15

I am less than half way through a five year postdoc/fellowship in mathematics. Some places have talked to me about possible tenure-track positions over the past year. As the years go by, I am getting conflicting opinions on whether I should stay put for the full five years and then go with momentum on the job market or put out applications selectively each year. In the latter case, I don't know how selective to be as I don't know what "level" of institution I should be focussing on. My mentors give conflicting advice on this, so I don't know where to go with this. The places that have hinted at positions are solid, but not perfect for personal reasons.

My questions are as follows with regards to going on the market early:

  • How do you know when you are "ripe" for the tenure-track market?
  • Will I be shooting myself in the foot applying this year for a position that may have a position in my last year of postdoc?
  • If I take a permanent position early, will this make it much more difficult to obtain a better position later?
  • How can you tell what level one should look to shoot for when applying early and not wanting to take too low of a position on your (personal) ranking?
  • 3
    The job of a postdoc is to get a job. Perhaps not just any job, true. However, starting 'early' and getting the experience of going through the academic hiring cycle would not be bad. – Jon Custer Jun 8 '16 at 13:03
8

Here are my thoughts on the matter. (The OP and I know each other, and I think by now he has figured out to take me seriously but not too seriously.)

The worst part of the academic job market is the randomness and uncertainty. In any given year, there will be a pool of desirable positions and a pool of candidates who desire them. The second pool is unfortunately much larger than first: more than an order of magnitude larger. But within that pool there is a much smaller subpool of candidates whom most people agree are deserving of a position of the desirable sort. More or less by definition, this subpool has approximately the same size as the pool of desirable positions: but what sucks is the "approximately." So every year on the job market there are candidates that don't get the desirable positions essentially because they lost a game of musical chairs.

Because of this phenomenon, having longer postdocs is a mighty gift. The difference between a two year postdoc and a three year postdoc is already considerable (and the difference between a one year postdoc and a two year postdoc is almost cruel). I advise all postdocs who are interested in research jobs in mathematics to do everything in their power to arrange to apply for jobs while they still have the option of one more year on their postdoc. This smooths out the randomness and uncertainty considerably, and as @Ben Webster says, it's actually better than that: when you apply for jobs in year N and don't get them, you get very useful information for year N+1. Ideally you will get specific feedback on your application itself, but even if not: if you apply for 20 jobs in year N and get 3 interviews, then you should be okay applying for not many more jobs in year N+1. If you apply for 20 jobs and get no interviews, you better apply for a lot more jobs in year N+1.

The main counterargument that I can think of against applying for jobs is that it takes a lot of time to do it in a solid way. Most people that I know do not apply for jobs in the first year of a three year postdoc, in part because they're slightly traumatized from their recent job application cycle, their research program is just starting to take off (that's when you should graduate!) and they really want to burn midnight oil on that rather than more job applications.

A five year postdoc: wow, that's nice. I would suggest not applying for anything in the first year and spending your second year expecting not to apply but keeping an eye out for perfect jobs (including jobs that people are trying to recruit you for). Whether to apply for jobs in your third year depends on how well your research has been going recently: if you just landed a big result or big publication that you don't see yourself topping for a little while, maybe do it. If you feel like you need the time to build up to where you want to be, maybe don't do it. I would strongly recommend that you apply for jobs in each of your last two years.

12

Some thoughts:

  • How do you know when you are "ripe" for the tenure-track market?

The easiest thing to do is to try. If you get interviews, then you are ripe. (But the reverse is not true! The way the market is, in many fields you may be ripe but still not get interviews.)

The second easiest thing is to ask your postdoc mentor.

("Wait, but I am working for them! Wouldn't they want to keep me there?" Having a postdoc placed into a well-regarded tenure-track position is good for your mentor's reputation. It is in his/her interest to maximize your chances of getting a permanent position.)

  • Will I be shooting myself in the foot applying this year for a position that may have a position in my last year of postdoc?

Yes and no.

If you are obviously underqualified now, your application file will be passed over and forgotten by the time you try again in two or three years.

If you are somewhat qualified, but not the tops, they may remember your earlier application. Then in addition to judging you on how you compare to other applicants the committee may also try to compare your new file with their impression of your file from before. In other words, you need to show growth in the intervening years.

If you are good enough to get a position now, why not take it?

  • If I take a permanent position early, will this make it much more difficult to obtain a better position later?

