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The Job Search: Dr. Pan Xu

The Job Search is a series for international graduate students.

imageBy Anna De Cheke Qualls

Xiaogan, China in Hubei Province is a metropolis of about 5 million.  The city’s name means filial piety and pity, and originates from an ancient legend recorded in the classic Confucian teaching text The Twenty-four Filial Exemplars. In the story, a poor man named Dong Yong, sells himself into indentured servitude to pay for his father’s funeral.

Pan Xu (’19 PhD, Computer Science) made some sacrifices of his own when he came to study in the United States.  Upon receiving his master’s degree in mathematics in 2009, he left China and to earn his first PhD in Operations Research at Iowa State University. Three years later, he arrived at the University of Maryland to start another PhD in Computer Science.  Graduating this past May, Xu just started an assistant professorship at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT).

This is a tremendous journey for someone who’s family never went to college. There is something to be said for having the freedom to forge one’s path. “Fortunately, I grew up in a rural area.  There are beautiful rivers, lakes and ponds. As a child, I spent most of my free time playing with my friends – catching fish, birds and cottontail rabbits. I admit it, I was a naughty boy.  I was good at creating trouble for my parents, teachers and neighbors,” remembers Xu. “Unlike my current friends who grew up in big cities and spent their time working hard on homework, I had a lot of free time. I developed imagination and creativity. Now I am truly able to appreciate that my school teachers, especially at the elementary level, gave us virtually no homework,” he adds.

Xu’s academic trajectory certainly made up for less assignments in his early years. He has continued to challenge himself. “I have often tried my hand at some of the tougher research questions because I believe that life is a process of perpetually learning new things. Over time, my formal studies grew progressively more difficult, ending with a PhD in theoretical computer science (TCS). Of course, being at NJIT, I hope to continue to grow as a person and as a professional,” says Xu.

We sat down with Xu to explore his path to academia, and any advice he might have for international graduate students interested in working in the United States.

When you came wanted to study in U.S. what were your impressions?

My first impression of the United States was that it is a truly beautiful country. Everything is so clean, especially the natural surroundings, and most of the people are more polite than I was used to.

How is your field perceived in your home country?  Why did you come and study in the U.S.? 

Computer Science is very popular in China, as well –in fact, it is a hot field. For education, the U.S. offers preeminent and truly excellent professors and scholars. In particular, the scholarly environment is really optimal for good research, and I think attracts global talent as a result. That is why I came to the U.S. to do my PhD.

How did you prepare for your academic job search?

I followed the suggestions and the advice of my two wonderful advisors.  They suggested networking with scholars in my field, attending conferences, and polishing up my English speaking and writing skills.

What experiences as a graduate student (beyond your research) contributed to finding a position at NJIT? 

Beyond academic work and publication, I think it was important to do internships.  I did two of them.  In 2016, I was a research intern at IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center, where I worked on budget-constrained online assignment in crowdsourcing markets.

A year earlier I was at Adobe. There, I got to know another intern who was from the Computer Science Department at NJIT. That was my first time hearing about that institution. He introduced me to CS at NJIT, and shared a lot of information about the program.  From there, I kept an eye on NJIT during my job search.

What does networking mean in your home country? Any comparisons to the U.S.? How did you navigate networking as an international person?

Networking in China means trying to get to know as many people who are experts in your own area as possible. But that’s common here, too. As an international person, especially as a student, my advisors were the most instrumental in helping me network: they often connected me to some of their friends and colleagues.

How did you convince people at NJIT that you were well-prepared for the position?

I believe I gave a really convincing job talk. Through it, I tried my best to show my passion not only for my research but also for joining specifically CS at NJIT. I believe both were important factors in the outcome.

How did you work on your CV? What was the process? Who looked at it?

First, I read the CV of my advisors and learned from them. Then I wrote mine and asked my advisors, and others, to take a look. They offered me lots of valuable comments and feedback.

Career aspirations? What do you hope to do long term?

I hope to become an excellent and influential professor. I also hope that long term, I can engage in impactful research and also attract and mentor excellent PhD advisees. I am tough on myself. I have some learning to do about being a well-rounded faculty member, an effective teammate within our program/university and a supporter of students.

How is a U.S. work experience or education perceived in your home country?

A U.S. education or work experience is perceived as a privilege in China: not everyone obtains such a rare opportunity. I feel fortunate to have had the training here.

How do you continue networking locally? And globally?

By attending conferences and giving talks. There are so many conferences located in different countries. I have attended conferences in Brazil, Norway, and Sweden, and that’s only a subset of the many I have traveled to in the States. These are really great opportunities to network with different people. In my field, we often work in teams, so having a network is critical.  

What do you think an Chinese culture and/or mindset (or approach, if such differences exists) can add to your work? 

I try to be humble. The Chinese culture places a high emphasis on that.

I think a lot of young people are deeply interested in global social issues (equity, social justice and diversity, for example) and I wonder if you have those interests as they pertain to your work?

Part of my current research focuses on the fairness in different real-world matching markets such as rideshare platforms (Uber and Lyft) and crowdsourcing markets. Take Uber for example: it is reported that users from underrepresented groups (e.g., female, people with disabilities) have a much higher chance of being rejected by Uber drivers than the average person. My research tries to design a fair matching policy to combat these types of discriminations.

Any advice to other international students?

Try to work hard, and grab every opportunity to sharpen your English speaking, writing and listening skills.

More information about Pan Xu can be found here.

(By Anna De Cheke Qualls)(Photo Credit: Pan xu)  #YouAreWelcomeHere

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