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I'm a PhD student in mathematics, working in a quite unpopular field (recursion theory). As I'm now applying for postdoctoral positions in the US, I've encountered the following problem: The number of mathematics departments in the US having notable researchers in my field is quite small. As I'm quite flexible with my research interests, I added departments with researchers in related fields (such as model theory and set theory) to my list. But even then, there are less than 20 relevant departments across the US to which I can apply. I heard that in order to maximize the chances of getting a postdoctoral position, mathematicians often apply to 50 positions or even more. I'd like to do the same thing, but I have some questions about it:

  1. Are there any arguments against applying for postdoc positions in math departments where your research interests are not even remotely represented?
  2. What should I do in order to increase my chances of getting a postdoc position in such a department? More specifically, what should I write in my cover letter (where applicants usually mention relevant faculty members, and sometimes also explain why they fit the position)? Should I contact a faculty member? What should I write to him/her? Any other useful advice?
  3. Assuming that I have a strong application, do I have a reasonable chance of getting a position in such departments?
  4. Bottom line question: Should I invest time and effort applying for positions in such departments?
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    @NoseKnowsAll It's not quite the same for postdocs in math, who are typically more independent. They may have an assigned research mentor, but they're encouraged to talk to, or do research with, anyone in the department who has a common interest. I'm a math postdoc right now, and I'm collaborating with two different professors who are not my research mentor, and also working on a solo project. – user37208 Nov 23 '15 at 16:59
  • @user37208 Thank you for the information. Once again showing that askacademia is quite a broad topic, even within STEM. – NoseKnowsAll Nov 23 '15 at 18:12
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    @user37208l although it's "not quite the same for postdocs in math", who are "more independent", it remains true in math that postdocs are hired with the assumption that they will have a faculty member mentoring and collaborating with them. In particular, I have not heard of a postdoc who does not get assigned by the hiring department an official mentor who works in the same or a closely related field as them. – Dan Romik Nov 23 '15 at 20:22
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    @DanRomik: When I was a postdoc (in the MIT math department, for what it's worth), I had an assigned mentor, but he worked in a pretty different field from me and we only had a couple of conversations during the entire 3 years (nb: I knew it would be like this when I took the job; what I really wanted was space to work on my own projects, so it was pretty optimal from my point of view). – Andy Putman Nov 24 '15 at 21:05
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    @DanRomik: That's usually true, but not universal. I was never assigned an official mentor as a postdoc. I think I was a slightly unusual case, but some math departments do have a culture of being relatively hands-off with postdocs. – Henry Nov 25 '15 at 16:36
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I sympathize with your situation - recursion theory as a whole is essentially the size of a sub-subfield in other areas of mathematics. Of the relatively small number of U.S. departments with logic programs, many are also extremely selective, and so getting a postdoc in any area of logic is challenging. It certainly cannot hurt to apply to every program with a logic group that is hiring a postdoc, although if they are not looking for a recursion theorist this year your chances will be much lower.

On the other hand, the recursion theory community has at least one advantage due to its small size: many of the researchers in the U.S. know each other, and know each others' students. I have always thought it is a friendly community, at least compared to the rumors about some other fields.

Two more things that are also worth note.

  1. If you cannot get a true "postdoc", it is sometimes possible to find at least a temporary position at an institution with a logic program. Some of the logic departments are quite large, and may have another round of hiring for instructors later in the spring or summer. So, if you don't have a postdoc offer by the expected date, make sure you reach out (and/or ask your advisor for advice) to schools where you might be able to work while you apply again next year. It is particularly helpful in this case to try to get more research done in the spring, before you graduate, to strengthen your applications for the following year. I find it is always hard to get research done in the first fall at a new institution, while also applying for jobs.

  2. Depending on the type of department you are looking for, you may want to consider broadening your search to less-famous schools. If you are interested in both excellent teaching and excellent research, by doing some internet legwork you can often find schools that are not prestigious but happen to have strong research programs (relative to the kind of school). These schools are often less picky about the "area" you work in, and you might be able to sell yourself as a discrete mathematician or mathematical computer scientist. Ironically, you sometimes have more research flexibility at these schools, for various reasons, which is a good thing if you are a recursion theorist. So look for choice tenure-track openings as well as postdocs. Just be well prepared when you give an interview - tenure track interviews are not like postdoc interviews.

