How difficult is it to get a job as a math professor?
January 13, 2010 9:09 AM   Subscribe

How difficult is it to get a job as a math professor?

I am thinking of returning to school with the ultimate goal of teaching collage level math. I seriously doubt that I will get into or could afford a prestigus grad school. Assuming I graduate from an unremarkable school, do you think I will have difficulty finding gainfull employment? How competitive is the field? I would be fine with teaching at a community collage. I would like to avoid teaching high school.

Thanks Mefi
posted by itsamonkeytree to Work & Money (24 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
here in central florida I am aware of a couple math teachers at the community college who are going that route as follows:

get Florida teaching cert, which you get by having a BA in anything, then go to an EPI (educator prep institute) at pretty much any community college. (Note I am currently doing this. lmk if you are in florida and need more details.)

next, get job teaching college-prep math at pretty much any community college (you can do this because college-prep math is a high school level class, but jucos have to teach it because like 60% of florida high school grads are unqualified for college math) to at least partially support yourself while you're in the masters program

get masters. get job, probably at community college at least at first, where there should be plenty of positions available because a) there are like 10,000 lower level math sections and b) there are very few people to teach them because of the above problem.

you didn't say what state you're in, so YMMV, but my appreciation of the US education system and a quick look at the Teach for America site indicates to me that good math teachers of all levels are in short supply everywhere.
posted by toodleydoodley at 9:29 AM on January 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

I would be fine with teaching at a community collage college.

FYI, community college positions are quite competitive and not as easy to come by. Two friends of mine who both got PhDs from top universities (and decided against R1 jobs for various reasons) had a hard time getting a CC job (they both did and one just made tenure).
posted by special-k at 9:30 AM on January 13, 2010

You shouldn't be paying to attend grad school, prestigious or not. Usually you get funding that covers the cost of tuition and a small living stipend. Not worth going without funding.
posted by pravit at 9:49 AM on January 13, 2010 [6 favorites]

pravit makes an excellent point. I didn't notice that bit in your post.
posted by special-k at 9:53 AM on January 13, 2010

Response by poster: I don't know what state I will be in. My wife is in a field where it is difficult to land a position so we're going wherever she can find one. I don't care about tenure/money. I just want to find gainful employment doing something I would enjoy (I doubt I would enjoy working with high school students).

I would be fine with teaching at a community collage college.- I'm embarrassed, spelling is not my strong point.
posted by itsamonkeytree at 10:04 AM on January 13, 2010


The market right now is very tight. I recently switched jobs and heard that they got about 600 applications for the position I was hired for. In five years, who knows what the market will be like.

You might possibly be able to be hired with just a masters degree---certainly you could get adjuncting work with a masters---but to actually get a full-time, tenure-track position at a 4-year college you would almost certainly need a Ph.D. (I'm not as familiar with the community college hiring scene.) Many schools like you to have a research program after you get your degree, but there are some which are only interested in teaching.

Absolutely you should not pay for grad school in math. So if you think you have the skills, apply to places you think would be good. But you really need to like math to go to graduate school---it's not some sort of trade school that you go to to learn to teach college-level math. In fact, you will learn very little, if anything, formal about how to teach math.

my current school, University of Alaska Fairbanks, has a graduate program in math...
posted by leahwrenn at 10:10 AM on January 13, 2010

On preview--
I just want to find gainful employment doing something I would enjoy (I doubt I would enjoy working with high school students).

You might look into teaching HS a little more, then. I hear you on the "it doesn't sound appealing" part (it always sounded really scary to me---I've got really bad arithmetic skills), but it's not sounding like doing math-research-type stuff particularly rocks your boat, and I can't recommend going to graduate school in math unless you really, really want to be there.

If you had a masters, adjuncting work might fit what you're looking for, but it pays for crap.
posted by leahwrenn at 10:14 AM on January 13, 2010

Best answer: I really want to encourage you to get some help with your writing. It will help you get into a better school. I know that's absolutely not fair--it's not like my colleagues in grad school in English had to improve their math skills in order to get in, which always made splitting the tab at restaurants a bit of a nightmare--but people judge other people's overall intelligence by their written communications.

There will always be work for you if you are a good teacher of math, especially if you have skills in working with basic math learners. This is not the same as being a good mathematician--I have a friend who has a master's from the least prestigious state university in Massachusetts who teaches math at the Harvard Extension School, and I know two people who have a Ph.D. from Harvard in math who couldn't find a college teaching job of any kind.

