Math PhD with trouble getting academic job in US. What next?
April 12, 2010 8:47 AM   Subscribe

I'm getting a PhD in math (very soon!) and having trouble getting a job. Help?

I'm a graduate student in math. I defend my dissertation on Thursday. Awesome, right? I'll be Dr. madcaptenor, I get to wear a funny hat, and so on.

Well, no, because I don't have a job. I mostly applied for postdoctoral positions (titled such things as "visiting assistant professor") and a few tenure-track jobs. Total number of applications was about 130, scattered across the US, to basically any department where there is at least some research activity and people doing at least one of combinatorics and probability. (My interests lie on the borderline between the two.) In the end I got one interview, for a postdoc -- it turned out, in the end, I was their second choice. I got short-listed at a couple other places but not close enough to actually have some sort of interview. I'm still getting rejection letters, so the season isn't over yet. And my advisor is asking around at places where he knows people, in case some late opening turns up. But it's time to figure out plan B.

The advice I'm getting (from, say, my advisor) is to try to apply for postdocs in Europe, especially since there are a good number of people doing what I do there. This is terrifying to me. In the end I was choosing between two graduate schools, one in the East Coast city I grew up in and one on the West Coast. I chose the Eastern one in large part because a cross-country move scared me. There were academic reasons for making this decision, but part of it was that I wanted to stay close to home. I'm willing to do a cross-country move now -- my best prospects right now for an academic job are out there -- but Europe?

Here's what scares me about Europe:
- other than England, they speak a different language there. I took French in high school and can still read it but can't speak it. Sure, all my colleagues would be English-speaking (or so I'm told), but do I really want to be somewhere where I can't speak to anybody outside of work?
- I don't want to move there permanently. A few years would be nice. But could I come back and get an academic job in the US afterwards?

(Actually, the geography is a bit of an issue for me even if I stay in the US. Unfortunately I'd have very little control about where I live -- that's just how academia works.)

So, my first real question: What should I know about taking a postdoc in Europe?

So instead I might apply for non-academic jobs. But the problem there is that I don't know what I can do. Everyone who's ever given me a paycheck has done so in an academic setting. My summer job between freshman and sophomore year, and between sophomore and junior year, were in chemistry labs -- I double majored in mathematics and chemistry -- and my job the summer between junior and senior year was math research (sort of like an REU, but something I arranged independently with a professor). Those summers during my graduate program that I've had money coming in have been from teaching summer courses.

I like statistics but I don't really have any training in it; secretly my dream job is being Nate Silver. I think I could learn to code but right now I just hack things together in Maple. I mention these because these seem to be the big things that are useful as qualifications for "real-world" use of mathematics. As I said my mathematical interests are mostly in combinatorics and probability, which probably aren't the least useful things for making money but aren't the most useful either. I'd like to be doing something that actually feels like I'm being useful to the human race somehow but I have trouble saying what I mean by that.

and my second real question: What might I be able to do outside of academia?
posted by madcaptenor to Work & Money (31 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I'm in the same boat as you. I already asked your second question, pretty much. The answers weren't terribly helpful because I don't think most of the responders were familiar with my research area.

If you want to stay in academia, I'm getting the feeling you'll need a postdoc or temporary position at this point, then move on from there.

What area do you do research in? My ear is still to the ground, and I just came back from an AMS meeting yesterday. MeMail me if you want to discuss things a little more in detail and privately.
posted by King Bee at 8:51 AM on April 12, 2010

Have you considered all the places that what you do might be useful in an applied way? For example, we are a wave energy research facility but we employ postdoc mathematicians for our modelling.

Looking in the UK for academic situations vacant:

Times Higher Education

Guardian jobs

Of which the first two are the more academic specific.
posted by biffa at 8:53 AM on April 12, 2010

Response by poster: If you look a bit more closely you'll see that I answered your second question (not terribly helpfully).
posted by madcaptenor at 8:54 AM on April 12, 2010

Indeed. I was already well aware of the wiki at that point, but doesn't answer the question about what to do outside of academia.

