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Career Related Article

Applying for Jobs: Advice from the Front

Annalisa Crannell, Brown University and Franklin & MarshallCollege
From the Notices of the American Mathematical Society, July/August,1992, pp. 560-563.

The introduction to the 1985 edition of Seeking Employment in the Mathematical Sciences flatly pronounces that ``At the present time, job opportunities are somewhat plentiful in mathematics'' [1]. Those who are facing the job market nowadays---either from the hiring end, where roughly 400 applications demand attention, careful reading, and sometimes pity, or from the applying end, where the battery of current statistics mingled with inexperience produces a wealth of anxiety---find a mirthless irony in those words. The situation is not easy for anyone: not for the applicants, not for the universities trying to find jobs for their graduating students, and not for the hirers. This article attempts to address, in as humane a way as possible, the issues facing applicants (especially recent graduates), and also to offer advice from one who has already ``served time at the front.''

I approach this subject from a personal angle; I have just graduated from Brown University and accepted (very contentedly) a job at Franklin & Marshall College. My knowledge of the application process comes through a variety of avenues: various articles [2--5], my work in Brown's Center for the Advancement of College Teaching, discussions with employers at the Joint Meetings in Baltimore last January and at my several job interviews, and other experiences. The information you'll find here is occasionally statistical, occasionally philosophical, and frequently anecdotal.

I will break my discussion into various parts: (1) a brief discussion of the job market; (2) advice for those who will be applying far in the future; (3) general aspects of the job application; and (4) issues of concern to women entering the job market.

What You'll Be Facing

Few of us have come this far in our careers without hearing the dire stories of the current job market. The reasons for this crisis are varied: the temporary reduction in the number of college-aged Americans, the increasing number of foreign mathematicians making their homes in the U.S., the swell in graduating doctorates, and the recession, which has forced severe budget cuts in state education as well as in smaller private schools. Preliminary reports [6] indicate that the number of advertised jobs is still decreasing (the January 1992 issue of Employment Information in the Mathematical Sciences contained 23% fewer positions than the January 1991 issue), and that half the nontenure track jobs are for one year only. The AMS Task Force on Employment will soon be publishing a report which includes more recent and complete statistics.

For a number of reasons, today's applicants apply to an incredible number of schools. They do so out of convenience---``print merge'' has made 140 applications only marginally more difficult than seventy. They do so out of inexperience---many believe that blanketing the market is the most effective strategy for procuring a job. They do so out of terror---who has not heard about the excellent mathematician who applied to 200 places and received no offers? They do so out of pressure from their faculty---I initially applied to ``only'' sixty places and was urged to double that number. (I eventually applied to eighty, but subsequently withdrew many of those applications.) Finally, they do so out of peer pressure---while nonmathematicians are amazed that I applied to as many places as I did, for us it has become standard.

The sorry state for job applicants has not, however, resulted in a fiesta for employers. There is an incredible amount of work involved in sorting through the multitude of applications. Moreover, having a surplus of applications doesn't mean that it's easier to hire ``superstars'': the chair of one department told me that the best people are still fought over as fiercely as ever---much to his chagrin.

Long Before You Graduate

All job search manuals begin with the timely advice, Start early. Unfortunately, the amount of work that is necessary to maintain a graduate existence keeps us from thinking about extraneous affairs before they are directly upon us, and so most people who see the words Start early have long since lost the advantage those words could have afforded. I am hardly a conformist, but I also present this advice with the optimistic and perhaps vain hope that it may do somebody, somewhere, some good.

The best way to get an interesting job is to have evidence that you have done interesting things. The best way to have interesting things to do is to have so many options that you can choose the most interesting ones yourself. Even a young, inexperienced graduate student with few connections and no reputation to speak of has a number of ways to open up those options, most of which essentially come down to advertising.

Volunteer. Go to departmental seminars. Go to conferences. Going to a local conference doesn't have to cost you anything---write a polite letter to your deans asking for a grant. They won't mind shelling out fifty or sixty dollars for a good cause. Getting grants, no matter how small, looks very good to employers. Giving talks to undergraduates or high school students is an excellent way to prepare for the bigger talks that follow, and it lets people know that you're out there (it looks good on your CV, too).

Most of all, talk about your interests. For young graduate students, it's often intimidating to talk to the faculty. However, making use of professors' knowledge, experience, and connections is one of the foremost reasons for being in graduate school. An appreciable benefit of talking to faculty outside of class is that, if the faculty know what you're doing, they'll feel much more comfortable writing letters or verbally recommending you to others, sometimes even before you ask them to. The two most exciting opportunities that came my way while I was in graduate school were both passed along by professors who'd received phone calls asking ``We need somebody for such-and-such. Do you know anyone who might be interested?'' For foreign graduate students, talking to faculty becomes an effective way to increase your command of English---and this will make a big difference when it comes time to apply for jobs.

