Let's list important factors for evaluation of a job candidate (for research post doc, assistant professor, tenure track, etc):

  1. Research experience (research articles, research talks, expository articles, perhaps books).

  2. Teaching experience (tutoring, undergraduate courses, graduate courses, etc).

  3. Academic background (grades, the university of graduation, current affiliation, etc).

  4. Reference (who is writing reference letter and how he is writing it).

  5. Personal (natural) features (nationality, race, language, etc).

  6. Social and family status (connections, marriage, etc).

  7. Other factors (you name it).

I have been in job market for several years. I was always wondering how do the above factors affect my job application in different academic institutions? I would like to know the approximate percentage of importance of these factors in different institutions.

And my second question is How the hiring committees evaluate a candidate? Is it based on reference letters, CV, list of publications, research statement, teaching statement?

My impression is reference letters are very important at least for the first job after PhD. Am I right?

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    With respect to (6), I am a (young) mathematician who is about to enter the job market and I very consciously placed a picture of me and my son on my website. Mathematicians have a reputation when it comes to people skills, so I believe that telling potential employers that I possess good enough social skills to be married with a child is important (at least for me).
    – user1729
    Commented Jan 7, 2013 at 11:43
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    I am not sure being married has anything to do with having good social skills what every that means. I think the phrase "social skills" has very vague meaning.
    – user4511
    Commented Jan 7, 2013 at 13:40
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    Perhaps, I don't know. But it does imply I have not spent my entire life in a box.
    – user1729
    Commented Jan 7, 2013 at 14:01
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    One thing I like about academia is that we (supposedly) have the freedom to not obey the society in every little detail of out lives. So I try not to judge about people who choose to be single or married or even homosexual.
    – user4511
    Commented Jan 7, 2013 at 14:10

3 Answers 3


I don't have anything essentially divergent to say from the other answers, but since you inquired about mathematics specifically and I am a mathematician who has been (and currently am) involved in postdoctoral and tenure track hiring, I thought it might be useful for me to weigh in as well. Lacking true inspiration, let me just comment on your criteria.

(Let me also assume that we are talking about jobs at a "research university", as it seems you are.)

Research experience (research articles, research talks, expository articles, perhaps books).

Mathematicians are judged on a combination of research promise and research success: as you get older, one looks increasingly for evidence that the former has been converted into the latter. However, for every kind of research job in mathematics, they are hiring you on the basis of the work they expect you to do in the future. So, for instance, if you have already solved a major problem, you can coast on that for a time but after a while people want to hear what you are working on now. Research talks are probably the best way of exploring the dichotomy between past and future research: as such, they are very important whenever they exist, which is almost always on the tenure track job market and in a small (but perhaps increasing?) minority of postdoctoral jobs.

Expository articles generally do not count towards the research component of your application. (If someone is counting papers, then if you have 8 research papers and 1 expository paper then people will probably say you have 9 papers altogether, so it counts a little bit. But if pressed, its value could contract considerably: e.g. if there are worries that a candidate has too few papers, than a paper viewed as expository will probably not allay this worry.) Strategically it is probably best to advertise expository articles as having some teaching / mentoring / service component, if at all possible.

With regard to writing books: one of my most distinguished colleagues, Dino Lorenzini, wrote an excellent and rather successful book near the beginning of his career. He now tells anyone who will listen that junior faculty should not write books. Of course sometimes the heart wants what it wants, but from a strategic perspective I think this is eminently sound, and I say this as someone who may turn around and write some books now that I am solidly into my mid-career.

Teaching experience (tutoring, undergraduate courses, graduate courses, etc).

Successful teaching experiences are indeed valued for a research job. At most research universities teaching is still a main component of one's job and, especially, of one's promotion and tenure packages. Most research departments are looking most of the time for thoroughly solid teachers rather than especially brilliant or innovative ones. Your teaching dossier should convey most of all that the department who hires you will never have to think about your teaching in a negative way.

Some graduate students do not get to do instruction at all (as opposed to TA work: grading, leading problem sessions, and so forth). There is a big difference between TA work and instruction, and as a hirer I am very wary of candidates who attempt to convince me that they will be a successful instructor based only on TA experience. I would strongly advise every math graduate student to be the instructor of record for at least one successful undergraduate course (where "successful" means you can get a strong teaching letter out of the experience).

Teaching experience at the graduate level is almost unheard of for graduate students and is far from guaranteed in postdocs. Even within my own department, some of my colleagues feel strongly that postdocs should teach topics graduate courses in their areas of interest, whereas other colleagues feel that it is the job of the tenure track faculty to teach these courses. I lean more towards the latter, and I don't feel that teaching graduate courses is an important part of a tenure track job application: I would be equally impressed or more with other kinds of interactions with the graduate program, e.g. participating in or organizing seminars, reading theses, and so forth.

I'm having a hard time thinking about how tutoring experience could play a significant role. If you have founded the Khan Academy or the Euclid Lab, you would probably get some attention / consideration for this. Much less and your employers are unlikely to care.

