More on those postdocs

A colleague of mine spoke to the deputy director at AIM, and while he mostly found out what you expect, there was one intersting tidbit in the email he circulated afterward.

She also told me that AIM postdocs will be asked to teach, possibly at places like University of San Francisco or even local community colleges.
There will also be workshops to help postdocs be more marketable on the tenure track market.

It seems strange that they would want people to teach, but not let them go to institutions that are more used to having postdocs.  Do local community colleges even want research mathematicians teaching their classes?

Also, this led to a discussion with my officemate about what actually happens in “workshops to help postdocs be more marketable on the tenure track market.”  I’m rather curious…

EDIT: OK, I was a little too snarky in my initial post.  There certainly are some valuable things one could do in such a workshop.  Just explaining what the various application materials consist of, with examples, could well be useful.  It does seem rather odd to emphasize it as though it were a perk of the job.

35 thoughts on “More on those postdocs

  1. “I mean, do they just tell you to write more papers?”

    Actually, what they probably do is explain to you that, outside the world of the small number of research universities, if you apply for a tenure track job without some evidence of interest in teaching and demonstrated success teaching low level math classes, you may run into trouble…

  2. I admit, I was being too snarky. Though I think at this stage of the economy, help finding non-academic, non-finance jobs might have more appeal.

  3. It seems strange that they would want people to teach, but not let them go to institutions that are more used to having postdocs.

    I suspect part of the issue is to keep the positions from seeming too prestigious. Hypothetically, if I had accepted a job I was not happy with because it was the only one I was offered, and then a lot of multiyear postdoctoral positions unexpectedly opened up, specifically aimed at people who didn’t get a job at all, I’d feel pretty bad. If they involved teaching at places like Stanford, I’d be far more upset than if they involved teaching at the local community college.

    I hope the math institutes make it perfectly clear as far in advance as possible whether this will be repeated next year. I assume it won’t be, but wishful thinking could cause real consternation for candidates facing tough decisions.

    Also, this led to a discussion with my officemate about what actually happens in “workshops to help postdocs be more marketable on the tenure track market.” I’m rather curious…

    In my experience, some students have absolutely no clue regarding job applications, with grossly unrealistic expectations about where they might be hired, how many applications they need to submit, how selective they can be about different regions or types of school, how different types of schools will perceive their application and what they are looking for, etc. Most people pick this up pretty readily from their advisors and from older friends, but some just don’t. I’d bet that many, perhaps even all, of the 30 positions will go to people who would have done better on the job market if they had known how to go about applying.

  4. “It does seem rather odd to emphasize it as though it were a perk of the job.”

    But these postdocs are designed to go to people who *don’t have jobs yet*. So yes, it might be considered a perk of this job that they try to help you get the next job.

    Personally, I found it a little hard to get advice about applying for jobs this year. Most of what grad students hear about how to get a job comes from other grad students and recent PhDs. And yeah, about all you can learn from the dozen or so cases of people you know personally is “publish more papers.”

    I felt like it would have been more useful if I could have gotten advice from someone who’d been on a hiring committee, who had seen hundreds of applications instead of dozens. In fact, at the joint meetings I went to a workshop put on by the AWM about getting a job — they had a panel with chairs of various kinds of math departments, as well as some people from industry, who explained more about how the process worked and answered questions from the audience. It was pretty helpful, although it would have been more helpful if I’d gone to it before applications were due instead of after.

  5. Most people pick this up pretty readily from their advisors and from older friends, but some just don’t.

    I’m not sure I like the implication that it’s these people’s fault (if that’s what you intended). Some people ask advisors and older friends point-blank what they need to do and are given nothing in response.

  6. Hmm, well perhaps any level of snark was unwarranted, though I feel like it’s hard to go wrong with a healthy level of skepticism about the value of any workshop. I don’t doubt that good advice about job hunting exists; I have at times received nuggets of advice which are genuinely useful and not so easy to guess, but they do tend to be nuggets. I hope for everyone’s sake that they do a good workshop and put it on YouTube for everyone else to enjoy (this also seems weird. AIM should have around 4 or 5 (30/7) postdocs. Are they going to do a workshop just for them?), but I won’t hold my breath.

  7. John,

    Perhaps a better way to interpret that comment is that opportunities people have to pick these things up in informal contexts varies a lot from individual to individual and from institution to institution. This is a good argument for producing more clear and explicit information about how to go about applying for jobs.

