I'm worried that I am not working on things that bigshot academics care about and that this is hindering my ability to get a good job. Is there any point in trying to become an assistant professor if I don't work on a trendy topic? On job applications they say something like, "We give priority to applicants whose research matches faculty interests." What that says to me is that if I work on the wrong research topic, that will tank my application.

If so, I think I should do the following:

  • Find which universities I am interested in.
  • Find the faculty there and read their papers and find what they are interested in.
  • Switch my research area to be that topic, ideally so that it intersects my own interests/knowledge base.

What do you think of my plan?

  • 2
    Consider a department/school where many staff work on topic X. However, what's the point of hiring another person who is strong in X when the department needs someone to teach topic A, B, ... ? Sep 18, 2022 at 21:57

4 Answers 4


Your plan is fine as long as you don't choose a topic unless you are really interested in it as the primary objective. What is trendy will change.

Note also, that R1 (Research Primarily) universities tend to have large faculties. Those faculties, collectively, have very wide interests, not just "trendy" ones. Many of them, senior professors, are less likely to work on what is trending at the moment, having built careers on more fundamental things.

So, the first two bullets are just right, with the third having some caveats. Do what you love if you are able, not what other people love.

And it is people in mid career and older who are likely to be dominant on hiring committees. If they are sensitive to the needs of assistant professors for collaboration then they might be willing to hire someone to work with them (trendy, perhaps), but only if it seems to have sufficient legs for the long run.

But, faculty interests in a research faculty are very broad, as you will learn.


There is a difference between "trendy topics" and "things that big shot academics care about".

To increase the chances to get a good position in a research university you should definitely study something that enough people care about. But it should not necessarily be trendy. Though trendiness increases your chance in getting a better job, it is not a necessary condition: many bigshots are senior academics who are interested in what was trendy in their time, for example.

Overall, I would estimate that there is a tradeoff: as you work in a less trendy topic you need to be a stronger researcher to get a good job at a research university.


A famous-in-his field professor answered the question how much a topic matters for hiring junior faculty when asked during a class break as follows: "We hire the person, not the topic. If we think your topic was stupid, we will gently nudge you to re-focus."

Do what appeals to you, and excel at that.

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    Could you specify where and in which field this professor works/worked? When I was looking for faculty positions in mathematics in Germany not too long ago, I made the experience that the topic mattered enormously. Sep 19, 2022 at 16:53
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    @JochenGlueck: Stanford, and mathematical economics/OR. The quote is over a decade old. Sep 19, 2022 at 18:43
  • Thanks for your reply and for the details! Sep 19, 2022 at 19:30

One of the things many mathematicians have trouble developing is what might be called "good taste" - a sense of what mathematics is genuinely interesting and can lead to further interesting developments. Some have so little taste that they declare that there is no such thing, and then claim the popularity of various research areas is driven purely by the entirely arbitrary decisions of famous mathematicians.

Good taste is important in research university level research for two reasons. First, if you are in an interesting research area, at some point all the problems you are working on will be solved or found intractable, and you will need to find new problems, and you will be doomed to obscurity if you pick bad problems. Second, at an R1, you are expected to have graduate students, and this means guiding them to good problems, at least good enough for them to write a dissertation. Hopefully, you will also help develop good taste in your students, which is easier if you have it yourself.

If you have good taste, it's hard to imagine that you will be working on something that's completely uninteresting to everyone in a large department, or something that's uninteresting to everyone in a collection of smaller departments (all of which presumably you'll want to apply to). (Matters could be different if you have some reasons, for example geographic ones, to want employment in a particular single small department.) You might not be working on anything that someone at the department is working on, but you'll be working on something that's interesting to someone. I might add that mathematics is more connected than one might think, and someone working in an apparently complete different area could be interested in your work because of some connection you don't know about. Keep in mind that departments rarely want to hire someone working on exactly the same topic that they already have someone working on, because you wouldn't be able to advise students the other person couldn't, and so on.

Now, it is very hard to evaluate good taste for someone at the point in their career where they are applying to tenure-track positions, and faculty are naturally likely to think their taste is good, so one can try to fake good taste by emulating the tastes of others. I suppose it's a strategy, but if you're willing to work on something you're not really interested in, why not go to industry and make more money?

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