A Longtime Math Grad Student’s Job Search Experience
| Phil Grizzard
March 1, 2007
Here is an informal (yet lengthy) essay about my job search experience as a Mathematics Ph.D. Candidate at UIC. I decided to write this up because I feel like I had a relatively pleasant process, whereas I have heard many others complain of very negative encounters. I hope some people will find this helpful for their own future experiences.
I entered UIC in the fall of 2000. The first couple of years were quite a struggle, and I did not pass my prelims until the beginning of my third year. I chose my advisor, Professor Smith, after my third year (2003) and worked with him without taking any courses for several years. While doing that, I had the opportunity to teach an assortment of different courses in a variety of settings as a TA. I really do love teaching, and I can see it as possibly being the main focus of my career.
Typically 6 years is the ideal amount of time for a student to get their PhD at UIC. At the beginning of my 6th year, however, I still had not made enough progress on my assigned thesis problem. I approached my advisor about whether I should start the job search. He very politely but clearly indicated that I would not have time to finish everything by the end of that academic year. He mentioned that I could apply for jobs that would accept an ABD, but he recommended that I take a seventh year.
This advice turns out to have been right on the money. Toward the end of my sixth year, I got the result that my advisor said would be enough to earn my degree even if I didn’t take the idea any further. I spent the summer getting a rough draft of my thesis hammered out, which allowed me enough time in the fall to be a lecturer and also enough time to thoroughly pursue job openings. (And also enough time to attend a bunch of baseball playoff games, but that’s a different story.)
I was very aggressive in my application process. My current research is original but not exactly top-notch, so I wasn’t sure how many schools would be interested in me. I also wanted to have as much choice as possible. Therefore, I sent out applications all over the place, to just about every nook-and-cranny that had a job description that I liked (and even some that I didn’t like, just in case). After making a few initial applications in October, I went to Kinko’s in mid-November and made 1,255 copies, enough for over 100 copies of all my application materials. I bought loads of stamps and envelopes, and at the post office asked them to weigh different piles of paper so I would know how much postage to affix depending on how many materials were requested by each school. I then made my own assembly line of cv, teaching statement, research statement, cover letter, cover sheet, plus copies of transcripts from the 3 schools I’ve attended. I even created multiple versions of many of these materials, which made each application more specific, but certainly added to the headaches. There were piles of paper on the floor of our den for weeks.
All in all, I applied to 161 schools from the AMS EIMS list, and 98 schools on MathJobs. There is significant overlap between these lists (and I haven’t bothered to comb them each to figure out the number exactly), so I’d say that I applied to somewhere between 180 and 200 schools. This includes a handful of additional applications from The Chronicle of Higher Education. I applied to schools in at least (I may have missed some) 38 states, plus Canada and the Netherlands.
The process was certainly painful at times. Some schools would mention something they wanted that I hadn’t prepared. Other schools demanded that the cover letter be specifically directed to their school. And many, many (WAY too many) schools required that you apply on their website, which took seriously about 15 times as long as either using MathJobs or stuffing an envelope with materials I had already prepared. But I went ahead and applied to nearly all of them that I had planned to—even ones I knew I’d never get—just for completeness.
One thing that worked great was suggested by my advisor. He gave me the electronic version of his “little black book” of academic contacts. So I went through all the schools on the list and checked each of them with his list of group theorists he knows. He helped me compose a general email that basically introduced myself as Prof. Smith’s student, mentioned that I was applying, and asked for any information they might have about my prospects of getting the job.
Anytime there was someone on his list at a school I was applying to, I would send that professor an email. I got several positive responses from this, because professors usually like the possibility of getting new faculty in their field. I learned that some of them are looking for algebraists, occasionally even group theorists. I also got some honest responses that politely indicated I had a better chance of walking through a wall (which has positive probability according to quantum mechanics) than getting a position at their school. That was good information as well.
I finished applying to all of the relevant posted openings right before Thanksgiving. Many schools had deadlines much later, but I just wanted to get them done. I would check for new postings periodically through December. There were a few more that I applied to, but most of the interesting ones had been posted by mid-November. Throughout November and part of December, I got a steady trickle of email and letters letting me know that they had received my materials. Virtually every school asked me to fill out an optional Affirmative Action form, which I always did. (Each time, I thought to myself, “Sorry folks, another white male.” But of course it will help the figures of the many schools that won’t be hiring me.)
In December, I started to get some “no” responses, which is useful information, but I also started to get some nibbles from interested schools. In particular, since I registered in October (nice and early) for the Employment Center at the Joint Meetings, many schools started asking me about setting up an interview at these meetings. (I also had indicated that I would be attending the Joint Meetings on some of the various versions of my cover letter.) I set up a calendar for those four days and started to fill it with appointments. Meanwhile, I finished up the rough draft of my dissertation and sent it to my committee. I scheduled my defense for Feb. 13th as recommended by my advisor. With the defense firmly scheduled, it would look better to prospective employers at the Joint Meetings. I also made a short version of my dissertation and submitted it to the journal Communications in Algebra for publication.
