Observations on the Hiring Process
by Jim Freeman
Mount Vernon, Iowa
prepared for MathFest 2005 Panel: How to Apply for Jobs
Panel sponsored by
MAA Committee on Graduate Students
Young Mathematicians Network
The following comments are meant to give context to common advice about applying for an academic job. If you would like more of a bullet list of advice, the article “Interviewing for a Job in Academia” by Hull et al in the November 1998 issue of Notices of the American Mathematical Society is a good starting point. Some of the comments below are very general and apply to applying to any type of job, but the majority are aimed at candidates interested in teaching at liberal arts colleges.
My most important advice on applying for jobs is to start the process when you enter graduate school. While it is likely that you will change your mind at least once during graduate school, keeping the type of job you would like in mind will inform the decisions you make in graduate school. These decisions may include your research area, whether you want to take an RA over a TA, conferences to attend and many others. Also remember that you are likely to be trying to finish a thesis and look for a job at the same time, two very time consuming activities. You can’t work on your thesis early, but you can start preparing for your job search. What sort of things should you do early in your graduate career? First, take time to look at the job announcements received by your department. Pay special attention to the type of skills the different jobs require. Find your department’s copy of the “Employment Register” to skim through. If you are interested in a job in academia, take a periodic look at the “Chronicle of Higher Education.” While this journal doesn’t have a lot of mathematics job postings, you will learn what the issues facing academia are. Join appropriate professional societies: American Mathematical Society if you are really interested in research; Mathematical Association of America for teaching and expository interests; and Society of Industrial and Applied Mathematics for applied interests. There are other professional societies you should considering joining, like the Association for Women in Mathematics and the Society for Mathematical Biology. Attend conferences like the Joint Meetings, Mathfest, and MAA sectional meetings. While at these meetings ask anyone who will talk to you about different possible job possibilities and what sort of experience each type of job will require. If you see someone walking around a conference with colored dots on their name badge, they are probably involved with Project NExT (http://archives.math.utk.edu/projnext/). Talk to NExT Fellows about their job hunting experiences.
To illustrate why I argue that the job search starts at the beginning of graduate school, I will discuss how a student can prepare themselves for applying for a job in a liberal arts college. First I would like to make a pitch why the best possible career in mathematics is at a liberal arts college. If you really love mathematics, there is no better place to share that love than at a liberal arts college. While it is true that it will be difficult to push the boundaries of mathematics in a substantive way, you will have a greater opportunity to improve the mathematical awareness and abilities of a very broad range of students. It is also usually easier to work with faculty in other disciplines.
So what do you need to do to prepare for a job at a liberal arts college? While liberal arts colleges cover a wide spectrum of size and emphasis on research required of faculty, they share an emphasis on the undergraduate student. They emphasize teaching and student interaction and will look at your teaching record very closely. So try to arrange as wide a range of teaching experiences as possible. Find any opportunity you can for working with undergraduates in a research/directed discovery environment, like participating in a VIGRE grant. Also, give as many talks as you possibly can, and not necessarily just research talks. See if you can develop fun expository talks that excite undergraduates about mathematics. Give these talks at MAA sectional meetings and math clubs. If your topic has interdisciplinary appeal, offer to talk to undergraduates in other departments. You can also reach out to local high schools. Many high school teachers would be happy to let you give an expository talk to their classes. When picking your research area, keep in the back of your mind how fertile the area might be for collaborations with undergraduates. If you like the area, but it’s not likely to engage undergraduates, then realize it would be a good idea to also develop expertise in another area which is accessible to undergraduates. Faculty at liberal arts colleges will be active in academic advising for both majors and non-majors. Keep track of any experiences you have advising students, even if it is just as a course instructor. Of particular interest would be cases where you advised students on non-mathematical academic issues. You will probably be asked about your approach to advising in your job interview.
Now, let’s discuss the actual job search. As you prepare to write your materials, keep in mind that the reviewers of your material will only spend a few minutes with your materials before they make an “interested” or “not interested” decision. So make it easy on the reviewer to decide that they are interested in you. Your cover letter should be direct and tell the reviewer the most important things you want them to know about you. This should be a short but powerful list. Customize the cover letter for the job for which you are applying. Suppose you have not decided between going into industry and teaching at a liberal arts college. A cover letter for industry would not be appropriate for the liberal arts college. Customizing your letter does not mean to mail merge the institution’s name into a generic letter. Doing this will have minimal impact. Put something into the letter that indicates you have looked carefully at the institution to which you are applying. For example at Cornell, we teach using the One-Course-At-A-Time calendar. This unusual calendar is referenced in every job ad. If a candidate refers to our calendar that candidate immediately has our attention. Find something you find exciting about the job and put that into your cover letter. I would rather hire someone who wants to be at my institution as opposed to someone just wanting a job.
