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I'm a math postdoc. On MathJobs they sometimes ask if there are any "faculty contacts," which are people I've met or who otherwise have interest in my work. But sometimes I don't know who the faculty are, I've never met them at a conference, etc. My feeling is that if I work on something that none of the faculty are particularly interested in, that will sink my application. In other words, I think I need to get someone on the faculty to be enthusiastic about my application. But to do that I have to say something like, "What I'm doing is related to the work of [insert name of faculty member]..."

Actually some of the job descriptions explicitly say that they prefer candidates that match the interests of the department. Why would a department hire candidate X, who works in some out of left field area, when they can hire candidate Y, who works on something that interests faculty there?

It seems that it is not enough to just do good research to stand out. I have to persuade the faculty that I should be hired over everyone else.

  • Should I even bother applying to university X if nobody at university X is familiar with my research? My impression is that even if I wrote 10,000 Annals papers on some topic that nobody at university X knows about, I will still be at a worse position than someone whose best paper appears in, say, Manuscripta, if there exists a faculty member who works in that area. Pardon the hyperbole. – Grad student Jul 21 at 21:03
  • If you're a newcomer, you might not be on their radar yet, but/and your application could make them aware, if peoples' general interests could include your work. Do your elevator pitch! :) – paul garrett Jul 21 at 21:05
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    Of course it's not as simple as we're pretending here, but, as you yourself suggested in your question, why would they want to hire someone doing something no one there cares much about (short of superstar PR stuff... pretty rare...) when/if they could use their definitely-finite resources to hire postdocs or tenure-track people whose work is already clearly of interest to the people there? – paul garrett Jul 21 at 21:36
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    It is also true that a post-doc or tenure-track person who has no real senior-faculty support is in a bad situation for subsequent jobs and/or getting tenure. Like an orphan. – paul garrett Jul 21 at 21:37
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    This is a good question to discuss with both your PhD advisor and your postdoc advisor / host / mentor, who are presumably writing you recommendation letters, and who presumably know more people whose research interests mirror or approximate your own. – JeffE Jul 22 at 20:42
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Ok, packaging-up some comments... First, the original title-question has an easy answer: look at the faculty web pages (if you don't recognize their names from papers you've seen... if not read...).

Second, a more substantive aspect of the question-context is about plausibility of job applications to places where there maybe aren't any senior (or tenured) faculty doing anything much related to one's own work. This is tricky. On one hand, something close but a little "edgy" may sometimes provoke people to think you'd be interesting to have around. On the opposite hand, if you're an orthodox practitioner of a specialty that's of no obvious interest/relevance to the faculty, well, ... given finite resources, you'll almost-surely lose out to someone who has more affinity.

And, for that matter, it is not a good career move to go somewhere where you'll be "solo" or some kind of "orphan", without adequate mentoring, encouragement, and protection from weird political stuff. You'd need someone to stand up at the critical faculty meeting and speak in your favor!

But, also, yes, there is more to say about many places where they may be wanting to broaden their competency, and their criteria are ambiguous. I do not know so much about such situations.

  • OK, because I do have some restrictions on where I would like to live. I think that I should look at the list of faculty at the universities I am interested in and make sure that the papers I write will interest them. – Grad student Jul 21 at 22:11
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    @Gradstudent - Especially given the current job market - if you have sufficient restrictions on where you can live and what kind of job you would work at that you're looking at a few specific departments, you need to be considering non-academic job options. It doesn't matter what you work on; if you're applying for an R1 job and don't have a Duke+ level paper (doesn't have to be actually accepted - people will take your recommenders' word), your chances at any particular job will be less than 1 in 10. – Alexander Woo Jul 21 at 23:27
  • @paul garrett -Just wondering - how many people apply for tenure-track assistant professor positions at Minnesota? – Grad student Jul 22 at 0:54
  • @Gradstudent, in aggregate, at least a couple hundred people apply for our tenure-track positions. Some of them are probably just doing it because MathJobs makes it easy to do so... without any specific interest in people here. – paul garrett Jul 22 at 15:28
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First of all:

In other words, I think I need to get someone on the faculty to be enthusiastic about my application.

