In June 2017, AIM and MSRI jointly sponsored the workshop “Careers in Academia”. The purpose of the workshop was to familiarize math postdocs with the variety of tenure-track jobs at different colleges and universities, provide some insight into the perspective of the hiring committee, and explore the components of a job application. The workshop was structured as a series of presentations, panel discussions, and group work. The videos below cover the key ideas from the workshop.
Facilitators at the workshop were Estelle Basor, David Farmer, Aloysius Helminck, and Sally Koutsoliotas. The facilitators have extensive experience with the mathematics hiring process at liberal arts colleges, large universities that do not have a PhD program, and Research I universities, and also with the process of writing and evaluating grant proposals.
Material from the workshop
The main presentations from the workshop were recorded and edited into the videos below.
We begin our discussion with the campus interview, because getting to the campus interview is the main purpose of your application materials. Understanding the perspective of the hiring committee will help you better appreciate the role of each component of the application packet.
During the interview, the department and the university are trying to help you understand them, just as much as they are trying to understand you. Ultimately, the department members are looking for a colleague: you could end up working with this group of people for 30 years. They want to know that you are an interesting, reasonable, and sensible person who will do a good job in the classroom and on committees, while meeting the department’s and university’s research expectations.
The application materials for a tenure-track position include a cover letter, CV, research statement, teaching statement, and reference letters. Those materials are the main resource for the hiring committee to make a short list and eventually decide who to invite for a campus visit. Are all of those materials equally important? Yes and no.
Some members of the hiring committee completely ignore the cover letter, and many cover letters are a wasted opportunity, merely repeating the obvious information: “Enclosed please find…”. But the fact that some committee members take the cover letter seriously means that you should, too. The cover letter is an opportunity for you to explain why you would like a position at that institution. This is particularly important if you are applying to a liberal arts college, but every institution will have committee members who appreciate a thoughtful cover letter.
The research statement describes some of the work you have already done, and some of the work you plan to do. It has to be comprehensible to non-experts, and also contain enough detail to be interesting to specialists in your field. Everyone wants to see that you have a plan that extends beyond your PhD thesis, and beyond your current work.
How can one document satisfy such an extremely diverse audience? The key is to have many section and subsection headings, preferably at least two on every page. Start gently, with background information and context, or perhaps a historical perspective – whichever is appropriate for your work. Then get into the details.
When experts see the headings, they may skip the first page or so. Non-experts may start skimming when they get to the details. Nobody will read everything, and everybody will thank you for making it easy for them to identify the parts they don’t want to read.
Most teaching statements are generic and do little to distinguish the author from the other applicants. Unlike your other application materials, the teaching statement is a place for your personality to come through. Discuss your own experiences in the teaching environment – your successes as well as challenges, and what you have learned along the way.
Anecdotes that capture valuable lessons learned about the teaching process can help to convey your unique experience. Be sure to connect your story to the insight you have gained – don’t assume the point of your anecdote is obvious.
It is good to describe ways in which you feel you are an effective teacher. It can be even better to describe something that went wrong, how you determined what went wrong, and what steps you took to fix it. If possible, report how well you succeeded the next time.
Effective teaching statements rarely contain an extensive discussion of philosophical issues surrounding the teaching process. It is not a manifesto, nor is it a recipe for excellent teaching.
The “job talk” is a colloquium-style presentation that is part of the campus interview. The purpose of the job talk is to demonstrate that you can be trusted in front of a classroom. Re-read the previous sentence several times, because it is the one aspect of the hiring process which holds for every type of academic institution. In particular, the job talk is not the place for you to amaze everyone with your complicated research results: there are other opportunities for that during the campus interview.
You should practice your job talk several times. “Practice” does not mean that you memorize the talk and become good at saying it fast. It means that you deliver the talk to different practice audiences and have them ask questions and interrupt, just like a real audience. It is fine to have an audience of one: a friend or a colleague. Your goal is to have the topic clear in your mind, so that you can adapt to circumstances and recover from distractions (such as running out of time).
The talk in the video makes reference to a preceding short talk, in which the speaker (intentionally) made numerous errors. The bad talk was omitted from the video.
Before watching the video, it will help to understand the role of the host of the talk. Reading the guide to hosting will help you avoid beginner’s mistakes, such as repeating your name or title at the beginning, or pre-empting the host by being the one to ask for questions at the end. End your talk with “Thank you”.
You are in an elevator at the JMM and someone asks, “What do you do?”
Your reply should depend on how close they are to your research area. If you don’t know, your best option is to give a general answer, planning to elaborate (or not) according to their response. Your answer must be short, because you only have the time it takes for the elevator to reach the lobby.
You need several elevator speeches, of varying length and depth. You will have many options to use them, particularly during a campus interview. It takes practice to craft a good elevator speech. Practice on anyone who is willing to listen.
Kent Morrison, Hélène Barcelo, and Brian Conrey share their perspective on the purpose and goals of the workshop.
Most mathematics graduate students and postdocs are familiar with universities that have a strong research emphasis, but their exposure to the breadth of higher education institutions may be limited. The workshop described the culture at different institutions, and how those differences influence the hiring process.
This work was supported by the National Science Foundation through grants DMS-1128242 and DMS-1539953. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.
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