I also got some additional questions via email from a couple of schools. These questions went into pretty good depth and required essay-like responses. I wasn’t sure if I’d really be interested in working at these particular schools, but I took the time to write thorough and thoughtful answers. I was glad to have been forced to think fully about some difficult questions, so that I would be more prepared for the upcoming meetings. By the time the holidays were over, I had scheduled a whopping 14 interviews! I used Christmas gift cards from the in-laws to purchase 2 suits, which are the first suits I’ve ever owned (and perhaps only suits I ever will own).
I came in to UIC the day before flying to New Orleans and took the opportunity to pick the brains of a bunch of people. I brought in the Teaching Portfolio that I had sort of thrown together before Christmas based on a mass-email recommendation from our former Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) Prof. Hurder. I had put in it a bunch of materials from many of the different courses and experiences I’ve had at UIC: worksheets, syllabi, group projects, special assignments, lectures, icebreakers, review handouts, notation handouts, quizzes, exams, some student work, evaluations, and other student interactions. It certainly helps that I didn’t just TA Calc II for seven years. But I also have to say that I did all the different teaching experiences because I love teaching, not because I wanted to build a portfolio. Doing the portfolio was an afterthought.
I showed the portfolio to several faculty and staff, including Prof. Smith, our assistant DGS Kari, and the current DGS Prof. Radford. They generally liked it, and Kari suggested that I make tabs to refer particular sections, so I did when I got home. I got information about arXiv to post the preprint of the publication version of my thesis. With that posted, I made a bunch of copies of the preprint to distribute at my interviews, as suggested by my advisor. I also talked to Prof. Hurder and Prof. Tangora joined the conversation about what kinds of questions to expect and what I should ask. That night, I made up a file for questions I would ask about a tenure-track position and a separate one for what I would ask about a postdoc position. Then I made and printed over a dozen different files, each with the school name and time of my appointment and plenty of white space under each question for notes. I also made generic files that I could fill in, in case I was able to schedule interviews with more schools.
The Joint Meetings
I flew to New Orleans Thursday afternoon, which allowed me plenty of time to get situated before my interviews. Since we had registered early, I was able to room with a fellow “7th-year” friend from UIC. Another advantage of registering early is that I was staying in the same hotel as the Employment Center. All I’d have to do is head downstairs. I had heard a lot of bad things about this Employment Center, a.k.a. “the cattle call.” Employers are here from all over the country and beyond, making the volume of interactions uncomfortable for many applicants. So I was trying to make everything as convenient and pleasant for myself as possible.
My first meeting was scheduled for Friday at 11:00 (I was able to arrange the appointments around my usual sleep schedule, oh yeah). Thursday night, I had to pay for internet access (not provided; grumble…) so that I could do a bit of research about each school before I met with them. I also decided to try the computer scheduling, which meant I needed to clear some room on my already-booked agenda. I emailed 2 schools to change their appointment time, and they actually responded pretty quickly. I put comments from my web research onto the question sheet for each school. I used pencil for my web research and planned to use pen for my comments during the interview. This way, I would be able to look back later and differentiate my notes.
Friday morning, I got ready and headed down to my first interview, for a tenure-track job at a liberal arts school in Wisconsin. The job description for this position had made my heart jump when I read it in November. Combining that with its proximity to my family in Illinois, it was my number one choice for tenure-track jobs. I had planned to be a few minutes early, but of course it took me longer to get ready than I thought (how long has it been since I tied a tie?), so I cut it really close. It was probably about 10:59 when I entered the self-scheduled interview room.
I had a brief break and then went straight to my next interview, for a postdoc at a big state school. I showed my portfolio and it seemed like the guy wasn’t ready for it or wasn’t all that interested in it. He kept talking about his school’s projects that they wanted done. I wasn’t sure I really wanted to do some of the stuff he was talking about. I started to look at things a little differently. With all these interviews lined up, I was starting to feel like I could be a bit more choosey. I used much of the end of that meeting asking questions about the school and thinking about whether or not I would want to go there. Hmm…not sure that one will make the cut.
Over lunch, I finalized my meeting time for the rescheduled appointments. So I had scheduled 6 appointments on Friday, 7 on Saturday, plus one on Sunday. All of my appointments the rest of the day had two interviewers (instead of just one), which I think was more comfortable. Also most of the Friday appointments were located at various random places in hallways or meeting rooms throughout the hotel. It was kind of a fun adventure.
My third meeting was after lunch and it was fantastic. The position was a tenure-track job at a small liberal arts school, and the first thing they asked was something to the effect of, “You have great credentials. Why would you want this job?” It was certainly flattering, and I used my web research to describe what I liked about their school. I also used my experience in the first two interviews to develop a more coherent spiel, and the teaching portfolio appeared to knock their socks off. “Excuse me sir, you’re drooling on my Portfolio.” (OK, so that’s an exaggeration, but they might as well have been.) I spent a lot of time also asking them my questions. They had scheduled a longer-than-usual appointment, and the conversation got to such depth that by the end, we had discussed religious beliefs (it’s a Christian school) and some of my athletic accomplishments in track. They were very warm and asked me to keep in touch.
So then I was really feeling good. I realize that a good interviewer will make you feel good about yourself, but at this point I was seeing that what most of these small schools want is a great college math teacher who happens to have a PhD. They don’t care that my research isn’t in the Annals of Mathematics, but they do care that I have had such an array of teaching experiences and that I clearly put extra effort into my teaching. And I have noticed and read in the program that the Joint Meetings are loaded with these kinds of schools looking for professors.
