College Math Teaching

January 15, 2020

Applying for an academic job: what I look for in an application

Filed under: academia, editorial, research — Tags: , — collegemathteaching @ 4:48 pm

Disclaimer: let me be clear: these are MY thoughts. Not everyone is like me.

I have served on several search committees and have chaired several of them as well. My university: an undergraduate university where we have a very modest, but mandatory research requirement (much less than what an R1 has). Teaching loads: mostly service classes; maybe an upper division class; typically 10-12 hours per semester. Service loads are heavy, especially for senior faculty.

These thoughts are for the applicant who wants to be competitive for OUR specific job; they do not apply to someone who just wants to make a blanket application.

General suggestion: Proofread what you submit. You’d be surprised at how many applications contain grammatical mistakes, spelling errors and typos.

Specific suggestions:
Take note of the job you are applying for. We have two types of tenure track positions: assistant professor positions and tenure track lecturer positions.
One can obtain promotion from the assistant professor position; one cannot be promoted from our lecturer position.

Assistant professor position: has a research and service requirement and involves teaching across the curriculum (lower and upper division classes)
Lecturer position: has a service requirement and involves teaching freshman courses..occasionally calculus but mostly pre-calculus mathematics (college algebra, precalculus, perhaps business math, non-calculus based statistics).

Teaching: What I look for is:
1. Relevant experience: how will you do when you walk into the classes YOU are teaching? Can we reasonably predict success from your application?

2. References: if you are applying for the lecturer position, you should have a teaching reference from someone who has observed your teaching in a pre calculus class (algebra, trig, pre calculus, etc.). Letters that say “X is a great teacher” and is followed by the current buzzwords really don’t stand out. Letters that say “I observed X teaching a precalculus class and saw that…” get my attention.

If you are applying for the assistant professor position, I’d like to see the observation from, say, a calculus class.

Observations of how well you lead a graduate student review for the Ph. D. exam on the topology of manifolds really isn’t helpful to us.

3. Teaching statement: I don’t care about all of the hot buzzwords or how you want to make the world a better place. I’d like to see that you thought about how to teach and, even better, how your initial experiences lead to adjustments. Things like “I saw students could not do this type of problem because they did not know X..” catch my eye as do “I tried didn’t work as well as I had hoped so I tried that and it worked better ..” also catch my eye. Also, “students have trouble with these concepts and I have found that they really haven’t mastered…” are also great.

4. Please be realistic: if you ware applying for the lecturer position, it doesn’t help to state your heart is set on directing student research our teaching our complex variables class. If your heart IS really set on these things, this job is not for you.

Research (assistant professor position only) What I am looking for here is someone who won’t die on the vine. So I’d like to see evidence of:

1. Independence: can you work independently? Can you find your own problems to work on? Do you have collaborators already set (if appropriate)? What I mean: you cannot be too advisor dependent at our job, given its limited resources and heavy teaching load. An advisor’s letter that says “student X suggested this problem to work on” stand out in a positive way.

2. Plan: do you have plan moving forward?

3. Realism: you aren’t going to in a Fields Medal or an Abel Prize at our job. You aren’t going to publish in the Annals of Math. If you have your heart set on working on the toughest cutting edge problems, you will likely fail at our place and end up frustrated. And yes..staying current at the cutting edges of mathematics is all but impossible; they best you’ll be able to do is to tackle some of the stuff that isn’t dependent on heavy, difficult to learn machinery. You simply will not have large blocks of uninterrupted time to think.

January 15, 2014

Applying for a math job at a “teaching with some research required” institution

Filed under: academia, editorial — Tags: , — collegemathteaching @ 2:47 am

I am on the search committee this year and have read a LOT of applications. I ranted just a bit here. Here are some comments to applicants.

