Interviewing for a Math Ed Job in a Math Dept

Since I wrote my inexplicably popular essay Getting a Math Education Job in a Mathematics Department, I ended my existence as a job applicant and began one as a job interviewer in a math department. The cycle of life!


Fifteen years later, I now have experience from the other side of the process, so I'm sharing some notes. These are directed at aspiring candidates, but might be useful for interviewers as well.


I've added a couple of comments from helpful reader Dave Kung (DK), math chair at St. Mary's College of Maryland. Thanks to Shandy Hauk (ex tenured professor at U Northern Colorado, currently researcher for WestEd) for edits.


- Eric Hsu, July 30th, 2016


Job searches are somewhat random, inefficient processes.

Don't take it personally if you don't get a job. Even if you are one of the "best" candidates, if there are ones that are close, the decision will come down to factors out of your control and which may not show up in a job ad. For instance, the hirers really want someone who:

Your interviewers are tired and this might be the fifth two-day job interview complete with dinners and chauffeuring. It doesn't sound hard to be the host, right? But it's actually exhausting. There might be two simultaneous searches, so that's ten such interviews. And light a candle for the department that has more than two simultaneous searches. And no one gets any work release for being on the hiring committee. They just get the reward of a great colleague, which is hard to keep in mind when you have to find a babysitter for the fifth night in two weeks.

So is this an optimal process that surfaces the best match? Of course not. Do you have a better alternative? Then let me know! And let big companies like Google, Facebook, etc. know. They have been working on this question of finding good matches, and they've found that all their fancy interview stumpers and techniques don't particularly work. No one currently knows how to hire right. 

Expect and handle ignorant questions.

The key is not to get offended. If you can't avoid being offended, working in a math department is not for you. Consider work in a school of education instead -- you will not get these kinds of ignorant questions (you'll get different kinds). In our last math ed job search, I thought about somehow protecting candidates from the more ignorant questioners. I decided it was important to me to see how they reacted, and also for them to see what life in the department was really like.


Most pure mathematicians don't know anything about what you do. They may be confused about why the work is even in a math department and not in a different department. Have empathy, you are just as ignorant about some of their fields. 


You may notice that many of these questions are based on bad assumptions, ill-defined terms and hidden educational values. That's what people are like. Most importantly, these are questions that you will get from the general public and important policy makers. (I should probably expand this into a separate essay...) If you want to be an academic that interacts with the real world, start building your toolbox of answers now. 


Every one of these questions has been asked of me, so you should be ready to answer similar ones.

I won't tell you what your answers should be, but I suggest not getting bogged down into an excruciating rebuttal of all points, but rather to start with just one piece and discuss in a friendly way and pivot to something interesting you're doing that's related. E.g. "That's an interesting question! You might think all teachers are teaching the common core now, but the standards are very new and it takes time for people to change, right? Let me tell you about one project I'm working on that addresses teacher change..."


Your Talk

Be comprehensible and interesting.

It is (unfortunately) still acceptable for a pure math talk to be incomprehensible to 99% of the audience. [DK: I'd say it's acceptable for 90% of a math talk to be incomprehensible to 90% of the audience.]  Not so for a math ed research talk. Even if the material is difficult, one expects an education expert to be able to communicate.

[DK: When I've talked with math ed folks who are interviewing at math places, I've always encouraged them to practice their talk with some friends who know math but aren't so versed in math ed. The prejudices those folks bring to math ed can be a little shocking, depending on how much exposure you've had.]

Be ready to elaborate on terms with specific examples.

Much of your audience won't know educational terminology/jargon. If you insist on using TLAs (three letter acronyms) then say what they are. What is "PCK"? Oh, then what is "pedagogical content knowledge"?  Give examples of content knowledge, pedagogical knowledge, and PCK.

Have some tough teaching examples in your pocket.

For some people, a math talk is about establishing strength and status, and one tool is to have in pocket at least one teaching task that is elementary but difficult to a typical math person who hasn't thought about it. I won't give away mine, but they usually look like "Come up with a story problem for the question Q" or "A student thinks they have a new way to X that goes like Y. What do you say?", or "What is a good definition for Z for an elementary student?"

Don't be contemptuous.

Don't look down on people who aren't as enlightened as you who aren't teaching in this awesome method you prefer. Have empathy for instructors who are doing the best that they can and are curious about improving.