  8. It’s not just AIM doing the workshop, it’s part of all the institutes postdocs: (from the announcement website) “Successful applicants will have an opportunity to participate in a Job Skills Workshop in December, 2009, relating to the academic job search and interview process.”

  9. I see. I suppose that might be helpful for interviewing, but December is a little late for application materials when some places have deadlines in October.

  10. You go not too far down the prestige chain, and departments will be happy to have a semi-competent person standing in front of a class as long as he or she is cheap enough. There is almost always some community college needing to open an extra section of Calculus because of a little extra enrollment, and a fresh PhD in a research postdoc, while probably worse than their experienced instructors, is likely to be just as competent as the adjunct they can scramble for at the last minute, and, if NSF is paying the tab, cheaper.

    Most of these positions seem to be for two years, so the Job Skills Workshop seems rather early instead of late. Considering the postdocs might be teaching Fall Semester, it would seem early July (after the quarter system schools are done) would be better. Unless they’re really thinking to do this the week between Christmas and New Years.

    I can imagine the Job Skills Workshops to be somewhat useful to the clueless. Though my impression is that some people (and I might unfortunately be one of them, despite it being what I want) are just not so suited to the more teaching-oriented part of the market, and a little window-dressing isn’t going to help. A workshop could change how you present yourself, but it won’t change how you are, and hiring committees have ample opportunity to figure that out, despite what many applicants might think.

  11. a little window-dressing isn’t going to help.

    I guess that’s another point that makes me skeptical; there are many other things other than writing more papers you can do to improve your job chances (form relationships with other mathematicians, especially senior ones, especially at institutions that aren’t yours; give better talks; be a better teacher), but they aren’t much faster, and for the most part they’re genuinely difficult if you’re not the sort of person who does them naturally anyways. If they’re actually going to help people give better talks, that might actually be beneficial, but that’s a long, slow process.

  12. Is there really a secret to getting academic jobs? The most important advice I can give is that if you only start worrying about it when applications are due, you are too late.

    If you want a teaching job, e.g. in a liberal arts college, then teach like you mean it throughout grad school. Get a teaching award. Get involved in outreach programs. Establish a relationship with a professor who cares about teaching (say by TAing for him/her) and ask for some mentoring. Keep in touch with him/her so you can get a substantial personal teaching letter.

    If you want a research job, e.g. a postdoc at an university, then crank out those papers. Also establish a relationship with a professor in addition to your advisor, perhaps at another university, e.g. someone whose papers you read. Ask him/her questions and send him/her your papers so you can get a substantial second research letter.

    If you want an industry job, then learn to program and get internships in the summer or maybe get involved in interdisciplinary research.

  13. Ben and Alex, I think you’re both perpetuating one of what I think is the worst stereotypes in math/life: If it doesn’t come naturally, you’ll never be good at it.

    Sure, some people are naturally good teachers and some aren’t. But anyone can become a better teacher. Practice helps a lot here. And some people naturally and quickly form relationships with senior mathematicians, while other people are more shy. But shy people can suck it up and try talking to people anyways.

    And as for giving good talks, a lot of people 1) don’t have much practice and 2) don’t get much feedback. Nobody wants to tell you that you gave a bad talk. A weekend workshop where the participants gave talks to each other and had the audience fill out surveys (“I stopped paying attention after the _____th slide;” “Words I never figured out the meaning of included ________________________________________ (use back if more space needed);” “T/F: I learned at least one thing from this talk”) could be helpful.

    I’m not saying that workshops like this would always be 100% useful to everybody; I remember math 300 at Berkeley as an excruciatingly painful experience. But that doesn’t mean they’re all BS.

  14. Can everyone be a better teacher than he or she is? Yes. Can almost everyone be at least a competent teacher with some work? Yes. Can almost everyone be a great teacher? If your answer is yes you just haven’t known any truly great teachers. Can almost everyone become a good enough teacher to make it to tenure at a decent liberal arts college, assuming she or he wants to? I have my doubts, and that’s just in my case, and I don’t think I am truly terrible.

    I think the situation with giving talks (or doing research) is pretty much the same. We can all do better, and we can all pretty much get to competent with enough effort, but the bar generally is set a bit higher than ‘competent’ in the job market these days.

