Selected From:

*Concerns of Young Mathematicians*
Volume 4, Issue 35
November 13, 1996

An electronically distributed digest for discussions
of the issues of concern to mathematicians at the
beginning of their careers.

Timely advice about life at undergrad schools... 

I am writing in reaction to the recent exchange between Bryan Hearsey and Greg Kuperberg on the importance of a personalized cover letter. I am reacting in particular to Bryan's comment: 

"When I review candiates for a position in our Department, I am looking first for a faculty member not a mathematician. I suspect that many undergraduate institutions have a similar attitude." 

This underscores for me a broader issue, which has been discussed in these pages but nevertheless bears repeating. When I began my first job interviews three years ago, I was shocked at the disparity between the model that had been communicated to me and that I had been encouraged to follow during my graduate studies, and the reality of how most professors at "teaching schools" (which I will define broadly as any institution with no graduate program in math) actually spend their time and energy. 

Of course I knew that professors at such schools spend more time on their teaching and less time on their research. What I did not realize was how much time I would be spending on departmental and committee meetings, curriculum review and development, selecting course and library texts, ordering and setting up equipment and software, advising students, meeting with undergraduate clubs, running problem contests, organizing speakers and conferences, and just plain "talking in the hallway" about issues important to the smooth functioning and growth of our department and good relations with other departments.

To a certain extent, how much time is needed in these areas depends on one's departmental expectations and personal priorities, but I think it safe to say that any department-- even a research-oriented department!-- is looking for people who will be pro-active, involved contributors. You may get by at some schools by wowing students in the classroom or by sitting in your office and proving theorems, but most schools want someone who will contribute in many ways in addition to their teaching and research.

Applicants who are aware of the importance of being "good citizens" are in a much better position to market their value to a potential employer. Interviewers may be more interested in hearing about how you organized a departmental picnic or student study groups than in hearing the finer details of your latest proof.

I should disclose that my advice is biased by the fact that I wanted a position at a teaching school from the start, and my experience is based on working at two schools with 12 hour teaching loads. Nevertheless, recent grads who are now working at other schools have reported similar experiences. The word needs to get out to people well before their first job search.

Steve Leonhardi (