Landing a Junior Academic Position in the U.S.

September 15, 2010

Careers in the Math Sciences
Laurent Demanet


Applying for a postdoc or tenure-track position is quite a different game from applying to PhD programs. My recent experience in the junior academic job markets in the United States taught me a few lessons that I may have found surprising a few years ago.

1. Be connected and send e-mails. If a department is going to hire you, at least one person needs to believe in you. Job solicitations often result in hundreds of applications: It is not a sure thing that your file will be read by the key people. Even worse, employers logged onto mathjobs.org now come to your cover letter only toward the end of your file---and might not read it at all. Don't count on this document for visibility. Instead, take the time you would have used to craft a nice cover letter and use it to send some e-mails. Inform people of your intentions directly: Touch base with someone you already know, or try to draw the attention of someone who could become your champion. For postdoc positions, explain intelligently how your profile could fit into an existing research effort, and/or what your own vision is for future research. You would be surprised at how few people actually do this.

2. Your recommendation letters matter a lot.
They will be read most fervently. Consequently, most of the details of your CV no longer matter once you've been accepted into graduate school. This is why you should minimize nonacademic distractions while you work on your PhD, even if they help add a line to your CV. What your adviser and colleagues say about you in their letters trumps everything---including your GPA, the order of the authors on your papers, student travel awards you received, the number of minor seminar talks you gave, the journals you refereed for, and so forth. As for the practical aspects of the letters, make sure they arrive not too long after the deadline. Do not merely list your references---have the letters sent, unseen by you. If you apply for a job in the USA from abroad, you may want to remind your referees of the expected hyperbole, i.e., the routine inflation of qualifications with strong adjectives.

3. Take your time. While it's unfair that most young researchers---particularly women---are bounced from one academic position to another in their late twenties and early thirties, the more experience you can get under your belt before applying for any job the better. Applying for tenure-track jobs either right out of graduate school or in the middle of a postdoc is a double-edged sword. You might get a job earlier, but it's also possible that your file is not quite ripe enough to land you the job that you would deserve a few years later. Moreover, an unsuccessful early run for your dream place(s) comes at a cost: There is always a risk that it will weaken your case with the committee the following year. A sweet spot of two to four years of postdoctoral experience seems to maximize chances on the tenure-track job market. Finally, remember that the best candidates for postdocs are usually those who fit into an existing group, whereas the best candidates for tenure-track positions are those who complement the existing faculty.

4. Put originality before quantity. A paper that results from a thorough and sensible effort is often better appreciated, and more useful to the community, than a quick write-up of the latest publishable quantum. The publication turnaround in mathematics, even in applied mathematics, is generally longer than in more applied fields. And in most of the fields spanned by SIAM, journal publications are usually much preferred over conference proceedings. (Computer graphics and theoretical computer science are notable exceptions.) Notice that quality of research takes on a very special meaning for applied mathematicians: We should not only follow the methodical standards of mathematicians for solving problems, but also acquire the taste of a scientist or an engineer for choosing the right problem to work on. It's a humbling experience to look at one's record and ask whether the contributions meet this unique double standard.

For Further Reading:
Peter J. Feibelman, A PhD Is Not Enough: A Guide To Survival in Science, Basic Books---Perseus Books Group, New York, 1993, 109 pages.

Laurent Demanet is an assistant professor of applied mathematics at MIT, where he introduced a course titled Waves and Imaging. He is scheduled to give a lecture on that topic at the July 2011 Gene Golub SIAM Summer School, in Vancouver, Canada. (Further information can be found at http://g2s3.org.)



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