  • Great answer. I especially liked it is sometimes possible to find at least a temporary position. – aparente001 Nov 25 '15 at 3:11
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Are there any arguments against applying for postdoc positions in math departments where your research interests are not even remotely represented?

The big disadvantage to being the only logician as a postdoc is that you really do want to be able to collaborate with people at your institution, or at least nearby. If you end up somewhere where all you can do is work on your own projects by yourself, that is going to be a disadvantage when you go on the market after your postdoc.

There are some ways to mitigate that. You can collaborate with people at other nearby institutions. You can collaborate with people who are far away, by Skype or on trips (this is easier in computability theory than in many fields). Maybe most importantly, if you can manage to collaborate with someone at your institution on something interdisciplinary, you can turn that into an advantage.

But if you end up as the only logician, you should definitely plan to put active work into making sure you're doing some collaboration.

Assuming that I have a strong application, do I have a reasonable chance of getting a position in such departments?

Logicians certainly do sometimes get hired as postdocs in schools without logicians on their faculty, though it's much less likely at the large research oriented universities. (Indeed, I can think of at least one computability theorist who's currently a postdoc at a very good liberal arts school with no logicians on the regular faculty.)

What should I do in order to increase my chances of getting a postdoc position in such a department? More specifically, what should I write in my cover letter (where applicants usually mention relevant faculty members, and sometimes also explain why they fit the position)? Should I contact a faculty member? What should I write to him/her? Any other useful advice?

As far as I know, getting hired as a postdoc generally requires at least one person on the faculty who's excited about hiring you, and other people who are reasonably happy to have you. Two things that would increase your chances are:

  1. Find faculty contacts. There are plenty of non-logicians out there who do have some interest in logic, and logicians generally have a good idea who they are. Getting one of them to support your application can make a big difference.
  2. Write an excellent research statement that makes your work compelling to people who know nothing about logic. This is really important (and a good idea for other schools, too). If you can convince the other mathematicians at a department that you'll be someone they'll actually be able to talk to about math, that makes a big difference.
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Yes, you should apply broadly to departments that have little or no strength in logic. Your chances of getting these jobs may be lower, since the search committee may be less excited to hire you and more worried that you'll choose another offer instead. However, the chances will certainly not be zero.

Are there any arguments against applying for postdoc positions in math departments where your research interests are not even remotely represented?

The most important criterion is whether you would take the job if it were your best offer (or whether you'd look for other options: non-academic jobs, trying to spend another year in grad school, etc.). If you would seriously consider taking it, then it's reasonable to apply.

If you don't stand out as a star student, 20 job applications is probably not enough, so you should either broaden your search or decide you are comfortable with the risk of not getting an offer (since you'd be happy with non-academic options). If you want to maximize your chances of getting an academic job, you'll have to consider departments that aren't an ideal fit.

What should I do in order to increase my chances of getting a postdoc position in such a department?

The most important factor you can control here is probably your research statement. If it is highly technical and difficult to read for anyone in other fields, then you are less likely to be hired. Instead, you need to make it accessible to non-experts, so it explains the context for your work, why it matters, and what it's connected to.

Of course, everyone should follow this advice in their research statements: leaving out this information can only hurt (and probably will). But it's particularly important if you can't rely on local experts to make a case for hiring you.

Assuming that I have a strong application, do I have a reasonable chance of getting a position in such departments?

Yes, depending on your definition of "reasonable". Your chances will generally be lower if you work really doesn't connect with that of anyone in the department, but not necessarily dramatically lower (especially if you look really talented or show some breadth). It's also hard to predict who might be interested. For example, some combinatorialists are interested in theoretical computer science, and this might lead them to like the idea of having a recursion theorist around, even if you don't see this in their papers.

Bottom line question: Should I invest time and effort applying for positions in such departments?

Yes. Using https://www.mathjobs.org, it really doesn't take much time and effort. I'm not sure it's worth spending lots of time carefully crafting a custom cover letter for each case (in my experience cover letters are not so important anyway), but it's absolutely worth pressing the "apply" button.

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    At least when I look at job applications, I pay very close attention to cover letters. I think they may be of less importance at very-research-intensive schools, but at schools where "fit" is important it is wise to make sure the cover letter conveys why you would fit into the department. – Oswald Veblen Nov 24 '15 at 0:26

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