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The new rumour mill September 10, 2007

Posted by Joel Kamnitzer in math life, wiki.
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Mathematicians love to gossip. Now they have an outlet to do so online at the math jobs wiki .

All joking aside, I expect this site could be extremely useful for those people applying for jobs (especially tenure-track). In the fall, you can look at what schools are offering jobs and in the winter, as offers are made, there will be less guessing about which schools have or have not made their offers. Of course, it is too early to tell how many people will contribute and hence how good the information on this site will be.

One could argue that this type of service is harmful. Some people may feel that this amounts to an invasion of privacy and other may feel that it just adds to the frenzy and stress of job applications. Perhaps these people have a point. It will be interesting to see what the reaction from the mathematics community is. One should note that there is a corresponding physics rumour site which has been around for a few years and seems to be reasonably successful.

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Comments

1. Ben Webster - September 10, 2007

Funny you should mention it. One of the post ideas I had been kicking around in my head for while was asking why mathematicians didn’t have such a site. I see someone beat me to it.

2. Greg Kuperberg - September 10, 2007

Yes, “someone” beat you to it. :-)

Seriously, I’m really glad that both of you are in favor of this. I want to make the point that the real work is yet to be done. The wiki needs a critical mass of rumors. (Actually, these pages get official information too, not just rumors.) If you can contribute, and even better if you can encourage others to join as well, it would be very helpful. I have experience with planting seeds on the Internet, but I am too old to water this one. (And I have been told that the Berkeley graduate body hears a lot about the math job market.)

Besides the nonexistent short lists, the page has only token listings outside of North America.

As for the serious arguments on both sides that Joel mentions, yes there are some. However, few issues with serious arguments on both sides have the equilibrium of Coke vs Pepsi. In most such issues — the H1B visa program, the Cold War, global warming, etc. — one side should prevail. Now that I have been both in applicant pools and on search committees, I am convinced that a job wiki is a Good Thing.

3. This week in the arXivs… « It’s Equal, but It’s Different… - September 11, 2007

[...] The new rumour mill [...]

4. Ben Webster - September 11, 2007

well, I don’t think it’s as clear cut a case as the H1B visa, but I think it’s certainly worth trying. To some degree, I’ll reserve judgment until I go through a job search cycle with the wiki fully operational.

Of course, whether the wiki is a good thing also depends a bit on who you view as its constituency. For the math community as a whole, most of whom aren’t applying for jobs at any given time, I feel like the website is clearly of benefit (though not huge benefit), in terms of keeping track of who is going where, and keeping tabs on the job market (not to mention avoiding awkward conversations with colleagues), but for the job-seekers themselves, I feel like it’s a bit more mixed. I could certainly see how such a site could make things more stressful for people (after all, more information is not actually always a good thing). Of course, I suppose the reasonable counter-argument there is “well, they don’t have to read the site.”

For me, I think the deciding factor is my general support of more transparency in, well, pretty much everything. We can never see in a system is working if we can’t see what the output is.

5. Greg Kuperberg - September 11, 2007

Okay, it’s not as important as the H1-B visa program, much less the Cold War; that aspect of my analogy was tongue-in-cheek. But there has never been any consensus on foreign visas in academia as far as I know. On the contrary, ten years ago there was a petition from some then-new PhDs to restrict the visas. I’m completely against such restrictions, but the other side to the issue exists.

I have seen the astrophysics job wiki in action because I was once the outside member of an astrophysics search. That was what first convinced me that it’s a good thing. It’s usually the search committees, not the job seekers, who might want the short lists to be confidential. But when this confidentiality disappeared, it didn’t seem valuable. It’s not my philosophy is that transparency is always good and secrecy is always bad. But in this case, I have not usually seen secrecy serve any purpose, good or bad. In the occasional case when I have seen it serve a purpose, it hasn’t usually been a good purpose. On top of that, it’s largely only a pretense of confidentiality. You can usually guess pretty well who is interviewing by looking at colloquium schedules. It’s more just a tradition to keep the search low-key than it is serious non-disclosure.

