Hunting for a Job in Math Academia: Job Interview Advice

This page was revised quite a bit on 12/15/2007 and then a little bit more on 6/22/09. On 8/28/11 I revised the Preface a bit to reflect the current state of the job market.

Preface: I first wrote this web page in April/May of 1997, after finishing my Ph.D. in math and successfully searching for a job. I had five on-campus job interviews that semester which resulted in one tenure-track offer (at Merrimack College, which I took) and one visiting position offer (which I turned down).

That was over 10 years ago, and since then I've applied for a few other jobs (when thinking about relocating for personal reasons) and have been on several search committees at Merrimack. In 2008 I applied for, received, and accepted a job at Western New England University, where I am now an associate professor.

Also, the academic job market in mathematics has fluxuated since 1997. For example, in 96-97 I think there were only about 50-60 employers interviewing at the AMS/MAA Joint Meetings. At the 2001 Joint Meetings there were something like 150. At the 2007 Joint Meetings there were 129. (The AMS reports this data every year.) Thus, the advice here might not be entirely applicable, and those on the market should gather data (like how many employers there are interviewing at the Joint Meetings this year) to get some kind of idea about how tight or loose the job market is. Then one can modify any advice (like this web page) accordingly. For example, if there seem to be a larger number of jobs this year, and if you get a job offer early (say, in January or even December), then there's a very good chance that you'll get other offers later. Thus, you might want to only take the early job offer if you think the school is a good fit for you.

In any case, be aware that the following "advice" was mostly written in 1997, when the job market was pretty bad. Actually, the job market is even worse now, in 2011. But there are also more resources available, like the Mathematics Jobs Wiki and to see what the market is like. The advent of MathJobs, in particular, has changed the landscape a bit. Almost all tenure-track math positions use this site, and so it has become much easier for applicants to just apply to all possible jobs by just making a few clicks. Seriously. Before MathJobs a tenure-track opening at a small college would get 250 applications. Now, using MathJobs, such a position will get over 600 applications! Think about that. Imagine that you're on a search committee and have to read that many applications. What's the chance that you'll be able to look at every application with the same fresh eyes?

I strongly recommend against simply applying to all jobs on MathJobs. It wastes everyone's time if you do this. Apply only to those schools that fit what you're looking for. Furthermore, do not apply to MathJobs listings the minute that they appear. Take some time to read the ad carefully, research the school, and customize your cover letter to that school (using some of the advice that I give below). Many schools won't even consider applications that don't have customized cover letters, especialy if they're getting over 600 applications!

Also, do not, I repeat DO NOT submit your application on MathJobs at the last minute! Again, put yourself in the shoes of the school getting the applications. Each one of these schools will be getting a big surge of applications right before the deadline. Do you want your application to be lost in this huge rush? No? Then submit your materials at least 1 week before the school's deadline.

The academic job application process is enormously intense. If you're about to undertake it, there's lots to learn. If you've recently gone through it, there's lot of advice that can be shared.

Many people who embark on this journey start with the opinion, "If I could only get some interviews, I'll be all set!" While this is a comforting thing to think at the start, one needs to keep in mind that a lot of preparation goes into a successful job interview. In many ways it represents your indoctrination into the politics of academic departments and administrations. This can be very intimidating, if not downright depressing. But a bit of forethought can go a long way.

This article presents advice and strategies that I picked up during my first job hunt, subsequent job searches, and having been on the other side of the table as a search committee member. It represents tips collected from a myriad of faculty, fellow grad students, and friends both in and outside the mathematical community. I hope you find it useful.

For more information on the job application process as a whole, see the web site of the Young Mathematicians Network. Also, there was a great MAA Project NExT Panel Discussions on An Introduction to the Hiring Process: Preparation, Execution, and Follow-up which includes a lot of advice, both for jobs-seekers and employers. I highly recommend it.

Note: This overview is written from the perspective of someone whose aim was to land a job at a liberal arts teaching college or university. While much of the advice given here is universal, those who want to shoot for a research-based career path should modify these suggestions for their own needs.

Round One: The Joint Meetings of the AMS/MAA

This is the biggest math conference of the year in the US, and is held annually during winter break (early January). The AMS runs an employment register at this meeting, as well as tables for schools to conduct interviews on their own. Note that historically, most of the schools that conduct interviews there are small, liberal arts colleges, as opposed to big research universities. Thus those looking to teach at 4-year colleges and already have good teaching experience can do very well at this employment register.

The atmosphere surrounding interviews and interviewees can be totally tense! But you can turn it around into a fun and enjoyable experience if you plan ahead.


That last one is very important. PRACTICE talking about stuff like this with your office mates and fellow grad students. In particular, practice answering...



