No really, I do want this job…
Show them you really want the job. That’s the title of a recent advice column by David D. Perlmutter in the Chronicle of Higher education. (http://chronicle.com/article/Show-Them-You-Really-Want-the/132281) In this economy, your response might be, “Isn’t it obvious?” The truth is there are signals you send to potential academic employers indicating if you really want this job, or just any job, and no one wants to hire a candidate who feels they belong elsewhere.
Dr. Perlmutter offers great advice about tailoring your application and interview for all job seekers. For mathematicians seeking employment in academia, there are a few particular places in the job application process where you can show your interest.
The cover letter:
Most candidates will use the cover letter to highlight their research, teaching experiences, and awards. You can also use the cover letter to explain why you a good fit for the department, such as your ability to lead undergraduate research. Additionally, you can demonstrate that you are a good fit for the location if you have family within driving distance or a hobby, like camping, worth mentioning. (This can be a concern for schools in certain geographic locations, like rural towns.) Don’t be overzealous in forcing a connection. It’s a good idea to learn more about a school through their website, but gushing about a particular aspect, such as a student club, that in actuality has been dormant for years just draws attention to the fact you are unfamiliar with the school.
Generally speaking, it is unnecessary and in fact ill-advised to contact a faculty member at every school you apply to. There are some cases, though, where it makes sense. If you know someone in the department, such as a connection at a recent conference, then it doesn’t hurt to alert them to your application. If there is someone who would be interested in your work (and you can explain why – not just someone listed in your area on the webpage), then it may be appropriate to contact them. Additionally, if you are starting to receive offers for interviews, consider contacting your top 5-10 schools for an update on your status.
Perhaps the best way to show your interest is to ask questions. What do you already know about the department? Demonstrate this knowledge, while learning more about the specifics. Are you familiar with a peer school? This may also be a good starting point for questions.
A University will generally invite three candidates to campus for each open position. From a department standpoint, there is a good chance that these candidates have other interviews, meaning competing offers. If the first choice candidate waits two weeks to respond, and then declines, the other two candidates may already have accepted offers elsewhere, and it may be too late to invite others from the short list. In this case, if all three candidates are equally qualified and all good fits, then enthusiasm for the position can make the difference. You will meet a lot of people during the campus interview, and they all should be assured that you want to be their colleague.