Notes from Eric Hsu’s 2000-2001 Job Search
(2014-4-14). I think some of this is a bit out of date, e.g. the stuff about Priority Mail envelopes, but I think this may still be helpful. Random people still tell me they are reading it. I am amazed this is the top hit on google for "math education job", and we know Google is never wrong.
(2016-7-30) I've written a sequel to this now that I've been interviewing candidates for 15 years: Interviewing for a Math Ed Job in a Math Dept.
What This Is
Here is my attempt to record what I learned along the way during my job search last academic year (and also during my experiences on committees reading big piles of application files). In particular, I’m trying to note all the things that I learned but didn’t see in other articles. You will have to decide which things are applicable to you. For job listings and other (more standard) excellent advice, see the Math Education Job Search Resources I edit.
Who I Am
I graduated with a Ph.D. in Mathematics and went on to do an NSF postdoc in Math Education. I was aiming to do research and work in math education, but I finally decided to concentrate on looking for a job in a math department. I was successful! I am currently in the Math Department at San Francisco State University.
Why a math department as opposed to a school of education?
- I know what mathematicians are like. The cultures are different. Furthermore, schools of education are more directly affected by changes in daily educational politics than math departments.
- I like teaching and studying higher level math. If you are hired in a school of education or in a joint position, math departments may snobbishly give you a hard time when you want to teach anything above calculus (or even calculus).
- We need more math department folks working in education. Furthermore, the truth is mathematicians will credit your opinions on teaching math much more if you have a math Ph.D. and work in a math department. Probably not fair, but true.
The Cover Letter and Curriculum Vitae
- Make the cover letter skim well. Having been on committees reading stacks of files, I believe the most important attribute of a cover letter is that it skims well. That is, of course as other books say, it should be tasteful, grammatical, spell-checked and personalized to the school. But I think after the letter is done (and no longer than 1.5 pages), you should be sure that someone skimming it in 30 seconds will see some things about you that are interesting and promising enough to either read your file more carefully or ask you in to chat. And in my book that means that if someone read just the first half of each of your paragraphs they would get a good idea of who you are.
- Make the CV skim well. The above goes for CV’s except that there are a lot of different formats. Look in a book and find a format that shows off your qualifications well. Again, write it so it reads well either skimmed or analyzed carefully.
- Use templates from books. I used Heiberger and Vick listed at The Chronicle of Higher Education The cover letter has a pretty standard structure and people may be confused if you’re too original. Essentially: (1) what job you want and where you got your Ph.D., (2) your research, (3) your teaching skills, (4) why you are a good fit. (2) and (3) can be swapped depending on the school’s emphasis. If your (2) and (3) are intertwined (as is likely if you research math ed), then say so, but keep them in separate paragraphs.
The Recommendation Letters
- Tell your writers what you need them to say. Presumably your letter writers are on your side. They want to represent you in the best light possible. However, they may not remember off the top of their head that you won that teaching award, or organized that colloquium, or had that paper published. Hence the need for a short note to them along the lines of “I hope you will mention in your letter that I was a strong teacher (I won the XXX award), etc.” Help make the letter writing process as painless as possible for them. Note: letters a lot more convincing if they address personal experience with the subject.
- Give them lots of advance notice and maybe even a single deadline. Give them advance notice, even though they probably won’t do it until a week or less before it’s due. I had a bunch of different deadlines, but I gave my letter writers a single (early) deadline. Give them big addressed envelopes. I gave them pre-stamped Priority Mail envelopes.
- Make sure your thesis advisor writes a letter. Even if your thesis was a math work, that’s okay. Have your advisor write about how competent and wonderful a mathematician you were, but your heart was clearly in math ed. So, get three letters from people more directly connected to your math ed life, and use your advisor’s as a bonus letter. People will be suspicious if your advisor doesn’t have a letter in there. (Only omit the letter if you know it will be damaging.)
Statements of Teaching Philosophy and Research Interests
- Teaching Philosophy = What Does Your Class Look Like and Why. It sounds like they want you to write something like “I come from a new-Piagetian post-Vygotskian theoretical framework”, but as far as I can tell, people just want to get a sense for what you will be like as a teacher in the classroom. So, I first wrote about what my classrooms have looked like, including anything interesting like group work or unusual projects or fun anecdotes. Once I had that on paper, I tried to justify why I did those things. Lo and behold, a teaching philosophy.
- Write them, even if you don’t need them. Someone eventually may ask you for them in an application, and besides that, they are really good preparation for your interviews.
The Phone Interview
- Have your job file handy. They may call when you least expect it, so have your file of applications, etc. somewhere easily reachable. Be enthusiastic and smile even though they can’t see you. I got a bunch of calls right before the Joint Meetings (early January), presumably after everyone got back from Winter Break and started plowing through committee work.
The Joint Meetings
- Give a talk. The talks are short, but they give potential employers a chance to catch you talking about something you know and love. It’s also good practice for your job talk.
- Sign up for Employment Table interviews. Yes, it’s a big cattle call. Yes, it seems “impersonal” and “dehumanizing” as friends have complained. But, with the right attitude, they can be useful and even enjoyable(!). Yes, enjoyable.
- This is your chance to practice explaining who you are and what you do to a stranger under high pressure. You’ll typically get about eight or nine interviews. Keep refining your spiel and by the end you should be able to summarize your academic life in thirty seconds. A lot of the interview time is spent by the school explaining who they are and who they’re looking for, so you may have to actively push to get your spiel in. This is also good practice for you to instantly and enthusiastically connect whatever their interests are to your strengths and experiences. Have a few things you’re interested in to ask after, e.g. distance learning or calculus learning.
- This is your chance to hear an interesting cross-section of the varied attempts across the country to improve math education. There’s so much going on in this country and it’s inspiring to hear of all these grassroots efforts to improve/reform math education. It’s also depressing to think about how disconnected the efforts are, but that’s a different story.
- Prepare a spiel on your thesis. Even if you wrote a math thesis. Even if you never want to think about it again. People in general won’t be asking about it, but the occasional person will. No one is going to ask you to prove your main lemma on the spot,but you want to have an interesting one minute piece on your math thesis and enough to chat intelligently about it.
- Order your interviews so that your favored jobs come last. If you are lucky enough to have a choice, try to order your interviews so the jobs you want more come towards the end. That way by the time it comes around, you’ll have a lot of practice and know what to expect.
- Be prepared to answer really big questions. Like “what is wrong with education today?” Have a (measured, considered) opinion on math/calculus reform, testing, and other current educational issues. It’s not so much that you have exactly the right answers, but that you have something interesting to say at all times. The fact that you’re there means they think you’re qualified. Now these people are looking for someone who they’ll find enjoyable and interesting to have around in the department.
- Bring up Two Body Problems at the campus interview. Nowadays two-body problems are common, so there are starting to be official campus policies about helping partners get hired. It may really annoy people if you don’t mention it until an offer is made. Also, if you want to look in a certain geographical area, say institutions within 90 miles of a certain zip code, the U.S. News College Search page is handy.
- Be good, word travels. I’m not sure whether it’s ethical or not, but people compare notes on job candidates fairly often. Stay honest and be sure to address potential issues upfront before people hear them from other sources.
- Don’t take rejection personally. Every department has different needs and different politics, and the job process is a somewhat random one. Learn and move on.