Preparing for the job market

Alexander Barrios

Cory Colbert

For this blog post I interviewed Cory Colbert and Alexander Barrios, two recent PhD graduates, on the lessons learned during their job search last academic year. Alexander started at Carleton College in the fall as a postdoctoral scholar, and Cory joined the faculty of Washington & Lee University as a tenure-track Assistant Professor.

Q: How would you recommend preparing for the job market?

Apply broadly. There are so many jobs for a new Ph.D. in mathematics. From NSA, Google and Goldman-Sachs to tenure-track, postdoctoral, and visiting positions all over the world. By the time you hit the market, you probably have a sense of where you’re leaning, but you are wise to cast a wide net in every way possible. Focus your attention on your preferred career, but apply to other places too. So, while we concentrated our efforts on liberal arts colleges, we also applied to postdocs at R1s, positions at teaching colleges, and positions in government.

Start early. Very early. We recommend getting into the right mindset and to start preparing your materials not later than the summer of the year you’re planning to be on the market. But the earlier, the better. For example, if you know that you’re going on the market a year in advance, then you can use that year to network aggressively, participate in numerous seminars, do more outreach, and ask questions of current job candidates to get a sense of what the market is like.

Update your CV and your webpage. For your CV, make sure you’ve listed not only works that have been published or are being reviewed, but also works that are currently in progress. It is important to demonstrate that you’re active. If you do not have a website, now is the time to make one. It is customary for most institutions to provide resources for creating your own webpage, so go and see what resources are available to you. IT services is usually a good place to start. Your website should contain your CV, your current publications and papers that are under review, your current works-in-progress, a teaching link (if, say, you use your website to post homework assignments and course syllabi), contact information, and a personal bio. You should be happy to express yourself and give people a sense of who you are while being professional. It goes without saying that you avoid discussing or mentioning highly controversial things on your website at this point.

Work that network! You’ve been building contacts for years, so now is the time to start reaching out to people that are established and letting them know you’re on the market. They may know about opportunities that are hard to find online; it costs institutions money to list their positions on traditional search platforms, so some places choose not to post a listing at all. Also, keep in mind that unlike postdocs at R1s, visiting positions at liberal arts colleges may not get listed until late December.

Give research talks and undergraduate talks! This is invaluable practice for your on-campus interviews. Begin by seeking opportunities at your institution; give seminar talks in your area and if possible give talks in the undergraduatePreparing for the job market? math club. Look for upcoming conferences in your research area. If one is coming up, submit an abstract to give a talk (or poster) if there is availability. Similarly, if the upcoming AMS sectional meeting has a session in your research area, submit an abstract. This gives you the opportunity to talk about your research to mathematicians who are not familiar with your work. After these talks, do not be afraid to ask for constructive criticism. With each talk you give, you want to make improvements so that the next one is better. By doing this, you will be more comfortable when you go for your on-campus interview talk.

If you are interested in liberal arts colleges or teaching colleges, contact colleges within driving distance from your home and ask whether it is possible to give a talk in their undergraduate seminar. As with the AMS sectional, submit an abstract to give a talk at the MAA sectional meetings. If you pursue this route, plan talks which are fun and accessible to undergraduates.

Q: Where does one find jobs in the Mathematical Sciences?

The traditional search platform is MathJobs (, but there are others such as AMS (, ChronicleVitae (, and HigherEdJobs ( Jobs in industry and government usually have booths at major conferences, such as JMM and JSM. Also, your home institution may be hosting a job fair, so it is a good idea to find out about it as soon as possible. As we mentioned earlier, some schools, institutions, and agencies choose not to list jobs on these job-listing sites for various reasons, so you are also wise to “work that network” and find out what’s out there by simply engaging with people. Just by networking, you may even find someone who can get a visiting position for you in case you need an extra year to search for a job.

Q: How many places would you recommend applying to?

The advice we were given early on for the job market was to personalize applications to the institution or company you are applying to. This in turns caps the number of applications you can send out as it is time-consuming to personalize applications. Be aware that search committees get hundreds of applications and personalizing your application is a good way to stand out among the multitude of applications. That being said, you should aim to apply to at least forty places.

Q: What tips do you have for someone who is going on the job market?

