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December 29, 2009

A Question About the Job Application Process

Posted by Alexander Hoffnung

Since I am currently applying for jobs it probably would have been a good idea for me to keep something here like a journal collecting and possibly offering advice about the application process. Alas, I have not done that, but I am also still submitting applications so maybe there is hope yet.

Let me start by explaining the problem I encountered today and see if anyone else has had this problem or can offer some explanation. Then maybe I can just open up the floor for people to say what problems they are running into or to give advice that they have gathered and want to share.

If there is enough feedback then it would probably be useful to create an nLab page to collect job advice over time.

I am applying to various jobs (almost entirely postdoc positions) and I am using the mathjobs website almost exclusively. I am sure there are other good resources out there, but I find it a bit overwhelming to write sincere applications to each school that I apply to without the structure of mathjobs to keep track of everything for me. So I find mathjobs very helpful. Maybe other people can suggest other resources that they find useful.

One great thing about mathjobs is that you can put a little green check mark next to the jobs that you want to apply to and a little red `x’ next to the jobs which you do not want to see anymore. Then you can organize the jobs by deadline. I have found this very helpful as I can easily apply to jobs as the deadline approaches.

Here is the pitfall: if you do not look carefully at the last couple of pages, you may not notice that a number of jobs do not have deadlines posted in the usual place. However, some have a deadline by which you must submit to receive “full consideration”. So these jobs do not have “firm deadlines”, but they do have a preference to receive applications by some relatively early date.

I think schools are put in an awkward position here by mathjobs as if they put a deadline in the proper place then mathjobs would then stop displaying the position after that date. So there is a need for something like a “soft deadline”.

So, I first want to make other people aware of this, but I would also like to know if some people who have been on hiring committees can shed some light on what it means to receive full consideration, as that term is a bit vague.

Posted at December 29, 2009 2:16 AM UTC

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Re: A Question About the Job Application Process

Have you emailed mathjobs to suggest they have a “soft deadlines” field?

Posted by: John Huerta on December 29, 2009 3:48 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: A Question About the Job Application Process

No, I was about to following your suggestion when I realized that there is an optional field for the user to set their own “apply by” date.

So, that more or less resolves my issue about mathjobs. So a good piece of advice is to thoroughly check each of the jobs which you are interested in, but do not have deadlines, and set the dates yourself. That doesn’t seem to hard.

I would still be interested in hearing from job committee members to hear what “full consideration” might mean.

Posted by: Alex Hoffnung on December 29, 2009 5:29 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: A Question About the Job Application Process

I would take full consideration to mean
guaranteed to get a reading if presented by that date
implying the committee will be in full gear by then

late arrivals will be considered IF
e.g. if flagged by some member of the faculty
if in an area desired but not yet received much
if all full consederations are done and prospects don’t look good

Posted by: jim stasheff on December 29, 2009 2:30 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: A Question About the Job Application Process

I will start compiling some job advice as I think of things.

First, I should probably link to other places where this type of activity is already taking place.

* The Secret Blogging Seminar

Various questions at mathoverflow:

* Length of research statements

* Finding job advertisements

* Teaching statements

Some posts at the AMS Graduate Student Blog:

* Job Search by Andrew Obus

* Career Advice Column at Inside Higher Ed by Daniel Erman

* If I Could Do It Over, I’d Make The Same Mistakes All Over Again by Tom Wright

* What’s New at San Francisco Joint Meetings Employment Center by Diane Boumenot

I will try to go through these posts and collect all the useful information at some point.

Besides finding jobs it is also helpful to know what fellowships are available for postdocs. It can be hard to find a complete list of these, and I am sure there are many I do not know about. It would be nice to have a list of these with some information about who is eligible to apply. Here is a start:

* The National Science Foundation Mathematical Sciences Postdoctoral Research Fellowships (MSPRF)

* President’s Postdoctoral Fellowship Program

* EPSRC Postdoctoral fellowships in mathematical sciences

* Newton International Fellowships

And here is a great page from Berkeley giving tons of advice on applying to postdoc positions.

