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An open letter to mathjobs.org June 9, 2008

Posted by Ben Webster in jobs.

Dear MathJobs.org,

Let me just start by saying I’m a big fan. Really, you’re a most excellent website, who filled a definite need in the mathematical community. You’ve improved the life of pretty much everybody who’s applied for academic jobs in math in the past couple of years, and I’m sure you’ll continue to do a good job of this.

But, true to my nature, I’m not writing to discuss your manifold virtues, but the one painfully obvious one which is missing. I’m referring, of course, to implementing RSS feeds. I mean, lists of job openings which are sporadically updated are precisely the sort of information RSS was designed to deal with. In your present set-up, it’s very easy for people to miss job openings if they go a little too long between checking the website, a problem which could be rectified in a…well…really simple way by RSS. I mean, Craigslist has RSS feeds working. Do you really see yourself as the sort of website who cannot keep up with Craigslist? I think you can do better.

Best wishes,
Ben Webster

Well, MathJobs came through as promised.

After such prompt and thoughtful response from the MathJobs crew (see the comments below), I feel like a bit of a heel for the (fairly moderate) level of snark displayed above. I will, however, defend the choice to voice my request in blog form. It wasn’t just because our blog has been hurting for material lately; it also provides a forum for people to discuss what else they would like to see out of MathJobs. Maybe someone else has had some tiny aspect of the website that’s been nagging them. I mean, like I said, MathJobs is great, but no website is perfect. So…anybody else have bright ideas?

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1. Yunliang Yu - June 10, 2008

Hi Ben, I’m the lead developer for mathjobs.org. Our team is so excited to see your RSS feeds suggestion today. It’ll be done today.
Thanks for the great idea.
Best regards,

2. Chris Grant - June 10, 2008

Another AMS website that would become much more useful with RSS would be MathSciNet: Current Publications.

3. Diane Boumenot, AMS - June 10, 2008

Hello all. First of all let me say, thank you for the kind words. Also, if you want to send suggestions to Mathjobs.Org, that can be easily done through the web site. However, thanks to Google Alerts and a willing programmer, your request has been received and acted on. As of this morning you can get an RSS feed through the View Jobs page of the Mathjobs website.

Thanks for the suggestion. Thoughts/ideas are always welcome. I will pass the one about Current Publications along to the publications division.
–Diane Boumenot
Manager, Membership & Programs, AMS

4. A.J. Tolland - June 10, 2008

Dear Mathjobs People,

That was awesome!

sincerely yours,


5. Greg Kuperberg - June 10, 2008

[Ed.-this comment was caught in spam for a few days, so it may lack continuity with the rest of the discussion]

Maybe the snark was a miscalculation, but I like the spirit of activism in this post. The biggest thing that is “wrong” with MathJobs at the moment is that a lot of research-track math departments still don’t use it. Can you folks thing of any sort of plea to persuade them?

For reference, the mathematics jobs wiki has an asterisk by every position that was listed in MathJobs this year. Which means that those that do not have an asterisk were not in MathJobs.

Here is a department-side testimonial that may be helpful: I was told that our use of MathJobs spares one and a half staff FTEs for an entire quarter. On top of that, the job market is more visible to us and it is easier to share access to the files.

6. Michi’s blog » Blog Archive » AMS and mathjobs.org are made of awesome - June 11, 2008

[...] Now, in a post just a day or two ago, Ben Webster of the Secret Blogging Seminar called for RSS feeds for the Mathjobs listings. [...]

7. Mikael Vejdemo Johansson - June 11, 2008


This is awesome. Pure and simple.

8. Greg Kuperberg - June 14, 2008

Can you also persuade Berkeley to use MathJobs? Or Princeton? That would be another kind of big improvement.

9. Ben Webster - June 14, 2008

Can you also persuade Berkeley to use MathJobs? Or Princeton? That would be another kind of big improvement.

And every other school in the universe. We should start a freaking online petition (or perhaps a letter writing campaign). I know MathJobs is growing fast, but I still don’t see why departments aren’t falling all over themselves to start using it. Departments must have something better to do with their staff resources than process paper applications.

10. Scott Carter - June 14, 2008

We do have better things to do, but some layers of our administrations don’t. Many schools, through their interpretations of accreditation rules, perceive that hard copy original files with ink signatures, official diplomas and/or official transcripts (not issued to students) are the only meaningful measures of professional credentials.