On the other side, the information in the jobs wiki certainly can be useful for jobs seekers. If you don’t yet have offers or interviews, or if you only have one, then the wiki can help you estimate how likely you are to get them. Yes, the information can make you nervous, but it can also be a factor in important life decisions. It can also help explain your life even when there are no decisions. If you moved to Singapore because you didn’t get the offer you wanted in North America, then the wiki could help tell you why that happened. I have met very few people who wouldn’t want to know.

6. Ben Webster - September 11, 2007

I was referring to how convinced *I* am that the H1B visa is a good idea (and in fact, could use dramatic expansion). In my mind there’s not much question that the US’s policies on academic and other high-skill visas are too restrictive, not too lenient. But that’s a rant for another post.

Given that it has worked in other fields without the world exploding, I agree, it’s a probably a good idea. Heck, it’s probably pretty valuable just as a list of jobs that research mathematicians would be interested in.

It’s not my philosophy is that transparency is always good and secrecy is always bad. But in this case, I have not usually seen secrecy serve any purpose, good or bad. In the occasional case when I have seen it serve a purpose, it hasn’t usually been a good purpose.

I wasn’t trying to say that all transparency is good all the time, but given the scrum that the job market is that moment, we’re clearly on the side of too little transparency (and I believe people tend to have a cognitive bias towards liking secrecy, and mistrusting transparency). I can imagine transparency measures that might go too far (for example, making the meetings of job search committees open to the public and publishing their minutes) but don’t think we’re really in danger of this happening.

If you don’t yet have offers or interviews, or if you only have one, then the wiki can help you estimate how likely you are to get them.

I’m not sure I really believe this, though. Doesn’t this require pretty good knowledge both of how your credentials compare to other people’s, which ones specific search committees are valuing, and what various schools application pools look like? I suppose some information is better than none, but those are pretty difficult tea leaves to read, with or without the wiki.

It can also help explain your life even when there are no decisions. If you moved to Singapore because you didn’t get the offer you wanted in North America, then the wiki could help tell you why that happened.

Again, I’m not so sure I buy this. You just get to see who got the jobs that you wanted. I suppose you could attempt to infer from that why those people were seen as better candidates than you, but again, that seems to involve a lot of mind-reading of search committees.

On the other hand, if you could get your hands on their minutes, then you would be cooking with gas.

Incidentally, did you just pick Singapore randomly? A friend of mine from grad school indeed did just move there because she didn’t have luck with postdocs in the US.

7. Greg Kuperberg - September 11, 2007

Doesn’t this require pretty good knowledge both of how your credentials compare to other people’s, which ones specific search committees are valuing, and what various schools application pools look like?

(This question refers to using a jobs wiki for career planning.) What I had in mind was not the precise details of the caliber of short listed applicants, but just the most basic facts that could indicate that you’re barking up the wrong tree. For instance, suppose that you have been invited for an interview at Oklahoma State, but you like New England better and you’re hoping for an offer from Brown or Rutgers. You might see that even though you do algebra, Brown’s short-list is dominated by analysis and Rutgers has already made an offer. Or you might be pressured to accept an offer with a 48-hour deadline, until you see that there are no short-lists yet for five other schools that you like better. Some job applicants and even some search committees make very basic miscalculations that are very far away from the picture of winning by a judgment call.

I am told that this was much of the motivation of the first rumor mill pages, in particle physics and astrophysics. I.e., that some postdocs felt in the dark about what was happening in the job market and decided to pool information.

You just get to see who got the jobs that you wanted. I suppose you could attempt to infer from that why those people were seen as better candidates than you, but again, that seems to involve a lot of mind-reading of search committees.

Two answers. I asked John Terning, who runs the particle physics rumor mill, about the most important things that it reveals about the job market after the fact. He said that it convinces some job seekers just how hard it is to get a position at the top schools. Of course you have to believe in yourself to do well in the job market; I don’t think that people should be disabused of that. However, afterwards you should be able to accept humility if in fact the offers, or even the interviews, went to much more successful people. Again, close calls are a different matter.

