Remarks on career advice November 11, 2009Posted by Scott Carnahan in jobs, math life, Math Overflow.
There have been a few questions about the job application process on MathOverflow, and I’d like to make a few remarks in an open forum.
First of all, I think there have been some really good questions, and really good answers. I found it especially illuminating when mathematicians who have been on hiring committees weighed in on what they thought was important in an application. Depending on your social circle and who your advisor is, it can be difficult to get accurate information when you are a graduate student (or a postdoc – I recently learned that my research statement was too long by a factor of 2 or 3). So, hats off to the people who give well-informed advice. Please keep it up.
This brings us to the other side of the discussion, which is uninformed job advice. I hear and see it in person and on the internet (including MathOverflow, where fortunately, it has been relatively easy to detect). Some of it is quite obnoxious, with a cynical, hypercompetitive perspective of the mathematical community. I’m not prepared to discuss the psychological foundations of this sort of attitude, but I’ve seen bad advice cause a lot of unnecessary stress in people who receive it. As far as I can tell, the job application process is already stressful, where small strategic errors can mean big differences in outcome, so perhaps we should treat baseless speculation more severely in this context than in the realm of normal mathematical discourse.
I’ve been asked to include one more remark about applications that may be obvious to some of you, and it is that different types of schools look for different features in applications. As a basic example, Research-I schools tend to focus less on teaching statements than four-year colleges. Community colleges apparently have their own priorities, which are somewhat different from the other two classes. As a piece of meta-advice, if you’re surrounded by research faculty (quite likely in grad school), but you’re planning to teach at a four-year or community college, you might benefit from seeking some application and career advice from outside your program.
Also, one final request: if you’re answering a career-advice question on the internet, it would be great if you could add background context including the type of school (e.g., “I have done hiring at a four-year college in the US”). I see some people doing this already, and it’s great. The career questions at MathOverflow have so far leaned toward research-intensive tracks, but it would help in the future in case more general questions come up.
Update, Nov. 15: Tom Leinster has pointed out that I’ve used some US-specific vocabulary (e.g., Research-I), so I’ll try to give a brief explanation for the benefit of people who haven’t had extensive contact with university administrators in the US. The terms essentially come from an outdated version of The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher EducationTM. As I understand it, Research-I was a designation for doctoral-granting schools for which research performance played the primary role in faculty hiring and promotion decisions, while Research-II denoted doctoral-granting schools where research was less of a focus. There was a revision in 2000 that turned the Roman numeral I into a letter standing for “Intensive” and II was changed to X for “eXtensive”. I think this was done to make it appear less judgmental (although many people still pronounce it “one”). There was a further revision in 2006, (see the bottom of this page for a full list), breaking the two groups into 3: RU/VH (research university/very high activity), RU/H, and DRU. The list of classes I linked also gives a list of schools that fall into each class, and you can search for your favorite examples. Four-year colleges are institutions whose graduate programs are either very small or don’t exist (classified as “Baccalaureate Colleges”). Community colleges are usually schools that offer two-year programs (classified as “Associate’s Colleges”). That latter two classes tend to make hiring and promotion decisions based on considerations other than research performance, although there is some variation.