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I'm due to start my PhD in Pure Mathematics next month, fully funded by a scholarship, at an average university, I'll be specialising in combinatorial group theory, and I have a strong First in Mathematics from a Russell group university. My goal is to become an academic.

This is my Mathematics Stack Exchange (MSE) profile. I've been an active user since 2013, visiting pretty much daily, but my reputation is currently just 5,760 and I haven't used MathOverflow at all (as the questions there every time I visit, which isn't that often, are beyond me). This seems quite low. Should this worry me?

To what extent is MSE reputation an indication of potential in academia?

  • 53
    The 3 best programmers whom I personally known and worked with in my country, at least in my opinion, don't have a stackoverflow account. – Lynob Sep 13 '17 at 9:01
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    In every case that I tried to impress someone with my SE points I failed badly. Because most people have no idea what the heck SE is, and the few who do, surely won't find it that impressive. – polfosol Sep 13 '17 at 13:06
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    As polfsol says, SE points are not impressive. However, the quality of your answers might impress somebody. I use muy Statistics SE contributions to showcase that I can write about statistics in English, just as I could use a blog for the same purpose. I don't make an answer out of this comment because I can't say for sure if it has impacted my career (but I keep the link at the end of my CV). – Pere Sep 13 '17 at 15:40
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    Points on the SX measure contributions, not quality. Some people answer 20+ questions daily, but with low quality answers. Nevertheless over the years they can collect a lot of reputation. Furthermore the number of votes a Q/A gets scales more with popularity than with quality IMO. On SO I've written - in my opinion - HQ posts with 1-3 votes, and straightforward answers with 10+ votes. – Willem Van Onsem Sep 13 '17 at 16:06
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    "To what extent is MSE reputation an indication of potential in academia?" It is an interesting question, but without data it is somewhat pointless to speculate. Also note that "potential" is somewhat nebulous. I take it as being essentially obvious that an undergraduate who can competently answer questions on something like MSE has potential in graduate school. – John Coleman Sep 13 '17 at 16:06
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The only thing that a high MSE or MO reputation indicates is that a person spends too much time on the internet (and I say that as someone with a reasonably high reputation on MO). I don't think you should take it seriously as a data point on how successful you are likely to be.

On a related note, it also doesn't play any role in things like hiring decisions. At all the places I've worked, someone would be ridiculed if they brought up MO or MSE reputation at a hiring meeting.

It's just recreation.

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    The main way that MO affects my opinions of people isn't through their reputation, but through particular questions or answers that got my attention. For example, I once invited someone to a conference because they kept answering my MO questions. – Noah Snyder Sep 13 '17 at 0:43
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    I disagree with your assessment that MSE/MO contributions can play no role in the way people are perceived when they are evaluated for jobs. See here for a related discussion. I do agree with @NoahSnyder, what matters is actual reputation (in the normal English-language sense of the word) rather than reputation points. In any case, all of that is entirely tangential to OP's question, which you addressed well in the first paragraph. – Dan Romik Sep 13 '17 at 0:58
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    Disagree with an answer for example on Stack Overflow a person's reputation can tell me a lot about the persons skills as a developer (especially users with high rep). I wonder why it would be different on MO site. – user79802 Sep 13 '17 at 5:49
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    @GiorgiMoniava: The hiring practices in the computer programming world and in university mathematics departments are completely different. In particular, we have far more useful sources of information concerning job candidates, namely their published research record and their letters of recommendation. As I said in my answer, anyone who brought up things like a candidate's reputation score on some website in a hiring meeting would be belittled mercilessly. – Andy Putman Sep 13 '17 at 16:00
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    @GiorgiMoniava "I wonder why it would be different on MO site." MO is and always has been rather different, in its content and attitude, from StackOverflow. Several people here, as long-time MO users and professional mathematicians, might be better placed to comment on how hiring committees in academic mathematics view MO reputation, than people who don't have MO accounts and aren't professional mathematicians. – Yemon Choi Sep 13 '17 at 16:34
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To what extent is MSE reputation an indication of potential in academia?

Very little. You get a lot of reputation for simple answers to simple questions that make it onto the HNQ list, because those are the ones that people can quickly understand and say, "Yeah, that's right." Conversely, you get little reputation for deep, detailed answers to difficult questions, because people (probably rightly) think that reading and digesting them won't be a productive use of their time.

High reputation on a technical Stack Exchange site might indicate that you're a good teacher of that subject, since well-explained, easy-to-understand answers tend to get higher reputation. But, the teaching experience you get as a student and early-career researcher will be a much better indication of that.

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Perhaps this is a philosophical nuance, but I think a case could be made that high MSE reputation would correlate strongly with success in academia. This correlation is likely not directly related to MSE reputation itself, but to something that a high MSE reputation may indicate: love of mathematics.

As an applied mathematics PhD holder myself, I've witnessed first-hand that success in both PhD programs and academic careers in general depends largely on having sufficient motivation and perseverance to put in the time necessary to develop new insights. I would argue that a high MSE reputation indicates a willingness and motivation to seek out challenging problems in a wide variety of mathematical subject matter.

