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Annabelle Theobald

CISPA-Faculty Dr. Michael Schwarz has successfully completed tenure track

Michael Schwarz has been researching side-channel attacks in microarchitectures and system security at CISPA since 2020. He was part of a research team that discovered the Meltdown, Spectre, Fallout, LVI and ZombieLoad vulnerabilities in processors in the past. Since January 1, 2024, he is now "tenured", i.e., Faculty for life - if he wants to be.

Michael, congratulations on your new status as tenured Faculty. Was the long-term perspective offered by the tenure track program the deciding factor for you to come to CISPA?

To a certain extent, yes. Unfortunately, it is always difficult to get long-term contracts in the research world. After the PhD, you can only apply for short-term post-doc positions or for the tenure track at a university or other research institution. CISPA's offer was particularly interesting because CISPA is renowned and still growing. So there are still a number of positions available here. If we fulfill the conditions in the tenure track, we have a guarantee that we will be taken on. At universities, it is often the case that there are several tenure-track positions, but only a very limited number of tenure positions. This means that only a certain percentage of graduates actually get a position afterwards. CISPA offered me a different kind of security.

What does it mean to be "tenured"? What will change for you now?

For me, it means having more job security and being able to focus on larger projects. It also means that my research group will be even bigger because I can assign more positions. My PhD students will also have the planning security that I now have. I am responsible for them and it is good to know that they can complete their degree with me in peace. As I said, I'm also looking forward to tackling more long-term, larger projects and challenges. When you are tenured, the pressure to publish academic papers is no longer as high. Of course, I will still continue to publish papers and work on smaller projects, but I can now also invest time in ideas that may not produce any directly usable results in the short term.

What do Faculty at CISPA have to achieve in order to reach tenured status?

During tenure track, you have to publish a lot. There are no specific requirements regarding the number of papers, but CISPA is a world leader in cybersecurity research and we want and need to contribute to keeping it that way with high-quality publications. The quality has to be up to scratch. Achieving both, i.e., writing a decent number of really good papers, is a lot of work and a big challenge. In the tenure track and, of course, now as a tenured Faculty, I also have a wide variety of tasks. Research is and remains the main part of our work, of course, but we also train and by that I don't just mean PhD candidates, but also Bachelor's and Master's students. We are involved in teaching, write paper reviews, give lectures and communicate our research results to the public. We also have a number of tasks that nobody sees. For example, we have to do our own bookkeeping, plan trips and write procurement orders. But from what I hear, as tenured Faculty, that's only going to increase (laughs).

What advice would you give to young researchers who want to apply for the tenure track program at CISPA? Do you have any advice?

I can only say that switching to the "other side" broadens your horizons. Suddenly you are responsible for everything and can make your own decisions. It's a lot of fun no longer being as dependent. At the same time, I now understand much better why my supervisor sometimes made the decisions he did in the past.

For the application as tenure track Faculty and also for later work, it is important to create a solid plan for yourself and not just rush from paper to paper. If you want to stay in research, you should set yourself short, medium and long-term goals and pursue them. Ask yourself the question: "What is my big plan for the next few years? How can I achieve these goals?" And then you have to break it down again into small portions and give parts of it to the PhD students. This planning helped me a lot to structure my thoughts and also to come up with new ideas. I recently looked at my application again and realized that I had achieved a good part of the goals I had set myself and that the remaining ones are still relevant today. That was nice to see.

Michael, thank you very much for the interview.

About the tenure track program at CISPA

CISPA has set up a special career development program to give aspiring scientists a long-term perspective. It is very similar to the tenure track program that the federal and state governments have been establishing at German universities to promote young academics since 2016. In the CISPA tenure track, researchers must prove that they can hold their own in international competition. This includes submitting publications to top conferences, supervising junior researchers, establishing collaborations and acquiring third-party funding. If they succeed, they are appointed as "tenured" Faculty, i.e., leading scientists "for life".