If, in addition to your graduate work in mathematics, you take courses in education (note: I think a lot of what people teach in education school is hooey, so you'll have to sort through a lot of chaff to get any wheat) and do student teaching and part-time teaching with basic math learners, you will be in a strong position to get work, because you'll be competing against people who have been spending the last five years thinking about topology or Hilbert spaces, and who have no grasp on teaching introductory algebra to first-year students.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:20 AM on January 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Why do you think you will enjoy working with community college students but not high school students? True, there is a difference in maturity and focus between a 14 year-old and an 18 year-old, but many community college students will be no more mature than the average high school junior or senior. Many community college students will approach college just like high school (no offense to the ones who work hard to learn career skills or transfer). If you really don't like teenagers, teaching at either level sounds like a bad idea.
posted by slow graffiti at 10:27 AM on January 13, 2010

I was about to pop in and say what slow graffitti did--I taught at the community college level for 13 years (not math) and I'm not sure the students are better or easier to work with than high schoolers; I often lamented their lack of responsibility, the amount of hand-holding they expected, and so on. I have not taught high school, but in your position I might look into it more before making up my mind. I have heard that there is a shortage of math and science teachers, so you might be more flexibly employable. For my part, I would not invest in a grad degree that would probably only result in being employable as an adjunct; it's hard work, you end up teaching the most basic classes, which means the least-prepared students, and you have little or no opportunity to teach more interesting higher-level classes (in my experience, at least).
posted by not that girl at 10:36 AM on January 13, 2010

For what its worth, this jobs website rates mathematician as the 6th best job there is, and that is partly based on hiring prospects. However that's because mathematicians can also find work in various non-academic environments. Meanwhile, there's no doubt that all university level positions are extremely competitive, but college should be easier.
posted by leibniz at 10:43 AM on January 13, 2010

IMO there's community college and there's community college. there are two major brands in my immediate area - one is a primary feeder for the big prestigious fancypants state university flagship and the other one is a career stamper that facilitates professional degrees with six or seven public and private career-oriented four-years in the state.

the career stamper has a lot of non-traditional-age and career-oriented students in the college prep math, english and reading classes who come in ready to work because they've already had the rubber-gloves and hairnet job and are tired of it. the big state feeder school has a steady stream of the privileged infants y'all are describing.

in short, there's more than one kind of community college to get a job at.
posted by toodleydoodley at 10:53 AM on January 13, 2010

You should make sure when looking/applying for jobs that you know the terminology for the position. Usually, professor=PhD, master's or bachelors=instructor.

If you just wanted to get a master's degree, you could possibly get a job teaching advanced math courses, like advance placement or international baccalaureate-level at a prestigious high school/private high school, teaching classes for kids that are probably more motivated than the average high school student.
posted by ishotjr at 11:02 AM on January 13, 2010

I think the level of maturity in students depends greatly on the math course. For example: my wife teaches high school math. Last year she taught quite a bit of algebra, and a few sections of geometry, and she quite a few trying days. This year it's flipped: more geometry than algebra, and it's a lot better. Algebra is something most students have to get through, and many have it early in high school, though some repeat it a number of times. Being in geometry means you've passed algebra, either as a high school student or a fairly sharp Jr. High student. And then there is calculus and AP courses, where kids are getting geared up for college.

I remember being in college, where some more basic courses felt a LOT like a continuation of high school. The really basic courses had huge classes, so it was hard to interact with the professor, unless you went to office hours. Community colleges can be this way, but the more advanced the course, the smaller the class.

In California, high school math teachers are in demand. Another math teacher at my wife's school applied to teach at the local community college, and didn't get the position even though she was well qualified. She teaches upper division math in high school, but the students are by and large respectful and they put in an effort in class.

If you don't hate the idea of being a high school teacher while you try to get a job higher up the math ladder, that could be a way to get experience teaching in your field, even though it's not a perfect fit.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:07 AM on January 13, 2010

Best answer: I don't care about tenure/money. I just want to find gainful employment doing something I would enjoy

There is a fundamental problem in the way that academic jobs work that will make this hard. On the one hand, the tenure system involves the most job security you can possibly have, and consequently it is very hard to get tenure track jobs (their numbers are decreasing anyways). But if you don't care about tenure, what is left is working as an adjunct/limited term instructor. The fact is that this kind of job typically has terrible job security (and very short contracts, one semester), very poor pay relative to the workload, and basically no benefits. Like, below poverty-level in every category here. Going into academia with aim of teaching in non-tenured positions isn't a career I'd recommend to anyone, no matter how much they might love teaching and not care about money, and I hesitate to even call it a career.