While the first deadlines are usually in October, you want to have drafts of your application materials ready before September. This will allow you to continue editing and perfecting your application while giving you the opportunity to get feedback from colleagues which you can use to strengthen your application materials. In addition, we recommend creating a spreadsheet that contains each posting you are interested and its respective deadline. Moreover, we recommend having hyperlinks to both the job posting and the job application. This will save you time as the application itself usually does not have the job posting.

Regarding the materials, don’t be too cavalier, but consider adding some style and flavor to them. Use fancy letterheads that showcase your institution in your cover letter. Make your CV stand out by using modern and catchy templates, but don’t overdo it.

Most importantly, find that unique quality about you that will make the search committee want to learn more about you. For example, Cory has a passion for aviation and he used that passion to design a course for middle schoolers on the physics and mathematics of flight. Similarly, Alex is passionate about increasing math awareness among middle and high school students and has been the lead instructor for engineering summer camps at Purdue for students in grade 6-12. Both of us highlighted these passions in every way possible, from mentioning it in our teaching statement to making a note of in our CV’s.

Q: What advice do you have for the cover letter?

Your first order of business here should be to go back to the job listing (if there is one) and check for any requirements on what should be in the cover letter. Some places may require that you mention their name in the cover letter (though you should always do this). Other places may request that you make a brief statement about diversity or inclusiveness in your cover page. You don’t want to get your application rejected because you failed to write a sentence (or a word), so make sure you know what’s required first.
Beyond requirements, it’s important to understand that a typical search committee is reading through hundreds, or even thousands, of applications. Therefore, it is positively essential that your cover letter catches the eye and gets straight to the point. For example, we both used nice letterheads from our institutions which added a unique splash of color to our letters. Each of our letters had around three paragraphs, and every single letter was at most one page long. The first paragraph mentioned the school and why we wanted to be there, the body paragraphs spoke about our research and teaching accomplishments, and the last paragraph expressed our excitement and eagerness to interview. It’s helpful to mention in your cover letter that you’ll be at JMM (if that’s true, of course!). Both of us digitally signed our cover letters with free PDF editors.

Q: Any advice on writing a teaching statement?

Alex: Advice I was given was to avoid listing out each class you have taught as this is information that should be on your CV. Instead, the teaching statement should give the search committee a glimpse of your thought process with regards to teaching. Describe moments that show your growth as an educator and demonstrate a willingness to learn from prior mistakes. If you have experimented with various teaching techniques, write about them and reflect on how you will use these in your future classes at the institution you are applying to.

Cory says: The importance of the teaching statement varies with the institutions, but I believe they generally carry more weight among teaching colleges and liberal arts colleges over other places. At this stage in my career, I really wanted to be at a liberal arts college, so I wrote accordingly.
I wrote my teaching statement to be engaging and personal. I avoided going on and on about the merits of different teaching strategies, and I spoke instead about my personal teaching experiences in the classroom. I gave the committee a sense of how I taught at every level, from middle school to a topics course in commutative algebra; I invited them into my classroom and into my way of thinking. I also focused time on what made me a unique candidate: outreach courses in aviation theory! Beyond that, I demonstrated that my teaching strategies were not fixed and rigid, but were instead ever-changing and flexible. I noted that I vary my strategies depending on the course and what the needs of the students are, and not based on a fixed point-of-view of the “right” way to teach. Oh, and try to keep it under three pages, and make sure you get someone to read it before you send it off to dozens of places.

Q: How about the research statement?

Alex and Cory: Be mindful of the research interests of the faculty at the institution you are applying to. This is especially true for smaller colleges where there may not be someone working in your research area. Consequently, you should aim to have different versions of your research statements and let colleagues who are not in your research area read them to gain valuable feedback.

If you are applying to a teaching or liberal arts college, aim to have a very inviting introduction. The mathematics inevitably gets more technical as the reader nears the end of it, but at least the reader has an idea of what you do. And that’s extremely important. You see, many liberal arts colleges and teaching colleges are interested in how well you can explain your research to their undergraduates. This is important because they want to know not only if you are a good teacher, but also if you have opportunities to bring undergraduates onto your research projects; they, like us, absolutely love undergraduate research projects. You may even want to write a paragraph or two about such potential research opportunities. We suggest keeping it under six pages, and get someone to read your research statement!

