The Unapologetic Mathematician

Mathematics for the interested outsider

Reading tea leaves

What? Has the UM gone in for tasseography? No, but that’s about the level of reliable information available in the job market.

Last fall I applied at 85 schools for something like 130 different jobs overall. Of course, each one only has a handful of possible slots, so the whole thing’s a long series of shots in the dark.

Here’s how the application procedure works. You see an ad for a job. You write up a letter of application and assemble the materials the school wants. You send them in, either over the internet or through the mail, and wait.

And you wait.

And you wait.

And there’s really nothing to do and almost no information comes back down the pipe unless it’s a confirmation that your materials were received or an early no.

So yesterday I was surprised to get an email from one place I applied. Their application deadline was the 8th, so this is two weeks along — a bit late for just confirming that they got my stuff. It didn’t say the words “short list” though, which would explicitly indicate passing the first cut, and it didn’t try to set up a job talk (tenure-track jobs, like this one, usually have you come out to the school to give a talk and interview with various people), so i have no idea what it means. Basically all I have to go on is a phrase I’ve heard other applicants mention last year: “Are you still interested in the position?”

I’ve asked around the department and signals are mixed. Does this indicate a shortlisting? Does the two-week delay? Ask two mathematicians and you’ll get three answers.

I’m left feeling like there’s a whole sub rosa protocol in place that somehow I’ve missed hearing about.


January 25, 2007 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. It’s a bit hard to tell without knowing the exact wording, but my guess is that it was just a ‘we got your stuff’ note. Keeping in mind the volume of applications that office staff are wading through at the moment, two weeks doesn’t seem like that long a delay before sending such a thing out. (Also, lots of places don’t send them out at all, which I think is pretty tacky, so better late than never.)

    Conversely, any kind of shortlist-notification could only come after the hiring committee had looked at all (or most of) the files, and two weeks is almost certainly not enough time for them to do that.

    Comment by Graham | January 31, 2007 | Reply

  2. Thanks for the input. I’m trying not to read it as anything at all. There are just far too many variables. What’s the exact wording of the email? What was the exact wording of the ad? How many people did they actually get? And so on, and so forth… Tea leaves.

    Comment by John Armstrong | January 31, 2007 | Reply

  3. […] email from the job search I just got another email from the school I mentioned last Thursday. This one still didn’t say the magic words, “short list”, but it basically seems […]

    Pingback by Another email from the job search « The Unapologetic Mathematician | February 2, 2007 | Reply

  4. I got a similar email this week from a department (history) to which I have applied. It is as cryptic as your. Here is what it said: “Our search committee for a tenure-track position in Religion and History at [Cool]
    College is in the process of compiling a short list of candidates to invite for campus interviews. Before making our final list, we wanted to know if you were still interested in the position. Could you reply to this e-mail to let us know? Thanks very much!”

    Any one want to take a stab at what that means?

    Comment by Costanza | February 8, 2007 | Reply

  5. Well, in your case they used the magic words, “short list”. I’d read that as “you’re on the short list unless you say you’re not interested anymore.”

    Comment by John Armstrong | February 8, 2007 | Reply

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