Make sure you get all of those together before the hiring freeze is announced my friends. It could be your nice offer that gets cut.

Of course, most universities send their whiners off campus to be accrediting agents so they’ll become SOMEONE ELSE’S PROBLEM.
The whiner’s don’t have anything better to do, so they set up arcane procedures that the other universities have to follow. The whiners create more work for the other university to do, and less time for the other university’s faculty to be productive.

So, I think that departments may REALLY WANT to use mathjobs.org. but are constrained by their upper administration.
If official transcripts from issuing universities could be uploaded that would help. The specific schools you mentioned above may not be actively interested in having too many applicants;-)

11. Greg Kuperberg - June 14, 2008

Yes, you should have a petition! But maybe not a “freaking” one.

Let’s focus the argument (or petition) as appropriate. MathJobs is more of a be-all on the research circuit. It’s a much more optional service for teaching positions, for which the most successful standard is an interview at the annual AMS meeting. Roughly half of the research positions were advertised in MathJobs last year. Of course it should all of them, but it is not such a huge list of schools that are not yet participating.

Mutual benefit is much to the point. I have been told that paper applications uses 1 and 1/2 staff FTEs for an entire quarter. And with MathJobs the search committees see more of the job market. And it’s easier for department faculty to share access to the applications.

12. Ben Webster - June 14, 2008


I’m not sure I see how an interview at the Joint Meetings is supposed to substitute for MathJobs. I feel more inclined to buy the argument in the MathJobs propaganda that small departments have more to gain from using MathJobs than large ones, since they have fewer staff and institutional resources, and less “institutional memory” about job searches, without a much smaller applicant pool. In a particularly extreme example, my (tiny) alma mater recently did its first math job search in 15 years and I suspect that mechanizing the applications process would have been a huge boon to them.

13. Ben Webster - June 14, 2008

I’ll just note, the aforementioned propaganda says that 60 departments used MathJobs in 2005-2006, and I counted about 95 offering tenure-track jobs through MathJobs listed on the 2007-2008 job wiki. Presumably that’s a significant undercount, since the job wiki only covers a few non-Ph.D.-granting departments (hopefully someone will give that portion of the website a little more love this coming year). Thus, it seems MathJobs has grown a lot of over the past couple of years, so perhaps we’re adoing about nothing.

On the other hand, if someone writes up that petition (a good one), I will sign and publicize it.

14. Greg Kuperberg - June 14, 2008

Of course I would still recommend MathJobs for teaching-oriented departments, whether they are large or small. But empirically it has been more optional at that tier of the job market. I don’t have a good explanation for why, although I can make conjectures. At the research level, I can confidently argue a polite version of, “you’re crazy not to do this.”

I take Scott’s point that administrations might well not understand the issues. However, most administrations are not intransigent dictatorships. At many universities, there are ways to persuade the administration to allow MathJobs — admittedly maybe not at all of them. I conjecture that some math departments are simply not convinced that MathJobs is all that important.

Ben is not entirely wrong that MathJobs is a rising tide and the problem will solve itself eventually. But it’s not solved yet. Efficiency delayed is efficiency denied. I picked Berkeley and Princeton as examples partly because they are very important employers. Maybe they will use MathJobs soon, but if so, why not already?

15. Nathan Dunfield - June 14, 2008

Ben wrote: “We should start a freaking online petition (or perhaps a letter writing campaign). I know MathJobs is growing fast, but I still don’t see why departments aren’t falling all over themselves to start using it. “

Well, some departments may have had bad experiences with other web-based application systems, and so be leary of Mathjobs. For instance, I used to be at Caltech where they had a graduate admissions web system that was just execrable, so bad that we had the secretaries print out all the applications and put them in folders for the faculty to read. So when I moved here to Illinois, I was pretty hesitant about having to use Mathjobs. Of course, it turns out that Mathjobs really quite nice from the application reading point of view, and a complete godsend in a big department where you have 70 people trying to read the files. So maybe what we need to do is collect testimonials from departments that have recently switched,,,

16. Ben Webster - June 14, 2008

Well, some departments may have had bad experiences with other web-based application systems, and so be leary of Mathjobs

Which I think is a strong argument for having a petition, in order to express “No, really, this website is worthwhile. We wouldn’t have bothered to write this petition if it wasn’t.” Something along the lines of testimonials on steroids.

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