There are new positions opening up all the time right now. They're all temporary positions and what not. For instance, UC Riverside has 6 open positions (they're all teaching based).
posted by King Bee at 8:56 AM on April 12, 2010

Also, I'm an idiot, sorry. We both do research in combinatorics and probability, so we're probably actually competing for the same positions. =)
posted by King Bee at 8:57 AM on April 12, 2010


Not sure if it will be your cup of tea but financial institutions hire lots of Math and physics PhDs.

DE Shaw, for example, was founded by a computer scientist and, for a while was considered even more selective an employer than either Goldman Sachs or Google.
posted by dfriedman at 9:03 AM on April 12, 2010

Response by poster: I'm keeping my eye open for temporary positions. But then I'll just be asking this question again next year.
posted by madcaptenor at 9:04 AM on April 12, 2010

Response by poster: Is finance really still an option? I've heard that between the crash in the economy and the opening up of degree programs actually geared towards getting that sort of job, that field isn't as easy to break into as it used to be. I actually took a couple (more mathematical) classes in the area and it seems like it might be intellectually interesting to me but I'm not sure how I'd feel about the culture.

Incidentally, someone in my department, a year ahead of me, worked at DE Shaw for a year between undergrad and grad school; he's now a postdoc at Columbia.
posted by madcaptenor at 9:07 AM on April 12, 2010

This is not precisely on point, because I went to Europe (specifically the UK because like you, I am most comfortable in English) for a master's degree, not as a post doc. But although I was nervous as all get out and I missed my loved ones, it was an amazing opportunity & when I returned everyone commented on how I'd grown/changed/improved. It was a fantastic experience, living abroad, and I highly recommend it. There were a number of foreign grad students/PhD students/TAs/post grads and they all seemed to be very happy.
posted by pointystick at 9:09 AM on April 12, 2010

Have you considered the NSA?
posted by cgs06 at 9:17 AM on April 12, 2010

I'm keeping my eye open for temporary positions. But then I'll just be asking this question again next year.

I'm in the same boat as you. In fact, I applied to those UC Riverside positions, as did everyone else on the math academic job market, I'm sure; and I'm also weighing the pros and cons of looking at European jobs. However, if you did get a temporary position, you'd be in a better position next year for jobs -- you'd have more experience, and hopefully more publications. Also, the job market next year can only be better . . . right?

As for what sorts of jobs you can get outside of academia, the NSA hires lots of mathematicians, and I've heard (only from second-hand sources though) that mathematicians who have gone to the NSA are happy there.
posted by Frobenius Twist at 9:21 AM on April 12, 2010

Ha! Well played, cgs06.
posted by Frobenius Twist at 9:21 AM on April 12, 2010

Put this question on the Academic jobs wiki in math.

Do a little CBT on yourself - if the Euro postdoc sucks, you quit. Why not give it a shot?

- fellow ABD
posted by k8t at 9:23 AM on April 12, 2010

Regarding finance and math PhDs: get in touch with the Metafilter member named Mutant. He works in a more quantitatively oriented area of finance than I and can apprise you of job opportunities and cultural issues.
posted by dfriedman at 9:27 AM on April 12, 2010

Nth-ing the NSA. My academic advisor, who currently does research in biology, worked for the NSA for a bit and has nothing but wonderful things to say about them (although, honestly, she isn't allowed to say a lot about it). This is also an example of how you don't have to dedicate your life to the NSA forever -- there are other opportunities that open up after working for them.

All academic job markets are in horrible shape. I'm graduating this spring as well in biology, and I just got another two rejection emails this morning. However, I am seeing evidence that funding will return to Universities in <>
Post-docs in Europe -- try not to worry about the language. Everyone you work with will, most likely, communicate in English. If you make the effort to talk to either them or 100% of everyone outside of work in their native language, you will learn the language naturally over the course of a year (or less time). Yes, it is a scary and potentially lonely 6 months to a year, but after that the language issue should dissolve away.
posted by Peter Petridish at 9:31 AM on April 12, 2010

In Europe, English is the first language in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Ireland. Have you thought about those countries?
posted by jpcooper at 9:34 AM on April 12, 2010

Check out biotech companies. What with all the new-fangled technology like gene chips, there are truckfuls of information coming in, and most of us biologists aren't trained to sort through and categorize this information. In fact, the (academic) lab where I work has hired a mathematician to help us with our microchip results.