If you want to have a teaching oriented career in academia, what you may want to consider aiming for is tenure track jobs at community colleges / liberal arts colleges, even if you don't care about tenure/money. I can't speak to math in particular as to what would be needed, though.
posted by advil at 11:09 AM on January 13, 2010

Response by poster: Thank you everyone for taking the time to respond.
posted by itsamonkeytree at 11:13 AM on January 13, 2010

I'd like to expand upon what people have said above. This is a close subject to my heart at the moment, as I'm currently on the job market looking for a tenure-track position, or a postdoc if necessary, in mathematics.

1) You definitely should not be paying for grad school in math. Unlike many other subjects one studies in grad school, most grad students in math get their tuition waived, and many also get additional stipends. This is because math, above most other subjects, really requires many teachers. Almost everyone at a 4-year school has to take at least one math class, and tenured professors are not usually interested in teaching precalculus or calculus.

If a grad school accepts you with no stipend, that is only an epsilon step above not being accepted at all.

2) You should consider what kind of professorship you want. I don't know much about community college positions; I'm currently at a larger private university and I went to grad school at a big public university, though, so I can speak to those arenas. If you want an actual tenure-track professorship at any 4-year university, you will have to get a Ph.D. If you want a tenure-track position at a research institution (i.e., any big state school or private school), you will not only need a Ph.D. but also at least one postdoc.

On the other hand, if you're interested in a professorship at a private/liberal arts university (i.e., a more teaching-oriented position), the postdoc might not be necessary, but given the state of the job market in math, you could well need one to be competitive.

As for adjunct positions, such positions might be available with only a masters, but I know a number of people with Ph.Ds who have adjunct positions at the moment because they couldn't find any other jobs.

Now again, let me reiterate that I've only been affiliated with larger public/private schools. Perhaps the job market is easier to break into for smaller private schools, or for smaller branches in a public system.
posted by Frobenius Twist at 11:17 AM on January 13, 2010

From my indirect experience, I have one piece of advice above all others:

Don't. The academic mathematics field is severely overpopulated. Even if you do everything perfectly, there is a not-insignificant chance that you simply will not be able to find employment on the college level. Even if you do, it will likely be as an "adjunct", which means that you will not be able to predict whether your job will be there from semester to semester, and you'll never know how many hours you'll be teaching (and, thus, your pay) until right before each semester begins.

Now, on the other hand, if you were willing to teach high school - that's the complete opposite. Districts are absolutely dying for math teachers. So, you might not want to discount that just yet.

The above assertion about mathematicians being in the "top 10 jobs" comes from their ability to get a well-paying desk job either as an actuary or a quantitative analyst. Those jobs pay well, although the banks and insurance companies that hire them aren't exactly on a spending spree right now. But, it sounds like that's not the sort of thing that you want to do, anyway,

If you want gainful academic employment, here are some of the sordid details:
* You must get an "A" grade in every class. Period. Get a single A-, and you will not be considered for an appointment anywhere.
* You need to go all the way to a PhD. You will only be eligible for "adjunct" teaching assignments, with a Masters' degree, and the majority of colleges that will hire Masters' degree-holders to teach will be prohibited by rule from hiring a non-PhD for more than a few semesters total (typically four).
* Your grades in grad school for math will be at least 60% determined by politics. You still have to do the work. But, if the department believes that you should wash out of the program, then you will get B and C grades for work that others are getting A grades for. So, there's a certain amount of institutional butt-kissing that you should be prepared for. If winning friends and influencing people isn't your strong suit, then you're going to have a really tough time in this area.
* Continuing from above - Getting to know the faculty, and getting them to like you, is actually more important than learning/knowing the material. The classes are, more than anything, a referendum on your ability to schmooze the professors.
* You need to impress the faculty enough that one of them will agree to be your thesis/dissertation advisor. This is a separate challenge in itself - even of they all like you, it's possible that none of them think highly enough of you to serve as your advisor. Start thinking about that from day one of class, and you might get one.
* Once you have an advisor, s/he's basically going to use you as an errand monkey until you have completed your dissertation. You may also learn a few things, but most people learn what they need on their own. The point of having an advisor is more about permission than advice.
* Once you get past the actual classes that you have to take, then you get to the tough part - writing your big paper. I don't have a lot of advice on how to complete a dissertation, but I do know that it's really, really hard to do. People typically plan on two or three years of grad school, and often stay several more years just to finish the damn paper. YMMV here, since motivation plays a big factor.

