Grad Guide – Finding a Job – Advice

Dear math graduate,

Let’s talk about life after graduation. Yes, let’s talk about finding your next job.

What kind of job is right for you?

Speaking in broad categories, there are three major types of jobs for a recent math PhD graduate.

First, there are primarily teaching positions at smaller universities and colleges that do not grant their own PhD degrees (sometimes not even a Masters). You might consider these if you are really into teaching, and you did not enjoy working on your thesis. At a school like this, it is common to teach 4 courses each semester. As you can imagine, this takes an enormous amount of effort and time, leaving virtually no room for research. It may be tempting to take a permanent position like this right after school, but if you wish to stay on the math research highway, such a move could prove detrimental.

Second, there are postdoctoral (or their equivalent) positions at larger research-oriented Universities. These are visiting positions lasting 1-3 years. This is what you want to do if you enjoy mathematical research, and don’t mind some teaching. There are postdoc positions that are free of teaching, but most do require teaching 1-2 course a year. The emphasis of the postdoctoral experience is on pursuing research and establishing yourself as an independent scientist.

Finally, if you love doing math research but cannot stomach teaching math, there is Google/Facebook/NASA/NSA/Wall Street, etc, that is, a host of high IT/tech/biotech/finance industries that are always eager to use an infusion of bright minds. For industrial positions, you will be competing with physicists, computer scientists, and engineers.

In mathematics, one should not expect to land a tenure-track job in a big research university without going through at least one postdoctoral term somewhere. For the academy-oriented mathematicians, this would be the standard career route! So, what does it take?

Early preparation

Applying for jobs and even preparing to enter the job lottery is a long and tedious process that begins long before your graduation year. With a tight academic job market and the online job application process, each advertised academic position receives hundreds of applications. At this stage, being picked into next round is determined by luck, several key numbers, and your name recognition. All of these categories should be carefully considered and prepared before you send your first batch of job applications.

Beware! You’ll be busy. You will need a good chunk of patience and stamina to go all the way. Don’t procrastinate. In a last minute rush, mistakes are made. Sending one wrong letter to the wrong place is likely to kill your chances there. You don’t want this to happen. So, prepare for a steady stride. Also, remember that there are other things (like writing, defending, and submitting your thesis) that require your attention during the graduation year.

Preliminary work for entering the job market includes building up your scientific reputation via networking and socializing, presenting your research, and of course, working on your thesis and publishing papers and preprints. This is an important time to make yourself visible and recognized by the professional community. Whenever possible you should apply for travel funds with CAM, CLAS, the math department, and also ask your advisor to attend conferences and workshops.

Alert your reference letter writers

When you decide that are ready to graduate, next comes the job application process. In the summer prior to the graduation year, you should prepare (or update if necessary) your curriculum vitae, the teaching and research statements, and get in touch with your references. Let them know that you will be applying for jobs, and that they should prepare to write their letters. Your references are typically members of your PhD committee that are familiar with your research, certainly including your advisor. A detailed letter of reference will obviously carry more scientific weight. You should also get a teaching reference. It always makes a positive impression when one of your reference letters comes from a different department or even from a different university.

Your sample cover letter

Draft a sample cover letter. It is highly recommended that you run your entire application package by the specialists at the CRC (Career Resource Center at UF). They are professionals that might give you useful advice and suggestions. Also, you should not forget to update your web page. Remember, your web page is like your business card, and your potential employers WILL google you.

Your curriculum vitae

The CV should describe your education and employment history, the courses that you have taught, your publications and preprints, list the talks you gave at and/or simply attended conferences/workshops/seminars. You need to list your awards and honors. Include a list of your references and your advisor. Mention other professional activities such as GAU/GMA/SIAM involvement. Finally, you can list your computer/software skills.

Your research statement

Its main purpose is to introduce your research, so it should not be too long, up to 4–6 pages. It does not need to be too detailed either. Make the introduction comprehensible and then describe your research as you would addressing a specialist in the corresponding area of math. Include references where necessary. Explain what has been done, what you are currently working on, and what is to come next (future research plans).

