Tag Archives: hiring

Ranking mathematicians

I’m on the hiring committee, I chair the graduate admissions committee, and I’m doing an NSF panel, so basically I’ll be spending much of this month judging and ranking people’s mathematics.  There’s a lot I like about these jobs:  it’s a very efficient way to get a panorama of what’s going on in math and what people think about it.  The actual ranking part I don’t like that much — especially because the nature of hiring, admissions, and grant-making means you’re inevitably putting tons of very worthwhile stuff below the line.  I feel like a researcher when I read the proposals, like a bureaucrat when I put scores on them.

But of course the bureaucratic work needs to be done.  I’d go so far as to say — if mathematicians aren’t willing to rank each other, others will rank us, and that would be worse.

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Wisconsin hires 2012

I’m happy to report on another very successful hiring year for the UW-Madison math department!  We added Dima Arinkin from UNC, who does algebraic geometry with connections to geometric Langlands; Betsy Stovall in harmonic analysis, from UCLA; our former Ph.D. student Bing Wang, returning to Madison after a postdoc at Princeton; Saverio Spagnolie, in fluid dynamics and biomechanics (who’s so organized he’s already put up a UW homepage!); and probabilist Sebastian Roch, whose job talk I enthusiastically blogged about a few weeks back.

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Are math departments better at recruitment than elite financial firms?

Via Bryan Caplan, Lauren Rivera at Northwestern studied hiring practices at top financial, law, and consulting firms and found some surprises:

[E]valuators drew strong distinctions between top four universities, schools that I term the super-elite, and other types of selective colleges and universities. So-called “public Ivies” such as University of Michigan and Berkeley were not considered elite or even prestigious… In addition to being an indicator of potential intellectual deficits, the decision to go to a lesser known school (because it was typically perceived by evaluators as a “choice”) was often perceived to be evidence of moral failings, such as faulty judgment or a lack of foresight on the part of a student.

I’m not sure what those four schools are, but they exclude some pretty good undergraduates:

You will find it when you go to like career fairs or something and you know someone will show up and say, you know, “Hey, I didn’t go to HBS [Harvard Business School] but, you know, I am an engineer at M.I.T. and I heard about this fair and I wanted to come meet you in New York.” God bless him for the effort but, you know, it’s just not going to work.

And don’t neglect those extracurriculars:

[E]valuators believed that the most attractive and enjoyable coworkers and candidates would be those who had strong extracurricular “passions.” They also believed that involvement in activities outside of the classroom was evidence of superior social skill; they assumed a lack of involvement was a signal of social deficiencies… By contrast, those without significant extracurricular experiences or those who participated in activities that were primarily academically or pre-professionally oriented were perceived to be “boring,” “tools,” “bookworms,” or “nerds” who might turn out to be “corporate drones” if hired.

All this stuff sounds bizarre to people outside the world of corporate recruitment.  And it is natural for academics like me to read this and silently congratulate myself on our superior methods of judgment.  But surely there are things about our process which would seem just as irrational and counterproductive to people outside of academic mathematics.  What are they?

It might make more sense to concentrate on graduate recruitment as against tenure-track hiring, since then both we and the financiers are talking about recent BAs with little track record in the workplace.

(Linguistic note:  “Counterproductive” is surely a word that people would deride as horrible managementese if it weren’t already in common use.  But it’s a great word!)

(Upcoming blog note: At some point soon I’ll blog about Michael Lewis’s The Big Short, which I just finished, and which is the reason the credentials of financial professionals are on my mind.)



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Wisconsin hires for 2011

The Wisconsin math department has hired four terrific new assistant professors this season (rah rah countercyclical hiring!)  We will be joined next year by:  Melanie Matchett Wood, an arithmetic geometer and an AIM 5-year fellow, who shares my love of counting number fields and of the arithmetic fundamenal group; Philip Matchett Wood, who does probabilistic combinatorics, especially related to random matrices; Jun Yin, another random matrix guy, just finishing up a BP at Harvard; and our own postdoc Brian Street, who works on the geometric side of harmonic analysis.



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I am cranky about people who are cranky about the tenure system

Via Deane Yang’s Facebook feed, this New York Times round table on the question of tenure, featuring weigh-ins from faculty members in education, English, religion, education again, and economics.  Notice anything missing?  Like, say, science, engineering, law, and medicine?  I said this before but I’m cranky about this piece so I’ll say it again.  The reason we need tenure in these fields is not because we’re worried about getting fired for teaching an anti-establishment line on epsilons and deltas.*  It’s because universities have to compete with private employers for scientists, mathematicians, engineers, lawyers and doctors.  Mark Taylor writes:

If you were the C.E.O. of a company and the board of directors said: “We want this to be the best company of its kind in the world. Hire the best people you can find and pay them whatever is required.” Would you offer anybody a contract with these terms: lifetime employment, no possibility of dismissal, regardless of performance? If you did, your company would fail and you would be looking for a new job. Why should academia be any different from every other profession?

Maybe because academia pays a lot less than many other professions?  Does Taylor have any suggestions as to what alternative benefit we should offer candidates in order to make an academic job worth their while?  Does he really think that, absent tenure, our board of trustees would tell our chancellor, “Hire the best people you can find and pay them whatever is required?”

Right now, tenure is what universities have instead of money.  I don’t see a lot of money coming our way soon.  So I think we’d better hold on to tenure.

* Although this actually happened to Cauchy!

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Zlatos a Badger

And while we’re talking hiring, I’m happy to report that Andrej Zlatos has accepted a position at Wisconsin, joining the four newcomers I blogged about last month.

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Reader survey: what are the unwritten laws of hiring in math?

