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How difficult is it to get an assistant professor position in a department (e.g., applied math) while you have a PhD degree from another area (e.g., electrical engineering)? Particularly, when you target only relatively good departments (top 20~30).

If it makes any difference, I am particularly thinking of becoming professor of applied math with an EE degree.

update: I don't know exactly what constitutes mathematical research in the eyes of mathematicians, but I can say there are some really theoretical subjects needed in my research. For example random matrix theory and empirical processes are prevalent in my research area. However, in spite of my great interest, I haven't been able to (or prohibited from doing) work on purely theoretical part of the problems. So I mostly have applied the existing theoretical results. Developing optimization algorithms with provable convergence guarantees, perhaps in statistical sense of it, are also important in the area I worked in. However, I don't think optimization is considered an interesting area for mathematicians.

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    Do you have research in the field? And have you done postdocs? – Davidmh Aug 30 '14 at 14:10
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    And how much of it is mathematics research level? Ie, how much of that is actual new maths instead of applications of known results to EE problems? This should be added to the question. – Davidmh Aug 30 '14 at 15:29
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    It sounds like you are, at least culturally, a bit distant from the mathematical community. You write " I don't know exactly what constitutes mathematical research in the eyes of mathematicians" That's understandable given your training, but it's clearly not a good sign if you're trying to join a math department. I also wonder if you are using "pure/applied" in the same way as math departments would: please be aware that "applied mathematics" is mathematics! – Pete L. Clark Aug 30 '14 at 16:26
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    Also: you say that you have been "prohibited" from doing theoretical mathematics work. One of the great qualities of theoretical mathematics is that no one is prohibited from doing it (so I'm not sure what you mean). You also write: "However, I don't think optimization is considered an interesting area for mathematicians." Optimization has been an interesting area for mathematicians for at least 400 years. I have a PhD student (in theoretical mathematics) whose thesis problem is an optimization problem. All in all I recommend that you seek out some mathematical contacts. – Pete L. Clark Aug 30 '14 at 16:29
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    @S.B.: I didn't construe your remarks as trivializing or degrading anything. Also: the mathematical community has room for both extreme abstraction and extreme concreteness. In the right context, each is definitely a virtue, and they need not be mutually exclusive. – Pete L. Clark Aug 30 '14 at 17:20
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How difficult it is to get a position in another field depends enormously on your specific interests and background. Moving from electrical engineering to applied mathematics may be pretty reasonable, since there are some research areas that are widely considered part of both fields, such as control theory. If you already work in the intersection, then you'll have some flexibility in your job search. You'll have a much tougher time if you're proposing to change your research interests, or if you work on a topic that is not commonly studied in applied math departments, even if it could be.

A first test is whether you can find anyone with your background and interests in an applied math department. If you can't find anyone, then it may be difficult to become the first. (It could still be worth a try, but you shouldn't get your heart set on doing something unprecedented.) If you can find such people, then you have role models. At that point, you can start looking at the web pages and CVs of people who have made the transition. Where do they publish? How do they present themselves and their work? Can you see any differences from people working in electrical engineering? Of course you don't need to imitate these people too closely, but at least you'll have examples of what has been well received by applied math departments. Some things can be adjusted on short notice, while others take time. If you're a little further from fitting in, doing a postdoc in applied math may help bridge the gap.

  • I know people in applied math (and even (pure) math) departments who work on the general research subject I am working on. However, as far as I know they are all mathematician by training (math PhDs). Frankly, I'm considering applied math because I find it difficult to tolerate the academic culture in EE departments. I really enjoy theoretical research, but that is not encouraged in EE departments. Even the people who supposedly do theoretical research, do not have enough mathematical knowledge and are not really interested in mathematics. – user21272 Aug 30 '14 at 15:20
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    @S.B.: It sounds like you'll be happier in a math department. One important factor to consider is getting strong letters of recommendation from people who will be well known in math departments (although they don't have to be in math departments themselves): you'll need letters that reinforce how well you'll fit in. Good luck with your job search! – Anonymous Mathematician Aug 30 '14 at 15:32
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    @S.B. I share your frustration with the culture in EE departments, and have wondered about how I would fit in in other departments as well. Great question/answer. – Mad Jack Aug 30 '14 at 16:39
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    @ChrisWhite I disagree about the EE depts. that are supposedly theory-inclined. There are a couple of professors here and there that really do solid theoretical work. However, most of the other professors, some of whom are well-known in their fields, do not have sufficiently strong math background yet they are branded as theoreticians or sometimes even mathematicians in EE. This is of course based on my experience. – user21272 Aug 30 '14 at 21:59
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    theoretical research...is not encouraged in EE departments. — Not true. You're just in the wrong EE department. – JeffE Sep 1 '14 at 15:14
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The comments and the other answer have mainly addressed whether your research area would be a fit in an applied math department. Let's assume it is. There's another, equally important side to the equation. The willingness of a department to hire faculty with doctorates in other fields varies dramatically by the department and university, at least in my limited experience. This is more a question of culture than of science.

First, at many universities applied math is just an unofficial group of faculty within a mathematics department. I think that your chances of getting hired into a mathematics department are very slim.

Applied mathematics is a more interdisciplinary field, and is generally more open-minded culturally with respect to disciplinary boundaries, especially since many universities don't offer a degree in applied mathematics. But applied math is a small field and it's still true that in many departments your application is likely to be tossed out because of the name of your degree. I was a grad student during a faculty search at a prominent applied math department in the US, and I don't think they would ever have considered hiring someone with a degree outside of applied mathematics. In the University where I work now, departmental boundaries are very thin and we have hired multiple faculty whose doctorate is in another field (though there was certainly resistance from some faculty).

One way you can help yourself a lot is to get a recommendation letter from someone who is on the inside of the applied mathematics community. If, say, a SIAM fellow says that you're truly an applied mathematician, you will immediately have street cred.

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    Did I really just write street cred in an academic context? – David Ketcheson Sep 1 '14 at 5:22
  • Well, academic cred is a bit long, ac cred sounds like it is short for accreditation (and the less said about aca cred and acade cred the better). – Tobias Kildetoft Sep 1 '14 at 11:55

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