Note: our job’s ad is this:

Applications are invited for two Tenure-Track Assistant Professor positions in the Department of Mathematics beginning August 2014. Candidates must possess a Ph.D. in mathematics or statistics by the start date. Preference will be given to candidates who are broadly trained, have a strong commitment to undergraduate teaching, and have college-level teaching experience. Preference will be given to those applicants whose research specialty is in statistics, applied mathematics, or other areas of current interest in the department. An active research program and scholarly publication are required for tenure and advancement. Candidates must be able to work in the U.S. without sponsorship. For full consideration, applications should be complete by December 16, 2013. Other positions may become available in the future.

Please submit all application materials electronically. Post the AMS cover letter, a letter of application, vita, a copy of each graduate transcript, description of research, statement of teaching philosophy, and three current letters of recommendation (at least one of which addresses teaching and one research) on the website. Additional information regarding xxxx University and these positions may be found at or obtained by email from xxx yyy at

Employment with xxxx University is contingent upon satisfactory completion of a criminal background check. xxxx University is an equal-opportunity, affirmative action employer. The administration, faculty and staff are committed to attracting qualified candidates from underrepresented groups.

Note: our usual load is 11 hours per semester, along with the usual admin BS. And yes, we teach a lot of calculus.

So here are a few statements from me. I can’t say if anyone else on the search committee thinks this way but I can tell you what catches my eye and what *I* would recommend.

1. In your cover letter, it is useful to highlight facts. Everyone says that they are “a great teacher, researcher, etc.” This is what I am talking about: more than one candidate took pains to tailor a cover letter just for our school. They said some generic stuff. But the left out the fact that they won a teaching award in grad school….and according to the recommendation letters, this award only goes to a small percentage of grad students. That’s a nice thing to highlight!

2. Give the letter a little thought. Saying “one thing that sets me apart from the other applicants with strong degrees and credentials is that “I work hard to be the best I can be.” Sure…and the rest of the applicant pool consists of slackers??? Seriously, get a grip.

3. If you spent several years at an institution that was NOT a visiting position or a post-doc and are leaving, please say a bit as to WHY you are leaving, or at least have a reference writer bring up the point. Seriously; no one wants to hire someone else’s problem. Hey, if you didn’t get tenure that is not always a “kiss of death”; in one case a person with a good research record didn’t get tenure due to the university trying to switch to being a research institution and that applicant’s research record would be fine at our place.

If you are trying to get closer to family: that is fine too. If you are think that our place is a step up from your current place: fine. If you are at a research place and want to teach more and spend less time writing grant proposals for research, that is fine too.

But don’t leave questions unanswered; remember we have a lot of applications and it is easy to go to the bottom of the pile.

4. Remember our job requirements. If you state that it is your goal to become an international class researcher, you’ll be miserable here. Forget it.

On the other hand, if you had 3 years at a post doc (at places like MSRI and Cal Berkeley) and haven’t done squat in terms of research, you won’t publish here either…and you won’t get tenure.

5. We have an engineering college here and therefore teach a LOT of calculus. Seriously; it is great that you taught manifold theory and algebraic topology, but here you’ll be doing a couple of calculus sections (engineering or “business/life science) almost every semester. Make sure you highlight your calculus teaching experience.

6. If you ask for a teaching reference, you might ask the reference if they can write a honest, positive letter. I read one letter in which the reference said that the applicant doesn’t explain things well, tries to explain again and often has no more success the second time around.

7. Please, check your vita and your cover letter for grammar and spelling. Seriously.

We will have interviews before too long, and if you do get an interview, remember this:

1. Be excited about your own work. If you aren’t, don’t waste our time.

2. Remember that while most of us still research, our grad school courses are well in our rear view mirror (often 2-3 decades in the mirror). So a topologist might not remember the Dominated Convergence Theorem off of the top of his/her head; the ring theorist might not remember connections (differential geometry) or gauges, and the analyst might not remember what a socle is. So, you might consider building in some gentle reminders in your talk and build toward “speaking to the local expert” in the last 15 minutes of the talk.

3. The talk is important because we’ll evaluate what sort of lectures you’ll give to the students. It is a good idea to end on time.

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