Next, collecting and maintaining evidence of what you've done is of supreme importance. It's a wise idea to have a folder (mine was unabashedly called ``Bragging'' as long as it stayed in my drawer) where you can dump everything that's going to make you look good some day. You might keep lists of awards and honors you've received, invitations to speak or to teach external classes, brochures from conferences you've attended, copies of transcripts, copies of old CVs or resumes, interesting computer experiences, student evaluations, unsolicited comments from students (letters, notes on exams, etc.), statistics on student retention, letters---especially thank you letters---from faculty or administrators, and so on.

This folder can be used in various ways. You will almost certainly use it to prepare your CV. You can give it to your letter writers, who will be more than happy to have tangible things to say: ``I've seen copies of her course syllabi and they're very good'' is nicer to write and read than ``I've heard she's a well-organized teacher.'' And finally, you can clean it up and carry it around to show to prospective employers.

Putting Together Your Application

First, figure out what kind of job you want to apply for. You'll have to do it someday, and doing it now will make your applications much more effective. What do you want out of a job? To learn more math? To work with the hot shots in your field? To have access to large computers? To work in a college? Four-year or two-year [7], liberal arts, community, or technical? To get out of academia altogether [8]? To live in a particular geographic area? Your ``Career Services Office" or its equivalent probably has copies of books which discuss academic institutions and their various departments. Careful use of these books is a big help in deciding where to apply and in putting together well thought out applications.

Once you have these things in mind, you can begin to assemble your application. I am most familiar with applying to institutions that place a high emphasis on teaching (and with state budgets being cut, a lot of the hiring is indeed being done at private colleges), but I hope that this advice is generalizable to other institutions.

An application will include many of the following items:

  • a curriculum vita, or CV, which is best prepared by looking at other people's CVs and deciding which style best suits your needs;
  • a thesis abstract and research proposal;
  • reprints or preprints of any articles you've written;/
  • two copies of your graduate and undergraduate transcripts. (These cost money and take time, so order early. You can send photocopies in your mass mailings, but once places get serious about you, they'll want the originals.)
  • four letters of recommendation, one of which addresses only teaching (more on this later);
  • a statement of your teaching philosophy (if you're interested in a teaching job); and
  • a cover letter that includes the position you're applying for; your name, address, email address, and phone number; the names and addresses of your recommenders; your professional interests and aspirations; the reasons you're applying to that particular place (name people you can work with, programs which interest you, location, reputation, etc.); and the fact that you'll be attending the Employment Register at the Joint AMS-MAA meetings in January (if, in fact, you will be).

Keep the cover letter short. If you want to brag more, do it in . . .

  • a follow-up letter, in which you brag like crazy and/or respond to questions the school has asked you.

There are a variety of places that advertise job openings, and a fairly complete list of these can be found by looking in [5], an excellent reference.

Here are some general strategies for arranging your application. First, if you are one of the many who have not been able to ``start early'', now would be the perfect time to invest in a good coffeemaker. When you sit down to put your application together, you must realize that today many schools are getting upwards of 400 applicants, a large number of which are obviously inappropriate (only one school I talked to in January had received as few as 250 applications, but they didn't start advertising until December). Reading hundreds of applications carefully without becoming jaded is strenuous (think about grading your exams), so the first sort merely verifies whether the applicant fits the advertised criteria. If a school advertised for a differential geometer and you're a topologist, you're out. If you apply to a two-year college that wants someone with computer expertise but your letters of recommendation all talk about nothing but your research, you're out. A lot of applicants still believe in the ``safety school'' approach---they want to do research, but they'll apply to a small college ``just in case.'' Small colleges that advertise for teaching excellence want, believe it or not, teaching excellence, not researchers. So the first rule of thumb is: don't bother applying to places that are advertising for what you're not. It's a waste of time and money. (Some argue that an application is a form of advertising, of spreading one's name around. I believe there are more straightforward ways of achieving the same result.)

Another consideration to keep in mind is that a person high on one institution's list is likely to be high on another's list, and institutions are fully aware of this. Potential employers have to worry about not only whether the applicant is suitable for that school, but also whether that applicant is likely to accept the job if it's offered. Therefore, it's a good idea to try to convince the places to which you're applying that you know what you're doing. If you're applying to a new geographic area, for example, explain why you're doing so. (Employers are likely to be reluctant to interview people who are too far away---they're expensive to interview and less likely to accept.) Especially if you're applying to small places, pay attention to your cover letter. Larger schools may not pay them much heed, but smaller schools tend to emphasize the individual and read the letter fairly carefully. If you are ``print merging'' your letters, check them over: employers do not ``read merge''.

