On MathOverflow career advice questions

Since this blog has already spawned one rant about career advice on MO, I thought I would make a play for first post written for PlanetMO by commenting a little more on such questions. I’m of a very split opinion of such posts. On one hand, I think most of them are a bad fit for MO and it’s very hard to get good advice from them, given how little MO commenters know of the author. I’m moving more and more to a policy of writing this as a reply to essentially all such questions.

On the other hand, I feel tremendous empathy for the questioners, and really want to help them (seriously, I am announcing here, if you want to write an MO question asking for career advice, email me instead with actual details, and I will answer). Good advice is incredibly hard to get in general. The writer of this question has a genuine quandry, and I’m sure could benefit from discussing the matter with a more senior and experienced person, and I understand the temptation to use MO as a substitute for such a discussion.

Even worse, there’s some part of my psychology that makes it hard not to answer these questions (for example, I couldn’t help answering this question after it moved to math.SE). And there’s no compelling suggestion I have for where to go instead; it’s easy to say that you should discuss these things with a trusted older colleague (especially since its true), but not everybody has such people in their lives. Even though I certainly do, it hasn’t always been trivial to get good advice.

So, maybe the point I’m getting to at the end of this is, is there somewhere to send people? I really wish I had a place to send people like, say, the author of this post, since I think MO is not really filling her/his needs. If s/he doesn’t have someone to ask such basic questions of instead of MO, it’s hard to imagine s/he has someone to talk to about the more serious matters involved in switching jobs.

7 thoughts on “On MathOverflow career advice questions

  1. I think blogs are not a bad place to collect and discuss such advice — you just need someone to actually write about it (and someone to collect it); Dr. Becca’s collection at Scientopia is very good.

    Maybe it’s only a matter of time — give blogs a few more years to become as established in mathematics as they are already within the sciences and maybe such advice will appear automatically, simply because people will write down their own experience while in the process.

    Of course, pseudonyms would be advantageous for such writings and there aren’t many pseudonymous math-bloggers out there.

    Any chance the sbseminar would take the lead and start a series on your experiences in the job market?

  2. Well, I might write something. The Scientopia collection does look good, but I always find myself slightly frustrated reading advice written by lab scientists. Various little points strike false notes (for obvious reasons; math isn’t a lab science) and then I have no idea what to believe.

    I’m less sanguine than you about such things accreting naturally. People are still pretty cautious about talking about their experiences in detail, myself included.

  3. For example, this post is both great and the sort of thing people should write, and yet is completely different from how math hiring works (you certainly are not going to be cross-examined about your research plans, though a sense that you don’t haven’t outgrown your advisor can be very damaging).

  4. Thanks for this interesting post. And, if we were on MO, +1 for the very generous offer to give advice by email.

    Regarding a place to send people: there is this AMS Notices series ‘Ask Prof. Nescio’; however, I have no idea whether this is effective to get concrete advice, or whether it is rather a general column (inspired by requests).

  5. Despite that I don’t know anything about the first poster you mentioned except the information in the post, I felt comfortable offering my advice. I actually thought that poster did a great job conveying enough information to make general advice possible.

  6. That wasn’t meant as a criticism of your answer, but I find it hard to believe you couldn’t have given the person a better answer if you’d known the names of the schools. You’re right that they made a lot more effort than many people would have to describe the difference without naming names, but the key point is “25 places higher on the latest NRC rankings,” which is not really very useful information. For example, if you look at the survey rating, Penn State is 30 places higher than UPenn (if you take the middle of their ranges) on the latest NRC survey-based ranking. Would you feel comfortable telling a student they unquestionably should go to Penn State rather than UPenn because of the quality of students?

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