September 16, 2022

Where are they now? Reconnecting with Meta Research PhD Fellowship alumni

By: Meta Research

Since 2013, Meta has been supporting bright and talented PhD students innovating in topics relevant to computer science and engineering through the Meta Research PhD Fellowship program. Nearly a decade after the program began, we reached out to our community of Meta Research PhD Fellowship alumni to see where their studies have taken them.

From publishing award-winning innovative research to mentoring the next generation of Fellows, these Fellowship alumni showcase the various opportunities available to recipients of the Meta Research PhD Fellowship.

Making the most out of industry connections

Earning a PhD in computer science or a related field can open many doors, but it’s common for PhD students to end up in industry, academia, or a combination of both. Out of the alumni we connected with, 72 percent accepted a faculty position and 20 percent accepted an industry position, while the other 8 percent are preparing to graduate.

Moses Namara (2020 Fellow) and Abhishek Das (2019 Fellow) are among the small group of Fellowship alumni who accepted full-time research positions at Meta. Moses started as an Emerging Scholar in 2017 and then became a Fellow in Privacy and Data Use. In August 2022, after completing an internship at Meta, Moses accepted a position as a UX Researcher. Abhishek became a Meta AI Research Scientist in June 2020 and has coauthored several research papers on conversational AI, natural language processing, computer vision, and AI-driven catalyst discovery as part of the Open Catalyst Project.

Others, like Danqi Chen (2017 Fellow), spent time in industry before returning to academia: “I did an internship at Meta AI during my PhD and then went back to Meta AI Seattle as a visiting scientist in 2019,” she said. “I started as an assistant professor of computer science at Princeton in 2019 and just completed my third year.”

Deepak Pathak (2018 Fellow) also spent time as a visiting researcher at Meta. After graduating from UC Berkeley, Deepak accepted a faculty position at Carnegie Mellon University, where he started a lab in robot learning and computer vision research. One of his research papers published at RSS 2021, RMA: Rapid motor adaptation for legged robots, achieved strong results and accolades.

The Meta Research PhD Fellowship provides PhDs the opportunity to connect and collaborate with industry researchers through internships or visiting researcher positions. Elissa Redmiles (2017 Fellow), for example, formed relationships during her time as a PhD intern and visiting researcher at Meta. “Since my Fellowship, I have collaborated with four different teams at Meta on three different publications, won a Meta research award with a collaborator who the Fellowship funding allowed me to collaborate with, and have positive ongoing relationships with multiple researchers at Meta,” Elissa said.

Jonathan Mace (2016 Fellow) published a paper about Canopy at SOSP 2017 during his internship at Meta. “I continued to work on distributed tracing as a research topic — the line of work that includes the Canopy paper — and coauthored an O’Reilly book on it in 2020, which is cool,” Jonathan said. “I've kept in close touch with several of the folks at Meta working on distributed tracing, and a few of them are participating as expert users in a current interview study my research group at MPI-SWS is conducting.”

Pursuing innovative research in academia

Recipients of the Meta Research PhD Fellowship are entitled to receive two years of paid tuition and fees, as well as a $42,000 annual stipend to cover living costs. This provides students the opportunity to pursue research topics that they are passionate about. While Fellows are not required to pursue the research described in their applications, many Fellows take advantage of the freedom that the award provides and go on to publish that research.

Daricia Wilkinson (2019 Fellow), for example, has been working with a nonprofit in the Caribbean to conduct the work she proposed as a Fellow, and the resulting research was published at CHI 2022. “The project involved working on the ground throughout multiple Caribbean countries to gain a better understanding of how Caribbean people define safety online,” she said. “The work has been extremely rewarding and has been recognized by the U.N. in the region.”

Elissa shared the results of her research as well: “The work I originally proposed in my Fellowship proposal won a Distinguished Paper Award at USENIX Security, led to presentations at the FTC, and was the final piece of my thesis.” Amir Goharshady (2019 Fellow), who has now graduated, has also been recognized for his research: “The research won three best PhD thesis awards at the levels of institute, national, and European. I am now an assistant professor at HKUST and lead a diverse team of three postdocs and 14 PhD students from 13 countries.”