Best of luck!
posted by Knowyournuts at 10:03 AM on April 12, 2010

In Sweden, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands and Switzerland most local people speak fluent English, so you could converse with virtually everyone outside work.

You could include those countries in your search too.

Don't forget Australia, South Africa and New Zealand too.
posted by knz at 10:27 AM on April 12, 2010

Best answer: I can't speak too much from the academic side, but some things you should know about Europe that might reduce your anxieties:
1) First and foremost, that it takes as long to travel by airplane from BOS/JFK to say LAX as it does to Paris or London. That means you will have just as much plane time on probably equally competitive/travelled routes.

2) The official language may be something else, and it would behoove you to learn it as well as a great feather in your qualifications cap, BUT in general Europe has much higher education levels in foreign languages, especially English. In some countries, almost everyone with a solid education speaks great English. Here I'd count Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, Iceland... at least these. I'm sure someone will add another one. And yes, your colleagues, especially in an academic field, will definitely speak English (and probably something else, besides). There's another tier of countries where your colleagues will speak well, but you'll have more fragmented conversations with waiters, cab drivers, etc. But no matter where you go, especially in academics, there will be other foreigners, and English is a fantastic lingua franca.

Does that help allay your worries? If not yet, have you talked with other alums who have gone the European route? You should be able to find some through your alumni office, or through the universities you want to apply to.

(American, living in France, not academic)
posted by whatzit at 10:47 AM on April 12, 2010

Response by poster: k8t: "Put this question on the Academic jobs wiki in math." I'm not sure what you're talking about. If you mean this math jobs wiki it's not really a place to ask questions. Is there some other resource I don't know about?

whatzit: your points about language make sense, and it's much better to hear them from someone who's actually in Europe; a lot of the time I just hear "oh, everyone in Europe speaks English anyway" from people who have no idea what they're talking about. (And like I said, I wouldn't be totally lost in French.) And I'm not opposed to learning another language; it's just that I have so many other things to learn. I haven't talked to anybody who's done this, and it might be a good idea.
posted by madcaptenor at 12:05 PM on April 12, 2010

For those whose memory it slipped, Malta also has English as an official language, and close times between its academy and the UK.
posted by biffa at 1:21 PM on April 12, 2010

Hedge funds!
posted by mrhappy at 2:18 PM on April 12, 2010

Best answer: TBH, I would have thought that by default, postdoc in your field would involve at least some time in Europe. That is, as far as I can see from my peeks into academia, where most of that field of research occurs.

As someone who has never gotten the hang of any natural language except English (Italian doesn't count; sans dialects, it's artificial, and artificial languages are just fine) and is looking at spending significant time in Europe over the next decade or so for my career - well. There are a lot of near-native english speakers around up there. Most of my colleagues in academia had English as a second language ... even the ones resident in the country of their birth in Germany, for instance. And, according to others who have travelled more widely than I, you can get along in most countries, although it is polite to at least try the native language of the country you're in.

Social isolation? Academia is a large place, and not everyone you come into contact with will be your colleague, or workmate, although they will probably be a peer. Also there's all the ex-pats who are over there because it's the only place to do research in whatever field, which also have quite a lot of community as far as I know.

Anyway - it's worth a good chance, or you could take a temp position somewhere and think about it for longer.

(and yeah. I'm totally terrified of moving to Europe - I currently live 10km from where I was born, and that's about as far as I've ever lived away. But well, joys of my chosen career ...)
posted by ysabet at 3:51 PM on April 12, 2010

Don't go to Paris unless you know you'll have a very strong support network there. It's one of the world's tough cities.

The rest of France should be fine though. And languages are not as hard to learn as you think, just get some Pimsleur CDs and learn them all thoroughly and that will be enough to start you off. By the time your contract is up you'll be fluent in whatever it is.

