February 19, 2010 8:45 AM   Subscribe

About to obtain a PhD in mathematics, and questions about employment.

I will be obtaining my PhD in mathematics from a Tier II university in the midwest in May. For those of you who are academics, you may be aware of the job search process, and how time consuming and heart wrenching it can be.

I sent out about 60-70 applications for various positions at universities and colleges all over the country. We're talking visiting positions, tenure-track positions, etc. None of the places I applied to were too elite for my qualifications, and a lot of them were more teaching-based than research-based (which is pretty much where I want to take my career). I have had some phone interviews and face-to-face interviews at a huge conference back in January. I'm not getting a lot of callbacks.

Anyway, I'm starting to get the feeling that none of these places will hire me, and that is giving me a feeling of despair (not a good thing when trying to finish up a thesis). Having a PhD makes me "overqualified" for most "regular" jobs, so I'm not sure who would hire me outside of an academic setting.

My question is this. Can you guys suggest some possible employment options for a late-twenties guy with a PhD in mathematics who will live almost anywhere that are not academic? If it helps, my area of research is not applied math. It's pure math with a focus on combinatorics and extremal graph theory (for those of you who know what that means, maybe that's helpful).
posted by King Bee to Work & Money (19 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Can you guys suggest some possible employment options for a late-twenties guy with a PhD in mathematics who will live almost anywhere that are not academic?

The NSA employs hundreds of math Ph.Ds. You'll need to be a US citizen. See here for more details. Search the current openings for 'mathematician.'
posted by jedicus at 8:56 AM on February 19, 2010

What area of math is your PhD in? Polling firms and financial firms both hire PhD mathematicians for really heavy applied stuff, and I understand (from a friend looking at it) that there are actually hybrid math/finance programs coming online to service a growing need in the financial sector.
posted by fatbird at 9:09 AM on February 19, 2010

Whoops. You did list the areas, and I have no clue what you're talking about and whether or not polling/finance might find it useful.
posted by fatbird at 9:11 AM on February 19, 2010

Silicon Valley and Wall Street and biotech startups employs thousands of math PhD's, and are always desperately looking for more. You'll need a pulse and be dressed in some sort of clothing during the interview.

Of all the Ph.D.'s out there, Math is one of the more employable. Besides, there's way less political warfare than fighting for tenure, and you can go back to academia once you've got a few years doing useful stuff with your degree under your belt.
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:12 AM on February 19, 2010

The defense industry hires a lot of Mathematicians. Find a defense contractor, and you'll be picked up pretty quick. The smaller the better, from an employee happiness point of view.
posted by blixco at 9:20 AM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Try any big software company's research lab, like Microsoft Research. Graph theory is extremely useful in software applications. Can you code? Also look at software outfits like RSA that focus on security and cryptography. Did you do any work in cryptography? (You'd pick it up in no time with your background).
posted by crazycanuck at 9:42 AM on February 19, 2010

They me be evil, but insurance companies and reinsurers pick up a lot of mathematicians, particularly for applied and actuarial work.
posted by whatzit at 9:46 AM on February 19, 2010

Just to echo everyone else, a friend of mine recently got his PhD in Mathematics and got a sweet job with a gov't contractor. Of course, his specialty was cryptography, which is in high demand, but the gov't sector is definitely where you should look.
posted by mkultra at 9:47 AM on February 19, 2010

Sotfware, biotech, Wall St

posted by dfriedman at 9:52 AM on February 19, 2010

Get an i-banking job. They love mathematicians.
posted by anniecat at 10:03 AM on February 19, 2010

"It's pure math with a focus on combinatorics and extremal graph theory (for those of you who know what that means, maybe that's helpful)."

Is there some reason you don't want to work for Google or other massive scale internet firms? Google I know loves to hire PhDs, and has offices in many places. Google's main enterprise is the analysis of graphs: pagerank, email correspondence, social networking, related videos on youtube, etc. The problem you'll have is that small firms don't generally have the foresight to hire academics.

