Interviews and offers

I’ve been on the job market full-time for the last 6 weeks or so, and I’ve finally settled on my destination: Starting this August, I’ll be a tenure-track assistant professor at The Ohio State University. My wife and I are very excited to move to Columbus!

Ohio-State-Logo

I wanted to document my process for applying, interviewing and negotiating. I’ll probably refer to this blog post later when I give advice to a future PhD student or postdoc.

1. More offers make a better selection

My goal was to get the most attractive offer possible. Of course, different people have different notions of attractiveness, but there’s still an objective function to optimize. The main point is that you will be more satisfied if there are more options on the table. Not only are you maximizing over a larger set, the offers will compete with each other, and so you can auction for better offers. If you have more than two offers, it might be a little confusing how to maintain the auction — more on that later.

2. # offers \leq # interviews \leq # applications

You won’t get an offer for a job you don’t interview for, and you won’t interview for a job you don’t apply for (though my friends did see a few exceptions to these rules). That means you should cast the widest net possible. For me, I would have been happy at any math department in the US that’s sufficiently well ranked. My constraints actually made it particularly easy to cast a wide net: I put together a spreadsheet of all the sufficiently well-ranked schools, and I kept my eye on MathJobs.org. The spreadsheet helped me keep track of the due dates for applications, and I documented my progress to make sure I didn’t miss any opportunities. All told, I applied to 43 different positions.

Note: While you ought to cast the widest net possible, it’s not worth wasting everyone’s time by applying for jobs that you’re not actually interested in. Discerning your interest requires a bit of personal reflection.

3. Maximize the probability of scoring an interview

Of the 43 positions I applied to, I was asked to interview for 7. I’m told there are several factors that go into whether you’re selected for an interview. Perhaps the biggest factor is what the department is looking for. This year, data science seemed to be a priority for several schools, and that probably helped my package. Another thing that helps is knowing someone in the department. Since it’s so easy to apply for a job these days (think MathJobs.org), each department gets hundreds of applications to sort though. If you know anyone in the department, let them know you’re applying, and they’ll fish your application out of the stack (this helped me in 4 of the 7 departments I interviewed at).

For the record, here’s the package I submitted in my applications:

(The cover letter varied from school to school so as to mention who in the department has similar research interests. I think this helped me in 2 of the 3 departments I interviewed at where I didn’t personally know anyone.)

When evaluating your package, the hiring committee probably considers your CV and recommendation letters first. Do they recognize your PhD institution? How productive have you been since the PhD? Do they recognize your letter writers? Granted, these aren’t things you can control when applying. What you can control is how your package is displayed. I tried to make my CV as easy to navigate as possible (e.g., big section headings).

You have much more flexibility in your research and teaching statements. I used pictures to illustrate the main themes in my research statement, with captions that don’t require context. That way, the hiring committee could focus on the pictures to get the gist (their eye is naturally drawn to the picture anyways, so this makes the picture useful, instead of a distraction). If the reader actually delves into the text, he should learn that the research problem is very important, and that your contribution has been significant. Be aware that the reader will likely be far removed from your area of expertise. The tone should mimic the Science section of the New York Times if possible. The teaching statement was perhaps less important for the positions I applied for. Good points to make include experience guiding undergraduate research and perspective on curriculum.

After writing these statements, I made an effort to seek as much feedback as possible. My goal was to impress the hiring committee, so I wanted to make sure these statements were written well.

4. Leverage buzz to score more interviews

Before going on the market, I was told by three different people (each of whom were recently successful in scoring a good offer) that I should update the Mathematics Jobs Wiki religiously. Once you score about 3 interviews, if they are documented on the wiki, then other institutions will take notice and fish out your application if they haven’t done so already. I have no idea how many interviews I got because of this, but I have no doubt it helped. Whenever I interviewed at a place, someone almost invariably mentioned the wiki and how I seemed to be performing well. At the very least, the wiki generated some level of excitement and a “fear of missing out” that was perhaps missing in my competition.

5. Study for your interview

Within a couple of days of the interview, ask for an agenda. This will detail who you’ll be meeting with and when. Make an effort to visit everyone’s webpage. Find out what they’re researching. Perhaps they have hobbies they’re proud of. Come up with something to chat about. You need to fill at least 30 minutes to talk with each person, and you don’t want it to be awkward. Make it fun for them, and they will have a positive impression of you. Academics typically like to talk about themselves, so give them the opportunity. You also want to demonstrate your interest in them, the department, the location, etc. Here are some example questions to ask:

  • I read on your website that you have a recent paper on XYZ. I’ve thought a little about this, and I was wondering about ABC. What do you think?
  • My research tends to lie on the boundary between pure and applied math. Is there any tension between these two parts of the math department here?
  • Where do you live? How long is your commute? Where are the good public schools?

When you meet with the dean and the department chair, they will ask if you have any questions for them. If you don’t have any questions, you don’t sound very interested, and you won’t get an offer. You can also ask questions which signal you as a good hire, for example:

  • What resources do you have that would help me win grants?
  • Are there any existing programs here for undergraduate research?
  • What is your vision for your department / school?
  • What can the math department do better?

If you want, have these questions written out, and be prepared to write down the answers. Writing down answers indicates that you are serious about the interview.

Be prepared to be exhausted. You will meet with a whirlwind of people for any given interview, and if you do it right, you will be very much engaged in conversation with each of those people. If you’re not dog tired by the end of your interview, you did it wrong.