It's not a bad idea---and may even be a good one---to have some part of your application, clearly marked, that goes into depth about something that reflects your own strengths and interests. Your thesis abstract and preprints do this for the research side of you, but there may be another aspect you'd like to emphasize. It doesn't have to be teaching; it could be computers, or integrating music and mathematics, or getting grants for mathematical trips to the Caribbean. But there should be something about your application that makes a school think, ``Wow. Wouldn't it be nice to have this person here?''

Some schools have started asking for a statement of teaching philosophy (which is why other schools have started seeing them even without such requests). I firmly believe this is a step in the right direction. A school that asks for a statement of teaching philosophy weeds out those not really interested in that job and also gains extra insight into each applicant.

I incorporated my description of my teaching directly into my CV. I kept my CV fairly standard for the first two pages---I was born, I went to various schools, I won awards, I did research, I taught courses, I went to conferences, I joined organizations---but then I added a third page called ``Goals and Techniques in the Classroom.'' It was on this page that I mentioned my work with dyslexics, my use of computers and of writing assignments, the career advice that I give, and what students do after they leave my class.

This idea is based on one of the hottest new items in pedagogical circles, the ``Teaching Portfolio,'' which is in turn modeled after the artist's or architect's portfolio. Teachers across the country are being encouraged to maintain artifacts that document their teaching effectiveness---course syllabi, student projects, external and self-evaluations, and so on. It is more comprehensive than a ``4 out of 5'' on a student evaluation, and is being used by institutions such as Stanford, Harvard, and the New Hampshire secondary school system. Those who are interested in more information should see Peter Seldin's The Teaching Portfolio [9]. (If your Career Services Office doesn't have a copy, ask them to get one.)

One last tip: Several schools told me that the small number of applications which are completed early get substantially more attention than the hordes that pour in at the deadline. It can also mean the difference in getting an interview during the Joint Meetings in San Antonio next January. So, give your letter writers plenty of time and push them to get things done early, and aim for getting things done early yourself.

Letters of Recommendation

When I talked to employers about the process of reading job applications, their second-largest gripe (next to the sheer quantity of applications) was bad letters of recommendation. Some ``writers'' can't. Some letters were, for various reasons, offensive. One example of such a complaint prompted a letter to the editor of the Notices :``We have seen letters of recommendation for job candidates that suggest anti-female bias on the part of the writer. The technique is subtle: the (female) candidate is compared only with other women; or statements are made such as `she is the best female graduate student I have seen in the last five years'. . .'' [10]. But most often, the letters did not at all take into account the type of institution to which they were being sent. One interviewer complained to me that letters for an applicant to a small, liberal arts college that emphasized teaching above all else often began, ``Let G be a semi-abelian variety. . .''

You have more control over your letters than you might think. It is imperative that you tell your writers the kinds of jobs you're applying to, your top choices, as well as which aspects of your career you'd like them to emphasize. It's not unreasonable to ask for two letters, emphasizing different aspects. Neither is it pushy to show them your ``bragging'' folder---if you think about how hard it is to write letters of recommendations for your own students, you'll realize that your writers will appreciate it. (This is especially true for those writers who don't know you well.) For goodness' sake, give your letter-writers as much information as possible! Tell them your deadlines, both official and personal, and try to give them plenty of time to meet those deadlines.

Sending out letters can often be done through the department or through your Career Services Office. In fact, the folks at Career Services will often maintain a file of letters and other material you want sent out, and will even send them out free-of-charge.

The Interview

When and if you get an interview at a school, make the most of it. Your talk will be better if you've asked beforehand what types of people are going to be in the audience, which upper-level courses are being taught that year, and what kind of knowledge you should assume. If possible, choose a talk that allows you to highlight your own teaching style (use of computer, lots of pictures, whatever).

Your interview is the time to ask all those questions you thought you wouldn't ask until you accepted the job---Is there child care on campus? How much does it cost to live around here? Does the city have a square dancing club? Can I talk to some of the undergrads today?---as well as those that more carefully define the job---On what decisions is tenure based? What is the salary? What are the benefits? Are there tenure quotas? Do faculty ``own'' courses? What will I be teaching?. You'll probably be meeting about ten different people during the day, most of whom will ask you, ``So, er, do you have any questions?'' Feel free to ask the same questions over and over; you'll get a lot of different answers anyway.