Anyway that is Terning’s answer more than mine. I remember that when I was on the job market, I got an interview but not an offer at one particular school. So I asked, just out curiosity, who did get the job. The professor who had called me was no slave to confidentiality and it would clearly be public knowledge soon enough, in principle. But he said that my question was best left unanswered, because in his view, his department had not hired on merit. I don’t mean to say that the system is rotten; I think that most departments do generally hire on merit. Terning said that his list, at least, had not revealed many shameful secrets of search committees. But when searches do reduce to sausage-making, it would be good for a job wiki page to reveal something about it.

Incidentally, did you just pick Singapore randomly?

Singapore was on my mind because I added its position to the wiki, and because a Berkeley cohort of mine named Helmer Aslaksen is there. I know nothing about Helmer’s job search, actually, but I can believe that they sometimes hire opportunistically from the West. (More power to them! And they could learn something from a jobs wiki if they are so far away from most of the “action”.)

8. Greg Kuperberg - September 11, 2007

Also part of Terning’s answer, and mine, is that if you are not yet at the end of the postdoctoral rope and you see who made the short lists instead of you, then you can take it as a call to action. I don’t believe in competition just for its own sake — sometimes I joke about wunderkinds in graduate school as “whoever gets a PhD first, wins”. But it’s fine to learn from examples. For instance you could decide to write more papers, or instead give more talks, or whatever. I take your point that a mere list of names is limited information, but if you don’t even know who got interviews, it’s easy to feel outright blindsided.

9. Ben Webster - September 11, 2007

yeah, I suppose it’s important for me to take into account that as poor as my understanding of the job market is, I’m probably still near or above the median. Even having discussed the process in detail with one person further along the trajectory is probably more than a lot of people have done.

I suppose what I was really trying to say is that there’s no need to oversell it too much. I mean, the number of people whose actual job fortunes this is likely to change is quite small (for most of us, it will just be the small satisfaction of knowing a bit more gossip), because this is really, really basic information on the job market, a rather confusing and complicated system.

On the other hand, this is really, really basic information. There’s really no excuse for not having it on the net.

10. Greg Kuperberg - September 11, 2007

Sure, basically I agree with everything that you say in comment 9.

If I may wax philosophical about this, one difference between pure research and the real world is that in the real world, the theoretical ideas of the 19th century matter more than those of the 20th century. Most of the world’s engineering is non-quantum, non-relativistic physics. Most of Google’s mathematics could have been understood by Cayley. And, in the present example, the economic effects of basic transparency is 19th century economics.

Now and then some 20th-century theory has some miraculous practical value. For example, silicon chips or elliptic-curve cryptography. (Were elliptic curves studied in positive characteristic before 1900? At best not much was known about it back then.) But in general, you should be skeptical of projects that are to be both useful and fancy. “There’s really no excuse” is a great motto for most practical work.

Although yes, I agree that the jobs wiki is not all that super-important, merely definitely worthwhile.

11. Greg Kuperberg - September 15, 2007

Hi folks. The jobs wiki has significantly more information now than before: it has search areas and application deadlines for American tenure-track positions. (There was some outside help on the search areas.)

If I may think out loud about other missing features, it could be interesting to plot the open positions in Google Maps, for people with two-body problems or any other geographical job market problem. It would require a one-time table of the coordinates of math departments with PhD programs. In fact I have a list of such departments, based on the AMS list but updated and cleaned up a bit, which maybe I should put up on the Front wiki.

12. Rumors: milling « Secret Blogging Seminar - January 9, 2008

[...] by Ben Webster in jobs. trackback If any of you were wondering whether this whole job wiki thing we mentioned earlier would work, well, that would seem to be a “yes.”  Greg mentioned it in a (totally [...]

13. Odin - December 7, 2010

I know this is an ancient discussion, and the math jobs wiki is pretty well-established now, but I just want to point out one very important benefit of the wiki:

When you get a rejection letter, you now have something _constructive_ to do with the bad news: post on the wiki that rejections (at whatever level) have been made. And if someone has beaten you to it, you can take consolation in the fact that you are not alone, that someone else out in this cold, dark, unforgiving, dream-job-denying universe is feeling the same way you are. :)


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