From international exchange student to tenure-track prof

Friday, October 20, 2017

Xu Chu graduates from Waterloo with a PhD in computer science and moves on to a faculty position at Georgia Institute of Technology

photo of Xu ChuXu Chu came to the University of Waterloo in 2010 as a fourth-year exchange student from China.

Now, seven years later, he is about to embark on an inspiring career as a tenure-track assistant professor in the College of Computing at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.

“Waterloo has exchange agreements with several top universities in China including Nanjing University, my home university,” Chu said.

“When I learned about the exchange program I decided to come to Waterloo to take advantage of this fantastic opportunity. But it was with some apprehension. The trip here was not only my first by air but also my first abroad.”

Fortunately for Chu he was well prepared by Nanjing University and familiar with the undergraduate course material so he didn’t struggle as much as other students can when challenged with learning a new language while conducting studies.

Student learned English by watching TV sitcom

“I knew some English when I arrived but my Chinese teachers didn’t speak much,” he recounted. “So, I improved my conversational skills by taking classes, interacting with fellow students, doing academic presentations — and by watching the TV show Friends. I guess you could say I had six English instructors.”

The David R. Cheriton School of Computer Science presented Chu with many firsts, including his first opportunity to conduct research.

“I didn’t do much research until I started my master’s degree in 2011, but I took advantage of the Undergraduate Research Assistantship program during my exchange year. Ihab Ilyas, a professor in Waterloo’s Cheriton School of Computer Science, took me on so I worked about five hours a week with one of his PhD students and got my first exposure to research.”

It was a rewarding experience because Chu stayed on to do master’s degree under Ilyas’ supervision, a position in which he showed so much potential that Ilyas recommended he enrol into the PhD program.

“Ihab is a rigorous supervisor, but he’s fair and systematic and guides students so they meet milestones. During my early years as a PhD student he had me concentrate on research goals, but during my senior years he wanted me to focus on collaborating with researchers here, at other universities and in industry.”

Grad student joins Microsoft fellowship

Chu was invited in 2015 to join the prestigious Microsoft Research PhD Fellowship Program, a two-year industry fellowship for outstanding doctoral candidates. He started job hunting in November 2016.

“I was most interested in university research so I focused on faculty positions, but I applied to three categories of employers — universities, industry labs and industry,” he said. “I got interviews at a dozen or so universities. On the industry lab side, I got an offer from Microsoft Research. From industry, I had an offer from Amazon as an applied scientist. My thoughts were that if I get an offer from a top university, I’ll have strong students and be in a stimulating environment where I can pursue my research interests. Georgia Tech is a fantastic school, so I eventually accepted their offer.”

Chu is grateful for the experiences and opportunities Waterloo has provided and he is keen to pass on his wisdom to others. “If I could offer just one bit of advice I’d say try to land an internship during your graduate degree. My time at Microsoft Research was great for a variety of reasons, perhaps most importantly because of the strong recommendation letter I got from Microsoft’s principal researcher. Publications obviously matter a lot in academia, but so does what people say about you. It was a great opportunity and I’m glad I took advantage of it.”

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