My fourth appointment was for a job to which I had applied as a backup. It was non tenure-track, but also non-research at all. Since I was starting to see that I actually am somewhat marketable, I felt pretty confident that I wasn’t going to need this job. So after a few minutes, they asked what my thoughts were on their job, and I said, “I gotta be honest. This isn’t my first choice.” They understood, and asked if I was looking for a more typical research postdoc. “Or,” I replied, “a tenure track position.” The guy seemed to get it. “Oh, so you’ve got both sides as possibilities.”
At that point, I felt like I had everything down, and I was enjoying myself quite a bit. If this is the “cattle call,” then I feel Iike I’m the herder. I couldn’t wait until my next interview. When it came, I was in the groove. I listened to them, gave my spiel, and I basically ran the rest of the interview, asking questions about their school. They ended the meeting explaining their approximate hiring timeline and when I could expect to hear from them. I went way over time, and had to practically run to my last appointment of the day twenty minutes late. It was one I had rescheduled, and it was just in the hallway (not at a formally designated table), so they were very understanding. I really got the sense that a lot of people here are relaxed and pretty forgiving.
When I finished that interview, I went back down to the main employment center and put notes in the folders of some schools that hadn’t asked me for interviews. They could reply by putting notes in my folder, or notes on the message board. I was really having fun with this system, and since I enjoyed doing the interviews so much, I was trying to get as many as I could. Hey, that’s why I came. These notes led to two additional interviews, giving me nine (9) for Saturday.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to go through each of the nine appointments. But they were actually a lot of fun for me. I heard things like, “Our process is very slow, so don’t worry if you haven’t heard from us by the beginning of February” and “Please let us know if you get another offer.” Maybe they say that to everyone, but the good feedback I was getting allowed me to ask probing questions that I might not have had the courage to ask otherwise. For example, one of my interviews was with a big state school for a very attractive NSF Teaching Postdoc. They were telling me that this is a great program for me to be able to get a tenure-track job at a liberal arts college afterward. I asked them, “I’ve had a lot of interviews, and I might be able to get that…now. What do you have to offer that would make me want to pass up a tenure-track offer?” That school then had one of their current Teaching Postdocs (who was also attending the meetings) get in touch with me the next day to discuss why I should do a teaching postdoc there.
Eight of the nine appointments I had on Saturday were in the self-scheduled room. It was the second day of meetings, and I could tell that the interviewers were getting bored. Most would ask something like, “So, are you worn down yet?” at the start of the appointment. I imagine they were getting some of that from other applicants, but I could honestly say, “No, I’m feeling good!” Often one person would do more of the talking, and I could see the other interviewer staring off into space behind me, or looking out at the room and not paying attention. But when I whipped out that Portfolio, all of a sudden the body language changed dramatically. Everyone leaned in and focused intently, seemingly hanging on my every word. I felt like they were putty in my hands. I’m sure I stayed very polite, but my confidence was so high that in my head I was getting cocky. After one interview, the next applicant was right there when I left the table, and I thought to myself, “Sorry you have such a tough act to follow.” And later, leaving an interview with a small school in the middle of nowhere, I thought to myself, “Good luck getting somebody like me.” I felt like I was a player. In reality, I still had no guarantees of any job, because there still were no offers. (There basically never are on-the-spot offers.) But these thoughts in my head were just how I felt at the moment.
I started to become more proficient with the porfolio. Most meetings flowed nicely, but one time the interviewers were very stubbornly going through their prepared questions, even though I had mostly addressed many of them already in my spiel. But for each question, I thought of something different in my portfolio that we hadn’t talked about. So I’d flip (using the tabs) to something I had done that related to what they were asking. That was fun, too—I felt like I had an answer for everything. Throughout the weekend, I never showed anyone the entire Portfolio; I basically highlighted a few things at the beginning, and then flipped to something relevant when it came up in the conversation.
Having so many interviews gave me a perspective on what’s out there. Most of the small liberal arts colleges were getting predictable by the end. In particular, they would all explain that “research” actually means “scholarly activity” which includes things like attending conferences, reviewing books, and maybe occasionally writing an article about your teaching. Depending on your perspective, this could be either lame or reassuring—with a high teaching load, it is difficult to be on the front-line of major journal research. Many required only one refereed paper total to get tenure, and even that could be about your teaching. Often when I would ask about tenure requirements, one of them would jump in with “Research doesn’t have to be top journal publication. It can be…” and in my head I would think “Yeah, yeah, I know: ‘scholarly activity,'” as I politely nodded and took notes. It is nice to know there are so many places out there that don’t burn your feet with publication quotas. But I would make sure to ask what support they would give if I did want to continue to do research at their school. Overall, I had a very good sense of what each school was about, and I think they had a very good sense of what I’m about.
Sunday, I was computer-scheduled for only one appointment. And I’m glad it wasn’t more than one. This is the cattle call. The computer scheduled room is a smaller, separate room off to the side. Instead of names on the tables, there are numbers. There is a sign (like a “Please wait to be seated” sign) at the entrance with some warnings about not entering until instructed. A lady sits there as the bouncer to the room. She speaks into the intercom, “5 minutes left in the interview.” People line up outside the interview room, and they get really ansty. One guy saw that the table he was going for was open, so he sort of made a move and the lady scolded him and didn’t let him in. A moment later, the lady’s voice boomed, “The interview is now over. The next interview will begin at 2:20.” I realized that I forgot my badge, but I thought “I’d better not go back and get it now, I only have 5 minutes.” Already I was more tense and flustered because of this unnecessarily overstructured setting.