Academic background (grades, the university of graduation, current affiliation, etc).

No research university that I know of asks for grades or transcripts for candidates for faculty positions. Of course your pedigree -- i.e., where you did your undergraduate and graduate work, and your current institution -- is of some importance, but not that much importance. Anyway, what's done is done here: presumably you took what opportunities you could to attend / work at better, rather than worse, institutions!

Reference (who is writing reference letter and how he is writing it).

Or she! When you are applying for your first postdoc, your adviser's letter may well be the most important part of the application: most graduates, even very strong ones, cannot speak about their research accomplishments and near future goals as convincingly as their advisers can. Later on your adviser's letter gets less important, but you probably get more letters overall, and they are always a key part of the application.

Personal (natural) features (nationality, race, language, etc).

In the United States it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of race. Nationality is probably a no-go as well. Language issues are important: if English is not your native language, employers will (or at any rate, should) look carefully at your skills.

Social and family status (connections, marriage, etc).

Professional connections can be important; e.g. they come out in recommendation letters and in your academic pedigree. It is illegal for employers to inquire about your marital status, sexual orientation, or whether you have children. It is not illegal for you to bring these things up, and if you have a "two-body problem" -- i.e., a partner who is also an academic -- than you should do so at some point, and that brings an extra layer of complication to the process. But if a candidate is not looking for an academic job for her partner, I honestly don't care at all whether she is married, gay, celibate, and so forth. I can assure you that in most American departments any such talk about these matters in the context of a hiring discussion would be rapidly quelled.

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    Thank you for your detailed answer. I enjoyed it especially because you presented a mathematician perspective. I have written a relatively long lecture notes on C*-algebras (available at arXiv:1211.3404) which is based on a graduate course I have given. Does it count as an evidence for my teaching skills?
    – user4511
    Commented Jan 7, 2013 at 15:14
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    @Vahid: Honestly? Probably not. It is hard to get credit for expository work. (But I will download your notes myself, at least.) Commented Jan 8, 2013 at 3:15
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    One minor quibble: Later on your adviser's letter gets less important — In my experience (in theoretical computer science), with very rare exceptions, once someone has a tenure-track position, letters from their PhD advisor are somewhere between worthless and dangerous.
    – JeffE
    Commented Jan 8, 2013 at 18:37
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    "No research university that I know of asks for grades or transcripts for candidates for faculty positions." My university needed a transcript as verification that I had a PhD, but this was only after they'd offered me the job (and maybe even after all the signatures were on paper, I don't recall). The particularly silly thing was that I was being hired by the same department where I had gotten my PhD, and they still needed to get a transcript. Commented Dec 14, 2013 at 13:43

Your question is fairly general, but the title implies that you want to ask about mathematics. I think the more general question makes sense, so I'll answer that one, based on my experience in computer science in the US

Among the criteria you list, (1) and (4) (research and letters) are usually the most important in research-oriented universities. (3) academic background (but not grades) plays a role in initial filtering but usually takes second place to (1)/(4) once people get some familiarity with the candidate.

It is rare that (2) plays a role, unless the job calls for significant teaching, or is in a teaching-oriented university. Since math folks teach a lot more than CS folks, this might be one point of difference.

Many of the factors listed in (5) cannot be considered legally, and rightly so. I seriously doubt that (6) plays a direct role, but personal connections can help open doors, much like (3).

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    Some of the factors listed in (6) also cannot be considered legally. At least in the US, it's illegal to discriminate on the basis of marital status.
    – JeffE
    Commented Jan 7, 2013 at 3:40
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    I disagree about the factors in (5). While "race" is a touchy and usually illegal thing to consider, "language spoken" and "nationality" are often things necessary to be considered for hires. Even for research-oriented jobs, as long as there is a possibility that the job involves teaching, being able to speak the language of the land definitely is a plus. And there can be nationality requirements for hiring purposes (immigration quota allotted to a university, specific grants only payable to nationals, or jobs working with "sensitive" information). Commented Jan 7, 2013 at 9:04

I'll second Suresh’s generic answer (I'm a chemist myself), but I'll add a few points: first, one of the reasons that teaching skills usually play little role in hiring decisions is that they are much harder to evaluate/quantify than research skills. Most people in the hiring committee will be researchers or think they know how research should be evaluated. Most of them don't know how to evaluate teaching skills (and if they did, they hardly have time to do it anyway).

Regarding 5, it probably depends on the country, but some of these can be serious barriers for employment: language is the most important one, especially if teaching is involved. At least in France, most university won't recruit at the junior level someone who doesn't speak French, as that is the language in which undergrad courses are taught. Nationality can also be a stopper in specific circumstances (nuclear research, for one thing).

Finally, I think an important factor you did not list is the performance of the candidate in interviews with the hiring committee: self-assurance, conveying the impression of someone well-prepared, etc.

  • Thanks for your anuswer. Of course a candidate's performance in interview process is important too.
    – user4511
    Commented Jan 7, 2013 at 9:01

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