Which jobs in math are hardest to find?

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  • #1
It has been said many times and in many places that theoretical physics is a hard field to find a job in, relative to experimental physics. One can further break this assessment down into more groups, such as high-energy theory, gravitational theory, and so on to compare the difficulty in finding jobs in these fields.

I am wondering: what analogy can one construct for mathematics? I.e., what fields of mathematics are most difficult to find jobs? Obviously there must be fewer jobs in pure math than in applied math, but what pure math sub-fields have more scarcity of jobs? And is it harder to find a job in pure mathematics or in theoretical physics?

I've been accepted to a PhD program in theoretical physics and am happy to go, but if the job prospects end up looking especially poor for me I am thinking about changing to math after I get my master's degree in about two years. Would like to know what people think of this, as well (how hard it might be to switch to math after a MS in physics, and BS in both math/physics). Any thoughts?

Answers and Replies

  • #2
I would not do them in that order. Going from math to theoretical physics is much easier than going from physics to math. I don't know how 'mathy' your undergraduate degree was, but I know most Physics & Math students applying to my PhD program (which is in pure mathematics) had a hard time getting accepted because they were lacking some core mathematics.

If you are worried about job prospects, pure mathematics is not the field for you. Honestly, you can always get a job with an economics firm or something similar with a math PhD, but a PhD in theoretical physics is just as good for that.

In terms of academia, there aren't tons of pdfs and professorships available, especially tenure track, in mathematics. Again, especially not in pure mathematics. Geometry doesn't seem very popular anymore, especially classical geometry, although I'm sure some departments still have an interest in that. Knot theory isn't big anymore either... not sure what else specifically has fallen out of favor these days.
  • #3
I don't think math is as trendy as physics. But on the other hand, I do think there are hot fields and schools want to hire those researchers working in hot fields. And I think organizations like the NSF do follow trends in research. My field is differential geometry and geometric analysis, a relatively trendy field in light of Perelman's work on Hamilton's Ricci Flow. I looked up the NSF grants in geometry and a lot of them are for geometric flows (mean curvature, Ricci). I think the ability to get grants is a very important non-academic factor in the hiring process. Is this person able to get their own outside funding? That certainly helps the department and it helps attracting the best grad students also.

From when I was researching grad schools I think it's fair to say that some schools employ more of field X than in field Y. Very few schools in my opinion are strong in every field. For my field, it seems that there are not many geometric analysts and much more algebraic geometers nowadays. Algebraic geometry seems to have taken root as a standard field while geometric analysis seems to be considered an extension of differential geometry with crossover to PDEs.

However algebraic geometry on the whole seems to have exploded in the 10-15 years. I believe this is intimately linked to the rise of String Theory and how string theorists employ AG. A lot of results in AG were motivated and conjectured by physicists, for example Mirror Symmetry was not believed to be true by mathematicians but string theorists required it, and it turns out it is true.

Then there are fields like Logic, where only a handful of schools specialize in logic. Physics and math both have their level of trendiness, but physics seems to have bigger swings. The last few years seems to have been a transition from Strings to AdS/CFT correspondence.

I think overall, if you are a talented mathematician, you can find a job somewhere. The key seems to being able to establish your own independent research program, generate funding for that program from external sources and produce results. I think this is a good rubric for hiring tenure track positions.

What fields have good hiring rates is a question I would like to see answered. I would think Logic is way at the bottom. I think a good way to gauge is to see how many PhD granting universities have a sizable faculty dedicated to my field.

It seems with physics that doing multiple postdocs is not out of the questions and is standard. I think in math it is a bit different, doing one or two postdocs and then trying to land a tenure track position. I know a lot of professors at my school only did one postdoc and got a tenure track job. But physics seems to be a different game.
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  • #4
Science Advisor
If you want to work within financial mathematics it can be difficult to find work but still possible if you are a quality candidate.

I'm not sure about the other areas but I know that in the opposite field that stats is in very high demand at least here in Australia. I suspect it would be similar in other similar economies as well.