I am a math postdoc, and about to start applying for tenure-track (research oriented) jobs soon. Besides writing 2 papers with my Phd advisor while I was in graduate school, all the papers I wrote since then (about 10 papers) were single authored papers. As I start to think about applications for tenure-track position, I started wondering if this solo career I had so far will hurt my chances.

What do people with experience in search committees think about such a situation? should I make a serious effort in the near future to collaborate with others?

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    In every field, collaboration is a good thing. Because you can't find everything alone, and you need at least one other person to give you his point-of-view about what you are thinking. I think you should, just because in this world, it is the key for great project and great research ^^ – Gautier C Jun 15 '16 at 12:03
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    I think this is a very field-specific question. In my field (electrical engineering), it would be a career killer. In faculty positions they expect you to bring funding and to have good (any) chances of getting funding, you need good collaborators. A couple of single-authored papers are good (shows you can pull ahead on your own) , but having 10/12 papers like that is not. I don't know how it works in math though. – electrique Jun 15 '16 at 12:38
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    Do you interact with your colleagues in other ways? Do you go to conferences, correspond, review papers, etc.? – Patrick Sanan Jun 15 '16 at 15:17
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    @Dan this might be true in general, but mathematics is not typical among the sciences, in my experience – Yemon Choi Jun 15 '16 at 19:02
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    I don't have time right now to write a proper and considered answer, but in light of some of the comments wanted to share this: I am a pure mathematician; and when I got my first tenure-track position, in 2010, I had approximately 12 papers accepted/published, 8 of which were single-authored. Moreover, when I applied for (and got) a grant later that year, a positive point in one referee report was the large number of solo papers – Yemon Choi Jun 15 '16 at 19:08

I am a math professor at a research-oriented university, and I have been on multiple hiring committees for tenure-track positions. If I were reading your file, your situation would raise two questions:

  1. Are you doing research that is of broad interest?

  2. Do you work well with others? Are you the kind of person that has ideas to share, that I would want to chat math with in the hallway, that would get graduate students interested in your subject?

Your application should offer evidence that the answer to both of these questions is yes. The first point will hopefully be addressed by your letter writers. It will also look good if your CV lists many invited conference or seminar talks.

The second point will again hopefully be addressed by your letter writers. If possible, I would suggest that at least one of them should be written by someone with whom you have talked math a great deal, and not just by your advisor and senior scientists who have read your papers. If you have engaged in any leadership activities (i.e., started a seminar, organized a conference, informally helped to mentor graduate students, etc.) I would make sure that your letter writers include someone who will attest to this.

And finally, like the other commenters, I would definitely recommend striking up some collaborations, although there is certainly nothing wrong with also doing work on your own.

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    Re the first question: presumably a big factor here will also be the reputation of the venues (journals/conferences) where you papers are published. If they’re mostly in high-quality journals/conferences, then that is strong evidence that your work is judged interesting by experts in your field; if in journals/conferences with low acceptance standards, then not so much. – PLL Jun 15 '16 at 15:24

I am a mathematician at a research university. On all the hiring committees I've been on, I've never heard complaints about someone collaborating too little. On the other hand, I have heard people shoot down job candidates whose best work was in collaboration with more senior people (the assumption being, of course, that the senior person was the "leader" in the collaboration).

As long as you are publishing in strong journals, I would not stress out about this. Just work in the way that is most natural to you. On a personal note, most of my work when I was younger consisted of single-authored papers. When I was on the tenure track market, I had 15 papers of which only 4 were co-authored. It didn't appear to hurt me at all. I write more joint papers these days largely because my joint papers seem to get written up more efficiently than my single-authored ones, but in many ways I miss my old way of working...


It seems like most of the feedback so far is suggesting the OP to collaborate. In pure math, historically most papers have been solo authored, though there has been a trend toward more collaboration over at least the past 50 years or so. See Grossman's 2002 paper and in a bit of a different direction this more recent paper (coincidentally with many co-authors). At least as of 15 years ago, 2/3 of papers were still single authored.

Things are not at a stage where it looks strange for all or almost all of a job applicant's papers to be solo. Personally, when I look at a job candidate's research the main things I look at are the letters of recommendation and the publication list. If you are publishing in a good number of good journals, there's no disadvantage from my point of view if all of these papers are solo. In fact, to me it looks better. If you have papers in good journals, but they're all or mostly collaborations, that takes some of the credit away from you and makes it unclear how independent you are. In fact it can be hard to evaluate the candidate if all of their work is joint with strong people.

Yes, collaboration has some benefits, but don't collaborate just to collaborate. Also, getting an extra small paper or two out now won't make much of a difference. What's much more important is that you're doing good work and people know about your work. So you should be active in conferences, seminars, etc. If you need to, visit people who will ask for letters to explain your work to them.

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    Yes, I'd strongly second the point that, in math, lots of joint papers with strong people at the very least leaves an easy target for criticism from people who might (for whatever reason) be opposed to one's hiring or tenure. E.g., 4 papers with 4 authors is not clearly better than one solo paper (in a good journal, it-goes-without-saying?), especially if the other authors are more senior. In math, perhaps unlike lab-oriented fields, one's mentor/supervisor usually has their name on the paper only if they've done a good bit of the actual work, maybe a majority (!), not just "supervise". – paul garrett Jun 15 '16 at 21:20

I second Kimball's excellent answer. In my opinion, collaboration is neither bad nor good in and of itself, it is simply a means to the end of producing good research. If you can produce good research by yourself, that's all that matters, and the fact (that many commenters here don't seem to appreciate) is that mathematics in one area where it is a lot more possible to produce good research by oneself relative to other sciences. In fact, some of the best research that can be done in math, the kind of groundbreaking research that is the product of very deep and intense thinking over long periods of time, has been done by people working by themselves (I'm looking at you, Perelman, Wiles, Yitang Zhang, Louis De Branges and many others). Indeed, I suspect that this may very well be the only way to produce certain kinds of breakthroughs.