I had one remaining self-scheduled appointment, and then I was done with interviews. It was a little disappointing to be done, because I had had so much fun. But then I got to see a little bit of New Orleans, so that was nice.
I concluded the weekend having had 17 interviews. Plus, I met with an NSF Teaching Postdoc to get more information about that program from a participant’s perspective, and he explained why he thinks it’s better than taking a tenure-track job offer. When I mentioned to him that I didn’t know what I was going to be offered, he said, “Well I think it’s a good sign that they sent me to try to convince you.”
Within a week of the meetings, I was contacted by two schools asking to set up phone interviews. After my good experience, this seemed natural. But looking back, it was kind of amazing that there was that much interest in me. Like I said, my research isn’t spectacular. It has taken me seven years to get my PhD, and I’ve been in graduate school for nine years total. But somehow it all came together at the right time. I was excellently prepared by my advisor Prof. Smith, by the current and former DGSs (Radford and Hurder), and by our assistant DGS Kari. The Joint Meetings gave me a clearer picture of the the kind of jobs I want, and of the kind of jobs I can get now and in the future. I could tell that I would likely get a job I really wanted, and possibly have some choices of jobs. That was a great feeling. But of course I still didn’t have any offers…yet!
I noticed another interesting aspect of the job search. Apparently, my job materials screamed, “I want to teach!” That was not necessarily my intention going in, but upon reflection, I think it’s true. The people who interviewed me wanted me mainly because I wanted to teach. And interviewing with them let me know that I could totally love that type of job. That is a great thing about going through this whole process—we learn about ourselves.
One side note I’d like to mention is the beautiful situation I’m in this spring. For the last several years, my advisor has supported me each summer with a research assistantship from his grant, while I have had teaching responsibilities each fall and spring. Since I was planning to graduate this spring, I would not be able to utilize my advisor’s RA for the upcoming summer. So last fall, I asked my advisor if there was a way for me to get an RA for the spring. He talked to some people and pulled some strings, and got a full RA for me for my final semester. This has been absolutely wonderful, as I am able to spend time on the job search and make campus visits without any schedule to work around, other than defending my thesis.
I was a bit concerned that the places asking for phone interviews were moving too quickly for everyone else. While of course any offer would be great, the ideal situation would be to have schools making offers around the same time. I didn’t want to have an offer deadline before other schools were ready to make offers. So I delayed my phone interviews to the second week after the Joint Meetings.
Monday of the following week was January 22nd. I got an email from the liberal arts school in Wisconsin that had originally been my number one choice for tenure-track jobs. After interviewing in New Orleans, I wasn’t sure that it was still #1 (I knew I didn’t hit it off with the interviewer like I had in most other appointments), but I certainly remained very interested. Anyway, this email informed me that I had not made the cut. Ouch.
Upon reflection, I remembered that I had scheduled this school as my first interview. I would say in hindsight that that was a mistake. I learned so much through the interview process that toward the middle and the end I had a keen sense of what to say and how to say it. In the first interview, though, I had fumbled around a little bit. It probably would have been better (especially with the volume of interviews I did) to schedule a high-ranking school after having had a few appointments under my belt.
|The next message in my inbox, however, was from a professor at Westminster College whom I had met with in New Orleans. The bulk of the message said:|
I am writing to gauge your interest level in this position. My colleague and I were very impressed with your qualifications and attitude toward teaching, and we both felt that you would be an excellent fit in our department. However, it seemed that you were very concerned about the teaching load, and the time that would be left for research. We are in the process of finalizing our list of candidates to bring to campus, and would like to know if you still have a serious interest in our college. If you have decided that our teaching load (12 hrs/sem) is just too much, I understand completely, and wish you well in your job search. I appreciate your time.
The funny thing is that Westminster is the college that I had arrogantly written off in my head as being too small and rural to “get somebody like me.” This message from them seemed almost dismissive, like they had picked up on my thoughts and so doubted I would want to go there. But now that my adrenaline ego rush had passed, along with two weeks of uncertainty and a rejection by what was originally my #1 liberal arts school, I had a bit of a different perspective. I immediately replied that I was still interested.
Their note was encouraging, but made me reflect on my attitude at the Joint Meetings. I remembered reading an article from a Liberal Arts professor who discussed that part of their decision-making process is based on how serious they believe the candidate is about their institution. I was a bit concerned that Westminster had sort of read what I had been thinking, even though I hadn’t intended to communicate that. It was, after all, a transient thought process—perhaps a motivational ploy by my subconscience to keep myself upbeat through 17 interviews. I’m sure glad they checked with me. It made me reflect on my other interviews. What if another school wanted me, but felt that I wasn’t serious about them and so just wrote me off instead of emailing me? In particular, I thought about the school offering the NSF Teaching Postdoc. I had insinuated during the interview that I might be able to get a tenure-track job without doing their postdoc. I hoped they weren’t writing me off because I think I can get a tenure-track job. And I haven’t heard from them at all since the Joint Meetings.
|That school was The University of Arizona. After thinking for a day that I may have unintentionally pushed them away at the interview, I decided to send an email to the current Teaching Postdoc who had talked to me at the Joint Meetings. I explained my thoughts and concluded my email with, “So basically I’m looking for some reassurance that Arizona knows that I am seriously interested in the job.”|
Right after sending that email, I went to campus to practice my dissertation defense for other graduate students to give me some feedback. (This was very helpful for my preparation, by the way.) Immediately when I got done, my cell phone rang and my wife Christine breathlessly told me that Arizona had called with an OFFER! Wow, that must have been an effective email! I went back to my office, with my head spinning. A moment later, I got a call from Westminster inviting me to a campus interview! What an exciting day. What an exciting time of life!
