26

I'm a finishing PhD student in math. I want to stay in academia so I am applying for two things:

  1. A year-long postdoc position
  2. A 6 month postdoc position

I have been in contact with two professors regarding the two options and am going to send the application forms off today. But I feel bad because suppose I get job offers for both the positions, then I'll have to say no to one of them. Then they will get annoyed at me for wasting their time and will probably never want to work with me on anything again. Both are highly respected so it's doubly bad. What should I do?

Edit: the applications will be decided by a committee, not the professors concerned. Both professors are happy to work with me. I'm in the United Kingdom.

  • 22
    Suppose you get offers from none. Go for it, man. – Matheus Danella Mar 24 '15 at 14:30
  • 15
    An important thing to note is that they are likely interviewing multiple people for the position. They are not wasting your time by possibly choosing a different candidate in the same way you are not wasting their time by possibly choosing a different job. – William Forcier Mar 24 '15 at 14:33
  • 59
    Indeed, do not apply for two postdoc positions — rather, apply for ten. – gerrit Mar 24 '15 at 16:01
  • 8
    Yes, you should feel bad. But not for the reasons you think – instead, because you're depriving lots of other professors from having more applicants to choose from. Apply for every job that you have the skills to do and that you would accept an offer for. – Moriarty Mar 24 '15 at 19:38
  • 3
    Please say something about what part of the world you are in, or at least what part of the world these two jobs are in. I am confused about how you could only be applying for academic jobs now (mid-March), let alone just two. – KCd Mar 24 '15 at 21:04
79

Everyone who is hiring knows that applicants are applying for multiple positions. This covers everyone from McDonald's to Harvard. It's expected. They will get multiple applications and will only take one, so you must apply to multiple positions to have a chance of landing one. Unless you have an offer in hand which you have already accepted when you apply for another position, you haven't done anything wrong. I'm surprised you've only applied to two.

  • 2
    Is this true for Maths where most postdoc searches are very formal? If you approach someone individually about the possibility of a job, the informal and personal nature of it seems to make it a little different. – StrongBad Mar 24 '15 at 14:38
  • Even if they helped me a bit with the research proposal? I think you're right as the sensible thing to do is to apply everywhere, but still. – Young_Student Mar 24 '15 at 14:39
  • 6
    @StrongBad, I don't know about mathematics, but I suspect it's true regardless of the level of formality. If you are working directly with someone that you know well, it might be fruitful to be open with them about the other things you're exploring. Nothing is settled until you have an offer in hand and accept. If you work with a prof directly on a postdoc fellowship proposal, and it's not funded, what then? If the prof doesn't decide who gets in, but a committee does, then OP ought to have been working on a backup plan. The more contingent the job, the more plan Bs they need. – Bill Barth Mar 24 '15 at 14:44
  • 1
    @Young_Student, unless the proposal is only a formality and is guaranteed to be accepted and funded, what ill you do if it's not? I would be pursuing multiple backup options until you have accepted an offer. I would be as open as you feel comfortable being with your closest possibilities about what you are doing. – Bill Barth Mar 24 '15 at 14:46
  • 14
    @StrongBad: Yes, it's definitely true in mathematics (at least I can speak for the US). Employers are well aware that applicants are applying many places and may get multiple offers. If an applicant declines an offer to accept a different one, the declined department is disappointed but not annoyed; it's just business and they will make an offer to someone else. – Nate Eldredge Mar 24 '15 at 14:59
24

I'm amazed and horrified by the idea of applying for only two postdoc positions in mathematics, one for a year and one for six months. You should talk with your advisor and other senior mentors about this as soon as possible. Maybe your personal situation is radically different from what I imagine (for example, I have no idea what country you are in), but it sounds like you are doing something extraordinarily risky.

For pure mathematics in the U.S., it's common to apply for fifty to a hundred postdoctoral positions. Applying for ten is a mark of great confidence (or foolhardiness), and applying for two is almost unheard of. Nobody would be surprised or upset to learn that you had applied for other jobs. Instead, they would be unhappy to learn that you hadn't. That would make them wonder whether they had somehow miscommunicated the odds of being hired, and whether they were about to play an unwilling role in damaging your career.

The applications will be decided by a committee, not the professors concerned.