Ok, more later.

Posted by: Alex Hoffnung on December 29, 2009 8:23 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: A Question About the Job Application Process

I would guess that the currently most complete list of postdoctoral fellowships in math is at the Mathematics Jobs Wiki. In a given year I suppose it may not be posted in time for applications, but you can check out the lists from previous years.

Posted by: Mark Meckes on December 31, 2009 1:51 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: A Question About the Job Application Process

Thanks Mark.

That reminds me. It might be useful to point out that of the fellowships I mentioned above, only the Newton International is still accepting applications this year. So if people who did not know about these before are still interested in submitting, there may be enough time. As with the rest of these fellowships you need to choose and contact a host institution and a sponsor at that institution.

Posted by: Alex Hoffnung on December 31, 2009 4:24 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: A Question About the Job Application Process

The “full consideration” thing is quite simple. The institution has decided on a date when their hiring committee will convene to discuss the applications. This will be a short time after the “full consideration” deadline. If you make that deadline then it is guaranteed that your application is going to be read at least once. If they do not find a good candidate during this first read through of applications, or if all the good candidates drop out at some point in the process, then they may look at applications submitted after the deadline, but it is not guaranteed that they will. This flexibility to include late applications also gives the faculty a chance to solicit late applications from candidates they are trying to attract. It may be easier to attract these candidates later in the process if they get rejected from their first-choice institutions.

Generally, I think that you will find that the most prestigious institutions will set a hard deadline, since they are fairly certain to get a strong set of applications. However, this does not mean that these institutions never accept late applications. If you are a superstar candidate and you have contacts at the institution then you may still be able to swing the deal.

My advice would be to treat the soft deadline as if it was a hard deadline, unless you have had contact with a faculty member at the institution telling you otherwise. If you only find out about the job after the soft deadline then it doesn’t hurt to submit, but I wouldn’t waste a lot of time customizing the application.

Posted by: Matt Leifer on December 29, 2009 12:04 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: A Question About the Job Application Process

Thanks Matt -

This is very helpful.

It seems that there is quite a bit of variation as to which schools set soft or hard deadlines. Also, there is quite a bit of variation among the hard deadlines.

I think it is certainly good advice to treat the soft deadlines as hard deadlines.

So if everyone does this, does it get rid of the need for soft deadlines? It seems that if a school is interested in a particular person, who has not applied, then the school can contact that person regardless of whether the deadline has passed.

I have often heard people say things that approximately end in “I wouldn’t waste a lot of time customizing the application.” I am still unsure of what this advice is meant to convey. I would read it in one of two (maybe more) ways:

* Do not bother applying, because you will not get the job. (I tend to think this is not the way to read this advice as it does not seem to help anyone very much.)

* Do not waste time, because if they want to offer you a job, they will not care about the details of your application. E.g., whose name you mention in the cover letter.

I had a third, but I got distracted and forgot. :) Anyway, I have to run and get some coffee, but this leads me to other questions about how to understand people’s advice, which I will try to address in my next comment.

Posted by: Alex Hoffnung on December 29, 2009 7:25 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: A Question About the Job Application Process

We have a job going at Physics Today if you want to apply for it (the link is on our homepage). Associate Editor for the Search and Discovery department.

Posted by: Paul Guinnessy on December 29, 2009 4:02 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: A Question About the Job Application Process

The problem is with the methodology of search, not
with the mechanics.

Retired Executive Officer of Mathematics at Caltech, Gary Lorden, an expert in Statistics, has a theory. He
thinks that most faculty and postdoc searches start
with a well-intentioned job description.

Applications arrive, and the search committee collectively measures the distance between each application and their imaginary ideal candidate.

Rather than pick the person best for the job, based on the statistical distribution of the ensemble
applicants, they are merely picking the closest to
their imperfect job description. Outliers in all
dimensions, including those who are overqualified, and those better for the actual job but not for the job description, get thrown out.

