My question is related to this one, but is more specific (and has no answer there).

I am a postdoc in mathematics, applying for tenure-track jobs for the first time. Some departments ask me to indicate my 3 best works.

To explain the motivation for my question below, here's my publication record so far:

  1. Paper in a top general math journal with a senior coauthor (from my PhD thesis). Cited many times.
  2. Recent preprint with senior coauthors of a strong result, with a senior coauthor.
  3. Paper in a top general math journal I wrote as a postdoc, singly authored.
  4. Paper in a much less prestigious journal I wrote during my PhD, singly authored - this paper was rejected from several top journals - but a "famous" top mathematician read it carefully, talked to me about it, and said that is at the level of the top journals in maths.
  5. 2 papers from my PhD thesis, in subfield specific-journals, that happen to have relatively high impact factors, but in reality are very far from the top journals.

Papers 1,3,4,5 are in one subfield of math, while 2 is about something rather different.

I decided to include the preprint (2) in my list of 3 best papers because it is recent, and it is my only paper in this "hot" subfield.

While I would appreciate any advice on my particular situation, here's a more general question which may apply in different cases:

Should I include paper (4) among my 3 best works? The advantage: It is a way to say: "Clearly you'll notice that (1) and (3) are great, because they are in top journals, so let me tell you that (4) is also great, and you can ask Prof. X". The disadvatage: Including (4) will force me to drop one of (1) and (3), and so maybe the hiring committee will miss the fact that I have 2 papers in top journals? And maybe it will be like saying: "I actually got lucky with the paper I didn't include, it's not one of my best works".

  • 2
    Someone who knows you and your work can answer better than anyone here. Can you get advice from your postdoc mentor? From faculty at your postdoc institution, if that's not one of the places you are applying? From your thesis advisor? Sep 20 at 0:42
  • @EthanBolker: I'm not applying in my postdoc institution. I asked my postdoc mentor and my PhD supervisor and they said to include 1+2 definitely, but weren't sure about whether to include 3 or 4, and each tended in a different direction with no convincing argument. Sep 20 at 0:46
  • @EthanBolker: Here's a simpler question: Will a hiring committee almost definitely notice a publication in a top math journal, listed in my list of publications, even if I don't include it in my top 3 papers? I don't know if it's possible to answer this, but maybe it is. Sep 20 at 0:57
  • 8
    Instead of including paper 4 in your list, can you get a letter of recommendation from that famous top mathematician who thinks highly of it? Sep 20 at 2:05
  • 1
    What country is this? Are your postdoc mentor and PhD advisor in this country, and familiar with what is expected of such questions?
    – Kimball
    Sep 20 at 12:06

You’re overthinking this. It seems to me that you’re trying to hack the system by coming up with some clever trick to convey more information in the “3 best works” field than it is designed to communicate. We have seen these sorts of things before. Generally speaking such strategies do not work and can leave a poor impression.

“3 best works” means just that — whatever you think are your best works by some reasonable criterion that makes sense to you (papers in top journals are very appropriate to list in such a situation). If you list papers that are not actually your best works, you’re missing an opportunity to push the competitiveness of your application to the max. You may also leave people baffled if someone actually does look a bit more closely at your application and is left scratching their head about what signal you’re trying to send exactly by not including an obviously top paper. Maybe it will have the effect you imagine, maybe not. Personally when I am reviewing job applications I tend to be more impressed with candidates who engage with the process in an honest, good faith way and don’t give me the impression they are playing some weird game I don’t understand.

Good luck in any case!

  • 21
    The crux is that "good" is a multifaceted and subjective notion. I read the question more as "what definition of 'good' to apply" than as "how do I game the system". Sep 20 at 8:06
  • 1
    Thank you Dan and thank you @lighthousekeeper. Indeed, I was not trying to game the system. I was just not sure what the system wants from me. The very fact that Dan thinks this looks like gaming the system gives me my answer. Thank you both again. Sep 20 at 10:10
  • 1
    Nothing wrong with gaming the system. In fact it is naive to not doing so when possible because it will put you on disadvantage compared to those that will (everyone else, despite sometimes denying it, it is easy to convince yourself you aren't). Multi billionaire companies (Board of Directors) sometimes goes the wrong way because they put bad metrics towards their CEO's and CEO will just maximize the metric (play with the system) to get bigger bonusses that sometimes lead to downfall of the company but that is BoD fault not CEO. Analogy applies do Academia.
    – Mandrill
    Sep 20 at 14:03
  • 4
    In this case, "gaming the system" in a good way is putting forward papers that are most likely to be positively perceived by mainstream academia. This means papers in top journals (even if you personally have some ethical objections to the publishing industry), papers with lots of citations (even if you have a "pet" paper that you believe was underappreciated by your peers), etc.
    – user168715
    Sep 20 at 15:17
  • @MathPostdoc ok, good to know. The point I was making is that to include a paper X on the list instead of a paper Y, where Y is clearly better than X, with the justification that “you already know that Y is great so let me tell you about X”, would be what I consider gaming the system - it is giving a dishonest answer to the question you were asked with the hope of allowing you to get more of the hiring committee’s time and attention than they are disposed to give you or will be giving other candidates. …
    – Dan Romik
    Sep 20 at 22:54

1,2,3 sounds like a great choice to me. Remember that the committee won’t be working in a vacuum, and will have your recommendation letters. Presumably you have a letter writer who will talk about 2 and then it’ll be clear why you think it’s in the top three. Dan’s answer is right, you shouldn’t try to explain your reasoning here, but that’s ok because your letter writers will do that for you.

  • Thanks. That's a good note regarding the role of the letters here. Sep 20 at 10:13

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.