A lot of us just made it through the weirdest semester of teaching and coursework we will (hopefully) ever have to deal with. Every semester is an achievement, and this one — for all its frustration, heartbreak and awkwardness — counts too. Personally, I felt fortunate to have the thread of continuity with students, classmates and professors as we all adapted, and I was heartened by the numerous acts of consideration, cooperation and kindness that combined to make this thing work.
Like many business and organizations, colleges and universities (especially expensive private ones that sell experience and connections as much as they do education) are desperate to ”go back to normal” in the Fall. But amid the present uncertainty of how this can proceed, lots of academic hiring has been frozen. Without a clear path to resumption of on-campus teaching in the main, we might even expect teaching staff layoffs in measure with the consequent drop in enrolment. This is a scary thought, but speaking as someone that has just tested the job market, it feels especially grim.
Let me back up to offer some comments on my experience with the academic job market this past year, before the whole global pandemic thing. I’ll begin with an anecdote. When I was thinking about doing a PhD in mathematics, the Fall before I applied I reached out to a friend of my older brother who was doing his PhD to ask for some advice on applications. His advice was pretty simple, and probably sound. He said it was best to go to the “most prestigious” school possible, “for the purpose of getting a job afterwards.” (I still have the e-mail.) I found this a bit cynical, so instead I applied to the two places that were closest to where I was living and never really looked back. On the other hand, it looks like I didn’t get a job this cycle, so, uh, touché.
This is not meant to knock my home institution. I have great confidence in my professors and classmates, and I think the education and opportunities I’ve had are top-notch. But we have inherited this system of academic “prestige” which is quintessentially American in its modes of self-perpetuation, class stratification and resource concentration. Like other sorts of inequality, it is both absurd and inescapable. We have all been trained to constantly judge and to feel judged for our pedigrees. Abolishing these biases is a necessary part of our long arc towards a more diverse and inclusive mathematical community. But this is tricky territory when you’re a job applicant, because pedigree and name association is basically what you’re peddling.
Surprise bonus challenge: trying to graduate and secure a job in “just” five years when six is standard at many institutions, especially elite ones. An extra year is more time to develop a research program, present at conferences, and plug into a network before you even start applying. Applying for jobs takes a frustrating amount of time which eats into everything else. Part of the exercise is useful – it is a chance to meditate on your accomplishments, think about what has value, and develop your communication skills. Another part of it is dull and mind-numbing. And then it is at turns brutalizing (strong language warning), making you feel puny and worthless to the club in whose service you have just spent several devoted years.
Here’s another piece of advice I have received multiple times, probably sound: “apply everywhere.” I didn’t do this either: 50-60 total (they call this a “medium amount,” nowadays), mostly research postdocs at large universities where there were people I could imagine collaborating with, in places I could conceive of living. The issue is that many of these were departmental postdocs, meaning there are often hundreds of applicants from all areas of math vying for perhaps just one position. At that point, search committees just don’t have the bandwidth to consider everyone fully, so the shorthands of prestige and the personal connections they may have to your advisor and recommenders become even more significant.
Of course, a fancy institution or a famous advisor are not a golden ticket. We all have to work extremely hard in this business to stay afloat, and part of that work is schmoozing and forging connections. So let me give some advice of my own: if you are going to self-sabotage by, say, avoiding conferences that require air travel on sheer environmental principle, then you should come up with other creative ways to connect with people outside your university. It’s easy to slide into the view of networking (*ack*) as vanity and rank careerism, but if you decide to make it about seeking human connection, it can be the most rewarding part of the job. Mathematics alone may not always sustain you. People, more likely, will.
So anyway, we have this fundamentally weird human market situation: hundreds of people that have very intensive and specialized job training, most of whom would surely excel in the jobs they want, and a bottle with a very skinny neck they are all trying to get through. How is it that so many of us are invited into graduate school where there seems to be abundant funding to support us to attend conferences and summer schools and where we are plied with coffee and sugary treats like creatures whose mental energy is a precious resource: “Look how many problems we have! Will you please help us solve them?” And yet once we have made our modest contribution, some number of us will be expelled from the main quarters of the research enterprise to make room for the next round. Or we can become data scientists.
I can’t claim to be annoyed or surprised by any of this. Actually, one thing was annoying. For many positions, I never received an e-mail or saw an update to the status on mathjobs even after their searches were concluded. So you might be left hoping for longer than you should, waiting indefinitely unless you go after them. Given how easy it would be to just say that the position’s been filled, and how many separate follow-up e-mails a clear status update would obviate, this move feels lazy and shortsighted on the part of hirers, and I wish they wouldn’t do it. Ok, but otherwise, fine, I guess finding a (good) job is just as hard as they said it would be. To those that have been successful, you have my congratulations.
The frozen job market, research interruptions, and the specter of recession are affecting all disciplines, so graduate students at many universities (including mine) are organizing to ask for funding extensions for their assistantships. See this op-ed for just a sample of how this is going. If the current disruptions have you concerned about your status in your program, and you aren’t hearing anything from your university, I think it is wise to mobilize with other graduate students to let your administration know! Some of the decision-making on these matters will be out of anyone’s hands, but it never hurts to communicate.
I am fortunate that my department has said it will guarantee at least one more semester of assistantship to me and others who have asked. I had been feeling ready to move on, but I can’t say for sure that I would have a job if not for coronavirus, and so this may be for the best. If nothing else, I guess at least I get to keep writing for this blog — I’ll take it.
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