With that said, setting aside the extreme examples I mentioned, for normal people in normal situations (and certainly for people at the pre-tenure-track job stage), there are some good reasons to think that collaborating with others can give a modest (or in some cases not so modest) boost to your productivity, and also increase the exposure of your work once it's finished:

  • In pure math research, the combined brainpower, talents and skills of two people is often more than the sum of its parts. No one person can be an expert on everything, and often research breakthroughs require putting together different ideas that few individuals could come up with all by themselves.

  • Working with others can give you new ideas and teach you new points of view and techniques. It has benefits that will stay with you long after the collaboration is over and can inform your work on the next project and make you a better mathematician.

  • Collaborating with others offers a very good way for others to learn about your abilities. If you leave a good impression, that can well help you down the road and also make many other people want to collaborate with you. This can seed a virtuous cycle (a.k.a. "the rich get richer") where people might approach you with exciting ideas for research projects that you would never have thought of yourself, amplifying and multiplying the effect of your initial successes.

  • Perhaps my favorite feature of collaborating, which seemed almost too good to be true when I realized it exists, is that when you finish a coauthored paper, you now have a person or persons who will spend the next few months or years traveling around the world giving talks about your result. Imagine that, someone working for you for free to go around telling others how great your result is and how great you are! (And keep in mind that they can, and sometimes will, praise you in ways that you could not politely praise yourself...). Of course, I assume you will do the same for them, but again, the result is that your paper can get double or triple the impact with the same amount of effort that you would have to put in for a solely authored paper. (You can also share with them the work of writing the paper, share slides and other "marketing" materials, etc. - the possibilities are endless.)

Finally, I should add that I personally enjoy working by myself slightly more than with others (I've done both about equally - around half my papers are solely authored), so you should not feel that there's anything wrong with you if that's your preferred mode of working. As long as you're doing good work, things should be fine. But as I explained above, you might want to give working with others a try and maybe discover some of the unexpected advantages it can give you.

  • Thanks, your answer's excellent too! (I debated about whether to point out some benefits of collaborating, particularly the last bullet point.) – Kimball Jun 16 '16 at 5:45

Let me give my own view on this important question. First, note that this is a "probabilistic" question. We don't know precisely how things would work for individual cases, but we do have our own impressions of the statistics and trends in our fields. So in short, my answer is:

  • Not cooperating at all is certainly correlated with work which is not of high enough impact; and with a non-cooperative personality.

  • BUT (and this is where I might raise some disagreement): not being able to work with yourself alone (i.e., doing research only in groups) is also correlated with researchers that are devoid of their own research identity, researchers that are not leaders in their field, and researchers whose main mode of work is following others trends.

These are all mere (statistical) correlations, and I'm sure there are many exceptions.

  • Cooperate = collaborate? – Kimball Jun 15 '16 at 20:18
  • Perhaps I meant collaboration. Excuse my English. – Dilworth Jun 17 '16 at 15:21

Yes, you should make an effort to cooperate, although it is not necessary to get a tenure(track) position.

You should make an effort because cooperation can be a lot more fun and a lot more efficient than doing everything alone (it can also be the opposite when done wrong). It also shows that you can cooperate which is something that search committees like.

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    By cooperate do you mean collaborate? It's possible you could interact with a lot of people without having collaborations. – Kimball Jun 15 '16 at 20:17
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    @kimball Sorry, but I don't know what's the difference between the two (my dictionary translates both to the same words in German). – Dirk Jun 15 '16 at 20:37
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    I was wondering why both your answer and @Dilworth's use cooperate. Cooperate can indeed mean "work together" in a general sense (it can also mean something something less positive like "behave in the desired way" or "not go against"), but at least in the US I have not heard it used to mean "write a paper together." – Kimball Jun 15 '16 at 20:54
  • @Kimball, I'd suspect that the most accurate U.S. English for Dirk's "cooperate" would indeed be "collaborate", as in "work together aiming to write a joint paper"... (As Kimball says, in U.S. English "cooperate" can mean a vague, general "not being an obstacle", without really helping or writing papers together...) Dirk? – paul garrett Jun 15 '16 at 21:26
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    I disagree with this answer. OP didn't ask whether collaborating is more fun or not, and you don't know that it would be more fun for him. Some people actually prefer working by themselves. – Dan Romik Jun 15 '16 at 22:02

In my experience , it is worthwhile to collaborate because

1) if you write an n-authored paper, you get more than 1/n times the credit.

2) if you can find a collaborator with complementary skills then you may write much better papers than either of you would have alone

3) if you have more ideas than time to work out, you can get collaborators to do the less interesting parts and be very productive.

Point 3 is the problem with collaboration, hiring committees may think you are the junior partner and give less weight to your contribution.

Now to answer the original question, will the absence of collaboration harm you directly? No. In fact, because you are not prone to the perception of point 3, it may well help.

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