Mathematics jobs wiki

Greg Kuperberg, who besides being a very good mathematician is one of the prime movers of the indispensible math arXiv preprint server, has a new project: the Mathematics jobs wiki, which will serve as a clearinghouse for rumors and facts about who’s getting offers and interviews where. Other fields already have websites like this: here’s one for astrophysics, one for theoretical physics, and one for economics.

Is this a good idea? My first reaction is that it sounds terrible. If you’re on the job market, do you really want to know, in real time, which of your friends and colleagues is on the short list for which jobs? If you get an offer, do you want to know who turned it down before you? And do you want your potential employers to know where else you have offers? What if you’ve got an offer at school X, and school Y, which you actually prefer, decides that school X is too much competition and decides not to interview you? Or what if good schools X, Y, and Z make offers to the same person, and ten other schools see this and decide that must be the person they should pursue as well?

Since this feels like a bad innovation to me, and since I know Greg to be a thoughtful guy, let me suggest one upside of the job rumor wiki. You could say it’s an unfair advantage in the job market to be at a big university, with lots of connections, so that you already know a lot about which places are hiring in which areas, and which senior faculty members might be on their way in or out. In that case, the wiki will level the playing field by giving everyone access to this “inside information.”

All in all, I’m glad this didn’t exist when I applied for jobs. But I’ll reserve judgment until the rumors start getting posted and I see how it affects our own hiring process, and our own students and postdocs on this year’s market.

8 thoughts on “Mathematics jobs wiki

  1. Em says:

    It pains me to read you describe this.

  2. Dirty Davey says:

    I’ve seen something of the sort in political science. Thank God I got out of the field and out of academia when I did.

  3. Daniel says:

    I actually recently discovered the theoretical physics version of that. Seemed kinda suspicious.

  4. Graham says:

    I’m not sure what Kuperberg’s motivations are (and haven’t had a chance to go poke around the wiki), but I’ve wanted to start something like this for several years. When I was most recently on the job market (2003-4), I was infuriated by the information-wealth disparity between job applicants and hiring departments. For the entire time between submitting an application (say, November) and either being asked for an interview (say, February) or hearing that they were no longer being considered (maybe May, though I’m *still* waiting to hear from a couple of places!), the applicant is utterly in the dark about how the process is proceeding.

    Some unscrupulous departments try to use this uncertainty to railroad applicants into accepting sub-par offers. Some — this still rankles — prefer to keep the applicant in the dark even to the point of never telling an interviewee whether the position has been filled.

    And even if all department heads and committees were pure of heart, being in the dark is never fun. An applicant can make better, more informed choices if they have a better idea of what the market is like; who the big guns are; which places are casting the net wide and which are hiring/interviewing from within; and so on.

    I haven’t started up the math jobs wiki myself, for two reasons. One is that it needs to be run by a tenured person, which I am not (yet, fingers crossed). The other is exactly one of your objections in para. 2, “What if you’ve got an offer at school X, and school Y, which you actually prefer, decides that school X is too much competition and decides not to interview you?”

    The first several objections in that paragraph I don’t buy — I *do* want to know who’s on the short list; I *do* want to know which of my friends has interviewed or been offered — but that next one is a problem I don’t know how to solve. My ideal of this wiki would be to give only the applicants information they were lacking, not to throw open the doors entirely in some ‘information must be free’ frenzy. In a perfect world, departments (qua departments) wouldn’t even know it existed.

    So we’ll see what happens with Kuperberg’s wiki. I hope both your misgivings and mine turn out unfounded. I think a more likely scenario is that it folds after this hiring season, and we go back to wondering what would happen.

    (Whew, takes a long time to type this much with one hand and a baby on your shoulder!)

  5. Hi folks. I agree that the jobs wiki idea has serious arguments on both sides, and I’m glad to see a discussion. But as you might guess, I’m now convinced that jobs wikis are a good idea. Certainly one thing that affected my thinking is that I was the outside member on an astrophysics search and I got to see the astrophysics “rumor mill” in action. Instead of worrying about what could happen, the right question is what actually does happen.

    As Graham says, some postdocs in particle physics started the first rumor mill simply because they felt in the dark about their job market. They did not know what was an early invitation and what was a late invitation. They did not know who did very well and who only barely got a job. But they could pool information. I am told initially that they posted a chart on the wall, and that later that chart became a web page. Since then job rumor mills and wikis have spread to other areas of physics and to economics.

    So this is a service that wants to exist, because the job seekers use it. Although I can imagine the same exceptions as anyone else, usually the search committees want confidentiality more than the candidates do. I have not usually seen this confidentiality used for any purpose, good or bad. And when I have seen it serve a purpose, it hasn’t usually been a good purpose. For one thing, now and then search committees want to keep their choices confidential because they aren’t proud of them. I don’t mean to say that this is what usually happens; on the contrary, most search committees are honorable. But when there is sausage-making, I would prefer transparency.

    As for the candidates, those who get offers are usually expected to reveal competing offers. They aren’t strictly obliged to do this, but when you have offers in hand, it usually irritates the departments to hide other offers and doesn’t do you much good. The main exception that I have seen is a minority of well-positioned candidates who can game the system, and want to. But again, I have not usually seen it make the world a better place.

  6. JSE says:

    Great to have such substantive discussion here! Greg is completely right that the question is not so much “what could we imagine happening,” but “what actually does happen in fields where these clearinghouses exist” — I don’t think there’s anything special about mathematics that would lead us to expect drastically different effects than one sees in other fields. Anecdotal evidence: I asked one of my philosopher friends about this issue this morning, and she feels that the job rumor clearinghouse is on balance a good thing.

    (I may comment more later — now, off to lunch.)

  7. I’d be happy with more discussion if anyone has more to say. I have updated the wiki page to include the deadlines. This has already taught me something, namely that the deadlines for research positions are in chaos. Most of them are in a reasonable range, but there a lot of wide outliers. Some schools reserve the right to make short lists in September; other schools claim that they won’t make short lists until January.

    It sucks. I was saying that confidentiality of short lists usually serves no purpose at all, good or bad. This wide range of deadlines serves no purpose either.

  8. […] life of the blog, I can tell you. The most popular post, by a factor of three, is my post on the Mathematics Jobs Wiki, presumably because it appears on the first page of the “math jobs wiki” Google search […]

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