The mathematical internet is a great opportunity to promote yourself, but be polite!

I just posted this over on a discussion thread at meta.MO, and I thought it might deserve more visibility.

We’ve had some questions on meta.MO about how undergraduates applying to graduate school should view a presence on Mathoverflow, math.SE or in the math blogosphere. I was on the graduate admissions committee for the University of Michigan last year so, for what it is worth, here is my take:

I did not make a routine practice of googling applicants, because I didn’t have time. I read every file I was given but, if that gave me enough data, I didn’t go looking for more.

However, when I felt I needed more data, I would often google the applicant’s name, and I often found Mathoverflow or blog activity. This might be because the candidate’s file was borderline, but it more often meant that I felt there was a part of the picture missing. Perhaps the applicant was in 2 REU’s and claimed to have produced research papers, but the file didn’t give me a place to read about the research. Or recommendations talked about the applicant’s strong involvement with his undergraduate math club, but the applicant’s own statement said nothing about it. Or, of course, if recommendations said “the candidate has given several interesting answers on MO”, as happened more than once.

There was much more opportunity to impress me than to disappoint me. My default assumption, and one which was borne out by the majority of the files, was that the applicant was a standard undergraduate with little knowledge of advanced math. If what I found confirmed that, I moved on and didn’t note it. In order to get into a top grad school like UMich, you need to stand out from that assumption, so anything which showed more mathematical knowledge or interest than that struck me as positive. Even MO questions which were below the level of the site struck me as a sign that the applicant was seeking out professional fora, and had mathematical interests outside his or her classes.

By the way, evidence of a social life was neither a positive nor a negative. I went to parties in college; if my applicants did likewise, I didn’t hold that against them.

However, there is one thing that could be a negative. Our committee chair, Sergey Fomin, clearly told us to flag any file that indicated a student who would be socially difficult. I don’t mean loners or odd people — our department has plenty. But if there were signs of an applicant who was regularly in fights with others, if there was someone whom we wouldn’t be able to trust with the responsibility of teaching an undergraduate class, if we had someone with a record of blowing off assignments and deadlines, that was a problem, and we would have to look at the issue seriously no matter how skilled their mathematical level.

Now, this issue didn’t particularly come up in my google searches. But I could easily imagine it; there have been people who have made a bad impression through rudeness on MO, and it could be relevant when they apply to schools or for jobs. (Please don’t mention specific examples in the comments. I will delete any comments that do so.)

In short, being mathematically active online is a good thing, and you don’t have to look smarter than an interested undergraduate. But being rude online is a bad thing, and it can turn up in google. I would imagine this might be good advice for people other than grad school applicants.

20 thoughts on “The mathematical internet is a great opportunity to promote yourself, but be polite!

  1. To give a variation on David’s point: unlike undergraduates, graduate students are chosen by mathematicians who are expecting to be their colleagues; obviously the expectations of a graduate student as a departmental citizen are very different from a professor, but graduate students *are* departmental citizens. Having a graduate student who doesn’t play well with others or is a giant flake will be much bigger headache than the analogous problem in an undergrad, and people in the department (the chair, the graduate advisor, the members of any committees that supervise the graduate program, etc.) are going to be the ones getting it. Obviously, they want to avoid that.

  2. @Peter,

    regarding, would you consider actually including the body of posts in your RSS feeds, instead of just a little snippet indicating the length of the content? It sort of misses the point of RSS if my reader can only show me a list of titles.

  3. For what it’s worth (that is to say not much) I would like to say that I find what is described here on various levels quite worrying; I thought about saying this on meta.MO already, but decided against it, not to derail that thread. This is not intended as a criticizm of the messenger (David).

    In particular, I find it at least surprising that while (as far as I understand) there are (in the US) regulations against asking applicants on basic facts of their personal life (say, regarding married / unmarried and alike) and (again as far as I understand) it is at least quite uncommon to include a portrait-picture on a CV, this makes it look as if doing something that is in my opinion close to spying on the private life of an applicant was perfectly normal.

    Regarding MO specifically: this is at least a sort-of professional place, so that my private life conerns are less or not relevant. Still, except perhaps for very significant contributors I would not assign any significance whatsoever to contributions there in the described context, and as such find it surprising if it is done. In particualr, as such a constribution would in my opinion be too easy to fake or at least to design. At the very moment, I am pretty convinced this is not yet an issue, so that now I see not so much problem. But a couple years down the road if this idea should become somewhat wider known, I am worried there could be problems.

    As a somewhat active member of MO I personally really have no interest to deal with questions some undergraduates might create mainly or solely for the purpose of having good questions on MO. Not because of the question themselves. But, on the one hand and mainly, it would imply a certain implicit responsibilty to check whether the question is genuine to the person asking it or some form of plagiarism. (Under circumstances in some sense quite different from the one described above, but then I assume driven by the same potential goal, i.e. ‘making a good impression on MO’ I strongly suspect there recently was such a case, which in this particular case seems rather irrelevant to me, but still.) And, on the other hand, I am in general in one aspect very strict regarding questions on MO; namely, in my opinion asking a question on MO should never be an end in itself (at least the questioner needs to be truly interested in the answer).

