NSF Creates 45 New Postdoctoral Positions

June 15, 2009

In applied mathematics, workforce positions traditionally outnumber applicants for those positions. The field has not been immune to the recent economic downturn, however. Extensive hiring freezes and canceled job openings at academic institutions have resulted in the loss of nearly 400 positions available to recent PhDs; data from the American Mathematical Society suggest an unemployment rate of more than 30% for these early-career mathematicians.

In May, in response to the loss of so many jobs, the National Science Foundation announced the creation of 45 new postdoctoral positions for recent PhDs at the seven Mathematical Sciences Research Institutes. Despite an extremely tight deadline, job seekers jumped at the opportunity: The institutes received a total of 782 applications for the 45 positions, 405 of them from individuals who received their PhDs this year.

The uptick in applications for postdoctoral positions can probably not be attributed solely to the economy: A postdoc is an increasingly common stepping stone in the mathematical career path. According to data from NSF's Division of Science Resources Statistics, the percentage of mathematics and computer science PhDs who have ever held postdoctoral positions has increased during every five-year period since 1972, with the exception of one brief drop (198286).

Of the five new postdocs at the Institute for Mathematics and its Applications, two will study at the University of Minnesota with "New Directions" positions (for fellows lacking experience in the chosen research focus), and the remaining three will hold Postdoctoral Industrial Internships at General Motors, Schlumberger, and Telcordia Technologies. After the first year, industrial postdocs have the choice of working with a second company or using the fellowship to work with someone outside IMA.

"We were overwhelmed, like everybody else. The response was amazing," says IMA director Fadil Santosa. "It's so surprising that so many people were still looking for postdocs as late as early April."

Still, he says, a postdoc can be a great addition to a mathematics career, and is almost becoming expected: "Many departments don't even consider hiring somebody straight out of a PhD program, and companies also would like to see some experience outside of a PhD."

The program sends eight new postdocs to the Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics at UCLA, where the postdoc program is designed to encourage the interaction of mathematics with other sciences, engineering, and medicine. Although employed by IPAM, the new postdocs will do research at their mentors' home universities or companies (which to date include Placental Analytics and Princeton University).

The Mathematical Biosciences Institute at Ohio State University has made offers to three new postdocs and has funding for at least one more. Those hired so far will work on a variety of projects, including the application of algebra to phylogenetics; aquatic ecology modeling; and protein modeling, with possible applications in anti-angiogenic drugs.

Of the flood of applications, MBI assistant director Tony Nance says that "On one hand we were excited; on the other hand, we were saddened that so many [people] were in this position." The number of applications, he says, was nearly double the AMS estimate of the number of lost job openings.

Like Santosa, Nance sees the postdoc becoming almost a staple of the typical mathematical career. "It's kind of a prolonged or delayed entry, and in math [there tends to be] a longer time to PhD than in other fields anyway," he says. But, in some sense, these opportunities "are almost like grad school with less boundaries. You learn a lot more, and there's a strong support net around you."

The Statistical and Applied Mathematical Sciences Institute, director James Berger points out, received more postdoc applications this year than at any time since it was established in 2002. SAMSI gains up to eight new postdoctoral fellows under the new program; along with research, SAMSI postdocs can teach at one of the institute's partner schools---Duke, North Carolina State University, or the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in Berkeley adds ten new postdocs, whose areas of interest and expertise range from neurobiology to symplectic topology to analytic number theory. The Institute for Advanced Study and the American Institute of Mathematics have five and four new postdocs, respectively; along with research, those at AIM will teach at community colleges and universities in the Cal State system. AIM executive director Brian Conrey points out that the NSF program not only provides additional positions for recent PhDs, but also addresses the need for math instructors at California colleges.

In creating the new positions, NSF's Division of Mathematical Sciences is reinforcing a longstanding general upward trend in the numbers of postdocs it supports. A larger-than-usual jump is expected for 2009. Along with the 45 new fellowships, which are funded from the FY 2009 federal budget appropriation, DMS plans to support additional non-institute postdoctoral positions through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.---MS


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