Gender and language in letters of recommendation

I don’t have time to write about this properly, since I’m going up to Seattle for the Cascade Topology Seminar in a few hours, and then going to Japan for two weeks, but this seemed too important to not point out: new research suggests that people write recommendation letters for women and for men in different ways, which act to the detriment of women.

Essentially, letters for women tend to play up their “nice” side and those for men their “active” side. Interestingly, the effect didn’t seem to depend on the gender of the recommender, and men who received “nice” recommendation letters rather than “active” ones also had more trouble getting hired, controlling for other factors.

Just a reminder that we all have to be really self-aware about how we write recommendation letters.

What happened to Clay Liftoff?

Clay has announced that in 2010, there will be no Liftoff Fellows; they say the program is suspended. The title question was asked in MathOverflow a while back, and while it was rightly shut down there, I’m still kind of curious to know the answer. Did Clay decide Liftoff was not a good program for some reason? Did they not want to spend the money? Obviously, I’m appreciative of the Liftoff program having been a Fellow myself, but its very unclear to me that it results in more math getting done, as opposed to having a few mathematicians pay off student loans faster, which I think was its main effect on me.

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.

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MSC vs. ArXiv (and some interesting info on mathjobs)

One of my pet peeves is how annoyingly the AMS’s math subject classification is for people working in quantum algebra and quantum topology. The MSC has 97 different major subjects and my field is not one of them, and instead appears many times a subheading. In the new 2009 classification there’s at least the following: 16T, 17B37, 18D10, 20G42, 33D80, 57R56, 58B32, 81R50, and 81T45. Here I’m only counting things that are obviously quantum algebra and quantum topology (for example I didn’t list subfactors, quantum computation, knot invariants, etc.) By way of contrast, on the ArXiv there are only 32 categories, yet one of them (math.QA) contains the vast majority of work in my field (of course, many of those are cross-posted).

This mini-rant of mine came up at dinner at an AMS meeting in Waco (more on the excellent “fusion categories” special session later). Someone pointed out an interesting side-effect of this issue that I hadn’t thought of. One of the awesome things about mathjobs is that rather than simply having a large paper stack of applications, the people on hiring committees can instead sort the applications automatically in many different ways. It makes a lot of sense that mathjobs has this feature, but none of us who were on the applying side of things had ever considered it. Here are a few examples of things you might want to search for: look at people applying from a specific school, find everyone who has a recommendation letter from Prof. X, and (relevant to this post) sort by AMS subject classification.

This means that choosing the right AMS subject classifications is actually somewhat important. If you choose poorly then someone who might be interested in hiring you might never actually find your application among the hundreds they’re looking through. So if you’re in a situation like mine it’s worth asking a professor or two which AMS subject classifications they’d be most likely to look through.

Since then I’ve been wondering whether it might be a useful for mathjobs that the data they ask for also include which arxiv classifications applicants have posted preprints under, as that’s the search that I would want to use if I were on a hiring committee. What do people think? Mathjobs is very responsive to requests, so if people think this makes sense I may send them an email.

Go west, young man

uo_logo Well, I wasn’t willing to follow David’s lead in titling a post “Go Ducks!” but I am following his lead with good job news: I’ve just accepted a position as an Assistant Professor at the University of Oregon, to start in 2010.   I think the department is an excellent match for me, both in terms of research and in terms of location, so hopefully this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

By the way, don’t bother rushing over to the wiki.  I totally beat you all to it (though I guess I had a bit of an advantage).  We now return you to your regularly scheduled blogging.

More on matches

EDIT: Just so people don’t get the wrong idea, I’ll mention that I’m not suggesting this because of some personally traumatic experience I’ve had with job searching;  in fact, the last difficult career decision I made was when I was 18.  I just think it’s an idea worth considering, and one worth hearing other people’s input on.  END EDIT.

As I’ve read more about the medical resident match, I’ve recently become a lot more convinced that a match for mathematics jobs makes a lot of sense. Fundamentally, the point of a match world be that schools and candidates wouldn’t ever have to play mind games with each other. Everyone would just make a list, and the computer would make sense of them.

I feel the benefits of such a scheme are obvious. What about the objections?
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Go blue!

I thought I’d let you all know my plans for the future — I am staying at MIT one more year and then moving to the University of Michigan in Fall 2010, where I will be an associate professor.


I visited Austin, UMass Amherst, Duke, Minnesota and Stony Brook, and I would have been tremendously happy to work at any of these schools. They all made me feel very at home, and excited about the collaborations I could have there. I wish I could split myself in six!

If you are a combinatorialist who is going on the job market next year, particularly one whose interests blend into various flavors of geometry and representation theory, you should be thinking about Austin. Obviously, I have no capacity to speak for Austin, but everyone I talked to was very excited about bringing in someone in that direction. And, with Sean Keel and David Ben-Zvi around, you will never lack for interesting problems to discuss!

Most of my co-bloggers also did fairly well. I know AJ will be at Stony Brook next year, and Noah at Columbia. Any other news?

Websites someone else should make: how to write a letter of recommendation

It occurred to me while I was reading the comment of Anonymous that it is an incredibly serious problem that no one is ever trained to write letters of recommendation. In large part, the problem is that people have very little opportunity to see such letters before one serves on a hiring committee, and it’s not so clear that people can pick up the necessary skills just from reading other people’s letters. There really needs to be a tutorial online explaining how to do so, hopefully with examples (obvious the examples would have to be hypothetical, but that’s fine).

I doubt that this will ever happen, but I thought I would throw the idea out there. You never know when someone might bite.

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.

More stimulating mathematics?

It seems that there is a second wave of postdoc positions opening now, administered through the NSF’s Math Institutes.  It sounds like they will be some kind of weird mix of the usual NSF postdoc and a position at one of the institutes, and specifically aimed at those who have struck out this year.  As we’ve discussed, I’m a little skeptical about inflating the number of temporary positions without creating permanent ones to match, but, in the short term, good news for anyone still looking.