    As I said once implictly in a meta.MO discussion, if I should get the impression that usages of MO in this context should become somewhat common, this will be the end of my participation.
    Moreover, on a tangential note, the fact that somebody might get the idea (suggested by the title) that I am active on MO to promote myself is one of the main reasons I am not on MO (and the informal part of the mathematical internet more generally) under my real name. Perhaps, or likely, I am strange at this or maybe old-fashioned and cultural difference might contribute, but personally I would find this quite embarrassing. (To avoid misunderstandings, I really only mean this as my very personal point of view, and do not want to suggest that everybody should think like this.)

  4. It is true that there are certain aspects of an applicant’s personal life we may not and do not consider. We may not look at marital status or gender orientation, for example. I never considered these things, and I don’t think any committee member did.

    But this does not mean we cannot consider data about how applicants interact with others. I’ve received some e-mail worrying about the legal repercussions of stating something like this explicitly. I’m not a lawyer, but I feel that it would be crazy for schools (or employers) to imply that the only criterion for admissions was pure academic ability. We care a great deal about intellectual ability, but we also want people who can work in the structure of a graduate program. Again, this doesn’t mean that we have a problem with minorities, women, students with nontraditional career paths, loners or oddballs. We have lots of all of these, and I welcome you to look at our graduate populace if you think that any of these features would be a problem for you. This is about worrying about people who are, as Ben so excellently said, going to be unable to be a citizen of our department. And I think it is good to tell undergraduates this explicitly. If they believe that they will be evaluated in life purely on their intellectual ability, they are going to do themselves a lot of harm, and it is better for them to learn earlier that it isn’t so.

    I also disagree that looking at the record an applicant has left in public professional fora is like spying on his or her personal life. Actual spying would be something like reading their e-mail or breaking into their facebook account, which I would never do. Bordering on spying would be calling up their friends and neighbors, or reading a livejournal which was thoughtlessly left world-readable — I wouldn’t do that, but the NSA will and anyone who plans on applying for a job which needs security clearance should be aware of that. I’m not talking about the record left on non-professional public fora, like Ask MetaFilter or BoingBoing. I specifically mentioned that I didn’t care about people’s social life.

    Being a professional academic means going to conferences and talking to people, it means asking questions of experts and it means answering questions from others. With mathoverflow, many of those interactions have moved online and become more accessible to the outside world; I think that is great, and one of the great things about it is that it is an opportunity for students to promote themselves. But it also means that the same professional standards which apply in those real-world settings are relevant.

    I wonder whether quid’s fear is that, in another few years, a presence on MO might become de facto mandatory to get into a top grad school. I can’t promise that admissions committees won’t do silly things, but this would be a silly thing to do and I would oppose it. There are tons of ways to establish a record as a strong and interesting mathematical mind. Excel in your classes and impress your professors with conversation. Go to REU’s and write excellent papers. Join (or found!) an after-school program mentoring high school math students and be a great teacher. MO and the math blogosphere is one option, and it is far from the only one. Figure out the way you can excel and do so.

  5. David: you say, “This is about worrying about people who are, as Ben so excellently said, going to be unable to be a citizen of our department.”

    But what are these implicit standards of conduct that you’re imposing on members of your department? Shouldn’t they be made explicit? And by what methods do you use a candidate’s online presence to determine their likelihood of meeting these standards? One point of confusion for me is that politeness seems to be a primary concern of yours, but I don’t see much correlation between being a bad teacher or colleague and being on the coarser side of polite.

  6. Standards of conduct cannot really be made completely explicit without bringing in a huge legalistic mess.

    I think when David says “polite”, he really means “not crazy or abusive”.

  7. Point taken, Alexander. David, please don’t feel pressed to reply. I just wanted to air a couple of questions in this public forum.

  8. The “coarser side of polite” slopes slipperyly into denigrating others, making offensive remarks, and harassment. Now just being on the coarser side of polite is great — I love mathematicians’ for their lack of tack — but the rest is not.

    As Alex makes clear, there are serious obstacles to drawing a sharp line here. On the other hand, our obligation to help create an appropriate working environment for all our students and colleagues makes it reasonable to take into account evidence of those sorts of behaviour.

  9. First off, my apologies for forgetting to check back here. Since there’s not threaded comments in this theme I must hope you’ll read this somehow.

    @Ben Thanks! I’ll take care of the other side later

    @Scott we are hesitant to include full posts in our feeds for legal reasons.

  10. I would think that it would be very hard to tell if someone applying to grad schools is someone who gets into fights with others and so on. If it shows up clearly in his/her file I would think that it is either a) an extreme case, in which case of course you should not take him/her in, or b) just has made one or more enemies, which could mean anything. Probably departments would not want to take risks, which would be too bad if b) were the case and the applicant is not at fault.

    I guess it’s also possible someone can get into disputes online in a public way, but that strikes me as rare. I can think of only one MO user like that.

    Blowing off assignments and classes is another story. Many people like that will not do work that doesn’t interest them, which bodes pretty poorly in terms of success as a graduate student.

