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I got accepted to one of my top choice schools for a math Ph.D. However the graduate students there said in the past few years, the Ph.D.s before them (both pure and applied math) had quite a bit of trouble finding postdoc positions after graduating. But they are able to find nice jobs in industries.

Would this be a red flag? I know that finding a postdoc or a tenure track position in math is especially hard in the recent years, so this might not be a complete measure about their Ph.D. program.

I have also gotten accepted into another public university and the graduate students there said they didn't have much trouble finding postdocs. This one is not as prestige as the one above in term of general ranking.

I have professors that I would like to study with in both universities, and I am leaning toward the second one.

Could you give me some advice?

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    Well, someone needs to say it: finding postdoctoral positions in mathematics is difficult, full stop. This difficulty may perhaps be a red flag to those who are considering graduate school, full stop. But you would want to look very carefully and quantitatively in order to hold this against a particular department that otherwise seems reputable. – Pete L. Clark Apr 17 '16 at 21:04
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    As one data point: when I was on the job market in 2003 I had a tough time getting a postdoc. By the time I heard positively from one of the places I had originally applied to, it was mid-March and I had verbally accepted an offer my advisor had scared up for me. But the department I went to is regarded by most everyone as one of the very best in the world. I think it is too, and I don't hold these professional difficulties as a sign against that. Nor do I think I was a poor PhD student. Times are tough! – Pete L. Clark Apr 17 '16 at 21:06
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    In addition to being a possible red flag, it should also be an indication that you should plan to be employable in jobs beyond just postdocs. If you go to math graduate school, in addition to research, you should also either be an excellent teacher or you should learn to code. – Noah Snyder Apr 17 '16 at 23:48
  • @PeteLClark I was pretty tempted to write "If the students claim they're having no trouble finding postdocs, they're lying" but that's probably unfair. There always are examples of people who seem to find good postdocs with little trouble, and a few such may have been foremost in their mind. – Ben Webster Apr 18 '16 at 18:02
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I'd recommend trying to gather some objective data on outcomes. For example, in the mathematics genealogy project you can search by "name of school" and "year of degree" to find a list of people who graduated in 2014 or 2015. It's not guaranteed to be complete, and it sometimes mixes together people who were in different departments at the same university, but it's usually pretty good (and sometimes easier than finding this information on math department websites).

Then you can start googling people, with "math" appended if necessary, to see what you can find. If you can't find any indication that someone is working in academia, then they probably aren't. If they are, then you can gauge how pleased you would be with such a job.

This should give more reliable data than self-reported difficulty of finding postdocs, because it avoid filtering through the departmental culture. Some cohorts of grad students are optimistic and enthusiastic, while others are more apprehensive, and it's not clear to me that this correlates particularly well with actual success on the job market.

It's also worth keeping in mind that the relevant issue is job opportunities, not actual outcomes. If one person complains about the difficulty of finding a job and another doesn't, you can't conclude anything without knowing where they were applying. (Sometimes students at more prestigious universities apply mainly to fancier postdocs, because they wouldn't be happy with less prestigious jobs.) Unfortunately, this is more difficult to gather objective data on, but I think it's a second-order effect.

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This sounds like pretty thin evidence on which to base an important life decision. You don't think the graduate students at the second institution might have been a little selective in their memory? They aren't exactly unbiased observers. Let's just recap:

  1. you're considering a general impression, not based on data (and thus, easily biased)
  2. of presumably a few graduate students out of many in the program
  3. about a 2 or 3 year period (so even for a pretty large school, maybe 50 graduates, and at many schools more like 20)
  4. about a wildly variable phenomenon (since the strength of graduating classes, the number of jobs available in different fields, which advisors students worked with can all vary wildly from year to year).

Of course, all the data you have about graduate programs is low quality (since you don't know how it will apply to you, and sample sizes are so small), but if we reason Bayesian-ly, that means we shouldn't be eager to discard our priors over one data point. If the other things you know point you to first school, I don't think this is a good reason to change your mind.

  • I dont know Ben, you make a strong argument, but I feel I could take the same data and reason that as there is so much pressure for existing students not to say anything bad about their current institute - if even 1 bit of signal has broken through the wall of silence/noise, chances are that's a pretty big red flag for what lies on the other side of that wall once you sign that contract. – Wetlab Walter Apr 18 '16 at 8:33
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    @J.J I think you're thinking of the psychology wrong here. Students aren't intensionally lying in most cases, but I suspect most engage in a little wishful thinking (they wish to believe it will be easy for them to find a job), but more importantly, they will base their answer on a couple of vivid examples of people they knew well or who had surprising outcomes, good or bad. – Ben Webster Apr 18 '16 at 17:23

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