I will soon be in my final PhD year and am about to start my job search. Suppose that for some reason I suspect that I did quite well, research-wise. My main question is:

What is the optimal job search strategy/advice in this case?

Generally, I can think of two options that are "better" than a regular postdoc:

  1. A fancy fellowship or a named postdoc position
  2. A tenure-track (TT) position

First, do I have to decide between postdoc and tenure track before getting an actual offer? That is, is there anything special I need to do when applying for tenure track besides pressing buttons on mathjobs.org? (Also, is there an option I missed?)

Second, I have questions about each option.

Option 1: Is there a comprehensive list of "really good" postdoc fellowships? Or can we combine a list here? I know that there is Clay fellowship, Miller fellowship at Berkeley, Society fellowship at Harvard, Veblen instructorship at IAS. What other well-known similar positions come to your mind? How do they compare between each other, and to a regular postdoc or a tenure track?

Option 2: Since this depends on many random factors, it seems like if I apply two times, that is, apply next year and then (if I only get a postdoc) apply after my postdoc ends, the probability of landing a nice TT job increases. On the other hand, the quality of a TT job offer I can get after a postdoc will likely be higher because I will have better publications. So I'm not sure whether it is even worth it to seek a TT position now as opposed to settle for a postdoc right now and just apply for TT in 3 years after it ends. Although I've seen people switch between TT jobs, I don't know how common that is. Also, how much of a blocking factor here will be not having lots of teaching experience? (I have some but not as much as most postdocs.) Finally, I understand that when applying for postdoc, I should prefer schools where my area is represented best, but this seems not too crucial when applying for TT, right?


To be specific, the field is pure math, the country is US, and I am not eligible for NSF.

A couple of other disclaimers: I understand that the answer depends on my priorities, so let's say the top priority is landing the "best" possible tenured position I can at some point in the next ~7-10 years (which includes not having to teach too much before getting a TT job offer; money is not too important to me personally at this point). I also understand that it's very hard to tell objectively how good my research is, but for the sake of argument let's assume that it's good enough, comparable to other TT job applicants.

  • 3
    You’ve completely written of industry research, working at a think tank, government employ, and several other contexts where you would be given money to do research outside of a university. Is there a particular reason for this? If so, you should address it in the body of your post, if only to guide discussion and inform us about your assumptions. Almost every PhD is marketable in some non-university setting. Jul 2, 2018 at 4:48
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    Are we talking potential future Fields Medal candidate level, or not quite? Jul 2, 2018 at 5:32
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    If your ultimate goal is to have a tenure in Academia, then of course, grab a TT job offer when you have one. I am not sure what you're asking here.
    – Nobody
    Jul 2, 2018 at 6:39
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    You won't know what's going to happen 3 years later. Maybe the president will announce 10 billion US$ fund for mathematicians. Maybe we'll go through a financial crisis, no university would offer new TT jobs. Who knows? Grab it when you have it is my point.
    – Nobody
    Jul 2, 2018 at 6:52
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    I am not sure you are approaching all of this with the right frame of mind. What prevents you from applying to postdocs and TT jobs at the same time, if you think you can get one? If you can get a TT position in a university you would be happy to work at, take it.
    – user9646
    Jul 2, 2018 at 7:15

2 Answers 2


You’re overthinking things (but not by much, and in a way that is both typical and understandable given your current situation and vantage point on the job market for academic math positions).

The main things you need to know are:

  1. You don’t need to make any decisions until you get an offer.

  2. You don’t need to do anything “special” when applying for jobs other than follow the application instructions, and there isn’t much else you can do to gain an advantage, other than obvious things (like proving a major result, winning a major award, and having strong visibility in giving talks at various places, especially departments where you’ll be applying).

  3. Your chances of getting a tenure track offer straight of your PhD at a very good (say, top 50 R1) US university are pretty low, assuming you are an average person who meets your description of yourself in the question.

  4. Your chances of getting a tenure track offer at one of the top math departments in the country (like the one you mentioned in the comments) straight out of your PhD are extraordinarily low, again assuming you are an average person who meets your description of yourself, and even assuming you are quite a bit above average. Of course, there is a possibility that you are a person for whom this is a realistic prospect, but if so then I would say you have been rather modest in your description of yourself.

The bottom line is that at the moment your optimal strategy is the obvious one, which is to apply to any place/position where you think you have a realistic chance of getting an offer (and if it doesn’t embarrass you too much, even places where you don’t think you have a realistic chance). Once you get some offers, you may or may not be faced with a minor dilemma of the kind you seem to be worried about. But there’s a good chance that won’t happen (e.g., you’ll get a few postdoc offers and it will be fairly obvious which one is best for you). And even if it does, I think it will become fairly clear in due course what is the right choice. Trying to preemptively make strategic decisions of the kinds you are thinking about long before those decisions are even applicable and when you don’t have all the information is pretty much a waste of your time and mental energy.

Good luck!

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    Honestly, applying for TT research positions right out of the PhD is probably a waste of time. Unless OP is one of the half dozen best mathematicians of his/her generation.
    – user37208
    Jul 2, 2018 at 15:18
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    @user37208 I personally know several mathematicians who got tenure track positions at very good US institutions straight out of their PhD, and none of them are among the top half dozen mathematicians of their generation. It doesn’t happen frequently, but it’s not inconceivable either.
    – Dan Romik
    Jul 2, 2018 at 15:42
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    I'm surprised to hear that. Can I ask how recently this happened?
    – user37208
    Jul 2, 2018 at 15:53
  • @user37208 5-10 years ago.
    – Dan Romik
    Jul 2, 2018 at 16:03

First of all, ranking isn't everything. When metrics are all we see, humans tend to obsess over them. But you may find other factors are far more important in deciding how happy you are in your career. So one valuable part of the application process will be seeing the differences and determining what you prefer. But to answer your question:

A postdoc is a training position; you take it to learn from your postdoctoral advisor(s). Do you feel you need to learn more or do you feel capable of leading your own research projects now? One year is too short to accomplish much in a postdoc. Unless you hit the ground running with your own projects that you know will pay off. And then why are you doing this in someone else's lab again?

A faculty position is an independent research position. If you feel you are ready for it and would be productive, you will have much more support and opportunity to get results and apply for funding in this role versus as a postdoc. Teaching is not a big danger to your time unless you unwisely let it be.

In summary if your only goal is to pad your CV with accomplishments in the next year, you will be far more able to do that in a faculty position. Rather than comparing whether to apply for that highly-ranked job now with no job, versus later with a better CV from a postdoc, you should instead be comparing apply later with a better CV from a faculty position at a lower-ranked school, versus with a better CV from a postdoc.

One important note: once you start applying to TT jobs, you need to produce. For example, suppose you apply to open TT positions this year, don't get the interview. Then you subsequently kind of have a weak year, but do get a bit more done (e.g. take that big name postdoc, but produce no big pubs yet). You are still probably in no position to reapply to the same places. So there is the danger of "starting too soon". For searches that remain unfilled over multiple years (which can be pretty common as the stars get a lot of offers and leave many in the lurch), you will need to make a case that they should reconsider you the next time you apply. That requires results.

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