell Foundation who have funded my research). With those places my profile has actually helped me a lot.
What does it take to succeed?
Many different people have helped me at different stages in my career, starting with my undergraduate supervisor. He gave me a challenging problem to work on during a summer internship and my honours thesis, and got me excited about research and the field of natural language processing. My PhD and postdoctoral supervisors have also been very helpful, in varying ways: sometimes with technical knowledge, other times with career advice.
But not everyone is equally helpful on all of these fronts. So I’ve tried to think about what I need to learn at any given point, and to find someone who can help me with that. Sometimes I didn't even know in advance that I needed ‘help,’ but I keep my eyes open for people who seem like they really know what they're doing or have interesting ideas, and then I go talk to them! I think it's important to spend time outside my office just chatting to people, going to talks, and keeping a broad view, because you never know where the next good idea is going to come from.
Success in the field requires hard work and determination, creativity, a desire to solve problems and a willingness to look for different solutions if the first one doesn’t work out.
I personally haven't had any bad experiences with overt discrimination or sexist comments but I do think women sometimes need to work harder to make themselves heard. Having an older brother might have helped me with that, and I’ve spent a lot of my life in male-dominated situations so I've gotten used to it. I have noticed that my female colleagues and I tend to be some of the more outspoken ones in meetings, and I doubt that's a coincidence.
Feeling inadequate is a problem many academics struggle with because we are surrounded by so many clever and successful people. I don't know if this feeling can be entirely overcome, but it can be managed. I try to remind myself that if I always felt like the smartest person in the room, I wouldn't be in the right rooms. You need to learn from people who are better at some things than you are, but it's easy to forget that you're probably better at other things than they are. If they're talking to you, it's probably because you have something to say that's worth hearing.
Advice for students
If you are an undergraduate my advice would be: seek out opportunities to get involved in research as early as possible. Some of the teaching staff in Informatics have ways to involve UG students either as volunteers or paid interns. Talk to your PT or the lecturer of a course you liked to ask which staff are most relevant to your interests. But don’t rely on other people to do the legwork for you, you’ll need to take some initiative to look for opportunities, whether inside or outside the School. If you need to write application essays, try to find someone who can give you feedback on a draft.
For postgrads: think broadly. To write a thesis, you need to become an expert on a very narrow topic. To succeed in academia, you also need to understand much more about the whole field and where it's moving. You may have to teach courses outside your specialty, and you will certainly have to supervise PhD students working a bit outside your comfort zone. So, train yourself up by tutoring different courses, attending a broad range of seminars and reading groups, and even getting involved in supervising UG, MSc, or junior PhD students if you can.
BCS Roger Needham Award 2016
In 2016 Sharon was awarded the BCS Roger Needham Award for “distinguished research contribution in computer science by a UK-based researcher who has completed up to 10 years of post-doctoral research.”