What To Discuss

It's illegal for people to ask about personal issues (marriage, sexual orientation, children, age, etc.) unless you bring it up.  So don't bring up anything you'd like to avoid discussing. If people pry, try to dodge the question until they realize it's illegal (and rude). 


HOWEVER. I do think you should bring up some issues voluntarily.

Local Connections

If you have family in the area, or went to grad school there, or have always loved the mountains and it's near the mountains, or whatever, you should bring it up. I think it's always a plus to show that you have specific interest in the job and would strongly consider coming if offered the job.  It wouldn't be the difference between offer/no offer, but when choosing between two roughly equal candidates, if one has lots of reasons to come and the other acts like they're interested in ten other places, I'd offer to the first. When you make an offer, the candidate usually has 1-2 weeks to respond and you could lose other top choices while they decide.

Two-Body Problem

We just hired two mathematicians for one search because they were both strong (and married). But we had to get working on that early. You don't want to spring this on the Dean during negotiations because it might be too late. The second body, if they want a tenure-track job, is going to have to meet the target department, and they'll have to agree. (It's usually not that hard to get a lectureship for a partner.) [DK: I think this varies widely. At smaller schools, any full-time spot is hard to come by.]

(your call) Kids

Since I have kids, I love talking about how kids fit into faculty life here. From campus day care, to tenure clock delays and parent leave, these are all important issues that it's good to get clarity on. You also want to see how the department talks about kids. If all the young faculty are successful (and tenured) and have kids, that's a good sign. If people are embarrassed to talk about it or talk about kids as a burden, that's information for you.  



Your Sample Teaching Class

I'm a big believer in having candidates teach a sample class. You can only learn so much from an interview and writing.  And, sorry, there is a higher standard for a math education candidate. Luckily the standard for a normal candidate is quite reachable - don't make big math errors and be responsive to students, so exceeding that is quite doable for you, right?

Establish a warm relationship with energy and humor. 

We all know that it's hard to go cold into a new class, so allowances are given by observers. But -- maybe this is just my campus -- but I'm always impressed how sympathetic the students are. They seem to be on better behavior for guests than for the usual instructor, and they seem to appreciate energy and humor.

[DK: We purposely set up the day so candidates meet students first. (We actually have a student search committee, but that's a longer story.) When it comes to the sample teaching, they know a handful of students - at least a little bit. The best candidates learn those students' names and use them while they teach.]

Go ahead and (carefully) try non-lecture. 

It is extra hard to do any kind of active learning with a new class, since you haven't set up norms and socialized them. But it can be done!  When I taught my sample classes, I did group work. But you have to structure your tasks so that (1) there are intermediate checkpoints of progress, and (2) you are doing something VISIBLE to novice observers.  If your technique is to quietly circulate and let students struggle, well that's not going to look good to the novice faculty observing your class. Sorry. Do that in your real class, but a sample class is to show off your technique.  So for this class, you might, for instance, make yourself more visibly talking with groups, calling them together regularly for mini-lectures or mini-presentations, or somehow be visibly managing the class. (And you might consider doing so for your real class, because students are also novice observers...)


At my first sample teaching class, I taught a content class for elementary teachers. (This is an extremely typical sample class for math ed candidates, even if you don't specialize in elementary ed.)  I structured it as pair work on a task -- I believe using a fraction circle kinesthetic representation to model fraction division. The first task (of several) completely baffled the students who hadn't been used to using visual/kinesthetic representations.  I scrambled around the class struggling to scaffold via intermediate tasks that wouldn't just tell them what to say. I was sweating bullets as we entered the last ten minutes, since the students basically hadn't had the Aha moment. Then, amazingly, all the groups figured out the task. We had a brief debrief as I calmly had each group explain some aspect of their thinking, and I tried to look as if that was exactly my plan all along.  Afterwards, I asked the observers what they thought. They liked my teaching, but they were very upset that the students couldn't do the task, and what's wrong with education today? Etc.

The moral is that it is risky to go for a big Aha moment in a sample class. And to always be prepared for ignorant questions (see above).  Be ready to scaffold even the "obvious" parts of group work.  

That's the problem (and great thing) about group work. In a traditional lecture technique, you can just gun past the preliminaries and if the students don't understand, it's their fault, right?  In group work, you are faced with the reality of what people actually understand.  So that takes managing in a sample class setting.