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Bucking the Trend: Landing a Math Job in a Tight Market

by S. Brent Morris and Leon H. Seitelman

S. Brent Morris and Leon H. Seitelman are members of the AMS-MAA-SIAM Joint Committee for Employment Opportunities. Brent Morris is currently employed by the Defense Department and Leon Seitelman is employed by United Technologies, Pratt & Whitney.

Finding a job can be quite an experience -- in good times, heady, in bad times, exasperating. Regardless of economic conditions however, job seekers can profit from useful hints that serve to improve both the likelihood of finding employment and the choice of jobs offered. Since near-term relief is not yet in sight for the current weak demand for Ph.D. mathematicians in the United States, such hints would be most useful for 1993-94 job hunters. We hope to provide some.

Our advice is simple: think carefully and candidly about yourself; learn about the market you are trying to reach; make certain that you reach your target (employer) audience in an effective way. This three-pronged approach to seeking employment can draw upon many of the analytical skills you already possess, but an investment of your time in planning and implementing your job search is essential (i.e., a necessary -- but unfortunately not necessarily sufficient -- condition) for a successful conclusion to your job search. We hope that, over time, the academic institutions that train new Ph.D.'s will assume an added measure of responsibility both for providing useful information about employment for prospective graduates, and for directing or encouraging students to develop the teaching and communication skills so necessary for professional survival.

First, some facts. Four out of five Ph.D.'s in mathematics go into academia; of these, the great majority teach primarily undergraduate mathematics in departments that do not offer a Ph.D. So while your training and the culture of your department may lead you to expect to seek a job at a major research university, you should know that the a priori probability of success in this quest is small. Furthermore, at all schools there is now a greater concern with classroom performance and effective communication. In particular, a good command of English is essential. If you lack the skills demanded by the market, your chances of success will decrease.

To start the job process you should first get candid appraisals of your mathematical and teaching ability from your advisor and other faculty members. Do they think you can "cut it" at a major research department? Should you apply for one of the few post-doctoral fellowships? Are your teaching skills outstanding, passable, or nonexistent? To what schools do they recommend you apply? Ask them to think of you if they learn of any openings.

Decide what you really want in a job, what's satisfactory, and what's just acceptable. Is research your ultimate goal, or classroom instruction, or a blend? At what size school do you want to teach? How large a library do you need for your research? How large a town and what geographic amenities -- like mountains or deserts or beaches -- suit your lifestyle? Are you willing to spend several years in temporary positions before you get a tenure-track job? Have you considered government or industrial work? Do you even know what mathematicians in government and industry do?

Prepare a GOOD curriculum vitae, and make sure that the people who are writing letters of recommendation for you understand exactly where you want to go and what you want to do, so that their letters will actually support your goals.

Write a letter of application that is appropriate for the job for which you are applying; a "one size fits all" letter may be easier to write, but it will get the attention normally reserved for fourth class mail.

Employment Information in the Mathematical Sciences lists nearly all available academic mathematical positions, so read it carefully. The few jobs not listed in it are usually last minute openings with short deadlines, which underscores the importance of making certain that your advisor and other faculty know that you are available.

Post a copy of your CV on the e-MATH bulletin board, and check e-MATH for job listings. e-MATH is an electronic service of the American Mathematical Society; it should prove to be an especially valuable way of getting up-to-date information during the later stages of the upcoming employment season.

Attend the Joint Mathematics Meetings and use the Employment Register. Many of the smaller schools are usually at the Register, along with several government and industry employers. At the 1992 meeting in Baltimore, 86 employers interviewed for 134 positions; there were 613 applicants. At the 1993 meeting in San Antonio, 68 employers interviewed for 104 positions; there were 461 applicants. The ratio of positions to applicants can reasonably be expected to be as bad or worse at the Cincinnati meetings in 1994. However, even with a disheartening ratio, the register presents you with an opportunity to talk face-to-face with prospective employers.

Consider opportunities outside academia. Much exciting, challenging mathematics is done in government and industry. Many new Ph.D.'s think of these jobs as choices of last resort, to be pursued only after failure in the academic market. Timing is critical, however; if you wait to apply for nonacademic employment these openings may be filled, or the positions withdrawn. In addition, many government and industrial jobs require security clearances of some sort, and the clearance process can take several months. For this reason, these employers recruit mathematicians early in the fall for jobs that start the following summer. If you wait until late spring to consider nonacademic employment, you may have waited much too long.

Mathematics jobs are available for Ph.D.'s in this market, but not for the casual applicant. Inventory your assets, decide what you want to do, and apply early. Do not casually rule out government and industry as options, and be realistic about where you apply. If you plan carefully, apply aggressively, and are willing to wait a bit for your dream job, then you have a reasonable chance of success. The job market is currently poor and it is not easy to find a position, but there are satisfying jobs in mathematics; you can materially improve your prospects by broadening your job search and doing the necessary spadework.


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