6. It’s not the product, It’s the person

In the end, you aren’t getting an offer because of your previous work — that’s how you get an interview. You get an offer because the school thinks you have the goods to deliver in the future. If you want any inspiration, check out this episode of This American Life. There isn’t a checklist you can follow to sell yourself successfully, but if there was, the first point would be to exude confidence. I remember psyching myself up in the bathroom mirror the morning of my first interview. I hadn’t scored any other interviews at that point, so the confidence had to come from deep inside, and it worked.

7. Always be honest

Throughout the interview, you’ll have multiple opportunities to lie. Don’t do it. Tell the truth at all costs. For example, if someone asks about your two-body problem, be up front. Also, don’t claim to be interested in certain research directions if you aren’t — you don’t want to be hired under false pretenses.

For other types of questions, you can take steps to ensure that the truth is good for your candidacy. As an example, I made it a point to not prematurely discuss job alternatives with my wife. There is no need to decide whether we prefer University A over University B if A never produces an offer. Recall that I only applied to schools that we would be happy at, so actually, B might beat A if the offer is sufficiently better. Deferring the comparison saved us a lot of anxiety, but it also enabled me to be interested during my interview at University B, and that level of interest would help me score an offer. Also, before each interview, I would ask my wife why she wanted to live in that part of the country. That way, I could produce a litany of reasons why my family would be happy to live in the area when prompted.

When asked about other interviews or offers, tell the truth, but don’t speculate about offers. For example, suppose University B thinks University A is better; if you’re interviewing at B, and you might get an offer from A, keep your mouth shut. B might assume that you’re too good for them, and then A might not follow through with an offer, and then you’re stuck with nothing, even though you’d be happy with either A or B.

8. Give a good job talk

Your job talk is successful if it conveys three things:

  • Your research is important and interesting
  • Your contribution is significant
  • You are a good communicator

For the record, here are the slides from my job talk. Notice that the first slide doesn’t give the date nor the location of the talk (if you give the talk multiple times, these details can be mixed up for your embarrassment). I started by motivating the work with an application, then providing some theory, theorems, and proof sketches, and then returning to the application with some simulations. This is a standard progression in my particular community in applied math, and it helps to illustrate how the research is important and interesting. To gauge how good your job talk is, practice it in front of people both in and out of your community. You want to make sure both types of audience members enjoy your talk. Take the feedback you get very seriously — other than your PhD defense, this is the most important talk of your life.

9. Compete your offers

If you want the best offer possible, you should compete your offers. Another perspective: University B wants an opportunity to make a counteroffer to University A’s offer. Indeed, competing offers is in everyone’s best interest. It takes a lot of energy to manage multiple offers, but it helps to follow a certain procedure. Here’s the procedure I used:

  • I don’t send offer letters to a school until I interview there. At that point, I send all of the offers I have so far.
  • Once I interview somewhere, but before I receive an offer, I send them any new offer letter as soon as I get it. This generates buzz, but also enables them to make a competitive offer. I use the email as an opportunity to inquire about their hiring schedule.
  • Once I get an offer from a school, I don’t update them until a few days before the deadline. That way, I don’t annoy them with so many emails.

Timing is also a funny thing. I wanted to consider an offer from University A before deciding on an offer from University B, but A couldn’t produce something before B’s deadline. For each offer, you can expect one deadline extension, but there’s no telling how long of an extension you get. I had two deadlines extended, each for 4 days.

10. Don’t burn bridges

At some point, it will become clear that a school won’t be able to compete with your other offers. When this happens, you should decline the offer immediately so as to give them as much time as possible to have a successful search. Your goal is to get the best offer possible, but you also want to practice good etiquette.

Whenever you decline an offer, be sure to thank the department head for all of his effort. Also, remember that friend you asked to fish out your application way back when? Don’t forget him — especially when you don’t accept his university’s offer. Be grateful for their help and be sure to communicate your gratitude. These friendships are much more important than scoring interviews or offers.

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4 thoughts on “Interviews and offers

  1. You give a lot of really good advice for anyone navigating the academic job market. I have some mixed feelings about the mathjobs wiki page, in the sense that I am not really sure it necessarily leads to further interviews. Indeed it may have in your experience, but generally I think it can equally well have had a negative impact on your job prospects since some schools may not want to waste time pursuing someone who is “too hot”. I think that there is certainly a trade-off here. Assuming you have a few interviews, I feel you can achieve a better outcome by communicating directly with other hiring committees to, if they have not invited you for an interview yet, say you are really interested in the position. Anyway, just a thought.

    1. Good point — I’ve heard of similar mixed feelings in the past. Has there been an online discussion of how different parts of the community view the mathjobs wiki page? It would be interesting to get some input from past members of hiring committees.

      1. I think it would be very interesting to hear what hiring committees think about the mathjobs wiki page, but I am not sure any online discussion on this matter exists. From what I can tell from talking with my postdoc buddies is that there definitely are mixed feelings there at least. Some choose to post and others do not.

        By the way, congrats on the job at tOSU! My good friend, David Sivakoff, is a tenure-track in their statistics department. Slightly off topic: My office at Duke was next to J. Cahill and N. Strawn…

  2. Thank you for perhaps the most level headed thing I have read today. I also can share my experience in filling forms. I’ve found PDFfiller – online service for forms filling. It’s pretty easy to use and pretty cheap. You can find fillable a form here https://goo.gl/L3r67K.

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