What would be a ballpark figure (or range even) for the number of postdoctoral applications received for a typical US math departmental-wide postdoctoral position?

  • 15
    I have been told by a colleague in math that his department (top-tier R1) received around 800 applications for two positions.Since applying to multiple jobs is easy in math, that is probably about the number of applicant every school gets. – Sana Sep 30 '16 at 5:21
  • Cool! I would expect that to be on the high end of a ballpark figure, since R1 institutions are typically much more competitive. – jvriesem Oct 26 '16 at 21:45

Sounds like a Fermi problem!

Here's my estimate.

How many new math PHDs are granted in the US per year?

  • Number of major US institutions (~1000)
  • Fraction of major US institutions offering a PHD math program (1 in 4, or 0.25)
  • Average number of doctorates conferred by each PHD math program per year (6)

This gives roughly (1000 x 0.25 x 6) = 1500 new math PHDs per year.

How many postdoc positions are in the US?

  • Number of US institutions offering postdoc positions (300?)
  • Number of postdoc positions per offering institution (3?)
  • Fraction of postdoc positions opening per year (1 in 2, or 0.5) (assuming two-year positions)

That gives (300 x 3 x 0.5) ~ 450 postdoc positions opening per year

How many people apply to a given position?

  • Number of new math PHDs per year (1500, see above)
  • Fraction of new PHDs applying for postdoc positions (1 in 2, or 0.5)
  • Average number of postdoc applications each new PHD fills out (30?)
  • Number of open postdoc positions per year (450, or almost 500, see above)

This gives (1500 x 0.5 x 30 / 500) ~ 60 applications per postdoc position.

This approach misses something, however.

Not everyone applying for these positions has just received their PHD: competition is increasing. There are fewer tenure-track positions open, causing postdocs to apply to a second (or even third!) postdoc position. Furthermore, not all applicants earned their PHD in the US.

To account for all the other applicants (current postdocs, PHDs from other disciplines, etc.), let's multiply that figure by a factor of 1.5, so there's (60 x 1.5) = 90 applicants per postdoc position.

Thus my final estimate:

I estimate that each postdoc position receives an average of 90 applicants per postdoc position.


This PDF has some great figures (2013-2014) for comparison, though I checked this after my estimate:

  • 1926 math PHDs conferred.
  • 38% (626) are reported to be in postdoc positions in the US (another 200 or so are abroad)

Lastly, the "800 applicants for 2 positions" figure (comment from @Sana) is for an R1 institution, and is therefore likely to be much higher than it would be for an average institution.

  • 8
    Average number of postdoc applications each new PHD fills out (30?) Because of MathJobs, I think this number is way low. – Nate Eldredge Oct 27 '16 at 2:48
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    Also, I think that including applicants from the rest of the world should at least double the US number, if not triple it. Then people applying for second postdocs should increase it beyond that. Someone who's been on a committee could probably share what percentage of applicants were domestic vs international. – Nate Eldredge Oct 27 '16 at 2:50
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    Most postdoctoral positions are at R1 institutions, I believe; so the average will be more dominated by R1 schools than you think. – Tom Church Oct 27 '16 at 4:15
  • @NateEldredge Granted that some of my numbers are likely low. The approach of a Fermi problem is that the inputs and the final result are likely within an order of magnitude (factor of 10) of the actual values. So go ahead -- double any parameter -- the final answer should still be accurate to an order of magnitude. In my experience, they're often accurate with a factor of 3. For example, most PHDs likely fill out more than 3 and less than 300 applications. If we take it to be 60, then my estimate (90) becomes 180 applications per position: more than 18 and less than 1800. :-) – jvriesem Oct 27 '16 at 22:14

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