Documenting the Academic Job Search – Part I

This will be the first in a series of posts documenting “lessons learned” from my own academic job search. The earliest deadlines for tenure track positions occur around the first of October (though most are clustered between November and December). Therefore, part one will discuss things to consider leading up to this date. However, there will be no mention of other opportunities like the NSF postdoc.

Where Are Jobs Posted?

Mathematicians have it easy. Thanks to the AMS, the answer is “mainly MathJobs“. But also EIMS, The Chronicle of Higher Education and HigherEdJobs. From my browsing, it seems that a handful of smaller schools won’t use MathJobs, or will post on one of the other sites a week or two prior to posting on MathJobs. This lead time may be important depending on the committee. Most postings state that full consideration will be given to applications received before the deadline, but some also mention that review will begin immediately.

The Anatomy of an Application

Virtually all applications require your C.V., cover letter, research description, teaching philosophy statement and a minimum of three letters of reference. A few applications require a diversity statement and some ask for transcripts, most commonly unofficial copies of graduate records. You should aim to have a draft or two of each of these statements completed by October.

Hopefully you spent the previous years proving theorems, experimenting with your teaching and engaging in selected service activities about which you are passionate! At this point your role is now that of copywriter, shoehorning your experiences into the documents listed above. Begin by filling a couple dozen notebook pages with specific anecdotes and vignettes to include in your application but without regard as to where. Remember these (surprisingly useful) platitudes about writing:

  • Writers write.
  • Writing is hard.
  • First drafts are terrible.
  • Writing is rewriting.

The following information is meant to help you complete this exercise and identify elements to include in each document. You must produce non-embarrassing drafts as quickly as possible, identifying editors to help with each. (I’d like to thank my advisor and sister for their numerous revisions of my research and teaching statements, respectively.) With job postings attracting hundreds of applications, every square inch of your application must make the case that your application deserves a second look. You need to be able to pull off the writing equivalent of a “leave behind” without looking like a desperate George Costanza.

Letters of Reference

Most positions request three letters of reference, at least one of which address teaching. Thus you need to provide four letter writers with a presentable draft of your application packet, along with any preprints, a few weeks prior to the first application. For research-intensive positions, your letter writer’s framing of your research is one of the most important parts of your application. The fourth letter writer should be someone who you worked closely with as a teaching assistant or is otherwise familiar with your teaching.

Cover Letter

Roughly speaking, the importance of your cover letter is directly proportional to the length of the job posting. For instance, the MSRI postings are incredibly short and don’t even ask for a cover letter, only a Statement of Purpose describing “your research goals and the particular relevance of the MSRI program to those goals”. Liberal arts schools tend to list very detailed preferences. The cover letter is your space to match your application materials to those preferences. It is the document which requires the most customization.

By trawling MathJobs, one can get a feel for what activities to stress in a cover letter. Here’s a sampling of questions to ask yourself based on commonly requested preferences:

  • Would you be willing to teach a broad range of courses? (Statistics is frequently mentioned.)
  • Are you committed to teaching?
  • How would you contribute to the diversity of the department?
  • Do your research interests complement the faculty?
  • Does your research have potential for interaction with other departments?
  • Have you identified areas for student involvement in your research? Do you have any particular projects?
  • Do you have any grant-writing ability?

Carefully read the job posting, the department’s webpage and faculty profiles to determine what to highlight. For permanent positions you may also include a sentence or two about the location, particularly if in an unusual/rural location or if the position would involve a distant relocation. However, avoid being glib.

Curriculum Vitae

There’s not much room to innovate on your C.V. Find a simple LaTeX template and look at a lot of examples to figure out what’s normally included. This guide from Harvard contains example C.V.’s and cover letters as well as a nice list of action verbs to strengthen your writing. You may have an editing service on your own campus to assist with C.V.’s and cover letters.

The biggest decision to make is ordering of facts on the page. My first page contains, in order: education, publications, awards and courses instructed. These are the most important items in your C.V. for an academic search. Any courses assisted, talks, service and professional experience is relegated to the second page. Though I feel my time as an Air Force meteorologist fundamentally shaped my views on science and mathematics education, this experience takes up only one line on my C.V. It is much easier to make that case in the narrative format of a teaching statement.

Research Description

As with a C.V., there is an expected format for your research description. It should be around three pages, plus references, and should hit the following marks:

  1. Motivating example and brief history.
  2. Statement of results and impact.
  3. Future directions.
  4. Student projects (if mentioned in job posting).

Your advisor is the best qualified person to assist you with this document.

Teaching Statement

The following articles represent the greatest advice I found for writing a teaching statement.

Though some find it difficult to articulate the exact purpose of this document, the survey from the Notices article by Bruff identified a few common themese found in successful statements (in order of frequency of citation):

  1. Specific examples linking philosophy to practice.
  2. Dedication to teaching.
  3. Exhibits good writing and communication skills.
  4. Thoughtful reflection on teaching.
  5. Student-centered.
  6. Match between candidate and department.

The same characteristics were identified by the CRLT survey. The first comment cannot be stressed enough: Good writing is SPECIFIC!


Think of your website like a general purpose cover letter. Provide prominent links to whichever of the above documents you’d like to highlight: C.V., teaching statement, research description, arXiv links. Don’t make people click too much, as they probably won’t. Mine is only a single page and contains short “elevator pitch” versions of my teaching and research. The primary advantage of a website is that it can contain supplementary material not suitable for the standard job application packet; I put an example handout from an exercise described in my teaching statement. I wouldn’t spend too much time on how it looks, just use one of the many freely available templates.

The Joint Mathematics Meetings

Many institutions hold a preliminary interview round at the Joint Mathematics Meeting’s Employment Center. You must plan early to attend the JMM and should strongly consider contributing a talk. Not only is it great practice for your upcoming job talks, but it can also open up more opportunities for funding. I know the funding channels at UCSB for attending conferences are only open to speakers. This year, the submission deadline has already passed, as has the deadline for the AMS Student Travel Grant (both are towards the end of September).

About Derek Smith

Former weather dude and scientific software developer. In the upcoming 2015-16 year I will complete my PhD at UCSB in nonlinear dispersive equations. I enjoy spending time with my two young daughters and running.
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