This is a key factor. It's hard to imagine that you are the only one to apply, or the only one to receive positive feedback from a potential mentor. In fact, you might not even be the only one to receive positive feedback from this specific mentor. (It's common to tell several people that you'd be happy to work with them if they are selected by the committee, even if the committee will choose at most one.) In other words, by default you should assume you won't get either of these jobs. Maybe you'll be lucky or you have an exceptionally strong application, but it's safest not to count on this in your plans.

I should note that I'm a little puzzled by two aspects of your question. Applying at the end of March would be absurdly late in the U.S. system, and a six-month postdoc would hardly be desirable at all except in conjunction with another job (or if you graduate in December). This suggests that you may be working in a very different system from the one I'm familiar with, in which case you should seek local advice or be very explicit about your circumstances.

  • 5
    +1: This is exactly what I thought, namely "I wonder where in the world the OP is to be contemplating this strategy for as long as it took to write the question." – Pete L. Clark Mar 24 '15 at 22:58
  • 3
    Really? There are "a hundred postdoctoral positions" in Pure Maths at any given time? :) I would probably be say 50 or less... Anyway I agree with the gist of your opinion but I somehow feel that doing above a dozen or so applications is a bit self-defeating. I cannot believe someone is a great candidate for fifty different positions. Plus are there really fifty professors you think you can do great work with? One should know his field better than that. – user8458 Mar 24 '15 at 23:03
  • 2
    @usεr11852: On the contrary. Positions in mathematics receive hundreds of applications; often nearly a thousand. The committees must go through applications quickly and so no matter how good a fit you are, your chances of being noticed are pretty low. To have a decent chance of being accepted anywhere under these conditions, you need to apply to dozens (or ideally hundreds, really.) – Nick Matteo Mar 24 '15 at 23:58
  • 7
    There are much more than 100 postdoc positions in pure mathematics in the U.S. each year (not all at prestigious universities, of course, but there are already 50 flagship state universities, and most have math postdocs). It's not like postdoctoral positions in science, where it's important to find a great match with an advisor who needs your particular skills. Instead, most of these positions are open to applicants from any area of math and require a lot of independence on the part of the postdocs. Some fits are of course better than others, but finding fifty tolerably good fits is easy. – Anonymous Mathematician Mar 25 '15 at 0:23
  • 1
    I would never imagine they are that many. Thank you for your clarifications. I am used to European systems. None of my colleagues (or myself) even approached this kind of numbers in order to secure offers (even for post-docs in US). – user8458 Mar 25 '15 at 2:10
10

When I was in my last year of PhD in math, I applied to 136 positions. Any place that approached me first asked if I was still interested before drawing out paperwork, etc., in order to see what has happened on my end of the job market. Jobs are not journal submissions and you need to take care of yourself.

In the end, I had multiple offers and when I said no to the offers and told them where I was going instead. All institutes were understanding and some even invited me to come speak instead of taking the job. A few told me to contact them when I next went on the market.

Do what is authentic. If you can see yourself taking a position at a place, then you should apply. The minute you have a job assured to you and that application would not lead to a job you'd take over your confirmed job, you should withdraw immediately. If you follow this process, then no one can be reasonably upset with you in this field.

  • 136 positions! wow! Can I ask what was your the area of your PhD? – Matheus Danella Mar 24 '15 at 17:37
  • 2
    Algebraic Geometry. A lot of the jobs were general and I applied in N America and Europe. Oddly enough, I got and accepted the first of the 136 to which I applied. – T K Mar 24 '15 at 17:38
  • 3
    @JustChill As far as I understand, this is not a big enough number to be a serious outlier, at least in th US (not sure what the average actually is). – Tobias Kildetoft Mar 24 '15 at 18:26
  • @TobiasKildetoft I see. I am not familiar about how things work after PhD studies, and that is why I got surprised. Is there any average region of values for numbers when it comes to postdoc applications (at least in the US)? – Matheus Danella Mar 24 '15 at 19:00
  • 4
    @JustChill: 136 positions is a somewhat large number (it would be hard to apply to this many postdoctoral math positions in the US alone, for instance), but it is the right order of magnitude...very much unlike 2. – Pete L. Clark Mar 24 '15 at 22:56
9

Hiring decisions are difficult for everybody. There's no reason to feel that if you turn someone down, you've "wasted" their time. The only reason to do so is if you would never have taken the position under any circumstances. Even then, using one position to improve your standing and options for another position is considered an acceptable strategy.

The key thing will be to make sure you treat everyone fairly and openly. So long as you do that, nobody will be too disappointed. (And if they are, they'll get over it with time.)

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.