At the AMS/MAA meeting, your interviews will be short, so you don't have a lot of time to ask them questions. Think ahead and choose your questions carefully.


Round Two: The Campus Interview

Campus interviews for faculty positions are all-day sessions, usually involving an overnight stay. They can last 11+ hours, during which you'll meet all the department faculty, chat with a dean, meet with students, as well as give a 45-50 minute talk. It can be incredibly draining, not to mention nerve-wracking. So be prepared.



Same as above, with the addition of
- Do you have any questions?
Come prepared with lots of GOOD questions. This makes you look organized and smart.



Some schools will arrange for you to meet with math majors, or even have lunch with them. The students won't know what to ask you, so you'll have to be very "on" for this. Just remember what it's like to be an undergrad, and act appropriately. Ask them what their favorite/least favorite classes are. Talk about grad school. Get some departmental dirt out of them.


You might not know what to say to a dean, but remember that the only reason why you're there is so that the dean can put a face to the name when they hire you. The dean can be likely to ask you pointed questions about whether or not you'll graduate on time, the quality of your research, or how much money you want. Be friendly throughout, always putting a positive spin on things. It helps to have a few questions prepared of your own:

Note on the "salary question": I strongly recommend preparing yourself for any questions about salary that a Dean or Provost might ask. Here's the thing: If a department chair asks you questions about salary (like, "What salary are you looking for?") s/he is probably trying to get a feel for whether or not they can afford you. Think about it. If the school has competitive salaries, they would not be asking this question! So if a chair asks you this question, you should just be reassuring that you're not going to be basing your job decisions on just salary.

But if an administrator (Dean, Provost) asks this kind of question, it means something very different. Any discussion with an administrator about salary is, in reality, the beginning of negotiations. Yes, it is ridiculous to think about it in this way before you even have a job offer! But it's true. Part of a Dean/Provost's job is to get the best faculty they can as cheaply as they can. If you tell them that you'd be happy to make 40K/year, and their typical starting salary is 45K, then they'll probably offer you only 40-41K. Therefore, resist giving administrators a salary figure that would "make you happy." You can do this by turning the question around on them by saying, "Well, what's your salary range for assistant professors in math?" Or you could play naive: "Oh, I'm just finishing graduate school. I have no clue what a good salary would be! What do your other starting faculty make?" Or you could just be frank: "Give me a job offer first, if you want to hire me. Then we can talk salary."

These kind of questions from Deans and Provosts are incredibly unfair, since most people coming out of grad school will have no clue how to answer them or how to play this kind of political/negotiating game. But you can protect yourself if you stick with the game plan:

You want them to make you a job offer, so an interview is the time for making them want to hire you, not the time for negotiations. (See also the comments in the Negotiating section of Round Three.)


Make sure you know exactly what type of lecture they're looking for. Most liberal arts schools ask you to give a 45-50 minute talk that should be accessible to junior-senior level undergrads. (But you still want it to be interesting to the faculty!) Some schools ask you to give two talks, one for undergrads and one for the faculty (rare). Other schools will ask you to give a "guest lecture" to an actual class. (That can take more work and be more challenging. If you're asked to do that make sure you exchange a lot of emails with the faculty whose class you'll be teaching about what you need to do, how the students are, and so on.)

If you can, ask them if you can give your talk early in the day, like before noon. This is because they usually schedule your talk around 4pm, after you've been meeting people all day and your energy reserves are low. (Time for that granola bar!) But usualy your talk will be scheduled for the afternoon, when more students and faculty will have a chance to attend.

Your talk is the chance for the whole department to check you out, where you might be making the biggest impression. So put a LOT of thought into your lecture. Pull out all the stops. This is why it's important to PRACTICE beforehand, like in grad student seminars or at conferences. Try to make your talk showcase what you'd be like as a teacher. If you usually use handouts and incorporate active learning in your classes, try doing this during your talk.


Don't order spaghetti, or anything that might mess up your suit!


It is a jungle out there. Job interviews can drain all of your energy. After my first interview I needed a whole day to recover. The novelty can keep your spirits up for the first two or three, but after that you run the risk of getting tired. The fifth interview can feel like just going through the motions - a sure way to not get the job. If you're the envy of all and get lots of interviews, it will pay to be selective.

Round Three: After the Interview

One friend of mine got an early interview and they offered him the job right away. Another friend took five interviews before getting an offer. I know of one person who was offered the job at the end of her interview! (This is very unusual - don't expect it to happen to you!) It took me four interviews before my first offer. Getting an interview and then not getting an offer can be incredibly demoralizing. Waiting by the phone can be hell.

The important thing is to try, I mean really try to not take the lack of an offer personally. You're entering into the arena of academic politics when applying for a job. You just might be the very best candidate for the position, but inter-departmental politics cause someone else to get the offer. Or perhaps one very vocal person kept you from getting the job because he/she wanted someone in a different research area. There are a million possible reasons why you didn't get the offer, and most of them are not personal.

