I am a math PhD student in my last year, and I've been on mathjobs.org looking for jobs.

I see a lot of jobs for instructor positions, or jobs titled "assistant professor", where the main work load seems to be teaching undergraduates and no research.

It seems that the main qualifications are a PhD. I am confused on what kind of applicant is qualified to apply. It seems that I am qualified enough to apply, assuming I receive my PhD by the time the job starts, but I am worried I am being naive. I do realize that someone that has already had an instructing position, or "assistant professor" position previously, or experience as a postdoc, would look better than a fresh PhD.

Are these jobs typically given to PhD's that have been through a few postdocs, or do PhDs straight out of grad school have a fair enough chance at getting the job?

To be blunt, am I wasting my time applying for these positions?

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    A reasonable way to get a sense of your chances at a particular department is to look at their faculty web page and see if recent hires have their CVs posted. You can see how their qualifications (as of their hire date) compare to yours. Dec 10, 2014 at 5:07

2 Answers 2


No, you are not wasting your time. For assistant professorships at colleges with little or no research component, you should feel free to apply in your last year of a PhD program.

I do realize that someone that has already had an instructing position, or "assistant professor" position previously, or experience as a postdoc, would look better than a fresh PhD.

In my experience that is not necessarily the case. In my PhD program, probably more graduates go on to this type of job than any other career trajectory. Many of our graduates do get tenure track jobs straight out of graduate school. Getting such jobs later after doing a temporary position is still possible, but it seems to me that the chance goes down. Even top twenty liberal arts colleges still hire many assistant professors straight out of grad school. Obviously they could select candidates with postdoctoral / visiting faculty experience. They often choose not to. I would go so far as to say that in many teaching jobs, postdoctoral experience could be viewed as a bit of a mismatch.

(An old friend of mine has written an article about the pleasures of being a visiting faculty member. To a certain degree it contradicts what I said above. But I think he is more looking on the bright side of taking multiple visiting positions than suggesting that they are necessary.)

Three more comments:

  • You should know that an "instructor" position is typically very different from an "assistant professor" position. Suffice it to say that if you want an assistant professor position, you probably do not want an instructor position. In many math departments, there are recently hired instructors with PhDs teaching alongside of instructors without PhDs who have had the job for a longer period of time. This is not saying good things about the current job market. In my opinion, having a PhD makes you overqualified (and certainly, underpaid) for most instructorships, but of course it's up to you to decide on what's worth your while.

  • Rather than further academic training, what you want to have in order to get these jobs are a strong teaching record and excellent teaching abilities in an interview / model classroom situation. Many PhD programs nowadays provide opportunities for their students to display these credentials. If you are looking for a primarily teaching job post-PhD, I hope you have been doing everything in your power to acquire these credentials during your graduate career: in many cases, this provides the best opportunity to do so. (If you are not sure where you want to go on the teaching/research perspective, I hope that you have erred on the side of acquiring more of these credentials than you will necessarily need.)

  • When it comes to individual departments, Nate Eldredge made a good suggestion: you can look through CVs of recent (and less recent) hires to see what their credentials are. However, a small department may have a small sample size. Nowadays many (most?) people on the academic job market apply to on the order of a hundred jobs; necessarily this includes many jobs for whom the goodness of fit is unknown to them. Not applying to jobs because you are worried that you might not be competitive does not seem like a good strategy when so many other strong candidates are applying for everything in sight. You don't have to stuff envelopes anymore (like I did when I was applying for jobs less than ten years ago!), so the differential amount of work in applying to some positions that you fear might be a stretch but don't know is small. When in doubt, apply. I say this as someone who reads through hundreds of applications a year. If we're not interested, then we're not interested, but it's no problem.

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    It's becoming more and more common for new PhD's in mathematics to do one or two years as a "visiting assistant professor" before landing a tenure track position at a four year college, even one with no research expectations to speak of. Dec 10, 2014 at 7:52
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    @Brian: I think you're right. I take that more as a sign of the tightness of the job market than an indication that these colleges are specifically looking for post-PhD experience. What do you think? (And it depends on your student teaching experience: if all you did was grading and TAing, you need to take an actual teaching job to get a teaching portfolio.) But all in all, I see the (ostensibly) stronger people getting teaching jobs straight out. In research it's usually the reverse: not doing a postdoc all but locks you out of R1 jobs except in a small number of exceptional cases. Dec 10, 2014 at 15:06
  • Someone with a couple of years as a visiting assistant professor will typically have more teaching experience than a newly graduated PhD (who may have been a TA and/or taught as an adjunct at some other institution while in the PhD program.) That experience is a big plus. In my department, I don't believe we have hired a brand new PhD since I was hired in 1992- everyone has had some post PhD experience, mostly as VAP's. Dec 10, 2014 at 15:16
  • i should add that I'm a professor in a mathematics department, and that these comments really apply in the discipline of mathematics, which has hiring patterns that are quite different most of the sciences and engineering and also quite different from the humanities and social sciences. Dec 10, 2014 at 15:35
  • @Brian: Well, first: thus far we're all in math, so no issues there. I appreciate your feedback: the job market is subtle and I haven't fully figured it out yet. I think I am describing things accurately from my end. Would you describe your department as having "little to no research component"? Anyway, I think a lot turns on how much experience the candidate can acquire as a student, as we've both mentioned. Dec 10, 2014 at 17:03

From my perspective at a regional university: most of our hires in math are new PhDs or have just a few years after PhD. But the application you need to be competitive for teaching-focused schools and positions is quite different than what you need for research-first positions.

For postdocs and tenure-track jobs at R-1 schools, you want to emphasize your research, while showing that your teaching is decent and not likely to cause complaints among the students. Bland teaching, to some degree, is a good thing - if you focus "too much" about teaching, it may cause people to worry about your research productivity.

For tenure-track jobs at teaching-oriented schools, you want to demonstrate that you will be excellent at teaching, not just unobjectionable. As much as possible, you want to demonstrate a history of teaching excellence as a graduate student (and after graduation, if applicable). If you focus "too much" on research, it may cause people to worry about your teaching quality.

Many schools "in the middle", including mine, are looking to increase their research profile, so we require much more in the area of research than we did 20 years ago. But we still look for teaching excellence, not just competence.

One common mistake (particularly among people who are sending out hundreds of applications) is sending the same application everywhere. If you send a research-focused application to a school where teaching is the primary criterion, you are not likely to make it past the first round of cuts. With hundreds of applications for the position, there will almost certainly be other candidates who have similar research accomplishments and demonstrated teaching excellence.

My advice for graduate students in general is to keep in mind the type of position you'd like to have 10 years after getting your PhD, and begin to groom your vita during graduate school to be competitive for that type of position. This may be easier said than done, of course.

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    Not customizing your application to a particular position is a huge mistake, and it's very common. Sometimes the applications are laughable (for example, I've seen cover letters that were addressed to the search committee at a different university.) There are certainly going to be other candidates who've bothered to read the advertisement and customize their application to the particular position, and since there will be hundreds of applications for any desirable position, the search committee will skip right over any application that doesn't meet this test. Dec 10, 2014 at 16:19

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