This process is broken, and can’t be patched together
by making the mechanics more efficient.

Posted by: Jonathan Vos Post on December 29, 2009 8:15 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: A Question About the Job Application Process

The problem is with the methodology of search, not with the mechanics.

There are clearly problems with both. I hope this post will be a place to collect helpful information to guide myself and others through the process of applying for jobs according to the current methodology and mechanics. Of course, I hope that overtime this will contribute to making both the methodology and mechanics better.

Posted by: Alex Hoffnung on December 29, 2009 8:45 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: A Question About the Job Application Process

Jonathan wrote:

This process is broken, and can’t be patched together by making the mechanics more efficient.

I don’t agree. Everything people do is imperfect and could be improved. But lots of schools succeed in hiring people they want, so at least from their viewpoint the process is working.

It sounds like your informant suffered through some particularly inflexible hiring committees — but they’re not all that bad.

Posted by: John Baez on December 29, 2009 10:53 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: A Question About the Job Application Process

Point taken, John Baez. I need hardly defend Gary Lorden, who recently retired after a very happy and productive career at Caltech. He’d been an undergraduate there first, in the same class as Kip Thorne. He continues his work as chief Math Consultant to the hit CBS-TV series NUMB3RS.

Caltech has little trouble getting the faculty and postdocs that they want, even in these economically constricted times. Hence I don’t detect any “sour grapes” in Dr. Lorden’s analysis. Rather, I found it an insightful and objective description of what is done at many institutions, in a way that imputes no malice or incompetence as such, but quantifies how the wrong optimization is being performed.

Nor is this the place for me to grumble about my personal experiences with being told to my face that I’m overqualified for one job, or not even getting a courtesy postcard to someplace that I’ve sent 50 pages of slowly constructed documentation. I have been a finalist for a department chair, and a finalist for Director of Media Relations at a major university. So I have been able to get a foot in some doorways.

I do feel that people who never encountered employment difficulties may naturally underestimate what they may be like for others.

The power of the Social Network is critical. Who recommends you, and how they are linked to the decisionmakers is important. And for people who have reputations, there are also links with negative weight. There are such things as academic enemies.

Posted by: Jonathan Vos Post on December 30, 2009 7:09 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: A Question About the Job Application Process

Jonathan wrote:

I do feel that people who never encountered employment difficulties may naturally underestimate what they may be like for others.

That’s very true. But just so you know: I’ve encountered employment difficulties. For 10 years my wife and I lived on opposite coasts because we couldn’t get a job in the same place! A major chunk of our lives, blighted.

So here’s my main piece of job advice to young academics: don’t fall in love until you get tenure — and then fall in love with someone who also has tenure at the same institution.

Posted by: John Baez on December 31, 2009 12:37 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: A Question About the Job Application Process

And to add to John’s advice:

* Do not be afraid to fall in love with someone who is not an academic.

Although it sounds funny, I think this is actually a fairly common fear. Although there may be plenty of people who have the opposite fear as well.

Posted by: Alex Hoffnung on December 31, 2009 12:48 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: A Question About the Job Application Process

Alex’s advice makes sense — especially if you fall in love with someone who can easily get a job anywhere. My advice was not meant very seriously. It’s definitely worth thinking about these issues… but it’s hard to plan when it comes to romance.

Posted by: John Baez on December 31, 2009 3:42 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: A Question About the Job Application Process

While I am still a young academic myself and my own two-body problem is not yet permanently resolved, a piece of advice that has been very helpful to my peace of mind is: Don’t be so attached to a career in academia that it prevents you from doing what will make you happiest in the long run, be that marrying a particular person (tenured or not, academic or not), living in a particular place, not living in a particular place, or whatever is most important to you.

Of course, it might be that a career in academia is the only thing that will make you happy in the long run, but my personal opinion is that that’s a dangerous thing to insist on.

Posted by: Mike Shulman on December 31, 2009 3:42 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: A Question About the Job Application Process

I am speaking to this question as someone who took a long time to find a tenure-track/tenured position, as a former member of hiring committees, and as a department chair.