    I’m not saying that these workshops are just BS, but they cannot change the fact that there are fewer jobs, now and in the foreseeable future, than there are people who would be competent at them. I can see how workshops which actually help participants be better teachers and scholars would be useful. Inevitably though, a one week workshop will aim at helping its participants be better applicants, which is not the same thing, and comes from an attitude that grossly underestimates the ability of search committees to evaluate potential hires.

  15. I do think that a lot of applicants don’t know how good an applicant they are… it’s very hard to judge oneself. And I think everyone has seen applicants undersell themselves. My view is that these workshops help level the playing field.. they help people at least not sell themselves short. It may be true that due to supply and demand aka the pigeonhole principle, there will always be perfectly qualified people who end out short on the job market, but these things can help people not make blunders and so on.

  16. I agree with Emily, it’s important to emphasize that you really can learn to get better at things. The fact that the people in our cohort in grad school gave dozens of seminar talks each makes a huge difference when you then have to show up at a conference and give a talk. Especially because in the Secret Russian Seminar the audience interrupted and gave feedback when there were problems.

    Want to improve your talks? Ask people afterwards what you did wrong. It’s excruciating, but you can also record yourself. Want to improve your timing? Practice! Want better stage presence when you’re lecturing, then take an acting class. These things can be taught and they can be learned.

    That said, I have little hope that these workshops will actually help.

  17. Ben and Alex, I think you’re both perpetuating one of what I think is the worst stereotypes in math/life: If it doesn’t come naturally, you’ll never be good at it.

    It is an easy trap to fall into; let me try to clarify (if only for my own sake. I’m starting to feel like my position here is a bit incoherent).

    I certainly don’t mean to suggest that if teaching/researching/juggling/etc. don’t come to you immediately, you’ll never be good at them. (I mean, Lord knows I hope to become a better teacher than I am right now). But I do think that they are hard, and that if you’re not naturally a reasonably good teacher, it takes serious work to become a good one, just as it takes a lot of work to become a researcher.

    Which is why I end up being a little schizophrenic about the value of things like teaching workshops; I mean, obviously their existence is some kind of recognition that people need training in order to teach and that’s something I think math as a discipline needs, and yet the idea that a class like Math 300 could possibly be sufficient preparation to stick someone in front of a classroom of students seems to completely miss the boat. It’s a drop in the bucket. Of course, you’re right that such a workshop could be a good use of time if run correctly, and I shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, but it is always tempting.

  18. It’s excruciating, but you can also record yourself.

    Sigh. One of my serious flaws as a teacher is finding watching recordings of myself indescribably painful.

  19. Also, Noah, I think you make a reasonable point about our cohort at Berkeley, but there is an obvious riposte. “So-and-so is comfortable with public speaking because they volunteered to give a bunch of seminar talks in grad school” opens itself to pretty serious selection bias.

  20. I’m not sure I like the implication that it’s these people’s fault (if that’s what you intended). Some people ask advisors and older friends point-blank what they need to do and are given nothing in response.

    Sorry, I didn’t mean for it to come across as criticism of the applicants (although I can see how my poor phrasing could be read that way). I find it really disturbing that after devoting tremendous resources to preparing people to become mathematicians, departments let people slip through the cracks just because they don’t happen to have mentors or friends who can guide them through the next transition. I think my amazement that this happens came across, but I should have made it clear that I blame advisors and departments. I suppose there are probably some applicants who choose to ignore good advice, but the real problem is that the application process is full of Rumsfeldian unknown unknowns (which the applicants can’t be expected to anticipate on their own).

    As for how to get a job, in the short term, I think the most important thing is to make sure the application is looked over carefully by someone who has serious hiring committee experience at the type of school at which it is aimed, and then thoroughly revised based on their advice. This is something the applicant probably can’t arrange alone; for example, when I was in grad school I just didn’t know anyone who worked at a liberal arts college. Plus some advisors don’t have this sort of experience even at their own school, or aren’t good at sharing it.

    Given enough time in advance to prepare, getting good letters of recommendation is crucial. Some criteria are pretty clear: letters should be from people who know enough about the applicant’s work to be able to say something substantial and who have high enough status to be taken seriously. However, the difficulty is that some mathematicians (even very brilliant and accomplished ones) have no idea how to write an effective letter of recommendation. Writing compelling recommendations is actually a tricky process of matching your letters to the implicit standards and customs for the genre; I found it took some work to learn how, even with the advice of a trusted mentor. The problem is that some mathematicians don’t realize that they aren’t writing effective letters. If you are sufficiently famous (e.g., Abel prize level), you can write however you want and the community will eventually learn how to interpret your letters, but if you are less famous, that just doesn’t work. Some applicants really get into trouble from this. If you get one letter that is short or understated or eccentric, it may be overlooked as a fluke but it could weigh against you, even if it was intended by the recommender to be positive. If you are unlucky enough to get two or more, you’re probably in real trouble, and it could appear totally inexplicable to the applicant and even the recommenders.