Christine was very understanding and supportive of my desire to keep looking, especially for a permanent position. Besides, Arizona still had to write up and send the offer, so it would be a week or so before we would get it. I was not going to turn anyone down until I physically saw a contract. And call me crazy, but I love this interviewing process. I wanted to see what a campus visit would be like at a liberal arts college. And who knows, maybe they could win me over.
The next day, I got a call out of the blue from a state school in Indiana. They hadn’t sent anyone to New Orleans, and they had not contacted me at all since I applied. I didn’t really even remember applying—of course, 180+ apps will do that. But I still had no contract in hand, and I wanted to hear what they had to offer. So I agreed to a phone interview for the next day. I kind of thought it was some podunk school and expected to write them off after the phone interview. But this phone interview was amazing. They wanted a teaching algebraist! They wanted someone to teach Abstract Algebra every time it is offered, and other higher-level courses, mixed in of course with service courses. Plus they have a lot of research opportunities, and they are close to my family in Illinois! That is exactly the type of job I think I want. (Though I have to be honest, I wasn’t and still am not completely sure of what type of job I want.) Man, this decision is just getting harder!
The Department Chair at Westminster gave me good instructions and a detailed schedule for my visit, which was January 31st-Feb 1st. Like a schmo, I missed my scheduled flight to St. Louis. Fortunately, there was another one an hour later, but it meant I would miss the shuttle van that had been planned to take me to Westminster from St. Louis. So the department chair and another faculty member actually drove an hour and a half to the airport to pick me up, then another hour and a half with me to campus. On the ride, I found out that they are bringing 4 candidates in for their two open positions. Boy, I hope every candidate doesn’t make them do all this driving! My lateness also meant that I risked missing my pre-scheduled talks. Instead of arriving on campus for an hour tour and then having an hour to setup for my talks, we arrived 15 minutes before my talks! So they took me straight to the bed and breakfast, I jumped out of the car, ran up to change into my suit and get all ready, and ran back down to the car. We got to my talk pretty much right on time.
Each of my talks was scheduled for 20 minutes, and they were designed to assess my teaching skills. My first talk was for advanced math students (the campus has only undergraduates) on a topic of my choice. I did an introduction to group theory using a LaTeX Beamer presentation. (I was learning Beamer in preparation for my defense.) There were a handful of students, along with several faculty observing. It went pretty well, and I had everyone work in groups at the end and construct the group of order 3. I had a break and then a few lower-level students showed up for my second talk. This topic had been assigned to me: analyzing the graphs of quadratics using the graphing calculator. I felt like this one wasn’t as interesting, but I started off by discussing shifting graphs on the blackboard before we used the calculators. This provided a framework for understanding, which some faculty gave me positive feedback about later.
After my talks, I got a tour of the building and went to dinner with much of the search committee. I was made extremely comfortable by the faculty. They were so friendly and warm that I actually started to feel like they were friends. They were very open and receptive to my questions, but it went beyond that. I felt comfortable enough to make wisecracks at dinner, even using specific things I’d learned in previous conversations to tease some of them whom I’d gotten to know. It was a blast, and everyone was joking and laughing most of the time. I got to know everything I wanted to know about the job, and I feel like I also got to know the people I would work with.
The next morning was meetings, meetings, and more meetings. Still, I enjoyed them. A few faculty came to my bed and breakfast and I had a breakfast meeting about the tenure procedures. Then I was whisked to campus and had four consecutive meetings with administrators. I met with Deans, and even the President of the school. I was amazed that all of them had my file in front of them and were at least somewhat familiar with it. These conversations were pretty friendly and informal. The only one that made me squirm a bit was the President, who said that my research was a little weak. But other than that, the conversations were pleasant and enjoyable.
To each meeting, I was escorted by a math faculty member, who would wait in the lobby until I was done, and then escort me to the next meeting. I didn’t have to think about where I was going or who I was visiting; they took care of everything. That made it very easygoing and pressure-free. And it was so neat to walk around campus with faculty. Over half the students we passed would say hi. Some would even stop to chat for a bit. That’s a neat atmosphere, certainly different than the big state schools I’ve always attended.
I had lunch with some faculty and a student, and we continued our playful banter. Then I had my formal interview with the search committee. The setup for the room was intimidating, as three tables of faculty faced my table. But I was so comfortable by this point that the arrangement wasn’t a big deal. This interview lasted an hour, and I made good use of my portfolio again, this time knocking dead a whole room instead just a pair of Joint Meetings interviewers. At this formal interview, I brought up the fact that I had gotten the offer from Arizona. I asked them what the prospects might be of an opening in 3 years, and got a very complete (though of course not conclusive—they don’t have a crystal ball) response.