I would be scared working in Europe too, because for the moment I prefer to stick close to home. But if you have no other choice, rest assured that there's nothing objectively hazardous about most of Europe and you'll come back in a year as a sophisticated man of the world. And with lots of great contacts in your network.

As to why you're making so many applications with so little success, I have to wonder if there's something wrong with the way you're applying. Could a more experienced colleague check through your next application before you send it? Because I can't see what's wrong with your interests or qualifications, and a ratio of 130 applications to 1 interview is far beyond the worst thing I've experienced in my entire career. It could be something as simple as a typo somewhere in your CV.
posted by tel3path at 4:36 PM on April 12, 2010

Response by poster: Rather unfortunately, the one person I'd really want to work with, if location were no object, is in Paris.

And I realize that there's nothing objectively hazardous about Europe. (Sorry if I've offended any European Mefites!) It's just that it's not where I'm from, and I'm having trouble getting over that.
posted by madcaptenor at 4:43 PM on April 12, 2010

Have you considered applying to Maplesoft?
posted by valoius at 8:48 PM on April 12, 2010

At this very moment, I'm on a three month study abroad working on algebraic combinatorics with a professor in Paris. It's a really, really great way to make connections with people who do great work but don't cross oceans that often. The number of people doing any particular field of math in the world is really small, so it helps to travel and meet more of your potential collaborators. My adviser works regularly with people from Japan and France. (She actually travelled California->Japan->Germany->France->California on this last trip, thus circumnavigating the globe.)

It _is_ scary to go abroad, but it's absolutely worth it, both personally and professionally! (I think. I am, after all, still just a grad student, who will be starting the job hunt myself some months from now.)
posted by kaibutsu at 12:02 AM on April 13, 2010

Don't go to Paris unless you know you'll have a very strong support network there. It's one of the world's tough cities

If by tough you mean the guys under 30 like big "diamond" earrings and pants at their knees doing the gangstah walk, yeah. If you mean tough like slick as dog shit with eau de pissss, yeah. If you mean tough like Frogger, hell yeah.

But the people in Paris are no worse than New Yorkers: cold in a large group, and fine when you start talking to them. The student scene and international crowd is large and diverse. Don't let such reputations scare you away from cool opportunities (or your only opportunities); go get the advice of people who are doing it. Go visit some of the professors, post-docs, and campuses. Then if you think Paris is awful, don't go.
posted by whatzit at 12:14 PM on April 13, 2010

Best answer: By tough I mean that it can be extremely difficult to do the things you need to do in order to live. The first time around, when I was 19 and on an assistantship, I had tremendous difficulty with things like opening a bank account without which I couldn't get paid; without getting into detail I faced a lot of hostility and feet dragging at every turn and I ended up having to drop out because I wasn't able to get my life in order. The other girl at my school also dropped out along with I believe 3 others on the same Paris program that year.

Of course a 19-year-old is much less able to cope than someone of grad student age, and anyway 19-year-olds live in a much more hostile world than over-25s do, in Paris or out of it. The next time I worked there I was 27, I had a job that provided me with accommodation, access to a phone, and a pay rate high enough to live on, and I was able to use my UK bank account. So I didn't go there and have to try to put my life together from scratch, and needless to say it was a much less stressful experience even taking my maturity levels into account.

It really all depends on how much you can get organized before you go there, and how much of a community you know you're going to have. If you know everything's in place and allies are there for you before you arrive, you could get through a year in Paris with no serious problems. So I don't want to put you off looking into the opportunities you've found there, I do however advise against flying by the seat of your pants when planning any aspect of your stay.
posted by tel3path at 3:45 PM on April 14, 2010

In our economy it does allow us the freedom to take risk, or in many cases now we are forced to take them. I say go to Europe, what do you have to lose? Life is all about experience and the knowledge of life in general that you will gain could carry you a long way in the future. Best of luck.
posted by NewPTGrad at 10:26 AM on April 18, 2010

Response by poster: I got a job! But thanks for your help. Want to help me out, and know something about the Bay Area? See here.
posted by madcaptenor at 8:28 AM on May 2, 2010

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