Your teaching statement

It is not as relevant if your aiming at a postdoctoral position. But if you apply for a teaching position, you should convince the employer that your are a great instructor with a passion for teaching math. Include your teaching evaluations, and brief description of courses you taught. If your teaching evaluations are glowing, you may include a few sample scans in your statement. Elaborate on why you think you are an effective teacher. Teaching innovations, computer technology, and experience with online teaching is a plus. Try to present things in a matter of fact format, otherwise the employer might not think you are serious about teaching. The teaching statement should be honest. It might help to write it as if you were presenting it orally.

Your web page.

It must contain links to all of the documents discussed above, and contain other relevant information such as links to the course web pages that you created. Include a professional-like picture of yourself and a one paragraph description of your research.

Tailor your cover letter.

The cover letter gives a better impression if it tailored to each employer separately. For instance, it is a good idea to describe the faculty that you may be interested in working with. If the department includes someone you know personally, e.g. from a conference, you might alert them about your application in a separate e-mail. You can ask your advisor to contact some faculty they know locally to (unofficially) alert them. You can also add other specific reasons for you to apply to this particular school. Including specific details helps to fight the randomness of the initial pick, but comes at the cost of the time you’ll spend researching each school. The good thing, most information can be found online. Yes, Google is your dear friend!

The process

At any time in this process, do not hesitate to consult with your advisor. Most likely, you are meeting regularly to talk about the progress of the thesis anyway. You advisor has been through this whole job search adventure and can offer powerful insights.

The actual application process begins in the Fall of your graduation year. As most applications are done online, you should register with job application system. It is free, and allows you to sort through the job ads, send applications, and also arrange interviews at the annual AMS meetings. In addition, the job ads are published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Notices of the AMS, and EIMS (employment information in the mathematical sciences), which can found at the AMS website. Various professional societies such as SIAM, SMB have their own employment sources.

Keep track of the deadlines as they always come too soon! Typically, the deadlines are posted forOctober-November for tenure-track positions, and for December-January for postdoctoral positions. Keep in mind that some smaller schools post earlier deadlines to be more competitive for stronger candidates. Submitting applications is not a one-time thing, it is an iterative procedure because new ads are posted regularly. It may be to your advantage to designate a certain time period each week that you spend on the application process. Try to create a separate file folder for each school where you apply, and keep a copy of the full application portfolio there, but tailor it to the given school. This will help save time and avoid confusion in the future.

The wait period

What comes next is the wait period. This is the time when the search committees are browsing through the applicants’ files trying to figure out their short lists. Be patient, even if you don’t hear from any university for a while. There is quite a bit of the variability, but normally you would hear from someone anywhere from mid January and up to mid March. The postdoctoral positions are usually filled later than the tenure track lines. Waiting may be nerve-racking or annoying, but there is something else you can do in the meantime.

The January Joint Math Meetings

Attend the January (annual) AMS meeting. Its location changes year to year, but one of its main functions is the greatest math job fair of the year. This is the venue where many employers interview many job applicants, albeit these interviews are rather brief. In the past few years, the initial Skype interviews became very popular. So, be expecting to go through a few of those before visiting an actual campus.

The Interview

Do your research before an interview. You need to convince the interviewers that you are genuinely interested in what they can offer you. Ask relevant questions about the structure of the department, job expectations, tenure and promotion procedures (if relevant), the local lifestyle etc. Be yourself.

When you are invited for a campus visit, it is a great sign, it means that you are a part of fewer than a handful candidates, so this is a very real chance. A typical campus visit may last 1-2 days. You will be asked to give a research talk and possibly complement it with a teaching demonstration. In addition, you will meet with the search committee, and a representative from the dean’s office. You may also request to meet individually with several faculty members whose research interests have attracted your attention (you did the research, remember?). You may have to go through several campus visits, and it becomes an exhausting experience. Be prepared for that. Prior to giving your interview talk, it may be helpful to run it by your friends and peers, e.g. schedule a local seminar for this purpose. Arrange for someone to write down the questions and comments so that you can address those and improve your slides/presentation.

The Decision

The last but certainly not the least hurdle is the decision time when you are juggling with several offers trying to make your choice. At this point, the number of relevant variables has grown exponentially, and making a decision becomes a very individual experience. We’ll simply hope you have made it this far.

Good luck!

Jay Pantone and Sergei S. Pilyugin

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