Remarks on career advice

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.

13 thoughts on “Remarks on career advice

  1. I’m afraid this is going to come out a bit ranty, but it’s not directed at you particularly, Scott.

    One thing that would improve these conversations is if people said say what countries they’re applying for jobs in. Specifically, it sometimes happens that people based in the US ask or answer questions as if everyone is based in the US or knows the system.

    Of course, this site and MO are both run from the US, and lots of contributors are American, and it might be that the asker of a question is only interested in advice about American jobs. No problem. But it would be helpful to say so, so that the rest of us don’t waste our time giving unwanted advice. (Worse: not saying so can create the impression that the questioner regards America as somehow the default country. And, you know, it’s a world-wide web.)

    On the other hand, if people want advice from all over the world then they’ll get a better response if they explain their national terminology. Every country has its own baffling educational jargon; come to Scotland and you’ll find plenty to baffle you here. Of course most of us are exposed to massive amounts of American media, so I know that a “sophomore” is some kind of student, I know what “GPA” stands for, and I know what it means to “major” in something. But (to take some examples from your post) I don’t know the terms “Research-I school” or “four-year college”, and I only have the haziest idea of what a “community college” is.

    So while conversations like this are potentially very helpful, I think they could be even more helpful if people were more conscious of the fact that not everyone lives in the same country.

  2. In addition to cynical advice that is based on a hypercompetitive view of the mathematics community, there is advice that is needlessly rosy and based on an idealized positive view of how things ought to be, assuming everyone everywhere is reasonable and the right person doing the right thing will always get the right job. This is not any better for being optimistic.

    I have been given useful advice from people who, frankly, did have recognizable psychological problems and jaundiced views. (Sometimes this is just a personality thing— and sometimes it is for a reason. For example, a person who is a victim of discrimination at one point in their career may never look at the community the same way again, and may be genuinely scarred by the experience.)

    In any case, whatever opinionated perspective advice comes from, it can still be useful if it comes with a careful distinction between “here is what I really know about X” and “here are my personal experiences causing me to believe Y about X.” We cannot hope to transmit just the facts— any advice has an op-ed component. It is just important that we distinguish between the two, as clearly as possible and as often as we can.

    In my view the lnternet is severely limited in what it can do to answer job market questions. It serves a useful purpose in ironing out low-level tactical kinks in the application process, and in closing the gap between people who have lots of local resources on conventional job wisdom, and those who do not— but the most useful advice tends to be personal, complicated, and nuanced. The Internet doesn’t really do that.

    The worst Internet advice I have seen is in response to questions that ask too much— questions that are ill-formed because they assume a lot of unknown/unknowable information, or a very simplistic view of the market. Sometimes it seems as though people believe there is a long, hidden, but potentially knowable list of The Things To Do To Get A Job, and the difficulty is only in figuring what goes on the list. The Internet is only too happy to help with this kind of project. I’m not sure this tendency can be removed; job market forums may even exaggerate it, sometimes.

  3. Tom-

    It’s true that would we should probably bug people about making this explicit in MO (I rewote the the one job question I put up to reflect this). But I think this blog is a different matter. It’s written by 8 North Americans, and one Australian who’s been in the US for almost a decade; of course the default perspective of the blog is North American (and mostly US).

    That said, I’m always interested in hearing job advice from other perspectives. I don’t anticipate looking for a job in the UK any time soon, but I consider it part of being professional to understand as much as one can about these systems in all countries. Also, the British system is great for looking on from the other side of the ocean in fascinated horror (taking all the candidates to dinner together? are you sure this isn’t some kind of sophisticated psychological torture?).

  4. Ben, first of all, you’re right: the dinner ritual is certainly psychological torture. And maybe you haven’t heard that at dessert, we all bare our horrible British teeth at each other.

    Regarding the less important points, of course it’s your blog and you can do what you like with it. As you say, it’s probably more of an issue at MO, which is a more international affair.

  5. Well, leave angry comments. People will shape up if you let them know they’re screwing up. My question on research statements I just dashed off quickly without taking time to think (I was both having a conversation with a friend about his research statement which lead to the question and trying to prepare a class), and one of the things I didn’t think about was specifying which sort of jobs I had in mind. I’ll (hopefully) always remember to include that in the future, now that I’ve thought of it.

  6. To amplify a theme running through Scott’s post and all the comments so far: all advice should be both given and taken with the understanding that it comes from the necessarily limited perspective of the giver’s own experiences. In particular:

    1. Almost nobody has been a candidate in a large number of successful job searches.

    2. Almost nobody knows much about the way the system works in a country where they haven’t studied or worked.

    3. Almost nobody in the U.S. knows much about types of schools that they haven’t been involved with (e.g., faculty at Research I schools can’t tell you much useful about community colleges). Probably this comment applies to at least some other countries, too, but I couldn’t say (see 2.).

    4. Some people do have a lot of experience with the hiring process from being on hiring committees, but then you should keep in mind that they may (possibly unconsciously) give advice that is more to hiring committees’ advantage than to applicants’.