It seems that it is not enough to just do good research to stand out. I have to persuade the faculty that I should be hired over everyone else.

Yes. That is literally the definition of a job interview. If you get the job, then nobody else will. So you do have to convince the deciding people that you should be hired before over anyone else. You do not earn magic job-points when you do good research that you can cash in at your local university to get a free job. You have to convince the hiring people that you should be hired. I do not understand why you would state this as if this were some terrible hidden secret about academia. It works like this everywhere. I'm sorry to be so blunt, but you are going to have real problems getting a job if you keep this attitude.

But sometimes I don't know who the faculty are, I've never met them at a conference, etc. My feeling is that if I work on something that none of the faculty are particularly interested in, that will sink my application.

The onus is on you to get yourself informed about who the professors at that institution are. Why are you applying there at all? There must be a reason. If this is a personal reason rather than an academic one (e.g. "it's my hometown", "my fiancée works in this city", "I like the beach"...) then this will definitely be a hindrance unless you can find a way to turn this into a positive.

Not knowing anybody at the institution will not necessarily "sink" your application. But it will handicap you, for sure. They don't want to a complete stranger that will do research that doesn't interest them. They would much rather hire someone to whom they can at the very least talk to about research.

Actually some of the job descriptions explicitly say that they prefer candidates that match the interests of the department. Why would a department hire candidate X, who works in some out of left field area, when they can hire candidate Y, who works on something that interests faculty there?

Why indeed? If even you cannot answer this question, there is a real problem.

  • I had the impression that hiring committees look mainly for potential, strong recommendation letters, a strong research statement, etc. Also it depends on how broad the topic is. It's difficult to find someone who works on something very close to what I had in my research statement, but it may be in the same general area. For example, would someone who does very good work in Iwasawa theory appeal to someone who works on automorphic forms? There do exist connections, and they're both, broadly speaking, number theory. The demarcation lines are blurry... – Grad student Jul 22 at 17:18
  • I guess what I am saying is that I thought they are looking for potential superstars, not necessarily potential superstars that work in the 6 or so specific areas that the faculty mainly care about. – Grad student Jul 22 at 17:26
  • Hiring committees are looking for strong faculty that meet their department's priorities and ambitions. In particular, they are looking for junior faculty that are likely to thrive in their department enough to obtain (and deserve) tenure. That's a considerably lower bar than "potential superstar". They may have learned from experience that lone wolves who don't have (or don't take advantage of) more senior collaborators / mentors within the department have a harder time thriving. or their department culture may place a premium on internal collaboration.... – JeffE Jul 22 at 20:35
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    ...or they might prefer to build strength in a few key areas instead of trying to cover everything. Every department is different. Moreover, regardless of any particular department's priorities, nobody gets hired into a tenure-track faculty position anywhere without someone inside the department strongly advocating on their behalf. There are just too many qualified applicants. – JeffE Jul 22 at 20:40
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My feeling is that if I work on something that none of the faculty are particularly interested in, that will sink my application.

Postdocs (and to a larger extent PhD students) typically work on a faculty member's projects, rather than their own projects. I do not recommend applying for a position when no faculty are particular interested in your work.

In other words, I think I need to get someone on the faculty to be enthusiastic about my application.

I think you need to find a department that has faculty working in your area.

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    I think in math it is different, though. Not entirely sure. In Europe you're in a research group and it's essential. But, for instance, would an algebraic topologist be interested in hiring an algebraic topology grad student as a postdoc if they are working on the same general field but different topics? At the end of the day there are only a handful of mathematicians who work on stuff that's closely related to what I've done. And I do plan to branch out during my postdoc. – Grad student Jul 22 at 17:06
  • @Gradstudent Life isn't absolute... – user2768 Jul 23 at 10:17

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