As chair, I try to formulate committees that will get the job done. When there is a vacancy in a particular area, then a representative of that area will be on the committee. Sometimes such a member can obstruct the process in amusing ways. I wish that I could be less glib about such obstructions, but I have found that usually at the end of the day, hiring proceeds towards getting optimal candidates.

On the other hand, I sincerely would have wished to be at a school with a Ph.D. program. My own research slows because the material that should be on the tip of my fingers (if I had been teaching a graduate course) is not there. I often have to learn standard material from the ground up rather than it being fresh in my memory from having taught a course.

My goal in hiring is to find people who are more talented than I, who will respect their colleagues, and who will continue to be outstanding researchers and teachers. Other departments will try to strategically hire someone in a particularly active area, or someone on the periphery of a future Fields medalist. These strategies can back-fire if the person grows lazy or decides to rest upon laurels.

Soft deadlines exist so that the committee can start reading the applications. If you have missed a soft deadline and are applying, then you should get a trusted person in the department, or better on the committee, to look closely at your application.

Both soft and hard deadlines can be used for parliamentarian maneuvers which can be onerous (or effective depending on your point of view). Many schools have accreditation agencies that want to make sure that all faculty are fully qualified. Such schools will require original EVERYTHING — graduate and undergraduate transcripts, letters, application materials, filled in biographical data form. A committee member might try to block a candidate if all the materials are not complete by the soft deadline. Some administrations do not allow an interview unless the original materials are on file.

Usually math departments are fairly flexible about non-original materials before the deadline, but it can be essential once you are on the short-short list to get the material in place. Not doing so will delay the offer. Delayed offers are not good. One person I know did not get an offer from a Cal. State School because of financial considerations. The department wants to secure the line, and the line is secure only after the offer has been sent and a written acceptance has been received.

Deans, Vice-presidents, presidents, and especially their secretarial staff, want to make sure that the file is complete. So even after an interview, a telephone offer,
a salary negotiation, the offer can take up to a month to complete.

In other departments at my school, I know they don’t even begin considering the candidate until the file is complete. If they happen to hire someone without a green card, they can argue that only 10 candidates had completed applications, and that this person was the best one. Doing so, can facilitate the acquisition of the green card.

You want to give people a reason to look at your file. If you know someone at the school in question, or if JB does, then it is good for a note to be sent to the contact. Non-committee members can influence the process, but sometimes do so at their own peril.

Posted by: Scott Carter on December 29, 2009 10:56 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: A Question About the Job Application Process

Thanks a lot Scott. That is a lot of helpful information.

It sounds like a good piece of advice would be to target hiring committee members when writing emails to follow up an application. (Although I would imagine it would only really be helpful if that person worked in your area or found your work interesting for some other reason.) Does anyone know if the information on hiring committee members is made public in any way?

Posted by: Alex Hoffnung on December 30, 2009 6:41 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: A Question About the Job Application Process

Here is how the process of sorting through the postdoc applications works at one institution (and it is probably not that different from what takes place at other large public universities). Since the department has over 60 members with diverse interests, it is loosely organized by research areas: analysis, algebra, geometry/topology, logic, combinatorics, number theory etc. The membership in each area is open to all faculty and many people belong to several. Job applications are sorted out by AMS classification numbers and different areas have responsibilities for different ranges of numbers (with some overlaps). A few days to a week after the application deadline, the areas meet and disscuss the applications and the applicants. For various reasons no applications with missing letters of recommendations are given full consideration.
Before the meeting various members of the group flag the applications that they think should be discussed further. At the meetings of the groups, shot ranked lists are voted on. The factors that go into the consideration are:

letters of recommendation,

publication record, if any and the research statement,

who would the postdoc work with in the department.

(I have never seen discussions of teach statements)

Then the lists from various areas are forwarded to the postdoc search committee. That committee merges all the lists and makes one ranked list.