What do we do now?
While flying back, I reflected on this decision facing me. It is so hard to compare Arizona to Westminster: huge school vs. tiny school. Research institution vs. teaching institution. Very far from home vs. fairly close to home. Temporary job vs. permanent job.
It was clear to me that Arizona was my #1 choice for a postdoc. It was also clear that Westminster was now my #1 choice for liberal arts schools. My ranking of schools is only a partially ordered set, and I have found two “maximal” choices. What else is there? Hmm…there are tenure-track jobs at state schools. Schools that have more research opportunities than Westminster but are not as enormous as Arizona. I know that I won’t be getting a tenure-track job at a research place like Arizona, so state schools interested in me now for a tenure-track would be less focused on research. Hmm…something like the state school I had the phone interview with last week. That school is another “maximal” choice: my #1 ranked tenure-track state school, if it is still interested in me. Indeed it could be the perfect balance between the others in terms of size and research opportunities. Plus, it has the benefits of being both close to home and a permanent job. I would definitely like to look into that possibility.
I called the chair at Arizona to ask about extending the deadline. One thing I mentioned is that althought the letter was dated January 24th, I first saw it on February 1st. I told him I still wanted to look around at tenure-track offers and he understood. He didn’t think there would be a problem extending it a week or so, but he said he would have to check with the committee before officially making an extension. He said that he would like to accommodate me, because “We really want you here.” I also asked him about us making a campus visit to Arizona before I made my decision. He seemed a bit reluctant, but agreed that he could provide $500 toward a visit. I told him we could visit the week of the 19th, so I asked if it would be possible to extend the deadline to the 23rd. That way, we would let them know of our decision during our visit. He said he would also mention that to the committee and get back to me.
Christine and I discussed everything over the weekend. Obviously we didn’t want to do anything that might jeopardize the Arizona offer, but now it looked like we’d have about two weeks before that deadline. So we decided that it would still be good to keep our options open and see what other tenure-track possibilities came up.
The following Monday, February 5th, I removed my name from the lists of postdocs and liberal arts schools that had contacted me since the Joint Meetings. I also sent an email to the tenure-track schools that had given me phone interviews since the Joint Meetings, inquiring about their status. Each of these schools, incidentally, fit into the “tenure-track state school” category. I wanted to explore this category fully, come up with a #1 choice, and then compare the three “maximal” schools. I told each of the tenure-track state schools that I had a very attractive offer for a postdoc and that I was seriously considering it. I also wrote, “It lists February 12th as a deadline for my decision, though the chair said I could probably extend it a week if necessary.” I mentioned to each that I was still interested in their position since it was tenure-track.
Very shortly after I sent my messages, the chair of the state school in Indiana (my #1 tenure-track state school) said that she had gotten permission to offer me a campus visit. Sweet! This was great, I thought. Now I could see each maximal choice in person and make a decision from the three.
Some schools that had been frequently in touch with me responded to my email that they had already extended campus visits and not invited me. People hadn’t exactly volunteered this information to me when they made those invitations, but they did promptly inform me of the situation when I inquired about their status. They still had me on their second-tier list. So basically, they didn’t want me to know that I wasn’t on their top list, but they wanted to keep me around in case their top choices went elsewhere. That’s how the game works.
I was also a bit startled to learn from one of those schools that the reason they had not invited me to campus was because they didn’t think I was interested. This is a school that I had interviewed with both in New Orleans and on the phone. At the time I learned this, it was nice to know that I did have the Arizona offer, but what if I didn’t have any offers? They sure had confidence that I would get another job! It is frustrating to think that they were sort of trying to read me: instead of checking with me to gauge my interest when they made the initial campus visit invitations, they just skipped over me for the first round! As it turned out, one of their candidates turned down their offer, so they wanted me to make a visit. I wasn’t sure about the timing, and that school was not my #1 tenure-track state school, so I declined. I guess they were right about me after all.
I had some nice email correspondences with some of the schools I turned down. In particular, the committee chair of a postdoc school asked where I’d be going. We had had a very fun interview in New Orleans. He mentioned in the email that I was very high on their list, and that he thought I would do well even in a tight market. I wrote him a detailed message about my situation, and asked him if this year’s market was tighter than usual. This led to some thorough messages back and forth. He gave me some advice on how he made his postdoc vs. tenure-track decision, and even gave me some feedback on my interview. (I have included this feedback in the Reflection section below.) It felt good to have some open and unbiased communication in the midst of all this formality and secrecy.
Over the next few days, I was preparing for my Feb 13th dissertation defense. But I kept getting more messages from schools expressing interest—some that I hadn’t heard from since the Joint Meetings, and some that I hadn’t heard from at all since I applied. This was starting to get out of hand; the number of schools interested in me rose to ten. So I started saying no to most of them.
Also over this week, I frequently corresponded with the chair from my #1 tenure-track state school. After going back and forth many times, we decided on the date and times for the campus visit. I confirmed a flight for the following Thursday, Feb. 15th, which would be two days after my defense. The chair said that they would make their decision by the 19th.