  11. @David: I am not worried that an MO presence will become mandatory. But I am worried that even a modest MO presence will be considered as significant and thus desirable as an end in itself, encouraging people to participate just to have participated. In my opinion, this will neither be good for the students nor for MO.

    Regarding the first part of your comment, I am not sure to what extent it is addressed at me. I explictly said that regarding considering the MO presence I have less or no privacy concerns.
    So, I also disagree that looking at the record an applicant has left in public professional fora is like spying on his or her personal life.
    (I am not a lawyer either but I believe that in some legal systems this distinction ‘online information relevant to position at hand’ and ‘arbitrary online stuff’ is made; former alright, latter not).

    The only thing I find suprising is that it seemed to me from your description that, while there are quite specific regulations what one is allowed to verbally ask, to what extent one searches around online is left to everybodies personal judgement. Now, it seems to me that your personal judgement is a good one, but then one could also say your judgement would be good enough to know what to ask verbally. So, I found this discrepancy in regulation suprising (from an abstract point of view).

  12. quid- Well, employment law doesn’t always make sense. It was put together as a hodge-podge over time in response to specific problems, almost all of it before the appearance of the internet. From what I understand, for example, it’s perfectly legal to not hire someone because they have a beard (except in DC!); there are certain classes of information you are explicitly forbidden to consider like gender and religion, but everything else is fair game.

  13. Undergraduates should keep in mind that mathematical taste varies enormously from person to person. A question that one person interprets as a promising sign of interest in non-classroom mathematics, might be interpreted by another as a sign of a showoffy nature, and by another as a sign that the asker is not in the habit of thinking carefully before asking for guidance. This is not specific to the Internet or MO, but the existence of these tools makes this realization more important than it once might have been.

    David says “there was much more opportunity to impress me than to disappoint me,” and I believe it. But I also believe that there are people on committees whose dispositions are very different. I don’t think this means that the mathematical Internet is to be avoided, but I do think those who participate should remain aware of what it is. If you use MO non-anonymously, your entire history on the site is a public statement about who you are. Asking questions is a bit like writing a research statement and answering them is a bit like writing a teaching statement— even if you are not at the point in your professional life where you are expected to have these things. People find this stuff and they form opinions about you. This doesn’t mean it’s necessarily detrimental, or scary, or high-stakes, any more than speaking up in a classroom or other public place is detrimental, or scary, or high-stakes. But that’s what it’s is. It’s just the same.

    It’s a little unnerving to me that it is increasingly common (not in this specific situation, now, but in the job market in general) for hiring and admissions decisions to be affected by material that is neither part of the job application materials, nor personal interviews, nor anything else remotely “official.” It’s not that I think it is wrong or illegitimate for outside information to be relevant to a selection process. What bothers me is the use of the Internet, a wild and unregulated source of reams of information that can be far from reliable (even, sometimes especially, if it is packaged within a glossy Web 2.0 interface).

    For example, I have a fairly common name, and I have no confidence that an employer could reliably separate my web presence from the five or six people currently active on the Internet with my name and the same approximate age. It could be done, but a person would have to be technically adept and willing to work at it. And there is a tendency for people *not* to work at it: it is human nature to be credulous (particularly if new information comes from a familiar source, e.g. widely used social networking sites), and to assign undue significance in “hidden” things that are “discovered” by a search. So maybe you Google “me” and find that “I” like to post in “my” Livejournal about sniffing glue all day, and therefore I (without quotes) don’t get a job interview. You know that people get passed over every day because of things like this.

    Despite being American— and despite knowing a bit about the history of job discrimination law, and having no general expectation that the law on any subject should make any kind of coherent sense— I also share quid’s puzzlement at the contrasts we have in the USA. We are an extremely litigious people, the letter of the law on job discrimination is rather strict, and our culture is generally rather averse to anything that might create an appearance of unfairness. (quid: saying that it is “uncommon” to include a portrait on a CV/resume is a vast understatement. Outside of modeling and acting, it basically isn’t done, and many Americans find it almost impossible to believe that this isn’t the case worldwide.) At the same time, we are incredibly relaxed as a culture about privacy, particularly with anything involving the relationship between companies/employers and customers/employees, and particularly online. I don’t understand it.

  14. Regarding anon’s CV and photo remark. I can confirm that in (certain) European countries it is perfectly normal to have a photo on a CV. There are even universities whose official applications material desciption say CV explicitly *with* photo (I doubt it is enforced, or anybody cares, but still it is written as somehow it is the traditional way of doing things).

  15. Hi I’d second anon’s comment that names are not unique identifiers, even within the confines of the mathematics community.

    For instance, you might be surprised to learn that “I”, David Jordan, am the head of the math department at Sheffield Univeristy, and that I was publishing papers before I was born. “I” also have two papers on the arXiv which were written by my accidental namesake. Indeed, there are at least three David Jordan’s in mathematics

    For this reason, I’d only encourage you to double-check for evidence that the candidate has enough identifying information on MO to ensure that they are who you are after.

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