My post about a recent hiring controversy has generated the longest-ever comment thread on this blog, beating out the “Do you wear a watch?” survey.  One thing I learned from the comment thread is that people have quite divergent ideas about what the implicit ethical rules of hiring actually are!  There’s a lot to be said for tacit, organic systems of moral agreements as against formal laws.  But for such a thing to work requires some kind of general consensus.  Do we have it?

I thought it would be interesting to address this question directly.  I’ll start with a few things I think of as rules, both for candidates and for departments.


  • If you accept a job, you need to show up there the following fall unless you are explicitly released from your commitment.  This commitment lasts one academic year
  • Don’t apply for a job that you wouldn’t accept if it were the only job you got.


  • You can’t ask a candidate how likely they would be to accept an offer before you make the offer.  I think it’s OK, though slightly awkward, to ask after the offer is made.
  • You can’t ask a candidate if they’re married.  (This is actually a written law, at least in the US — but it is widely violated.)
  • If you give a candidate a deadline, you are not allowed to subsequently move the deadline earlier.  (I know of at least one such case this year!)

Are these actually rules?  What are the other rules?  Go to.

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What would the proposed immigration reform law mean for mathematics?

According to the conceptual proposal released by Senators Menendez, Reid, and Schumer yesterday, the immigration reform to be taken up by Congress would require that

a green card will be immediately available to foreign students with an advanced degree from a United States institution of higher education in a field of science, technology, engineering, or mathematics, and who possess an offer of employment from a United States employer in a field related to their degree. Foreign students will be permitted to enter the United States with immigrant intent if they are a bona fide student so long as they pursue a full course of study at an institution of higher education in a field of science, technology, engineering or mathematics. To address the fact that workers from some countries face unreasonably long backlogs that have no responsiveness to America’s economic needs, this proposal eliminates the per-country employment immigration caps.

How does this affect math?  Does it change the visa status of our Ph.D. students?  Is a postdoc an “offer of employment,” and if so, will non-U.S. graduate students be eligible to receive NSF postdocs, given that they’d become permanent residents upon taking up their position?

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Update: At the request of third parties, and with the agreement of the people involved, I have anonymized this post to remove the name of the people and universities involved.

I don’t like to wander into controversy on the blog, but I do want to share what I know about our postdoc XXXXX’s job search this year, in order to counteract some incorrect impressions I’ve heard about.

  • XXXX interviewed at AAAA, and got an early offer of an assistant professorship, with a deadline in February.  She had other interviews already scheduled, and asked for an extension on the deadline.  They didn’t give her one.
  • XXXX accepted the AAAA  job, while on an interview visit to BBBB.
  • Later, XXXX was offered an assistant professorship at BBBB as well.  BBBB, understanding that XXXX had already accepted a position at AAAA, agreed to make the offer effective in Fall 2011 if she so chose.
  • XXXX  told AAAA about her situation, making clear that she had no intention of reneging on her acceptance of the position, and that she was honestly not sure which department was the better home for her.  She asked for a year of unpaid leave for 2011-2012 so that she could visit BBBB after one year at AAAA and make an informed decision.
  • This request, too, was denied.  At this point, the chair at AAAA told her that she had to make up her mind now which job she wanted to take; she was released from her commitment to AAAA  and told that she should immediately start whichever of the two positions she chose.  At this point, XXXX chose the job at BBBB.

As far as I can see, no one acted unethically here.  At every stage, XXXX was upfront with everyone involved, and never considered not showing up at AAAA until the chair there explicitly authorized it.  BBBB made an offer to someone who already had a job, yes:  but I see no difference between making her an offer in March 2010 for Fall 2011, and making her the same offer in October 2010, which would obviously be OK.  As for AAAA, they ran their hiring process in a somewhat nonstandard and maybe suboptimal way — in particular, by denying XXXX the unpaid leave and releasing her to go to BBBB next fall instead, it seems to me they denied themselves the opportunity to convince XXXX that AAAA was the right department for her.  (But I’m told that, at some departments, unpaid leave is not routinely granted as it is at UW.)

In case you hear someone say “XXXX accepted a job at AAAA and then reneged,” please let them know that the story is more complicated.

Update: Timeline above corrected to clarify that XXXX’s AAAA deadline coincided with her interview at BBBB; she didn’t interview at BBBB after already having accepted AAAA, as the original version suggested.

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New faculty at Wisconsin

We’re fortunate enough at Wisconsin to have an administration that understands countercyclical hiring, and as a result I’m happy to report we have four new faculty members joining us next year.

  • Scott Armstrong works in PDE.  He gave a beautiful job talk explaining how to construct viscosity solutions f to an equation with some boundary conditions by probabilistic means; f is the expected stopping time of a “Brownian motion game” in which two players “push” a Brownian process, the game ending when one player successfully pushes the process to the boundary.
  • Tullia Dymarz is a geometric group theorist who is a master of the coarse geometry of groups (that is, the properties that are preserved by quasi-isometries.)  Her job talk featured Cayley graphs made out of multicolored pipe cleaners.
  • Shamgar Gurevich is a geometric representation theorist who likes to talk about representations of Lie groups, perverse sheaves, and … wait for it… applications to signal processing and structural analysis of proteins!
  • Richard Kent is a topologist specializing in hyperbolic geometry and mapping class groups.  On his web page you can find, behind a link only slightly smaller than the one for his publication list, his recipe for “Holy Crap Coleslaw.”

A great list of young mathematicians.  Gurevich and Kent will be here in the fall, Armstrong and Dymarz are on leave until 2011.

Update: I completely forgot to mention that we have one more offer outstanding!  Should “number 5” accept, I’ll make another post.

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