Advice for PhD Students and Postdocs looking for jobs

I recently read an article on CNN titled `5 big mistakes new grads make'. The advice given is good and some modifications can translate into advice for graduating PhDs and postdocs looking for tenure track jobs.

  • Your thesis advisor and postdoc mentor and their role in finding jobs - do not underestimate the impact these people can play in helping you to obtain a first job. The letters of recommendation that these people write will be the most heavily weighted when search committees make up short lists of candidates. Moreover they can give you invaluable advice about who to contact at different universities regarding positions. That said, you should not view it as `their job' to find you a position. If you advisor/mentor makes a contact for you, you should follow it up with a personal email expressing interest in the position. A face-to-face meeting with this contact person is an even better idea for getting your foot in the door at that institution. Remember that the employer is hiring you, not your advisor or mentor.

  • MySpace misjudements. As stated in the CNN article and as stated by Anna Ivey, former dean of admissions at Univ. of Chicago Law School, ``Don't post anything on any publicly accessible Web site that you wouldn't feel comfortable showing a recruiter or hiring manager''. The same thing goes for your personal web page on a university site. Potential employers do and will google your name and may read your personal page. That said, a web page can be an excellent way to advertise yourself professionally to prospective employers. A tasteful and informative page about your research and/or teaching will give employers a better idea of who you are. It also is a way to show off both your work and your communication skills.
  • Failure to network. This goes along the lines of the first bullet above. Use any and all avenues you have for networking and take advantage of them. This will undoubtedly generate more offers for you, and one of these may end up being the one that you eventually take.
  • Forgetting to say `thank you'. Good manners are noticed and add to the impression that you might be a `good colleague' when hired. The reverse can be said of bad manners. When in doubt as to appropriate conduct, ask your mentor for advice and use common sense. Always err on the side of politeness if possible.
  • Bad voicemail greetings. It is excellent advice to avoid unprofessional voicemail greetings and should be carried over to standard email signatures and the like. The same could be said for ringtones on your cellphone when you go for an interview.

    Other specific advice for Math PhDs

  • Apply early and often. Mathjobs.org has become the main central clearing house for research university positions in the United States. Take advantage of it and adhere strictly to deadlines. Also note that many departments start reading applications well before the deadline closes so do not wait until the last minute to upload your material. The sooner you get your application and letters up there the better. Some departments will use the official deadline as the day they can start making initial offers - so it is best to get your name in early for best consideration. This is especially true of tenure track jobs. Also note that not all departments use mathjobs so make a list of places you would like to apply to and if you do not find them on mathjobs then go to the dept home page and look for advertised positions there. If you don't find any you can still contact individual faculty at that department about possible openings at their institution.
  • If you are eligible for an NSF postdoc position, apply for it. This means lining up a mentor/sponsor early in the fall. Even if you don't get the position, you will get the attention of your first choice of mentor and that could generate a regular position at their institution. Don't wait until the last minute to apply for this position. Your chosen mentor may have already agreed to sponsor someone else and may be reluctant to sponsor a second one and your letter writers can not give full attention to the task if they are rushed. Even if your application is not suitable for regular advertised positions, sometimes temporary positions open up at the last minute (e.g. due to unplanned faculty leaves or the sudden awarding of a research grant) that could have the department scrambling for a suitable candidate. Having your name on their list as someone interested in the institution could ultimately net you that job.
  • Get someone more senior than you to read your research and teaching statements before you submit them.
  • Tenure track or second postdoc. If you are in your second or third year of postdoctoral work it is not unreasonable to consider a second postdoc position in addition to tenure track. Discuss this with your research mentor and plan accordingly. Many top tenure track faculty have done two postdoc positions or have spent four or five years as a postdoc. If you choose this route aim to have a very strong application file (read - more quality publications) when you do ultimately seek a tenure track job. The decision to choose one route or the other will likely need to be made by sometime in February as postdoc offers will have deadlines on them that come before all the tenure track offers are out.
  • Be prepared to handle deadlines and contingencies that come with offers. For example, if you get an offer with a two week deadline (not uncommon) be prepared to contact other prospective employers to let them know. Thus it would be good to have your order list in mind before an offer comes through. Also be prepared to ask about terms of the offer and what is and is not negotiable. Once you sign on the dotted line it will be much harder to ask for changes to your offer. Another example for fresh PhDs is that many postdoc positions are offered contingent upon the candidate completing the degree. Occasionally students do not finish on time and even more occasionally they do not realize that they can not complete their PhD while in their new position. If you discover, after accepting a position, that you are not going to graduate on time, it is best to contact the new employer as soon as possible to make arrangements accordingly. Rules for such situations vary greatly from university to university so it is best to clarify things and to avoid misrepresenting yourself to the employer. Ideally it is best to avoid such situations, but if they can not be avoided, early planning can often result in a modification to the position or start date that allows the process to continue mostly as originally planned. Another common contingency is ability to work in the country where the position is located. In the United States it is common for the employing institutions to provide services to foreign nationals to secure a visa necessary to commence employment. Yet another common contingency is approval of the position by a higher level administrator within the university. Such statements in offer letters can often be alluding to routine procedure, however it is also wise to clarify this to avoid confusion as to the reality of the offer.

    Do not expect much negotiating room on postdoc offers as these are temporary positions that are part of a fixed departmental or grant budget. When considering a postdoc offer, clarify whether the funding is coming from the university or a research grant, and if the latter what restrictions and expectations will be put on your research time. For example, being asked to work on a targeted research project could keep you from doing other research you'd like to do but it could also get you exposed to higher level research ideas than you could come up with on your own, as well as more face-time with the mentor if they have a vested interest in the project.

    For tenure track offers, salary, startup funds, space, and initial teaching load are the most common items that are negotiated with an offer. The tenure clock should also be discussed so that there are no misconceptions going into the job. Do your homework (read the AMS Notices and Chronicle of Higher Education statistics for example, ask colleagues what amounts are reasonable) independently of talking to the institution making the offer.

  • For postdoctoral positions, explore other sources of funding such as the UC Presidents Fellowships (only for use in the University of California system) and national fellowships for use at government research labs. Do your homework ahead of time so that you are aware of deadlines and can plan around them. Consider international postdoc positions if the best people in your field are abroad.