Only your personal investment and inertia at your new permanent position.

I would advise against the thought of "shopping" for the best position at this early stage in your career. Unless you are one of the superstars, your goal should be just to get a job first. Worry about better opportunities when they actually happens. Or as the saying goes: A bird in hand is worth two in the bush.

  • How can you tell what level one should look to shoot for when applying early and not wanting to take too low of a position on your (personal) ranking?

Realistically, the calculation goes something like this:

  • Final year at postdoc: apply for everything, take whatever you get.
  • Year -2 at postdoc: If I get this job, I stay employed for three more years! I'll happily take a pay-cut for that.
  • Year -3 at postdoc: I have two more years to polish my files. Let's just feel the water and only apply to places I would really want to work at.

If you are really unsure: more than two years from the end of your postdoc you can afford to be a bit more picky (and err on the side of thinking that you are a superstar). You really don't want to be offered a position that you have to reject because your postdoc is "better".

One last comment: if you are good enough to attract a tenure-track offer during the earlier part of your postdoc from a large enough institution, there is a non-zero chance that you can ask for a later start date in order to "finish things up at your current position".

  • Be careful that in some places, you can apply only limited number of times. AFAIK, something like this works in France in maths and related fields. It's good to check this before you apply. – yo' Jun 8 '16 at 19:48
  • @yo' Ah, I have never heard of such a thing before! Good to know. – Willie Wong Jun 8 '16 at 20:13
5

How do you know when you are "ripe" for the tenure-track market?

This is the wrong question. The right question is "What value do I get out of doing this postdoc, and what value would I get from a tenure-track position now?" In general, getting a bunch of papers, colleagues, research methods etc. in place now will massively help you with tenure, but great / perfect opportunities won't come every year. So great / perfect: apply now; good: expect there will also be good most years and wait til your fourth year. You probably want to apply twice, so I'd do fourth & fifth year, unless somewhere you really want to go invites you to apply earlier. Don't waste time applying and reading advertisements every year!

If I take a permanent position early, will this make it much more difficult to obtain a better position later?

Yes. You have to prove yourself in that position before people will look at you. Also, you will get no novel research done the first two years you are teaching.

How can you tell what level one should look to shoot for when applying early and not wanting to take too low of a position on your (personal) ranking?

Fourth year: only apply the places you want. Fifth year: apply everywhere.

3

I don't really disagree with the other answers, but there are a few points where I couldn't resist putting in my two cents:

  1. You don't know how ripe you are. I would recommend speaking to more experienced people, though as you've already found, you may hear conflicting things. How ready your letter writers think you are is a somewhat self-fulfilling prophecy, so it's worth deciding who those will be an asking them. You can also reach out to people are schools with jobs you're interested in and ask them if they think you have a chance. That's not foolproof either, but if you really need a year to ripen, then there's a decent chance they'll tell you.

  2. Job-hunting is a skill. You will only get good at it by practicing. I think there's no question that you should apply for some jobs in the year before your last just to gain experience. It's also important because the set of jobs available in a year varies a lot, so you might miss out on some jobs you want if you wait for your last year. This is even a decent argument for applying 2 years "early" though assuming you're reasonably productive, two more years will give a much stronger CV. If you're picky about location though, you might want to start applying in your desired location whenever something good comes up. Having applied in an earlier year is quite unlikely to be to your disadvantage. Either your earlier application won't be noticed (so no issue), or people at the school will become aware of your existence (an important first step).

  3. Some, but not a lot. I accepted a position a year "early" in my postdoc, which was a good fit mathematically, but the location was a poor fit for me personally. I have since gone to two other tenure-track jobs (based on personal reasons again), so clearly it's possible, and I've seen from the inside plenty of examples of people in TT jobs being recruited. You do have to put a bit more effort to making sure people know you are serious about moving though.

  4. How selective to be is a tricky question, and one no one can answer for you. There are just too many variables. One important point though: sending in an application is not an irrevocable commitment. Even going to an interview is not a commitment to accept an offer if you have no others. Part of the point of the interview is to find out about a place and whether it's a good fit for you (however, if you decide a place won't work for you, tell them as soon as physically possible. The later they get into their deliberations, the more disruptive you pulling out will be). So, when you're not sure it's better to err a little on the side of applying broadly.

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.