That list then goes to the department’s Executive Committee that makes the final decisions. It usually doesn’t change the postdoc search committee list much, but it has a broader view of the needs of the department. In particular it takes into account who is being interview for tenure/tenure track positions and tries to balance interests of different areas.

Posted by: Eugene Lerman on December 30, 2009 1:05 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: A Question About the Job Application Process

I wonder why, at least for post-doc positions, math can’t have a match process such as that used for medical residency.

Posted by: jim stasheff on December 30, 2009 2:24 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: A Question About the Job Application Process

Thanks Eugene, I didn’t really know any of that.

Both Eugene and Jim’s comments lead to the question about the use of what I suppose is AMS subject classification or something close to it. (Actually, it would be great if someone could say what this list of subjects is called.) This is something I have certainly seen discussed online a great deal and obviously a problem for many people.

On mathjobs you can choose up to 3 subject areas, which are supposed to describe your interests. The categories are very restrictive and fairly odd from my point of view. For example, they do not seem to cover the subjects that I read regularly on the arxiv. My intention at this point is not to get into a discussion of what the `correct’ categories would be, but more how to guide people to make good choices.

It seems this is important, but I hear a lot of people, including some looking for tenure-track positions say that they find it difficult to squeeze into a proper description using three of the choices given at mathjobs.

Posted by: Alex Hoffnung on December 30, 2009 4:30 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: A Question About the Job Application Process

The question Jim raises was discussed a while ago at the Secret Blogging Seminar. A lot of different issues with such a proposal were raised there.

Posted by: Mark Meckes on December 31, 2009 2:03 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: A Question About the Job Application Process

It is probably more work than it is worth, but some departments have committee-assignments-page buried on their web sites. For example, ours is here . So you can surf your most favorable prospects and see from that. Also you can ask someone you know.

But don’t appear over-anxious, and don’t keep asking what is going on within the process. For what it is worth, *I* don’t think you’ll have too much trouble.

I second Jim’s comment about using the stable marriage algorithm to construct matching for post-docs. In 1982 when I finished, it became clear to me that other topologists had to have accepted jobs before my offer went out.

Posted by: Scott Carter on December 30, 2009 4:58 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: A Question About the Job Application Process

Thanks Scott-

While it does seem to be more trouble than it is worth, it is nice in the sense of maximum disclosure from the point of view of the applicant. At this point it would definitely be too much work for most people to go hunting around for committee pages and bylaws, but I imagine the hiring process will continually evolve. So, it is good to know that this information exists publicly at least in some instances. As John stated above, the system does not seem especially broken, but could always be improved. Maybe at some point it will become part of standard practice for candidates to seek out people on the hiring committee to facilitate good matches.

Posted by: Alex Hoffnung on December 30, 2009 5:23 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: A Question About the Job Application Process

Collecting advice:

* Submit all applications by December 1.

I do not actually know if this is good advice, but it seems like a reasonable goal as you are starting out the job search. Maybe there is some better strategy, although I wouldn’t think too hard about it. Follow-up to this advice would be to start early. Early probably means during the summer.

I will probably just post little notes like this so I can gather them together later. Other people should feel free to critique my advice or add some of their own, especially people who are currently job hunting.

Posted by: Alex Hoffnung on December 30, 2009 11:32 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: A Question About the Job Application Process

Since no one else has said it, I will: treat a soft deadline like a hard deadline. I see absolutely no point of making a distinction in your head between them. What exactly that means probably varies from school to school, but there’s just no reason to take your chances, unless your materials aren’t ready (which they should be, since sure such deadlines are not before the NSF is due).

Posted by: Ben Webster on December 31, 2009 7:59 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: A Question About the Job Application Process

One suggestion I haven’t heard mentioned here (but I can’t keep up with all of it) for getting your application noticed:

rather than or in addition to you making contact with anyone relevant in the department, have your supervisor or anyone on your committee who is enthusiastic about your work make the contact

if nothing else, just to be sure yours is not lost in the pile

Posted by: jim stasheff on January 1, 2010 2:40 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

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