But do remember that everyone you meet during your interviews is a colleague, whom you're likely to meet again at a conference one day. Burn no bridges! If you get the dreaded, "Sorry, we offered the job to someone else, and they accepted," phone call, be gracious and polite. Feel free to ask them what you could have done better - you may find that you did nothing wrong at all, and that they hired someone else for reasons having nothing to do with you. (Which they won't tell you.)

I had one interview at the AMS/MAA Employment Register where the interviewer fell in love with me, saying that they'd definitely be calling me up soon to arrange a campus interview. I never heard from them again. There's absolutely no reason to mull over things like this - it's beyond your control. Just shake it off, move on, and focus on the schools that are interested in you.


If you get a job offer, usually you'll be contacted by a Dean over the phone and she/he will tell you that you got the job. This is when the "negotiating" phase starts. They should tell you what your starting salary is and offer you other incentives (hopefully) to take the job.

The most important thing to remember at this phase is that you have control now. The school and/or Dean (or even the department chair) will pressure you to commit yourself to the job ASAP. Typically they'll tell you that they're giving you a week to decide. That is, they're putting pressure on you.

But realize that the only reason they're doing this is because they WANT you! So you really are in the driver's seat. Don't let this go to your head, though. You should try to negotiate, but there may be only so much you can do. For instance, you can (and should) ask for more money, but you only have leverage if you have another offer in hand which is offering more money. And even then it might not work if the school really can't increase the salary offer. (For example, many schools have starting salary levels "set in stone" because of agreements with their Facuty Senate or something. In such cases, the Dean will not budge.)

But everything should be on the table. First of all, it's not an official job offer unless it's put in writing. Do not let a school pressure you into accepting an offer when you don't have it in writing! In fact, if nothing is in writing it would be entirely acceptable for you to "take" the offer and then keep interviewing with other schools to see if a better offer comes up. Only when you agree and/or sign something in writing are both you and the school fully committed. We've all heard of horror stories where someone was given a job offer which was then taken away when the school suddenly faced a financial crisis. Unless you have a legally binding document guaranteeing you the job, you shouldn't take yourself off the market.

That said, you shouldn't jerk the school around, either. At one extreme, you should NOT agree to take a job and then renege on the offer. If you've actually signed something (or sent an email committing yourself to the job), then the college could press charges for breaking a contract. It might be unlikely, but you would be really screwing that math department over, since they'd have already told their other applicants that the position was filled.

Less extreme would be to try to push the school's "deadline" by weeks and weeks. This is also unfair to the school, since if you make them wait for three weeks and then turn them down, they've probably lost the chance to get their other top candidates.

On the other hand, recently I have heard (circa 2007) that there have been some schools that try to do their campus interviews very early, like in December, so they can make an offer before the Joint Meetings! I think this is incredibly irresponsible. How can a school expect a job candidate to consider an offer before the person has had a chance to even talk to other schools at the Joint Meetings? If you find yourself in the position of getting such an early interview and/or job offer, understand that this means other schools will be very interested in you as well. Only take such an early offer if you really like the school above all other options you could (and probably would) get.

For me, the negotiation phase was one of the most uncomfortable parts of landing a job. In the end I made sure that I would be given the kind of computer I wanted and that my teaching load for the first semester was decent. Salary was not negotiable, and they didn't have any moving expense money they could give me (but that's often a good thing to ask for, especially if you have to move across the country).

Another note on salaries: I do recommend that, in pretty much all situations, you ask for a higher salary during job offer negotiations. (Like, if they offer you 48K, say you'd like 51K and see what they do.) My reasons for suggesting this are two-fold: First, it's a matter of principle. Most faculty do not get paid enough, partly because Deans and Provosts are supposed to keep salaries as low as possible. Asking for higher salaries upon being hired helps "fight the good fight" in terms of letting administrators know that we should all be paid more. But the main reason to ask for more money is that this could be the ONLY chance you'll have to significantly increase your salary for a good, long time. Most schools have very rigid policies for salary raises (which you should ask about during your interview or negotiations!) and thus you might not see another significant raise until you get tenure or promotion. All schools do this sort of thing differently, but annual raises and merit pay might only amount to small raises every year at many schools.

Also, why not ask for more money? The worst thing that could happen is the Dean or Provost says, "No," and you'll just have to take the offered salary if you want the job. If they made you an offer, they won't take it away just because you asked for more money. And trust me, if you don't ask for more money you'll be kicking yourself forever afterwards for not even trying.

Well, I hope this was a help. Good luck on your job hunt. Feel free to send me any advice you have, or criticize my suggestions! Email:

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