International HPC Summer School and the Perception of the RSE Career Paths


The international HPC Summer School - IHPCSS is a collaboration between Australia, Canada, Japan, Europe, UK, USA, and from the next year South Africa as well. It gathers mostly PhD students (with some late MSc and early postdocs as well) from a range of scientific disciplines who either already are using HPC or have immediate need for it, for a week of learning about HPC, AI/ML and Data Science. Besides covering the technical skills the event also has a structured mentoring programme running throughout the week, focusing on one-to-one mentor-mentee guidance, career development, interpersonal skills and networking. During one of the sessions, called Resource Fair, each of the staff members (~25) select a topic for a Q&A, discussions and resource sharing with the students. Students are encouraged to move around the room and to talk to as many people as possible about the things of interest to them.

The topic I decided to cover during this session (run on Thursday) was careers in Research Software Engineering (RSEng). Earlier in the week the students were exposed to the RSE as yet another potential career pathway for them to choose from. In the past, the career paths overview session (run on Monday) highlighted three main HPC-related career paths: in academia, in industry and at HPC centers/governmental labs. This year, we also talked about RSE as a separate, often more flexible career path. I wasn’t sure how many students would be interested in learning more about RSE, given the variety of topics being covered, but I had around 15 students (out of about 80) joining for a chat and to ask questions.

Some of the questions included:

  • How to find RSE jobs?
  • Where to look for them? Are they only available at universities? In which countries?
  • How are they being advertised?
  • Are they always labeled as RSE? If not, what job titles hide the RSE-like role?
  • What skills are needed for RSE jobs?
  • How to demonstrate you possess those skills after doing a degree (PhD) in a scientific discipline not computer science (or similar)? Is it necessary to contribute to the open source code developments?
  • Are all RSE jobs related to HPC?
  • What is a typical day of an RSE? What sort of tasks do they perform?
  • Are all RSE jobs temporary (e.g. fix term contract only)?
  • Are RSEs required to look for their own funding and/or projects after their contract is over?
  • People are talking about RSEs gaining more recognition for their contributions, what does that mean? What was missing before? What is in place now? How are things changing?
  • What opportunities for training are there?
  • What is the career progression for RSEs?

Overall, many students were very interested in the prospect of getting a job at the intersection of their domain science, software engineering and HPC. However, they were not clear what that would actually entail, in terms of skills, day-to-day job and career progression. Having just learned about the RSE career path they were not sure how to go about finding and applying for related jobs. Most were keen to get access to community resources and some requested to be added to the RSE Slack (in relevant regions).

Survey and article by: Weronika Filinger HPC Project Manager; Programme Director, online MSc in HPC EPCC, University of Edinburgh