Moreover, the fact that MSE reputation is not directly related to someone's job or academic position suggests that person is interacting with MSE in their personal time, which indicates that their motivation to participate in the mathematical community goes deeper than just looking for a way to pay the bills.

Thus, if mathematical academic success is correlated with having proper motivation to learn mathematics, and high MSE reputation is an indicator of sound motivation to learn mathematics, then, by the transitive property, high MSE reputation should be correlated with academic success.

Some of the above is tongue-in-cheek, but while the relationship between MSE reputation and academic success is not causal, I think there is likely a positive correlation resulting from a natural selection bias for significant contributors to this site.

  • I'll acknowledge the likely correlation, but note there is no likelihood of a reverse correlation: most highly successful math academicians are not on MSE. The population sizes are different. – Wildcard Sep 15 '17 at 5:06
  • The other thing is that SE sites provides instant gratification for routine achievements being doable in a few minutes, in a way exactly the opposite of what is usually needed for mathematical research. So I would not give all that much predictive value to it re research. I may give it more regrading being a dedicated teacher. – quid Sep 15 '17 at 9:46
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    @Wildcard I wouldn't get lost in correlations, it's simply that "interacting with MSE in their personal time, ... indicates ... their motivation to participate in the mathematical community". Answering and asking questions depicts the involvement and interest in the subject. Reputation points is just a feature of the website and can be seen as a simple measure of the popularity of those interactions... People with successful careers prove their success with interactions with other communities, through papers or books... Comparing those communities with SE sites may be fruitless. – Armfoot Sep 15 '17 at 9:55
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    @Armfoot gets at the gist of my point. The question of level of success in academics and how that correlates to level of MSE reputation is a bit different (and likely more complex). However, I think someone who posts here and enjoys answering mathematical questions/contributing to the community has a leg up against those who might go into an advanced degree thinking of academia as more of a 9-5 job that'll pay the bills. I've seen such people fail to succeed, both at the graduate student level and at the professor level, due in large part to improper or insufficient motivation. – bmosov01 Sep 15 '17 at 16:49
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    The OP states he is starting his PhD program next month. While it's not unheard of for undergraduates to begin research in mathematics, I would venture the majority of math PhD students don't engage in research until after a year or two in a graduate program. It seems a bit pedantic to me to assume the OP is participating in MSE at the expense of doing research at this stage in his career. – bmosov01 Sep 18 '17 at 3:04
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You shouldn't worry about MSE "reputation"; one can find MSE members with low reputation but high academic potential and vice versa. Think about it: there are members who reached 100k just by answering elementary calculus and combinatorics questions. "Reputation" is more about effort rather than potential. However, there is definitively a tendency that those with high academic potential get into top-notch (as opposed to average) PhD programs.

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I don't think SE participation is likely to matter one way or the other in your graduate studies, as long as it doesn't eat up a lot of time you ought to be spending elsewhere. Come to ask for help or offer it when appropriate.

Later on in your career that may change. My son Ben Bolker has a substantial presence on stackoverflow, helping people with R and statistics. (He's a tenured full professor so can apportion his time as he pleases.)

I posted this on tex se meta:

I quietly argue in my department and regularly tell colleagues that significant participation in stackexchange sites should count in faculty reviews as service to the scholarly community. I'm sure @egreg's answers here advance science more than does his mathematics, however deep and interesting that may be.

https://tex.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/3938/the-importance-for-getting-an-account/3947#3947

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Social media is definitely becoming a new component to academia outside of publications, and I suspect it can be influential to your career as a form of networking that may, for instance, get your work cited more often simply by bringing it more to others' attention. Possibly a good MSE could be helpful to that, but I suspect it's a stretch - Twitter, LinkedIn and other proper social media tools are better suited to that purpose. Beyond that I echo the other answers by saying you shouldn't expect it to be taken as a serious CV point for recruitment or hiring in academia.

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Lots of the duties which decide success in academia are not directly related to knowledge in or passion for the field of study but hard work, perseverance, acquiring grants, doing teaching, administration, live presentations, seminars, conferences, becoming a popular teacher, co-worker and contributor.

Math.SE strips those duties down and we only get to see the knowledge and passion side of the subject of study. There is much more to creating a career in academia than knowledge and passion in the subject of study.

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Being associated with SE is not necessarily a good thing. Not that you are like this, but many of the responders on SE simply do not present a pleasant demeanor and are off-putting in their arrogance.

Search for, "Stack Exchange Hate," and see what you get, then ask yourself, "If this is how people perceive SE, do I want really anyone knowing I'm associated with it?"

If you want to establish a reputation (which is not a function of SE to begin with), establish a real one, in the real world.

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    Don't you think that Googling for "Stack Exchange Hate" would result in a rather biased sample of opinions? – David Richerby Sep 14 '17 at 12:33
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    I find this response to present a less than pleasant demeanor and to be off-putting in its arrogance. – Wildcard Sep 15 '17 at 5:07

protected by Alexandros Apr 2 '18 at 18:28

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