Faculty positions are very competitive, and each advertisement should roughly receive hundreds of applications.

I think search committees cannot spend more than 1 min reading each CV during the initial screening (correct me if I'm wrong).

CVs are usually 10-20 pages documented in different formats, and it is not easy to capture potentials of a person in 1 min.

Owing to the fact that not all committee members are fully familiar with the journals in which applicant has published, his/her research impact, his/her universities of education, or the importance of his unusual achievements.

Then, how does a search committee shortlist the candidates during the initial screening? What do they quickly look for in a CV to keep the candidate?

NOTE: My assumption for 1 min for each CV was based on a simple math. If a job ad receives 400 applications, each member should spend almost 7 hours to review only CVs (not looking at other documents). If my assumption was somehow wrong, please forgive me. Your answer can clarify the issue anyway.

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    "What do search committees really read in a CV during initial screening for a faculty position?" In computer science in Europe: the link to Google Scholar. All the rest of the text will be looked at, if at all, at a later point in the process.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Mar 20, 2015 at 9:58
  • The number of applications varies greatly. My community college physics department is currently hiring for a tenure-track job, and we have 22 applications.
    – user1482
    Commented Mar 21, 2015 at 1:40

6 Answers 6


I'm serving on a hiring committee this year that received roughly 180 applications for a tenure track position in mathematics. All of the members of the committee reviewed all of the applications. Most could be very easily eliminated from consideration (PhD not completed yet, PhD in a field other than mathematics, wrong area, etc.) Although I got through some of these easy applications in a minute, the better applications took considerably more time to review, and I ended up spending about 15 hours reviewing applications for the first round or an average of about 5 minutes per application.

When the committee met, we wrote down our top 20 lists, and it was relatively easy to select phone interview candidates, since only 18 candidates were on the top 20 lists of at least two of the committee members. We offered phone interviews to 18 candidates and had 14 candidates who agreed to phone interview.

I don't blame applicants for submitting to lots of places, but the reality in mathematics today is that nearly all institutions will be able to find enough applicants to phone interview that meet all of their requirements, are in the preferred area of specialization, and have some post PhD experience (post-doc, VAP, or both.) If you don't have these qualities, then you're not likely to get through the first round of screening.

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    I am both surprised and impressed that every member of your hiring committee read all 180 applications. However, at a certain point this becomes prohibitively impractical: if next year you got 360 applications, would you still read them all? Commented Mar 20, 2015 at 2:20
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    From what I have heard, 180 applications for a tenure-track math position in the US seems very low, at least for departments that used MathJobs. Commented Mar 20, 2015 at 3:05
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    @NateEldredge our advertisement was fairly specific and there are various things that make the position not highly desirable (a 3-2 teaching load, small town location, at a public institution where salaries aren't great.) I think that if we had many more applications we would certainly have divided the pool up and had only 2 or 3 of the committee members look at each application, with some kind of randomized sampling scheme. Commented Mar 20, 2015 at 3:10
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    @PeteL.Clark: Would statistics count?
    – user541686
    Commented Mar 20, 2015 at 7:43
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    VAP="visiting assistant professor" It has become common for new PhD's in mathematics to work in short term non tenure track faculty positions with full teaching loads for a few years before moving into a tenure track position. This is different from a research post-doc where the job is primarily research (although their may be some teaching in addition to research in many math post-doc positions.) Commented Mar 20, 2015 at 20:25

Let me make a few points with regards to to your solution of this Fermi problem.

Hiring committees have more than one member. The more applications received, the more members the committee usually has. Moreover, it is highly unlikely that every committee member looks at every application in the first round. Exactly what is done must depend strongly on the department, but I can describe my own experience. In my department -- mathematics, UGA -- we do usually get 300-400 applications for a tenure-track job opening (sometimes for two or three positions at once, but that doesn't help any!). The applications are processed by subject area. In fact in my department the "hiring committee" consists of all tenure-track faculty, so initially I look at applications in my field -- number theory -- and closely related fields. This usually gives me about 50 applications to look at. I look at them as they come in, not all at once at the end, so in the first phase I probably spend something like half an hour a day over the course of several weeks looking at applications. This gives me more like 10 minutes per application, on average.

