Math Tenure Track and other postdoc questions

In summary, the road to tenure is incredibly difficult and it takes more than just writing a good thesis to get a job.
  • #1
Since we seem to have a few professors and grad students on this forum, I was hoping to open a discussion on the current employment trends in math academia. It seems as is the road to tenure is incredibly difficult and it takes more than just writing a good thesis to get a job.

I am posting from a cold, academic job hunting point of view, no other considerations will come into play, at least in my post. I love research and I love reading new papers, but that's not all that goes into employment.

Correct me if I'm wrong but the path to tenure seems to be:
Finish your PhD => Get a postdoc => Perhaps do another postdoc => Try to land a tenure track position => Publish a fair number of articles, do well enough on student-teacher evaluations to be deemed at least passable as a teacher => obtain tenure after 4 or 5 years.

That's 6 + 2 + 2 + 5 = 15 years from the start of graduate school to the day you receive tenure. I'm using 2 years to complete postdocs because some postdocs are one year and others are three, so I'm averaging them.

I pretty much knew the road to academia is a brutal road as many of my professors have told me so, in particular the younger professors as I never worked with "full rank" professors before. Most of my professors got their PhDs during or after 1990.

I'm not whining or crying as to why this process is so long and difficult. While there could be some changes, it is what it is. Everyone says that when the Baby Boomers retire from their jobs, more jobs will open up. It seems that we are not getting this jump in retirements, it's being strung out.

Of course my goal is to obtain tenure at a research institution, but I am very adamant on honing my teaching skills. I don't want to give anything half effort, and I'm going to be a TA at some point of my graduate training, I want to be a good one. There are also some non-altruistic reasons for this of course. If I can't get a job at a research institution, I'd be more than happy to teach at an undergrad focused institution, and they will require me to have a strong teaching record.

I have been trying to find some blogs or websites from students who have dropped out of math PhD programs. Not because I plan on dropping out of graduate school, but I want to hear the difficulties others have experience while in graduate school. I found one from a former Berkeley undergrad who went to UCLA on an NSF fellowship and flunked out in the first year. They said that they realized in their senior year of undergrad how much they hated research and it was too late to back out of it. Who really has the foresight to turn down an NSF fellowship at UCLA a priori? This is indeed a tough situation.

(1) Are there any students who dropped out of a grad program? And if so, what was the purpose of dropping out? Was it a good job offer? Sick of research? Not a good fit?

(2) Are there any current undergrads who are not aware of the difficulties of grad school and tenure? There seem to be many stories of undergrads being overwhelmed in grad school and flunking out. I think most math PhD programs have a 30-40% dropout rate, meaning not getting a PhD and either leaving outright or with a terminal masters. I was aware of the situation and the whole career path but I decided to pursue it anyway.

(3) What is alarming to me, is hearing about math PhDs applying to over 100 postdoc positions and only getting 2 or 3 interviews. There seems to be a few students every year that are the rising stars in their fields, the can't miss grads. But there are also a lot of other talented students.

Does anyone know how the hiring process works? Let's say candidate A did a very good thesis in his field but they did not come from a top level program and candidate B did a good thesis but came from a big name program. Who gets the job? They are both going to have a good letters of recommendations. What is the only real way to separate them? Who wrote their letters of recommendations? How often is a student's thesis read or even browsed during this whole process?

Thanks, I eagerly await your replies.
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  • #2
Have you read the book A mathematician's survival Guide by Steven Krantz? It will answer a few of your questions.
  • #3
Yes I own a copy. I was hoping I could get some input from people who are current grads or professors in the context of today's economy and academic situation. There was a New York Times article about the decline of university and a standard liberal arts program. If less people are forced to take calculus, how can you justify all those math TAs? Then where will funding come from? Inevitably grad programs will have to be cut if large freshman liberal arts courses are no longer required. This might be for the better or the worse, I'm not sure yet. Perhaps the quality of program will go up if there are fewer students, perhaps the opposite will happen.

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