    When I was seeking advice about applying for jobs (which I mostly sought from people I knew personally), I found it maddening at first that people were very reluctant to say much of anything, and that everything they said was filled with caveats and professions of ignorance. I eventually realized that was infinitely better than getting confident pronouncements based on nothing, and at this point I’d be very suspicious of any advice that didn’t come with some explicit statement of its context.

  7. I agree with Mark about the risks of 4. When applying for jobs last year, I was told by someone (who had been on hiring committees) that I should mention my 2-body problem in my cover letter. So I did. Everybody else I talked to since then, and the folks at MO, say you should mention it *much* later in the process.

    But having said that, I also agree with Scott — I really appreciate the advice of people who have been on hiring committees, and (1) have seen orders of magnitude more applications than me and my peers, as well as (2) have seen the applications from the other side. So, thank you. Also, getting imperfect advice is a risk I’m willing to take. The moral I take away from the above story is not that person shouldn’t have given me that advice, but instead, that I should have asked more people about it instead of accepting one person’s answer as fact.

  8. As a matter of fact, in writing 4. I partly had in mind similar advice I got about my own 2-body problem.

    But I think I may have overstated my position generally. I agree that getting advice from people who’ve been on hiring committees is valuable. I just meant to emphasize that, as Emily says in her last sentence above, you should seek lots of advice from lots of people with lots of different perspectives.

  9. Emily and Mark –

    From the perspective of hiring committees in Ph.D.
    granting universities (not applicable to many other kinds
    of jobs), most 2-body problems are unsolvable at places
    like UMass Amherst. Other departments or nearby Five
    College departments (meaning Amherst, Mt. Holyoke,
    Smith) may or may not be interested. The UMass dept
    has about 40 regular faculty in pure and applied math
    plus stat. Too many research areas, too few jobs open.

    How up-front should an applicant be? Impossible to
    say in general. But when the applicant looks very
    interesting to the department. adding a second body
    late in the game is quite likely to end in an impasse and
    probably leave the position unfilled after other top
    applicants go elsewhere. (We have had a few cases in
    which the second body plans to work at a distance, but
    this has never been stable for the tenure-track partner
    hired here.) If you have any personal contacts at a hiring
    department, by all means explore the question informally.

    There are a few happy outcomes here, in cases when the
    second body is recruited by another UMass dept
    or by a neighboring small college or by a nonacademic
    employer nearby. Totally unpredictable year to year.

  10. One rule of thumb is to mention a two-body problem early on only if you have good news. For example, if your spouse/partner is more flexible than people might assume, or if you are willing to live apart, or if you are getting divorced, then it’s probably in your best interests to mention it. (Although living apart can be viewed a little negatively in some departments, since it can mean you won’t be around very much.) If you have bad news, then it will hurt your chances if you bring it up early. And one of the sad things about the U.S. math job market is that it will hurt your chances everywhere, even at the places that are genuinely not worried about your two-body problem. There’s nothing that motivates departments to make an offer more than seeing that someone has another offer (it introduces competition, time pressure, and evidence that the candidate is considered a good catch by other schools). If you cut down on the number of departments seriously considering you, then you won’t get as much benefit from this effect. Of course, the hard part is where to draw the line. I don’t approve of applying to schools you would never consider going to, just to try to provoke an offer. On the other hand, it’s not as clearly problematic if the chances of going there are small but nonzero, and it can help your job search a lot.

  11. Anonymous #10,
    It would help us establish some context if you could give some information about how much experience you have with the hiring process. Naturally, I’m only asking you to say things that you feel comfortable revealing without compromising your anonymity.

  12. I just read something in the latest “Oxford Today” magazine which has relevance to the 2-body problem. I don’t have my copy to hand right now, but the essence was that about 50 years ago it was discovered that many people were not going to Oxford because their spouses were having a horrible time there. So a society was formed with the express purpose of helping spouses (and, by extension, other family members) settle in to life at Oxford.

    I realise that this probably didn’t extend to finding the spouses jobs within the university, but it is nice to know that at least one university at least acknowledges that academics don’t tend to come in units of one person and that when the rest of the family is happy then the academic will be much more productive.

  13. It would help us establish some context if you could give some information about how much experience you have with the hiring process.

    Sorry, I should have included more context, especially in light of the post that led to this thread. My hiring experience is limited to one place (research-intensive, in the U.S.), although I’ve certainly talked with friends and colleagues about what happens elsewhere. I’ve been on search committees for numerous junior positions and about a dozen senior hires (i.e., people who already have tenure). A number of them involved two-body problems, so we’ve put effort into trying to make that work. Among the senior hires, there was one case where we hired a couple, one case where we arranged for someone’s spouse to interview in another department (which worked out), and several cases where we helped locate other local jobs. We’ve also lost a couple of candidates we really wanted to hire (and who seemed to want to come), because they were unable to find good solutions to their two-body problems.

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