Another point is that CVs can be 10-20 pages in length, but this is usually for people towards the end of an academic career who insist on putting every talk they ever gave and class they ever taught on their CV. For applicants for an assistant professor position, I would expect CVs to be in the 2-6 page range. (I am a 2003 PhD. My CV is holding steady at 8 pages.) Anyway, it is important to organize your CV carefully and put the information in the places that people are expecting to find it.

Finally, I want to say that amount of time spent on each application is far from uniform. I said above that I spend about 10 minutes per application on each of 50 applications. But most applications I am spending either more than 10 minutes on -- it takes more like half an hour to read an entire application, no matter how quickly -- or much less. I do try to read every application in my field however briefly, but "however briefly" can be awfully brief. Hundreds of applications can, and must, be eliminated essentially immediately.

Added: I see that I didn't fully answer the question asked. In a quick first pass on applications, I look at more than just the CV. Our applications come to us in a very convenient online format via the MathJobs service, so that one click brings to a screen where we see the candidate's basic information (name, date of PhD, PhD institution, PhD advisor, current institution) and can click on various documents they (and/or others) have uploaded, which generally include:

  • cover letter
  • CV
  • research statement
  • teaching statement
  • publication list (sometimes)
  • multiple recommendation letters

I usually look first at when, where and from whom they got their PhD, and then I click on the CV to see their background and their publication list. If I really don't like what I see -- e.g. no PhD, PhD is not in mathematics or something very closely related, clearly insufficient publications -- then I stop right there. This is maybe 20% of the applications. The next thing I do is to quickly read the advisor's letter and the research statement. Based on that information I decide whether to read on. (Maybe I've eliminated 50% of the applications at this point.) I next read the other letters and start to look more carefully at the candidate's research.

  • Would the requirement of a PhD in math hold even for applied math positions? And, if so, why is there such a bias?
    – aeismail
    Commented Mar 20, 2015 at 4:40
  • @aeismail: The language has been the same in all full-time position announcements I've seen. We have some applied math hires who are half-time in other departments. Their PhDs were in math...but if they were in the other discipline it would probably count as a closely related field. I'm not sure what you mean by bias: what plausible candidates do you imagine are being excluded? Commented Mar 20, 2015 at 5:17
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    @aeismail You really seem concerned over people without PhDs in math being passed over for math faculty positions, and it's not clear why. For most of the math courses I've taken in my life, I can't imagine them being taught by someone without a PhD in math. The same goes for physics and astrophysics, and probably lots of other fields. And then you have to consider ability to advise math PhDs without having done one.
    – user4512
    Commented Mar 20, 2015 at 5:18
  • @aeismail: A few years ago, our applied math group proposed someone without a Ph.D. in math for a faculty position, and people on the pure side objected that the candidate's Ph.D. wasn't in math. Whether this was fair or not I can say, but it indeed seems fairly atypical for math professors to have Ph.D.'s in anything other than math. (Or in "applied math"; in some universities this is a separate department.)
    – Anonymous
    Commented Mar 21, 2015 at 22:58

If faced with 200+ applicants, the committee would probably perform an "initial cull" where each of the about 5 members would select maybe 10 candidates to look at more closely. That would eliminate numerous applicants who clearly didn't fit the description (wrong specialization, no publications if the position is research-intensive, no teaching experience if that really matters for the post, not-appropriate alma mater i.e. that place is a degree-mill or on the wrong side of a political divide). In anticipation of a large applicant pool, I've known departments to request a 1-page essentials-vita as well as the full CV (highest degree, major employment, publications, conferences and grants), which makes it easy to home in on the half-dozen who might make the cut. The committee will probably miss out on some great candidates with significant latent potential.