Beyond that, combinatorics and crypto are related fields. Crypto is based on the premise that the encryption key is one needle in a very large combinatoric haystack. It's probably a lot easier to train a mathematician on the status quo than a programmer, given that obscure maths are involved and matter a great deal.
posted by pwnguin at 10:05 AM on February 19, 2010

Have you tried engineering a post-doc? Reach out to professors in you know.

If you're not against teaching high school, many private schools will hire Ph.D.s that don't have teaching certificates. If you get a teaching certification, public schools in many states pay more.

Graph theory is particularly useful for social network analysis. The government and companies with big research labs, like Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo are all places you should look. If you can show a vision of how your work or the skills you've developed can help the study of the evolution of social networks or how information flows through networks, you'll be very attractive to many. Start-ups with established networks would also be interested in someone like you - Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, Twitter, ...

I know May isn't far away, but for any industrial position it will be helpful if you can show a connection between your work and something relevant to that industry. For example, if you're looking to do social network analysis, it would be good to be somewhat familiar with the literature and perhaps even have a sketch of a theory paper that could advance social network analysis or shows previously unknown connections to your field.
posted by pogil at 10:13 AM on February 19, 2010

One of our programmers has a PHD in math. We make video games.

So learn how to program and get a job making games. :)
posted by Lord_Pall at 10:19 AM on February 19, 2010

This may be making your problem worse, but you might be interested to know about the Math Jobs Wiki (for research positions and teaching positions). These may give you more information about the state of the job market. But these may just depress you.
posted by madcaptenor at 10:33 AM on February 19, 2010

Response by poster: madcaptenor: I have seen that. Actually, checking it this morning is what made me post this question, as one of the places that I thought I had done really well with was scheduling campus interviews according to the Wiki. I didn't get one, and emailed the chair only to find out that they had made their "top choices". I was not among them.

To the rest of you: Thanks for the responses thus far. I don't have a lot of programming experience (only really basic java and perl), but I imagine I could pick it up more if I had to. I'll look into the bigger places like you guys mentioned. I'd rather not work directly for the gummint if I can avoid it, but hey, a job is a job.

I also have experience in cryptography in that I was the TA for the graduate level crypto class here at my university. So, I understand a lot of what goes on there pretty well, and I could change gears if need be.

Keep the suggestions coming if you have new ones, and thanks again for all the responses thus far.
posted by King Bee at 10:46 AM on February 19, 2010

It's a dreaded government job, but Census hires mathematicians (and I know math PhD who works there).
posted by MrMoonPie at 11:28 AM on February 19, 2010

This isn't a direct answer to your question, but I hope it's helpful: I finished my Ph.D. in pure math a few years back and was in the same position you're in now, and I received only rejections until the beginning of April (!!) when I got the temporary professorship I currently have. So I'd say that although it's certainly reasonable to start looking outside of academia for jobs, it's also too early to despair. Generally the way it works is that there are a relatively small number of fancy people from fancy schools that are being courted by lots of places, and it could take a little while for them to accept offers (note that the same people appear a number of times in the math jobs wiki). Once that happens, those of us lower on the lists will start getting looked at. (And when I say that we're lower on the list, this isn't meant to imply that we aren't good mathematicians -- it's just that I went to a big public school for grad school, and we simply aren't going to be competitive with people coming out of, say, MIT or Berkeley).

In fact, I'm currently in a similar position to you -- my temporary professorship ends this semester, and I'm on the job market as well; I've also been getting loads of rejections and no offers. It's certainly a nerve-wracking time, but there are still a few months left to go in the hiring cycle.
posted by Frobenius Twist at 11:52 AM on February 19, 2010

Are you applying for postdocs?
Are you following the math jobs wiki?

I was pleasantly surprised to find my campus career services department helpful for PhD folks. Maybe yours is too?

- ABD-in-arms
posted by k8t at 5:15 PM on February 19, 2010

Actually, I was gonna recommend the "wait and see, it's too early to despair" approach, as it probably is truth. It also will leave you near-broke for most of your career. Spend your time in industry, saving as much as you can, learning and doing as much as you can, and then transition to contracting gigs as you transition back to academia. You'll be wealthier, more confident and secure in your family's future(you'll wind up with one. It's weird, I know, but it happens almost out of the blue), and have more to teach once it's your time.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:23 PM on February 19, 2010

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