NSF Math Institutes create new jobs

New mechanism for investing in young math PhDs brings their talent to new settings, supports career pipeline

May 11, 2009
The seven NSF Mathematical Sciences Research Institutes announce the creation of 45 new two-year positions for young, highly-trained mathematical scientists across the country. In addition to furthering research in all areas of the mathematical sciences, these positions will allow recent PhDs to teach at community colleges and other higher-education institutions or to participate in projects tied to business and industry. This new initiative is a result of a partnership among the National Science Foundation-supported mathematics institutes.

The impact of the economic downturn is being felt everywhere--including academia. This year has seen widespread hiring freezes and canceled job searches at universities across the country. For the mathematical science community, this has meant almost 400 lost positions for recent PhDs. The severity of the situation became apparent earlier this year when many graduates, even of top-tier programs, were facing unemployment. The NSF, through its Mathematics Institutes, responded by creating these new postdoctoral fellowships.

The training of these young scientists represents a long-term investment. The postdocs typically spent five years in graduate education, often with some level of support from state or federal funds.

"These new researchers are primed to make significant contributions to their fields," said Peter March, Director of NSF's Division of Mathematical Sciences. The newly created positions will place highly trained people as teachers at two- and four-year colleges and universities, as well as in business and industry.

"These positions not only refine the research skills of new PhDs, but provide them with opportunities to apply their training in other settings," said Russ Caflisch, Director of the Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics (IPAM). "The role of research along with teaching or industry mentors and professional development workshops reinforces the Institutes' commitment to ensuring the continued success of these young people in the work force."

Press release in
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  7 NSF Math Institutes

Career paths of  mathematical scientists
What is a postdoc?

Short Timeline
Exactly one month elapsed between the first meeting of the seven Mathematics Institute directors and the close of applications. And less than one week after the deadline, more than 750 applications were reviewed and the first round of offers was made. Typically, academic job searches begin in the Fall and take several months to complete.

"The timing was perfect," said Eddie Herman, one of the newly hired mathematicians. "Most academic positions are decided by the middle of March, so the Institutes began advertising at exactly the time when many of us were losing hope of finding a research position and were ready to look for other jobs." Dr Herman received his PhD from UCLA this year.


Pipeline issues
The economic downturn is being felt by everyone, including the research and academic community. Universities are canceling job searches, which limits the number of positions for new PhDs and people completing postdoctoral training. Additionally, many US graduate programs have reduced the size of their incoming class. In fact, some programs will not be admitting any students in the next academic year. This has the effect of diminishing the size of our next generation of scientists, those who would be graduating at a time when our economy is recovering and in need of a highly trained workforce.

Currently, many workers are seeking re-training in response to the needs of the changing economy--just as colleges and universities face cutbacks.

"I have more than 1000 students on a waiting list for math classes, and no faculty to teach them," said Jerry Rosenberg, Dean of Physical Sciences, Mathematics, and Engineering at De Anza Community College in Cupertino, California.

Thanks to this initiative, approximately 250 of those students will be able to take a math class from one of the new Institute postdocs at the American Institute of Mathematics (AIM) in Palo Alto, California. According to Brian Conrey, Executive Director of AIM, "We were aware of the dire need for math instructors at California colleges, and we saw the Institute postdocs as a way to help address that need. This will bring enthusiastic young instructors into the classroom, and allow the postdocs to further develop their teaching skills."

"There are problems all along the pipeline," said Marty Golubitsky, Director of the Mathematical Biosciences Institute (MBI). "New PhDs are not finding jobs that make use of their extensive training, and consequently graduate programs are admitting fewer students. This stifling of scientific training in our next generation will make it more difficult for the US to remain competitive in the future."


Huge Response
"We knew that the job market for young PhDs in mathematics was extremely tight this year, but we were astonished by the number and quality of the applicants for these new positions," said Robert Bryant, Director of the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI) in Berkeley, California. More than 750 applications were submitted for the Institutes' postdocs, 400 of which came from people who received their PhD just this year.

"Being able to offer these positions allows us to keep these highly trained people in the workforce and is a great boon for mathematics and for our society," said Bryant.

Statistics about the

Diverse Impact
The impact of this program is widespread, with postdocs working in a dozen states across the country, and in all areas of the mathematical sciences. While continuing their research, the Institute postdocs will also apply their training through teaching or industrial partnerships.

The research areas of the new AIM postdocs are in pure mathematics. Their specialties are in number theory, representation theory, algebraic geometry, and contact topology. In addition to research, the AIM postdocs will teach at community colleges and universities in the Cal State system.

A postdoc at the Institute for Mathematics and its Applications (IMA) will intern at the General Motors Research Center in Warren, MI. The project concerns the inverse problem of electromagnetic shaping, applying abstract mathematics to new manufacturing techniques. It is possible to produce cast metal shapes without the use of a mold, by passing an electric current through molten metal. The problem is to determine what pattern of electric current will create a casting of a predetermined shape. The solution to the problem is based on the mathematics of partial differential equations.

A postdoc from the Institute of Pure and Applied Mathematics (IPAM) will collaborate with scientists at Placental Analytics, a company that studies the effect of placenta structure on fetal development. The placenta can be used to track fetal development, faithfully retaining information about possible prenatal problems and as a predictor of adult health risks. The postdoc will apply his training in image processing to study irregularities of placenta structure and develop models of placental vascular branching.

The AIM postdocs
All Institute postdocs

Contact Information
Estelle Basor
AIM Deputy Director
(650) 845 2072 (office)
(805) 235 7471 (cell)
(650) 845 2071 (main AIM number)

Please address questions or comments to questions(at)aimath.org

AIM receives major funding from the NSF and Fry's Electronics.