by Dr. Sam Ferguson, Research Mathematician at Metron, Inc.
Visions of Cover Letters
During my fourth year of graduate study at the University of Iowa, the herculean effort that older students were putting into job applications became apparent. The stress wrinkling their brows and the stacks of cover letters that crowded their offices gave telltale signs of the facts of life. When offices were swept out, they told me about the hundreds of applications they’d filled on mathjobs.org, the website by which mathematicians have now been finding employment for a generation.
Five years later, by now at NYU, I recalled their determination as I gathered about me the wits—and the grit—required for my own job search. Putting my courage to the sticking place, I pondered whether I’d eat Lang’s Algebra if I didn’t acquire my first job offer, pronto. Carefully, I filled out the standard cover sheet and began uploading the different documents required in mathjob.org’s job applications.
Academic jobs tend to have earlier deadlines than other jobs; and so, when searching widely, it makes sense to work on these first. One of the reasons that applying broadly for academic jobs is time-consuming is that each type of job and institution, from research postdocs at large public institutions to tenure-track positions at small liberal arts colleges, has its own ranking of what’s most important in a candidate. This means that you have to craft a tailored version of your CV, research statement, and teaching statement for each.
Many applications ask for additional items: evidence of being the sole instructor for a class, information about your grants, graduate and undergraduate transcripts, statements on equity and inclusion, statements on mentoring, research projects you have available for students, and preprints for completed papers, for example.
Finally come the cover letters and lists of potential research collaborators; this can be the most time-consuming, because each letter or list is unique to a specific institution. For positions at small liberal arts colleges, cover letters are often the most important part of the application, as your letter reveals how much you know about the institution and whether you might be a good fit culturally. When I applied for positions at small liberal arts colleges, such as Bard College, Alma College, and my alma mater, Simon’s Rock, in Massachusetts, my tightly spaced cover letters spilled onto multiple pages. For postdoctoral positions, however, cover letters are largely ignored and lists of potential collaborators are everything. Yet a list of potential collaborators is effectively useless unless you email each person to investigate whether you really can work with them. It was hard work to find the holy trifecta of a potential collaborator who (1) had heard of my work, (2) was interested in working with me, and (3) who I’d be interested in working with. For each institution, many missives were required—or, in one instance, a flight to Israel—to determine if an instance of the holy trifecta resided there. The times when I did find it—that was striking gold.
An Empty Checkbox
By the time Thanksgiving had passed, I was standing on a pile of the usual number of cover letters—between 200 and 300—but it was too early to have any responses in hand.
Besides filling out academic job applications on mathjobs.org, what more could I do? Over my nine-year graduate career I had spent time with three different advisors, and I reflected on what kind of advice I could seek from each one. My third advisor, under whom I had written my dissertation, didn’t seem to know why he had come up empty, with no job offers, the first time he applied on mathjobs.org, and why he had received one offer when he applied again a year later. As I was his first student to graduate, I couldn’t ask his previous students for job advice—they belonged to the empty set.
My second advisor, who had guided me through the oral exam process at NYU’s Courant Institute, mostly warned me against taking positions far away from the United States and Canada, if I hoped to ever return to the US for permanent positions. He said that Europe had a different system from the US, and it generally required you to know potential collaborators very well before you applied for positions. He suggested I focus my attention on North America.
My first doctoral advisor, who had advised me during my four years of graduate study in Iowa, offered me broad encouragement and told me how marvelous the people on my growing list of potential collaborators were. He suggested opportunities that postdocs with them would open up for me. Yet I wanted more concrete things I could do right away.
Like a supplicant wandering into the wilderness to call out to a distant god, I set aside the perspectives of my three advisors and returned to my coversheet on mathjobs.org, where my search had started. I asked it if anything was left for me to add, and received no response. Yet the bottom of the page held a list of additional options for my account, with adjacent empty checkboxes that seemed to cry out for attention. I noticed one that I hadn’t checked: “List me in the ‘Jobs Wanted’ list, which is only accessible by participating employers.” Curious, I checked the box, and was asked to “describe the positions” that I was looking for. After some soul-searching, I realized I wasn’t ready to respond to this question yet. How could I identify and describe all the suitable mathematics positions for me, beyond academia? And who could I talk to about all this?
A Guide to BIG Jobs
I reflected back on my first year at Courant. I had taken a course in PDE which was a masterwork of pedagogy, taught by Robert Kohn, better known as “Bob.” Bob was praised by generations of Courant PhD students for providing advice that actually met students where they were at.
Later, at the close of my second year at Courant, I began to see that my second advisor, who I had left Iowa to study with, had a research style that would not mesh with mine. I went to several professors for advice, but it was Bob who suggested I speak to a new faculty member who arrived the following fall semester. After a couple of short conversations that fall, the new faculty member asked me to be his student, and he became my third advisor. All of this is to say: Bob’s advice tended to pan out, and it was time to see if Bob had further nuggets of wisdom to pass on.
Bob had once mentioned a nephew of his who had gone into consulting, so I wasn’t shocked when Bob’s sage words invited me to consider jobs outside of academia. He suggested I read a new book, called the BIG Jobs Guide (student price $15), which had just arrived at Courant’s library. It’s about how mathematicians can acquire jobs in business, industry, and government, collectively referred to as “BIG.” I immediately read the book, cover to cover, and paid special attention to the sections discussing “Who you are” and “What jobs are out there.”
Finally, I wrote about what kind of job I was looking for on mathjobs.org: a position that involved “quantitative research, modeling, or teaching of diverse mathematical subject matter.” After three advisors in as many research areas, I was well on my way to becoming a jack of all trades, with research and teaching interests in several distinct subjects. And, though no modeling had occurred in my dissertation, I had modeled IRS guidance on my own to prove theorems which gave Obamacare benefits to people who hadn’t been able to get them previously. Helping people directly to afford healthcare had gotten me hooked on the surprising efficacy of mathematical modeling!
Shortly after checking the box and writing my description, I started to receive Joint Meetings interview requests, from both inside and outside academia.
To be continued…