Candidates often ignore what is actually said in the job ad. If the institution is looking for an applied mathematician, many schools will immediately discard any application from non-applied mathematicians. If you obviously don’t fit the description in the ad, either don’t apply or make sure your cover letter gives strong reasons why the school should consider your application. For example, if the ad indicates the position requires teaching introductory statistics and you don’t have this in your background, your cover letter needs to explain how you plan to gain the background to teach this course. Some schools hire specific disciplines and others are willing to consider strong mathematicians, regardless of discipline. Often the smaller the department, the more likely they are to hire on mathematical ability instead of discipline. Words like “preferred” in the job ad mean you have a greater chance of being considered if you don’t exactly fit the job description, but you will have to be a stronger candidate than someone in the correct discipline to get the job.
Spelling and grammatical errors in your writing are significant negatives. In liberal arts colleges, this is particularly true. It is almost certain that one of the readers of your cover letter will be involved with the teaching of writing. If the school emphasizes writing across the curriculum, your cover letter is their first impression of your ability to contribute to this effort. So assume that the most difficult writing instructor you ever had will be reading your application materials. Make sure your materials will make that instructor happy.
If you apply to non-research positions, the chances increase that non-mathematicians will be reading your cover letter. So make sure your cover letter tells the non-mathematician why they should hire you. For liberal arts colleges, it is appropriate to discuss how you could contribute to the college outside of the mathematics department.
Your selection of references is very important. Often job candidates do not spend enough time thinking about who they select. You should discuss with your references how you are presenting yourself and ways they can support your message. For example, suppose you have won a TA teaching award and list it in your vitae. From my perspective of evaluating candidates, I have seen too many candidates who have won such awards and who don’t impress me with their teaching skills. As a result, I don’t put much weight on this award. I am more likely to put weight on the TA award if one of the references discusses it directly and gives specifics on why it was awarded. As another example of the candidate coordinating with their referees, consider the letter from the advisor on the candidate’s research. A letter appropriate for a research position will probably not have the same impact if sent to a liberal arts school. Two or three pages of dense mathematics will have no impact on a historian reading the candidate file. A letter which gives enough technical details so that the mathematicians can have a feel for the significance of the candidate’s research but also talks about the candidate’s work in generic enough terms to be understood by a non-mathematician will have much greater impact. Having referees support and expand on the main strengths you highlight with specifics will strengthen your application. If you apply to significantly different types of institutions, consider having a different set of references for each type of institution, picking the people most capable to write to the desired audience.
In my experience, teaching statements start looking very similar when you read 60 in a row. The impression is that everyone is following the same advice on what they should say in this document. The statements which stand out are those which highlight the candidate’s teaching style and personality. For example, most teaching statements will discuss the importance of engaging students in mathematics. Don’t tell me what the literature tells you about how to accomplish this, tell me how you have actually accomplished it. If your teaching statement sounds like a review of the current trends in education, it will have much less impact than a document which gets the reader to feel that they already know you. Remember, specifics impress.
The research statement is another area where candidates can take into account the type of institution to which they are applying. An effective statement for a post-doc, research position may be less effective in other settings. For a liberal arts college, particularly the smaller institution, a more informal description which includes ideas for including students in the research or how you plan to continue the research in a non-university department will be much more effective.
Hiring committees for liberal arts colleges will be not only looking at how a candidate will fit into the mathematics department but also into the institution as a whole. The majority of hiring committees at liberal arts colleges will include at least one member outside of the department who could be from any discipline. In addition, students will probably be a significant part of the process. Schools all have very specific procedures they follow for hiring, but they do differ between institutions. At Cornell, the department (yes, all 4 of us) will review the files for every applicant. The department selects a number of candidates for initial interviews, which we hold either by phone or in person at the Joint Meetings. At the Joint Meetings, we will use the interview room of the employment center and schedule the interviews ourselves. We try to send each candidate we interview material about Cornell before the Joint Meetings. Two members of the department working together will conduct all the preliminary interviews, an attempt to treat all candidates equally. Not all schools follow this procedure and will have different interviewers for different candidates due to scheduling. The purpose of this preliminary interview is to judge the candidate’s qualifications for and interest in our position, to get a feel for how the candidate would fit in the department and the institution, and to answer candidate questions about our position. As a candidate, you should be aware that we often learn as much or more from the questions the candidate asks us as we do from the questions we ask. Researching the institution you are interviewing with is important to permit you to ask good questions.
The two-member interview team will report to the department on the outcome of the preliminary interviews. At this point, the department will select about 8 candidates for a 30 to 60 minute phone interview in which all members of the department will participate. Each candidate will be asked the same questions by the same department member in an attempt to maintain as much uniformity of interview experience as possible. Questions will include a standard question like “Why are you interested in the position at Cornell” and a question about teaching at a liberal arts college. There may be some repetition of questions from screening interviews if everyone in the department wants to hear the answer for themselves. We always leave time for the candidate to ask us questions. Not all colleges conduct this type of interview.