Everything had gone so well throughout my search process that it had never occurred to me that I might be setting up a conflict. But then it happened. Late night Thursday night, Feb. 8th (it was technically already Friday the 9th), I got the following message from the chair at Arizona:
I’m sorry for not responding to you sooner; but a number of things came up that prevented me from getting back to my email until now. In our meeting yesterday, the Department’s hiring committee expressed to me that, in the interests of our search process, they could not recommend extending your deadline to Feb 23. However, I was able to get them to approve extending the deadline until Feb 15 (one week from today). This is the best I can do. I still hope that it may be possible for you to decide to come to Arizona. I believe that your presence here would be a very positive and beneficial experience for the Department and for you and your career. Of course I also understand that the possibility of securing a a tenured or tenure-track position is something that you must take very seriously.
Uh-oh. I had a campus visit scheduled for the 15th and 16th at the tenure-track state school. I realized that I hadn’t been very specific with the Arizona chair in terms of my request for more time. It appears that the committee thinks I’m just aimlessly looking around, when in reality I have a specific itinerary set. I didn’t think to relay all the details to Arizona when I finalized the campus visit, but I should have done that. It would have been nice, though, if the chair had told me sooner—this was now a full week since the conversation in which I made the request. But I understand; they have a lot of other things going on, and this is only one of a number of open positions they are filling. So I immediately wrote the chair at Arizona back and explained my situation, asking for the full extension. I gave the specifics of my itinerary, and even described my “partially ordered sets” decision-making process.
I went to bed wondering what to do now. I got up in the morning and discussed the situation with Christine. I checked my email aroun noon and there was nothing from Arizona. It didn’t look like I was going to hear back from the chair in time, plus he would have to make another meeting with to the committee and ask for a re-extension. Last time it took him a week to get back to me; a week from today, the offer would already be expired. Talking with Christine, we realized that the situation was either to accept the Arizona offer or to give it up and hope that I would get another offer. The latter choice was silly, since I still didn’t have any other offers. And it wasn’t like Arizona was a horrible place for us anyway. So we decided that we really needed to accept the Arizona offer. I was disappointed that I would not get to make the campus visit and have an opportunity to decide from the three top choices. But it was exciting to decide on a job, and I called Arizona with the good news. The chair wasn’t there, but I talked to an administrative associate who was very happy to hear that I had decided on Arizona.
Getting Chewed Out
The next question was what to do about my scheduled visit to the #1 tenure-track state school. One possibility was to make the visit knowing that I had taken the Arizona offer. That did not seem like the ethical thing to do. I knew they would be disappointed, but I thought it would be best for them to know right away, so they wouldn’t waste any more time on me and would have an extra week to make other plans.
Well, that could have gone better. I called Arizona back. Again, the chair was not there, so I tried to explain my situation to the associate. She didn’t think that they could make me repay the money, but she didn’t know exactly what to do. The chair would not be available for awhile, and I had to go meet with my advisor. I said that I would try back later.
I talked with Christine again about what to do. It really did not look like we were going to get an answer from Arizona anytime soon, now that I had emailed the chair and tried to call him twice. Plus, even if I did get ahold of the chair, he would have to meet with the committee to make a formal re-extension. So we decided that I should send a check to the tenure-track state school for the flight.
I called the chair at the tenure-track state school (you’ve probably noticed by now that I haven’t given the name—now you know the reason) to try to explain my situation and let her know that I would send a check. It was two hours later, so I thought she would have calmed down by then. But she was just as abrasive and still didn’t want to hear my explanation: “We don’t need to get into the details at this point.” She continued to ream me out, and let me say hardly a word. She was also very demanding about the check. She asked “when can I expect the check?” like she wouldn’t talk to me for any other reason. Since she didn’t listen to me, I wasn’t even sure if she ever even understood what my situation was.
So I felt horrible, thinking I had really screwed up. Maybe I was getting too greedy trying to keep all my options open, I thought. I mailed the check to the school with an apology and explanatory letter that described both my situation and also mentioned how the chair had treated me on the phone. The chair certainly made an impression on me—it’s interesting how much you can learn about a place without even visiting!
I felt like I had been stuck between the worst aspects of two different types of institutions. I experienced a bit of big school hubris—they gave me a 3-day extension when I had asked for 11 days; and the small school inferiority complex—they immediately assumed that I had just been insincerely toying with them. I came to find out, though, that this was not typical on either end.
A Different Perspective
I went to UIC and discussed the situation with my advisor and several other people. It seems that my decision to confirm the campus visit before getting confirmation of the extension was not that unusual. It was more unusual that:
1) I didn’t get the necessary extension from Arizona,
2) the tenure-track state school booked a non-refundable flight for a campus visit, and
3) the chair went berzerk.
My advisor was shocked when he heard how she had acted: “I’m sorry; I would have cautioned you about this possibility if I could have conceived of it.” Another professor said that in all her years of academia, she had once heard of a chair behaving like that in a different field, but never in mathematics.
Just about all faculty I talked to, including our Director of Graduate Studies, thought I probably should not have sent the check. The consensus was that I was upfront and honest about my situation, and that it was reasonable to schedule the campus visit given the information I had at the time. The fact that the extension wasn’t fully granted created a highly unusual and unfortunate scenario. They felt the cost of the flight in this situation should be absorbed by the institution that scheduled it, not by an individual—and certainly not a graduate student!