Q: How would you recommend tailoring applications for various institutions?

Alex and Cory: Prior to writing your cover letter for the institution, learn about it. Look at its faculty, location, and its mission statement. What attracts you to the institution? These are things you should address in your cover letter, as there will be no other place in your application where you can address these things. This will also show the search committee that you did your due diligence and are not sending the same blanket statement to everyone. In addition, highlight aspects of your CV that will make you stand out and support your candidacy for the position.

Q: How many letters of recommendation are required?

Alex: Going into the job market, you want to have at least four letter of recommendations. Two for both research and teaching. Most job posts ask for exactly three or four letters of recommendation. For the positions requiring exactly three letters, you want to appeal to the institution’s goals. For instance, if applying for a research postdoc, you will want to submit at least two letters that discuss your research. However, for liberal arts and teaching colleges, you will want to submit two letters which discuss your teaching experience as well as any mentoring or outreach programs you may have done.

Cory: Most places require at least three letters, so I secured five letters several months before the first deadline. I got two research letters; one hybrid letter that commented on research and teaching; one teaching letter from my graduate school years; and another special teaching letter from my time at Bridge to Enter Advanced Mathematics, a summer residential mathematics program for middle-schoolers ( I did not send all five letters to all places. For liberal arts colleges, I generally sent all five letters if I could. If I could only send four, then I dropped one of my research letters in favor of a letter that spoke more about teaching. For everywhere else, I usually just sent three research letters and my graduate school teaching letter. If I ever had to send fewer than four letters to a non-liberal arts college, then I usually leaned more into my research letters.

Q: Any tips regarding diversity and religious statements?

Alex: If an institution requires a diversity statement, make sure to read what they are asking for. Some diversity statements ask you to address a specific question on how you will improve upon the college mission to increase diversity.

Cory: Regarding a statement of religious background, I’d recommend being supportive if you don’t identify with that school’s religious beliefs. You don’t want to end up in a situation where they think you are something you are not, so be upfront with your situation (if you’re comfortable), but never lie or mislead. If you cannot offer your support, then don’t apply.

Q: Would you recommend reaching out to the committee?

Alex and Cory: There are various points of view on this, but generally we feel that if you’re really excited about a job, then it cannot harm you substantially by reaching out to the chair of the department and letting her know you’ve applied and how excited you are. The chair may not be running the search, but you will at least increase your chances of getting your file looked at carefully. That said, once you’ve reached out to the institution once, you should be hesitant to reach out many more times; you don’t want to badger or annoy the search committee with copious emails about the status of your file.

Q: How did you both manage time while applying for jobs?

Alex: With thesis writing and being on the job market I did my best to partition my time so that I could work on application materials as well as finalize research projects. To achieve this, I gave myself a series of weekly goals in the fall so that I would have all application materials completed by the end of October while allocating time to my research and teaching responsibilities. I personally use a planner but know of others who use Google Calendars or similar programs to plan out their week. In planning be realistic and give yourself wiggle room to accomplish your tasks. Lastly, once your documents are complete, seek constructive criticism from friends and colleagues and continue to revise them accordingly. While my first versions of my application material were done in early November, I found myself continuously revising my documents through January.

Cory: I made it part of my daily routine to spend at least 20 minutes per day searching for new jobs and managing my list of places to which I had planned to apply. This usually ended up being an hour or more because looking at all the opportunities is exciting. Once my CV, cover letter template, research statement, and teaching statement were all done and looked at by someone else, applying for jobs became pretty straightforward and didn’t take much time.

Q: Any final advice?

Alex: The job market is stressful, so plan ahead and budget your time so that you can complete all your documents in time. Look up conferences in your research area and write down the deadlines to submit an abstract. Make sure to network while at conferences and ask questions from colleagues who have been on the job market before.

Cory: The mission at this point in the game is to get noticed and secure an interview. Make your application stand out in every way possible to accomplish this goal, from having an aesthetic and accomplished CV to writing inviting and engaging research and teaching statements.

Thank you to Alex and Cory for their insight on their job search experience!

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