I have been on faculty search committees at an R1 math department, where our search was targeted to a research area somewhat close to mine. It generally takes a minute to find out the answers to the following questions:

  1. Has the candidate produced a substantial number of papers, and published at least some of them in high-quality journals? Alternatively, has the candidate published at least a couple of papers in extremely good journals? (Our candidates are required to submit a publication list, so finding out this information is immediate.)

  2. Is the candidate doing research in a subject area that I am particularly interested in?

  3. Are any of the letter writers people I know and trust, such that I would be especially inclined to interview someone whom they recommended?

  4. Skimming the thesis advisor's letter and one or two more, does the writer have anything credible and strongly positive to say about the applicant's work?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, I give the application a more careful reading.


The last time I did this the piles were divided so that every application was seen by two members of the committee during the first round (described as a "well, duh!" sort), and needed an up-check from both to survive. We were looking for easy reasons to reject an application.

I read the cover-letter and scanned the CV and looked to see that the other documents were present.

Things I used to reject packets

  • Documents given generic filenames (i.e. "CV", "TeachingStatement") instead of containing the applicant's name (thereby forcing me to rename them) was something I could overlook but it was a useful channel marker.
  • Generic cover-letter (or on two occasions a letter intended for a different institution).
  • Lack of suitable experience (we're an all-undergrad teaching-heavy department, so that means ditch application with neither teaching experience nor signs of interest in teaching). I was also interested to see that the candidate has some publications, but it was just an existence check.
  • Multiple and blatant errors in spelling and basic grammar. I was prepared to be tolerant on this front for applications from foreign parts, but there was no need.
  • Missing parts of the packet with no reasonable explanation given in the cover letter.

The surprise to me was how many this culled. These are the same things that every placement councilor in the known world harps on about. I'd have thought people applying to be professors would have that bit down cold.

In the second round everyone looked at them and we actually sorted into "great", "good", "maybe" and "no".

Then we started calling references for the two highest ranked piles, before a final cull down to a short list.

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    The file naming item only seems reasonable if the applicant was given file naming instructions. Commented Mar 22, 2015 at 0:34
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    I respectfully disagree: when you put the packet in the email you know it is going to end up on someone's computer with a lot of similar files. This is a basic courtesy and attention to detail similar to being on time for a in-person meeting. And as I said, it correlated strongly with other basic goofs. None the less, I didn't bin an application just for that. Commented Mar 22, 2015 at 0:39
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    It's an implementation detail of your system. If you're receiving hundreds of job applications by email, might be time to agitate for your institution to invest in access to an online job application portal that manages applicant files for you--rendering file naming largely irrelevant. I agree with an email application, naming a document with generic names might show some lack of perspective taking, but it could be your colleagues create a folder for each applicant and spend their time renaming non-generic files to have the generic names. Either is arguably a logical system. Commented Mar 22, 2015 at 0:45
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    I wondering if you have any advices on how to not write a generic cover letter. Some schools/departments, including many excellent ones, don't have anything distinctive that I can easily talk about. I have looked at many departments, and for many of them the best I can think of is that they have some faculty members whom I am interested to collaborate with.
    – CC cat
    Commented Apr 3, 2015 at 8:03
  • @CCcat I looked for generic language for the department names (ours is slightly unusual), unspecific description of the position on offer and a lack of any acknowledgement of which school they were addressing. That's a pretty low bar. Commented Apr 3, 2015 at 23:58

In economics, for assistant prof position, they read which university the PhD is from, the quality and number of publications or number of working papers. This is from the CV at a glance, 20 seconds.

In addition, the main advisor's recommendation letter contains a sentence like "I recommend this candidate to all universities outside the top n" or "I recommend this candidate to all universities without exception". The larger n, the worse the candidate. Finding this sentence in the reference letter takes less than 30 seconds on average.

Overall, the initial evaluation fits in one minute.

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