The kinds of questions that you'll be asked are: What is your research? (This is invariably asked by a dean who hasn't had math since freshman year of college---practice now). What courses would you like to teach? Where's your research going? Um, er, do you have any questions?

You're going to make a much better impression if you are enthusiastic, energetic, and smiling. When you do get to the interview, enjoy it, and drink a lot of coffee.

Women in the Job Market

Graduating students, even in the best of economic times, are prone to bouts of uncertainty and anxiety regarding their futures. A market such as the one we're facing can only further erode their confidence. Many studies have shown that this crisis of confidence disproportionately affects women, who, although they tend to do better than their male counterparts at every stage of mathematical education, consistently undervalue their own skills (see, for example, [11]).

Often, women not only belittle their own accomplishments, but also believe others who belittle their accomplishments for them. I haven't yet met a woman in graduate school who wasn't told at some point (usually by friends) that her gender must have been a big help in getting in. Nor does it stop at graduate school; versions of the ``gender boost'' are prevalent in the job market.

Although these comments are intended to be encouraging, they further chip at a woman's belief in her own strengths, for they imply that a woman's success is not based on her qualifications alone. Instead, anecdotes and research abound that shows just the opposite: not only must women ``make it'' on their own merits, but many qualified women are turned away---or turn away---in spite of merits. The ``turning away'' takes many forms, from applying only for jobs for which she is overqualified, to leaving mathematics altogether.

At such a crucial stage as applying for jobs, it is vital for an applicant to have a realistic and even slightly idealistic view of her or his level of ability. This level may be higher than the applicant thinks, especially if she is a woman. I strongly urge all those who are in a position to advise students that they assure them of their abilities and encourage them to aim high.

To the women who are on the job market this year, I offer the following encouragement: For me, it was too easy to say, ``Well, I've made it this far, but I don't know that I'm really any good.'' I learned pretty quickly that employers and colleagues alike believe that making it ``this far'' is a concrete indication that I am good. If the rest of the world is going to think you're amazing for doing all you've done, you might as well think so, too. Aim high.

For those who are interested in a more thorough treatment of this subject than I have space for here, I highly recommend the Special Issue on Women in Mathematics that appeared in the September 1991 issue of the Notices [12].


When you know how tough the job market is, it's hard not to send applications to every department that's advertising. Yet the sheer quantity of one-size-fits-all applications indicates that tailoring your applications for the jobs you really want is not only more considerate to prospective employers, but also a smart move on your own part. The application that stands out from the crowd is one that is intelligent and well-considered and that reflects the interests and aspirations of the applicant.

If I had to sum up my own experiences into one sentence of advice, I would say: ``Start early, apply to the kinds of institutions where you'd really like to work, and do your best to convince them you're the perfect person for the job.'' If I were allowed two sentences, I'd add, ``And drink a lot of coffee.''


  1. Seeking Employment in the Mathematical Sciences, Mathematical Sciences Employment Register, Providence, RI, 1985, page 1.
  2. Allyn Jackson, ``Hiring and Jobseeking in Academia: Anecdotes about the job market,'' Notices, December 1989, 36 :10, pages 1347--1351.
  3. Allyn Jackson, ``The Mathematics Job Market: Are New Ph.D.s Having Trouble?'', Notices, December 1990, 37 :4, pages 1349--1352.
  4. D.J. Lewis, ``Employment of New Ph.D.s: Some Proposals,'' Notices, April 1991, 38 :4, pages 296--297.
  5. Bernard Madison, ``Employment in the Mathematical Sciences: Advice To Applicants and Employers,'' EIMS, special issue, December 1991, vol. 114.
  6. Donald E. McClure, ``AMS Task Force on Employment Report to the Mathematical Community Part I: Academic Hiring Survey,'' Notices, April 1992, 39 :4, pages 311--316.
  7. Ronald M. Davis, ``Teaching at a Two-year College---Is It for You?'', EIMS, May 1992, 117 :10.
  8. Fan R.K. Chung, ``Should You Prepare Differently for a Non-academic Career?'', Notices, July/August 1991, 38 :6, pages 560--561.
  9. Peter Seldin, The Teaching Portfolio: A Practical Guide to Improved Performance and Promotion/Tenure Decisions, Anker Publishing Company, Bolton, MA, 1991.
  10. Colin C. Graham, L. Thomas Ramsey, Letter to the Editor, Notices, February 1992, 39 :2, page 100.
  11. The Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, ``How Schools Shortchange Girls: Executive Summary,'' AAUW Outlook, 86 :1, 1992, pages 15--25.
  12. ``Special Issue on Women in Mathematics,'' Notices, September 1991, 38 :7, pages 701--775.