A few suggested that I should have made a disingenuous visit. I still don’t think that would have been right, but clearly it would have been easier. I’m glad I was honest, and in fact I’m also glad that I sent the check, because it was the honorable thing to do. As it turns out, I was able to use the ticket later and only pay the $100 cancellation fee. So all in all, it wasn’t that bad. I’d say it was definitely worth a hundred bucks to have a chance (in fact a very good chance) for another campus visit. I had a fantastic job search experience leading up to this, so one thing going wrong is probably to be expected. I learned a lot from this situation. Besides, it makes for a good story!
Completion of the Process
Get this…two days later, I received the following message from the chair at Arizona:
Thank you for explaining the details of your situation more clearly to me. After having had the chance to make some further consultations with members of our hiring committee and based on the information you have provided, I can extend your deadline until Feb 19. If you are able to make your decision before that date I would greatly appreciate knowing it sooner rather than later.
OK, so now this drama was turning into a comedy. I chuckled about it as I worked on my defense slides. The next day was Monday the 12th, the original deadline for the Arizona offer and the day before my defense. I got a call from another tenure-track state school. They had 4 openings, and apparently I had been #5 on their list. When one candidate took another offer, I was at the top of the list. They invited me for a campus visit. It was fun to think about, but no, I was pretty sure we were set on Arizona, and after last week’s debacle I was ready to be done with the process for now. I declined their invitation, but mentioned that I would be available again in three years. The guy said, “Mention in your cover letter that you were almost here.” That’s pretty cool—it’s good to know I didn’t burn all my bridges!
That night was the eve of my defense, and I was up late practicing it. I was ready, but I was so excited that I didn’t want to sleep. My defense wasn’t until 2pm anyway. Christine was excited, too. We were up talking after 3am. I got an idea: “Hey, do you want to sign the Arizona form?” Since it was (well) after midnight, I could date it the same day as my defense: February 13th! How cool is that? So she got out the camera and took a picture as I signed it on the Atlas of Finite Groups and dated it 2/13/07. We finally got to sleep and then I successfully defended my dissertation. What a day!
Later I logged into Mathjobs and went to my portfolio. I checked “off the market,” and returned to my main screen. Upon seeing “(off market)” on the top line, I breathed a deep sigh of relief. In the ensuing weeks, I continued to receive interested emails and phone calls. It’s not clear exactly where I would have stood with these schools, but getting contacted in late February probably means the job is yours if you want it. (That’s my guess, anyway.) I made sure to politely decline each one very quickly so they would know to move down their list. All totaled, it appeared I was on at least the “short-list” of 14 schools. Since I’ll be looking again in three years, it’s definitely good to know that there is this much interest in me.
If you’ve made it all the way to here, I apologize for the length of this webpage. But I do think that my story could be useful for future applicants. Looking back on the process, there are several ideas that I think worked very well and a few things that I probably could have done better. I’ve gone into detail about what worked well for me, and many of these can apply to others. Everyone’s situation is different, of course, so some of these things may not work or might not be plausible for other people. Therefore, I would like to conclude by emphasizing a summary of what I think I could have done better. (And even if nobody else reads this, I will be reading it in 2010!)
I scheduled my early #1 choice of schools as my first interview at the Joint Meetings. It would have been better to have had other interviews beforehand, so that I would have been more prepared going in to the interview for my top choice. I would have known what to focus on and how to present things better. It might even have been best to put my top choices on the second day of the meetings. My portfolio presentation made a lot of schools very interested in me. I did get feedback later that some people may have felt that I sort of hijacked the interview. Particularly in a short time slot, I probably should scale back my spiel just a bit. I should stick a little closer to the topics they bring up and make sure to respect their need to get through their questions. I am glad I asked probing questions of the schools, because it allowed me to start splitting hairs to figure out the differences between places. But somehow my questions, tone, and body language led several schools to think that I wasn’t really interested in them, when I actually was. (For the schools I was not interested in, I told them flatly.) It would be great if I could find a way to probe while still being positive and making the interviewers understand that even though I am looking at several places, I am still very much interested in their school. This is an art that I imagine is very difficult to perfect. I could have been in more frequent correspondence with schools after the Joint Meetings. I found if I contacted them, they would always update me on their situation. But if I didn’t contact them, they would be working behind the scenes and making decisions without notifying me. In particular, follow-up correspondence probably would help let schools know that I am still interested in them. At the same time, correspondence is very tricky. Perhaps I should have been a bit more careful when I panicked and sent the email to the Teaching Postdoc at Arizona. I just wanted to know if I had been passed over or not; I didn’t mean for them to rush their process and send me an offer! It’s possible that the offer call might have come that day anyway without my email, but I believe there is a connection. My impatience threw off the timing and ultimately forced me to abort my plans for a fully considered search. What a delicate process! I should have been very specific with the chair at Arizona when asking for the extension. My ambiguous request for more time may have annoyed the committee. Perhaps they thought that I was just playing around before making a decision. When they only gave me a three day extension, I originally thought it was a little arrogant of them. But when they actually heard all the details of my plan and decision-making process, they very quickly approved the necessary extension. If I had given a thorough explanation in the first place, I would not have had the conflict with the other campus visit.
So thanks for reading. I defended my thesis and got a job. I’ll be moving to Tucson in August, even though to this day I’ve never even been in the state of Arizona! Feel free to email me firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any comments or questions.