Now preparing to graduate, Sharifa Sultana (2020 Fellow) has been running exciting projects in ethics, big data, and AI in the Global South since we last connected with her for a spotlight in 2021. “I have published two papers at CHI and CSCW on the topic, and another is in the pipeline,” she said. “I have also progressed with my work with women in rural areas in Bangladesh; the center of this work aligns with my Fellowship proposal. I have published several good papers out of it, and they were well appreciated in the research and academic community.”

Some of the program’s veteran alumni have established careers in academia. After graduating from Carnegie Mellon University in 2015, Julian Shun (2013 Fellow) spent two years as a postdoc at UC Berkeley before accepting a faculty position at MIT. “My research is on parallel computing and large-scale data analytics, with a focus on problems for processing graphs and spatial data,” Julian said. “I teach classes on algorithms and performance engineering.”

After graduating from Carnegie Mellon University, Nisarg Shah (2014 Fellow) eventually became an assistant professor at the University of Toronto, where he has since received several commendations for his research. “After the 2014 Meta Research PhD Fellowship, I was awarded the 2016 Victor Lesser Distinguished Dissertation Award upon my graduation and the 2020 ‘AI's 10 to Watch’ by IEEE Intelligent Systems,” he said.

Influencing the next generation

One of the most rewarding parts of being a professor is the opportunity to mentor and advise the next generation of academics. Nisarg, one of the first recipients of the Fellowship, has been growing his academic family since 2014. “Over the years, I supervised two postdoctoral fellows — both are now faculty members — six graduate students, and nine undergraduate students, several of whom are now PhD students at various institutions. You can learn more on my website.”

Sometimes Fellowship alumni get to see their graduate students follow in their footsteps. “One of my PhD students, Manoel Horta Ribeiro, went on to win a Meta Research PhD Fellowship himself, yay!” said 2014 Fellow Robert West, a professor at EPFL in Switzerland. “He also did an internship, via which we’ve been collaborating with Meta’s Justin Cheng on several projects.” The team’s research on post approvals in online communities was recently published at ICWSM, and Manoel was recently featured in a Fellowship spotlight.

Some Fellows get to influence others without being a professor. Since becoming a Fellow, Moses has been approached by many young PhDs looking to follow a similar path — so many, in fact, that it inspired a blog post about the six most common Fellowship-related questions he receives. Yijun Li (2019 Fellow), who has mentored interns in industry, is also no stranger to being approached for advice: “As a Fellow, I was contacted by junior students, who I shared my research experience with and introduced to the Meta Fellowship program.”

In the spirit of passing down wisdom, we asked Fellows to reflect on their academic experiences and to share advice they would give their younger selves. David Pujol (2020 Fellow), has expanded his family since we last connected and offers wisdom about work-life balance: “Personal and family life are required as well,” he said. “Take your time and do both academic work as well as spend time with family and friends, even if that means work takes longer.”

Other Fellows offered the following advice to their past selves, which aspiring Fellows might find useful:

  • “Use the flexibility the Meta Fellowship provides to become more independent and work on ideas that really excite me.” —Akshitha Sriraman (2020 Fellow, now an Assistant Professor at Carnegie Mellon University)
  • “Be more confident and be willing to take more risks and make mistakes.” —Danqi
  • “Stay true to yourself and don’t be too swayed by people’s advice or their goals for you.” —Elissa
  • “Be more proactive in collaborating with industrial research labs, especially at Meta.” —Amir
  • “Be low-profile and humble about your own work, but do not hesitate to praise and appreciate other people's work.” — Yijun
  • “Your Meta Fellowship is just the first step to receiving the well-earned recognition for your research accomplishments and potential. Don't stop here. Keep looking out for other awards, and don't hesitate to apply or seek advice.” — Nisarg
  • “Do not be afraid to try!" — Moses

Meta is proud to be a part of these Fellows’ journeys, and we are excited to see how these researchers continue to grow, influence, and contribute cutting-edge research to the knowledge community.