At Cornell, as is true at most liberal arts colleges, significant resources are committed to the hiring process. The smaller the department, the more important it is to make sure everyone is comfortable. At Cornell, we take the view that when we hire a tenure track position, the hire is a success if the candidate is ultimately granted tenure. The hiring process is not successful if tenure is not granted or the candidate decides to leave Cornell. So the interview process is designed for us to decide if we are comfortable with the candidate and if the candidate is comfortable with us. Candidate questions are an important part of this process. Honesty for all parties in the process is also very important. I have seen the advice that it is important to figure out what the school wants to hear. My experience is that if the hiring committee feels that the candidate is trying to figure out what they want to hear, that candidate will not be hired. I do not want to spend the rest of my professional career working with someone who is not honest with me. Search committees are aware of this phenomenon and are watching for evidence of it.
Once the phone interviews are complete, the department selects candidates for the on-campus interview, usually 3 or 4. At this time Cornell expands the search committee to include faculty member(s) outside of the department and students. Don’t be surprised if these outside of the department members are really outside, possibly even math-phobic. Remember that being hired at a liberal arts college is an institutional decision, not departmental, in most cases. Messing up your interviews with these members of the search committee will probably destroy your chances of being hired. The questions asked by these members of the search committee are often the hardest to predict. They tend to be more institutionally oriented. Possibilities of questions include being asked to explain your research and why it is important; how mathematics fits into a liberal arts education; what sort of reading you do for enjoyment; how mathematics relates to their discipline (like languages, music, sociology, art,…); your philosophy on advising students; what sort of abilities other than mathematical would you bring to the institution; interest in collaborative work with non-mathematicians; the trends you see in the discipline of mathematics; your opinion of the use of technology in the classroom; your philosophy of teaching; teaching writing in mathematics courses; and many others. Preparing for this portion of the interview is one of the reasons to start your job search when you enter graduate school. Giving talks at many levels, not just graduate seminars will help you talk with these members of the search committee. It is really important to share your enthusiasm for mathematics with these members, but at a level they can understand. Asking questions of these members can give you significant insight into the institution.
Students will also be part of the search process. The amount of input students are given in the process varies widely between institutions. Cornell students in mathematics searches have been full members of the search committee participating through the final decision of the search committee. A candidate’s interaction with students will probably include a presentation and an interview session. Your experiences with the students will vary widely. Sometimes the students will be very reserved and will require you to draw them into conversation. Other times you will find the students very aggressive questioners. So be ready to be flexible for this part of the interview. You will probably be asked about your research (be prepared to describe it to sophomore level or higher) and how you could involve undergraduates in doing mathematics. Having exciting examples of mathematics, not necessarily in your research area, which you can share with students is very effective. As most of the students will have interests outside of mathematics, being able to share exciting connections of mathematics to their other interests is also very effective. If you excite students about mathematics, they will be more inclined to feel that they would want to take a course from you. Attending conferences like MAA section meetings to be exposed to many different areas of mathematics and giving talks to high school/undergraduates are good ways to prepare for this part of the interview. Students are also a good source of information about the school as they tend to be very open with their opinions. If you happen to have a student give you a campus tour, something we often do at Cornell, this is an excellent time to ask questions and learn about the school.
You can expect an on-campus interview to last at least a complete day. At Cornell, we traditionally use a day and a half and I know of schools that use two days. You can expect the on-campus interview to include one-on-one interviews, group interviews, an interview with the Dean/Provost/President, social events, presentation(s) and possibly meetings with human resources.
Most of the suggestions I made for speaking to non-departmental members of the search committee also apply to the Dean/Provost/President. My experience is that this academic officer will ask you to explain your research at a level they can understand. Either this college officer or the department chair will be the person with whom you can discuss issues like salary and support for research. Often, this person will handle making offers and negotiating things like salary, moving expenses, start-up money and such. Don’t take this part of the interview lightly. While impressing the Dean/Provost/President will probably not win you the job offer, screwing up this interview could easily lose you the job offer.
Remember that social events are part of the official interview. While social events are meant to be pleasant, you are still being evaluated. Social events can also be very valuable for you to get a feeling for whether or not you will want to accept a job offer. Pay particular attention to interactions between members of the mathematics department and between the mathematicians and non-mathematicians. Ask yourself if you would want to spend your professional career in this environment. Earlier I warned you that search committees are looking for evidence that the candidate is answering questions honestly. The social events are good opportunities for you to decide how honest the committee is being with you. Watch out for signs of conflicts between faculty members. Also try to gauge how happy the faculty/students are with the institution.
The type of talk you will be asked to give varies greatly. Two common talk requests are the expository talk or the talk describing your research to undergraduates. You may also be asked to teach a class, usually an introductory class like calculus. To repeat myself, giving talks at MAA section meetings, to math clubs, and high school students are all good ways to prepare for this part of the interview. Everyone will tell you that it is essential to have a variety of talks ready for difference audience levels and that you must practice your job talks. Feedback from your graduate faculty and student friends is helpful, but remember that they are usually not the target of these job talks. Practice with an UNDERGRADUATE audience!
My final bit of advice is to remember to
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