Back to my home page.
As a companion to my college and graduate school
advice pages, I decided to write one for job applicants as well. This comes from my own
experience as an applicant, search committee member, and search committee chair.
Some of this advice is probably specific to finding a tenure-track math job at a small university
that values teaching, but much of it should apply more generally.
First, how do you decide where to apply?
Ok, now what do you do?
- Apply for every position that you might want to accept. Not everyone is hiring every
year, so look around. If you thought college and grad school admissions were tough, now
you're applying against hundreds of other candidates at a school that is likely going to hire
just one person. A really competitive college or graduate program may accept 5-10% of applicants.
A typical hiring process will accept closer to 0.5% of applicants.
- Definitely search EIMS and MathJobs. I'm not going to provide links since if you
can't find them on your own, then you're already in trouble.
- If there is a place you really want to be, go directly to jobs section of their web site.
It also doesn't hurt to contact the department chair to ask if they might be hiring. The answer
will likely be something like "definitely not this year, not sure about next year" but at least
then you'll know. Or it could be that a position is about to be advertised as soon as one more
administrator gets back from overseas to give it the final approval. You'd be amazed how much
work goes into the process before the job ad can appear.
- Along those lines, the job ad may say some things that are higher priorities than others.
If you don't fit the description perfectly (e.g. the ad says an algebraist is preferred, but
you're a topologist, or the ad calls for postdoctoral experience and you're just finishing grad school),
go ahead and go for it if you really want the job (with emphasis on your work in algebraic topology, or courses for which
you were the instructor of record), but if you don't fit at all (e.g. a Ph.D. is required and you
are nowhere near earning one) then don't waste the committee's time.
- If you are finishing graduate school and applying for tenure-track positions, keep in mind that
you are going up against postdocs and even more experienced applicants. No matter how good you are now,
you will likely be a stronger candidate for those positions in a few years, so don't be discouraged
if you have to take a temporary position for now.
What should you not do? Yes, I really have seen every one of these.
- I cannot stress this enough, READ WHAT THE JOB AD ASKS FOR. If it requests a cv, cover letter,
teaching statement, research statement, and letters of recommendation, and you just send a cv,
your application will probably never even reach the search committee. If you are missing just one
piece and the rest of your application is strong, then they might contact you to ask for the last
piece, but mathematicians are supposed to be able to follow directions literally.
- If applying discreetly (no letters and requesting that your references not be contacted
until the last minute), make sure to be upfront about this and make sure it is ok. Just
omitting references will not work out well for you.
- Proofread all of your materials, and have someone else proofread them for you.
- The importance of the cover letter cannot be overstated. This is the part of your application
that is unique to each job you apply for (or at least it should be!). Really great candidates might
get away with a generic cover letter, but responding to details from the job ad and showing that you
know something about the school and the department will make the committee WANT to read the rest of
your application. Better yet, they will likely want to talk to you, thus getting you to the
first-round interview stage.
- Why are you leaving your current position? If you are graduating, then this is obvious enough that
it probably does not need to be said. If you are finishing a postdoc, then it need only be briefly
mentioned. What concerns me is applicants who are currently in a tenure-track position and give no
indication of why they are applying elsewhere.
- If you are in a large graduate program, make sure you emphasize how you stand out from the
rest of your class. There was one school in particular where I kept noticing letters on the same
stationary, with professors writing similar recommendations for multiple students, and so many
students had won teaching awards that it was all just meaningless.
- If you get an interview, make sure you have some questions to ask. Obviously you want a job, but
you have to show an interest in this one in particular.
- The overriding message here is that hiring is like a courtship. No matter how wonderful you are,
you need to show a real interest in the school for them to pick you above all the other wonderful
How does the process work?
- Do not get a reference letter from someone else who is applying for the same job. Similarly,
do not agree to write a reference letter for someone who is applying for the same job.
- Do not list on your cv the job offers that you have rejected.
- Do not send an incomplete application. If something causes your application to submit before it
is ready, figure out whom you need to contact to get the rest of your files in there. A
technical glitch will not be counted against you, but ignoring it will.
- While using LaTeX is highly recommended, make sure you know how to use it. Default margins
and quote marks going the wrong way are rookie mistakes that indicate you are not yet ready
for a permanent job in the field.
- While customizing your cover letter to each job is great, make sure you send the right one.
The committee does not want to read about how excited you are to be somewhere else.
- Make sure your cover letter fits the job. If all you talk about is how devoted you are to your
research, then I'm not going to consider you for a 4/4 teaching load. A research postdoc and a liberal
arts teaching position probably require two completely different letters.
- Also along those lines, keep it professional. Relevant personal details may be appropriate, but
I remember reading one letter that got creepy when we realized that none of us knew the candidate at all.
- If interviewing at the JMM, be in contact via email and/or cell phone. If you miss your
scheduled interview and don't say anything about it for hours, then the search committee has learned
all they need to know about you.
Finally, here's perhaps the toughest but most important thing to realize. You can be a great fit
for a job, bond well with the department, and nail every aspect of the on-campus interview, only to
have someone else do the same. No matter how much the department wants to hire both stellar candidates
who would each add a unique dimension to the program, they can only hire one. I had an interview once
where I could not believe that I was not subsequently offered the job. It wasn't until I chaired a search
10 years later that I truly understood how it can happen. In the end, there can be only one (but at least
you get to keep your head!).
- Due to employment laws, parts of the process must remain confidential. The committee does not
want to give false hope or discouragement to anyone. If you have another offer in hand, then it
is appropriate to contact the search committee chair to let them know and ask if an offer is imminent.
- My own experience was that applications could be sorted pretty easily into 3 categories of
approximately equal size: unqualified/incomplete/inappropriate, qualified but not a good
fit (a lot of generic cover letters end up here), and those who appear to be a good fit on paper.
Those in the last category (as deemed by a subset of the search committee) were then read by more
of the committee to narrow the list to about 30 for first-round interviews.
- While attending the JMM is not necessary, it may work in your favor. We did phone interviews for
top candidates who were not going, but once we got through the top 20 or so, the remaining slots
were filled at the JMM since those interviews are easier to arrange.
- First-round interviews, whether by phone or in person at the JMM, are not likely to result in an
offer (you've only talked to a few people, probably for about 30 minutes). This is more of a screening
process; think of it as making it to the quarterfinals. The whole committee looked carefully at these
candidates, then the interviewers narrowed the list to about 10 semifinalists. Another round of
discussion, including notes from the interviews, followed to decide on 3 finalists to bring to campus
for full-day interviews.
- Note that at this point there are more factors at work. The dean and perhaps even a VP must approve
the on-campus interviews since they are not cheap.
- The on-campus interview is your chance to really get a feel for the school. You will probably teach
a class, give a talk on your research, and meet with a variety of faculty, students, and administrators.
Make sure you know what your audience will be for the research talk. If it is undergraduates, then the
talk should be accessible to them and give a clear picture of what they could work on with you.