Still interested? Well, if you're still going to do it, just make sure that you're going in with your eyes wide open. The system sucks, it's unfair and capricious, and more often than not is ineffective in selecting the actual best candidates. If you're still ready to do this, then more power to you!
posted by Citrus at 11:21 AM on January 13, 2010 [3 favorites]

Citrus is right. The community colleges, at least in North Florida, rely heavily on adjuncts who do not get benefits, and have no guarantee of employment from semester to semester.

I have an M.S. in Statistics. I graduated in 1994. I received my tenure track job in 2005.

You should also know that "tenure" at the community college level may not mean what you think; at our school, it means they must give us one year's notice if they wish to "let go" of us. It DOES not guarantee employment for life.
posted by wittgenstein at 12:00 PM on January 13, 2010

I think Citrus is exaggerating a *bit* about how politics within individual graduate programs work. But this may just be that I've gotten lucky.
posted by madcaptenor at 4:24 PM on January 13, 2010

Yes, Citrus exaggerates a lot. I did fine all through grad school (as far as grades) with no schmoozing. Also, this varies quite a bit across departments/schools. But this should be the least of your concerns.

Once you have an advisor, s/he's basically going to use you as an errand monkey until you have completed your dissertation.

mine didn't. Most don't.

You need to impress the faculty enough that one of them will agree to be your thesis/dissertation advisor.

This usually happens before you get in. Also varies a lot.
posted by special-k at 5:42 PM on January 13, 2010

About the timing of getting a dissertation advisor: this varies by field. In math (my field) it seems like a lot of people's research interests change in the first year or two in a PhD program, and it's not really possible to learn much about How Research Works until doing some graduate-level coursework. So maybe some people come in knowing which advisor they want, but lots don't. In other fields where an incoming graduate student is more useful to a professor -- I'm thinking chemistry or biology, where there are large laboratories -- it seems more common that people are essentially applying to programs to work with a specific professor.
posted by madcaptenor at 6:12 PM on January 13, 2010

If you want to have a teaching oriented career in academia, what you may want to consider aiming for is tenure track jobs at community colleges / liberal arts colleges,

Most liberal arts colleges these days require you to be a productive researcher as well as an excellent teacher. It's not sounding like the OP is particularly interested in doing research.

(If I'm wrong, then we can have a different conversation about math graduate school. I do want to say that Citrus's experiences sound awful, but were certainly not what I --- or as far as I know, any of my colleagues --- experienced.)
posted by leahwrenn at 4:49 PM on January 14, 2010

itsamonkeytree, I'm a nearly-finished graduate student in Applied Mathematics from a well-respected school. I have always liked the idea of teaching, but I have not been on that job market, so I cannot help you there. I do want you to have a better understanding of what a Ph. D. in Mathematics/Applied Mathematics is about, because being a mathematician entails doing mathematics, educating students is a secondary concern.

First, I don't think graduate school has to be political. I doubt that your grades matter THAT much in a good program. What is most important is the research you are producing, which comes from finding an advisor well-matched to your interests.

Your undergraduate mathematical education is a sharp reflection on your preparation for graduate work in mathematics, so if you do not have solid grades in the basics (Analysis, Modern Algebra/Topology, Linear Algebra), you will probably need a year in a Master's program to strengthen your application. You will also need several good references who can attest to your level of preparation and your ability to do research.

I recommend picking up "A Mathematician's Survival Guide", by Steven Krantz. My advisor gave it to me to read my first year of graduate school, and it was extremely helpful in setting up my expectations for what life as a graduate student is like.

Also, I am seconding recommendations that you consider teaching math at the high school level through a program like Teach for America. There is a desperate shortage of good math teachers at the secondary level, and in many ways you would have a much greater impact here if your true love is teaching and not some combination of teaching and research.
posted by onalark at 11:36 PM on January 14, 2010

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