I'm on the job market for tenure-track positions in mathematics in the US this application cycle. I was advised by various people to contact the people in the institutions that I would really like to go to, so I have just contacted 4-5 top institutions that I am planning to apply to.

In the usual job market desperation, I may try to decipher every word in their response (if they respond at all), so I am curious about if there is anything to be deciphered at all. I'm only a postdoc and I have not had emails of this sort, but I can see myself responding in various ways.

For example, for a complete no-name who has no chance in my school, maybe the kindest thing is just to thank them, ignore them, or just tell them that we're not hiring in their area.

Maybe if it's someone that looks like they have a shot, maybe I'd respond telling them that I'll read their applications carefully, or something along those lines. Or maybe I'll volunteer some extra information such as our intended area of hire (because those generally don't appear in job ads) or actually pass on the email to the hiring committee.

Or, do you just have a canned response that you send out to everyone who contacts you?

All of this is speculation, and I'm intentionally doing this before getting any response back, so that I don't go crazy over the responses.

Does what I say above have any similarities with the reality? Even a glimmer of hope from any of the responses will put my mind at ease, so I am hoping for many anecdotal stories from current/past faculty who have had to deal with emails of this sort, which I am sure they receive plenty of.

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    I feel we should add to our FAQ "Can X infer any meaning from the way how a response from Y about Z is worded?" - No"
    – xLeitix
    Commented Sep 25, 2016 at 11:05
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    Let me add a comment for your sanity. Unless you're a superstar in the making (i.e. already have a substantial grant), given the information you have, your chance at any given job is at most 5% and more usually like 1%. Other than an interview, no information you can get will substantially increase these odds. You have to apply to lots of jobs and believe that probability works. (Yes these probabilities are quite independent of each other.) It's the number of reasonable shots you have that improves your chances, not the probability of any particular shot. Commented Sep 25, 2016 at 15:10
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    @AlexanderWoo The sane part of me agrees with most of the comments you made (along with the rest of the answers). I just want to say that the definition of a superstar is not equivalent to having a substantial grant. For example, most "superstars" are given an NSF postdoc fellowship, which prohibits them from applying for the actual NSF research grant (which is crazy competitive, and even some of the superstars who received multiple offers were rejected on their first application). I just felt the need to clarify in case other applicants read this and go into a panic attack :)
    – BMD
    Commented Sep 25, 2016 at 15:42
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    @xLeitix: or even more generally, "can any information whatever be conveyed by email?" - no, walk over there and talk to them ;-) Commented Sep 25, 2016 at 18:47

4 Answers 4


Don't stress out about the responses, since it's nearly impossible to get reliable information by reading between the lines. The variation in how people might respond is enormous, and unless you really know the people involved it's hard to know what it means. For example, suppose someone sends a friendly, encouraging reply. Maybe it means you have a real shot at the job. Maybe it means they think you have a real shot, but they could be totally wrong. (Sometimes people on hiring committees have unrealistic beliefs about how everything will play out.) Maybe it's just their personality and has nothing to do with your chances. Maybe they are deliberately saying the same thing to everyone in order to avoid awkwardness. If you don't know them pretty well, all you can do is guess. Of course a standoffish reply is equally difficult to interpret. The net effect is that you'll get replies that look like they may contain information, but you really won't know what, if anything, they mean. It's best to resign yourself to this now, rather than spending a lot of time worrying over how to interpret replies and not actually learning anything valuable in the process.

  • Of course the voice of reason says this! In your personal experience, though, do you respond differently to different candidates?
    – BMD
    Commented Sep 25, 2016 at 15:47
  • @BMD I don't know about AM, but I do. However you don't know how I'm responding to other applicants so you won't know if it's relatively more or less positive. (That said, I try not to be misleading, but I also try to avoid being discouraging, and I'm sure some people misread my messages.)
    – Kimball
    Commented Sep 26, 2016 at 0:57
  • @Kimball you're assuming that the applicants don't talk among themselves ;) I remember my last year at graduate school fondly, where things of this sort were all we talked about! But since I finally have some evidence of what I originally asked, do you mind sharing an example of an encouraging response or a negative response?
    – BMD
    Commented Sep 26, 2016 at 1:25

There is probably a small positive correlation between how encouraging e-mail responses are and how much of a chance you have. But there is also a large amount of random chance, depending on the personality of the responder. It can be maddening, and it is probably useless, to try to extract the signal from the noise.

Usually if you get specific information right away, it will be bad news. In particular, if your research interests are not a good match for whatever the search committee is looking for, you might be told immediately. Otherwise, I wouldn't recommend trying to read too much into the content (or presence or absence of these e-mails).

Good luck on your job search!

  • Things seem to have played out almost exactly as you predicted. Most people I contacted got back to me very quickly! Some of them told me that they're on the hiring committee (one of them is even the chair), most people told me that my area is one of the targeted areas of hire, and everyone that responded told me that they'll make sure that the hiring committee is aware of my application. All in all, nothing soul-crushing happened.
    – BMD
    Commented Sep 25, 2016 at 15:53

A few years ago, fresh out of PhD, I was hunting for a university job. I applied to a bunch of universities ranging from world's top to average/below average. I knew I didn't have a faintest chance to get a job at prestigious university, but I really enjoyed reading their responses:

Despite your excellent qualification, we regret to inform you that we hired another person, who was more suitable for this position...

Reading that would make me happy. They think I have an "excellent qualification"!

I think 99% of negative responses are standard and professionally tailored to incite positive emotions in spite of bad news. Like firing someone of Friday before Christmas.

All the positive responses I ever received/sent were as dry as they can get, loaded with specific and technical info.

With that being said, job hunting is a tremendously time consuming activity, like a full-time job. Trying to infer something from non-explicitly positive responses seems to be a waste of precious time. If the response seems neutral/unclear and you need to decide whether to agree to another job or not, then you should immediately ask them to clarify their response saying that you have a decision to make.


Don't infer anything from a return email, other than whether you get an invitation for a meeting/interview, or not. That's the first level of "screening" and that's all that can be reasonably done through email. Other than that, an email is no place to get even an "indication" of where you stand. It was sent by one contact person (out of many) who may not even be key decisionmaker.

During and after the interview/meeting, etc., you will probably be placed in one of three categories: 1) a "top" (tenure-track potential) candidate, 2) a marginal "borderline" candidate who will be made an offer with no guarantees, or 3) a non-candidate. Of course the third result is intellectually "easy" (if painful), so you'll want to distinguish between the first two. But the time to do that is after the interview.

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