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Finding Employment in a Ph.D. Granting Institution

by Frank DeMeyer

Colorado State University


A tenure-track faculty member in a Ph.D. granting university is expected to teach a relatively small number of classes (each possibly containing a large number of students), develop a significant program of research, work with graduate students, and compete for external funding. Many new graduates with a Ph.D. have aptitudes and interests which lie more on the classroom teaching side and seek employment in four-year or two-year institutions. Others have less interest in instruction and more in problem solving and look for employment in private consulting firms, industry, or government. In this article, I hope to make some remarks which might help a new or recent graduate in mathematics find a tenure-track job at a Ph.D. granting institution.

The Current Employment Situation

Based on data published by the American Mathematical Society, I estimate that there will be about 150 tenure-track positions to be filled by young mathematics faculty at Ph.D. granting schools in the United States each year for the next five years. Since U.S. universities are currently graduating about 1000 Ph.D.s per year and many graduates of foreign universities are seeking employment in the United States, there will be more highly qualified applicants than available positions.

The American Mathematical Society classifies Ph.D. granting departments in three groups. The largest of these is Group III (other Ph.D. granting departments), and this is the group which will do most of the hiring for tenure-track positions in the next five years. I have participated recently in the hiring process from the university's side at two Group III schools, so perhaps I can provide some insight into this process and help a qualified applicant land a position.

Qualities of the Applicant

Hiring at research universities is carried out at the departmental level. University administrators encourage hiring for diversity, potential interaction with other departments in the mathematical sciences, and prospective success in obtaining external funding. Otherwise, for the most part, they don't participate in the hiring process. Departments are usually interested in fairly specific research areas, and the first quality a department looks for in an applicant is research excellence within the desired area. You should construe the term "research excellence" in its broadest sense. Departments look for both breadth and depth, evidence of potential for successful collaboration, and communication skills. The judgement about whether an applicant should be brought in for an interview is based on the applicant's description of the contents of a thesis and/or published and ongoing work, any contracts or grants, and the content and prestige of the authors of letters of recommendation.

Contents of the Application

The applicant's description of research should be concise, coherent, and as nontechnical as possible. It should communicate clearly the mathematical ideas and methods that interest the appplicant. An overly long or technical research description will either not be understood or simply remain unread. A confused or shallow description will lead to the application being passed over. This is the single most important part of the application that is solely controlled by the job seeker.

Contracts and grants include research fellowships, consulting with industrial labs or government, and NSF, NSA, or other government contracts. The financial lifeblood of some research mathematics departments comes from contracts and grants. These departments have a lot in common with private consulting firms, and teaching may play even a smaller role than in the typical research department. Given the financial straits of many universities, a potential faculty member who is willing to pay part of the academic year salary out of contracts and grants is on the inside track for an appointment.

The first part of an application I want to look at is the letters of recommendation. Students from top-flight universtites (departments classified as Group I by the AMS) should know and be known by mathematicians with an outstanding international research reputation. These are the kind of individuals you should recruit to write your recommendation letters. Those who graduate from less well-regarded departments usually need to hold research instructorships or other research appointments at outstanding institutions where contacts can be made and a body of work developed before applying for a tenure-track job.

Broadcasting and Customizing Your Application

There are well-meaning individuals who might suggest you send your application materials only to a small number of institutions with whom you think you might have the best fit. This advice is given to serve the convenience of the hiring institutions, not the welfare of the applicant. This is a difficult job market. Take advantage of modern word processing technology to send a carefully tailored application to every university that you might consider and that might consider you.

Tailoring an application means customizing your "standard" application to fit the specific university you are applying to. For example, there might be a faculty member or group of faculty members in the department you're applying to who knows you personally, knows your work, or should be interested in your research. There might be an institute within the department studying problems which interest you. Your research might especially fit a specific mission of the institution or especially serve the needs of its students. Your research might support another department in the mathematical sciences at the university. In each of these cases your application should be customized to make these connections for the individual reading the application.

The Interview

After a hiring committee has sifted through a large number of applications, a small group will be granted a personal interview. The centerpiece of the interview is usually a colloquium lecture of about an hour. The extraordinary emphasis on research excellence diminishes during the interview, and personal qualities become more important. Department members are looking at future colleagues. Faculties seek someone with energy and enthusiasm who will be generous with time and ideas. At the interview talk, teaching effectiveness will be judged by individuals who may otherwise not be particularly interested in the applicant's research area. Success requires winning over these faculty too. During the past 25 years, I have attended many interview talks. Some were wonderful, some dreadful, and most in between. I have seen applicants whom our department was ready to hire lose out as a result of a bad interview talk and watched a department become enthusiastic about other applicants as a result of good interview talks. Good talks always contain some special insights, are delivered in a direct way, without irrelevant showmanship or gadgetry, and demonstrate the speaker's interest and ability to convey mathematical ideas. If the talk you plan to give will be read from 30 or 40 prepared overhead transparencies full of typewritten equations, tables, and diagrams photocopied from your latest paper, rethink your concept of an interview talk.

Finally, hiring committees, departments, and university administrators do consider other personal factors during an interview. Mathematics departments and universities have a high tolerance for eccentricity. However, the weirdness factor can come in to play if the members of the hiring committee judge that the applicant's eccentricities will interfere with an ability to carry out job-related duties. You can let your potential employer know your view of the importance of the position being offered by maintaining reasonable standards of dress, behavior, and personal hygiene.


As you craft your application materials, I hope you find some of these remarks helpful and find a successful career in mathematics.