    I don’t know how applicants can evaluate the letter-writing abilities of their recommenders. The best way is to get advice from a trusted mentor who has actually read letters from them in the past, but that’s not necessarily doable. One substitute is to look at how easily their advisees have found jobs (relative to other students at the same school). If someone’s had lots of successful students, then they probably know how to write letters, and the only question is whether they are decent enough to do this for other people’s students as well. If someone’s students have done surprisingly poorly on the market, then that’s a serious warning sign; it might well not be the letters, but that’s one plausible explanation. If someone hasn’t had many students, then it’s hard to predict, but lack of experience isn’t a good sign.

  21. Ben, I agree that that’s a good way to read the comment, which is why I added the parenthetical to make clear I wasn’t taking the bad possible reading as definitive.

  22. 19. I think willingness to give many talks in a seminar certainly correlates with a certain outgoingness, but I’m not sure it correlates with other aspects of talk-giving skills. For example, Ben, no one doubts your admirable willingness to make a fool of yourself in public, but my recollection is that other aspects of your talks (for example, pacing) improved quite a bit over the course of grad school.

  23. a one week workshop will aim at helping its participants be better applicants, which is not the same thing, and comes from an attitude that grossly underestimates the ability of search committees to evaluate potential hires.

    This is one point where I’m not sure Alex and I see to eye-to-eye. I mean, yes, improving ones application will have limited value if you don’t have the underlying qualities that search committees are looking for, but it might if you do, and are just doing a bad job with the application materials. I mean, jobs get a LOT of applications. Surely it must be pretty easy to get passed over without a look if your materials suck.

  24. Another surprising fact about the new postdocs is that you can hold them outside the US. For example you can hold one at University of Toronto since it is an MSRI academic supporting institution.

    So, not only are they available to non-Americans, but you can hold them outside of the country! Perhaps this was not what was intended for the stimulus money…

  25. Alex says:

    A workshop could change how you present yourself, but it won’t change how you are, and hiring committees have ample opportunity to figure that out, despite what many applicants might think.

    On the other hand, jobs at small liberal arts schools are extremely competitive, and only 3-5 of hundreds of applicants are asked to give on-campus interviews. I would guess that this means that after a certain amount of winnowing, the hiring committee looks for reasons to dismiss candidates rather than reasons to keep candidates in consideration. This change in mentality implies that if you’ve made it as far as an invitation to the initial interview, you need to avoid typical interview pitfalls to advance to the next stage. These pitfalls might include not being able to back up your teaching philosophy with specific anecdotes on the spot, not being able to discuss your research in a succinct and compelling way, or even not making eye contact with the interviewers. All of these are avoidable with preparation and awareness, which I see as the primary purpose of workshops. These kinds of pitfalls are ones that graduate students have no reason to know about, but that hiring committees do know about, which is why, as Emily says, it’s important that workshops contain facilitators who have seen hundreds of applications.

    FWIW, I went to such a workshop the summer before I applied for ~60 small liberal arts college jobs. In the ~12 initial/on-campus interviews I went through, almost all the questions that the summer workshop had advised me to prepare came up. I felt that I had a significant advantage by having answers prepared and therefore being much more comfortable in the interviews than I otherwise might have been.

  26. Does anyone know if people who are scheduled to visit MSRI next year are ineligible for these new NSF postdocs, since they do “have an offer” from an academic institution? Or do they fall under the intended applicants for these scholarships?

    Thanks,
    Marco

  27. Does anyone know if people who have a non-academic job are eligible?

    I suspect so. It says on the website that they are “intended for recent recipients of a PhD in the mathematical sciences from a US university (PhD 2004 or later) who have been unsuccessful in the current job market.” It doesn’t sound like they’re going to be extremely persnickety about who applies.

  28. Well, right. But cut offs in terms of year Ph.D. was received are quite normal (2004 is much looser than the usual NSF postdoc which you can only get within a year of graduating). In terms of employment status, not so much.

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