Job season is upon us. Now is probably a good time to give applicants (and letter writers!) a few pointers. Of course, there are many other sources of advice on this topic, so let me try to narrow the focus on suggestions that you might not find elsewhere.
But first, I am contractually obligated (and also happy) to remind you all to make sure all your best graduate students (in all fields) apply for a Dickson Instructorship at Chicago. Occasionally people get the impression that our deadline is November 1st. In fact, that is merely the date after which we are allowed to start reading recommendations. In reality, committee members will most likely start reading the files over Thanksgiving break, so definitely try to have all your materials (and letters of recommendation) submitted by then. In contrast, some of the public schools (including the UC system, correct me if I’m wrong) have hard application deadlines. In those cases, it is vital that you submit your application before the deadline (it doesn’t need to be complete, just submitted).
I’m applying (or writing a letter) for the second year in a row. Any tips? A number of people apply when they have an extra year remaining in their current position to a limited number of schools. I don’t know enough game theory to evaluate this strategy, but the scales are definitely tipped in favor of doing this when two body problems are involved. But be warned! There is a technical issue on mathjobs which arises which you almost definitely will not be able to anticipate as an applicant. It is the following. When a letter writer submits a letter of recommendation to mathjobs, there is a default setting on how long that letter can be viewed. And for some ridiculous reason, that time period is something like 18 months. A letter writer can, and I do, change the default period to any date one wants (I usually make the letter expire sometime during the following summer). But not all of your letter writers seem to realize this! That means that when you go to apply the following year, your mathjobs listing will have your letters from the current year AND your letters from the previous year, unless your letter writer actively makes the effort to delete the old letter. The first thing this signals to those reading your letters is that you applied the previous year. This on its own is not so bad. However, it is very often the case that the letter in year N+1 is pretty much identical to the letter in year N. And that does give the impression that the applicant hasn’t really done anything in the previous twelve months. The worst aspect of this problem is that there is not really any way for the candidate prevent it, beyond warning their letter writers about the problem. So this is mostly a reminder for letter writers who are writing for the second time in two years: make sure you delete/replace your letters from the previous year! (Or do make sure your secretaries do this on your behalf, if that’s how you roll.)
Should I write to people at universities letting them know about my application? This is generally considered a worthwhile thing to do, because, even in cases in which you are not offered the job, it does give a way of letting people know about your research. In the other direction, a suitably customized and genuine email can let the relevant people know that you might accept a position if you are offered one. A few caveats, however. I appreciate letters which let me know about an application but don’t require a response. Secondly, there should be some synergy between your own research and the person you are writing to, otherwise it looks a little like you are just spamming everyone. Finally, there should be something at least slightly realistic about your application, especially for more senior positions. (But slightly is good enough.)
How many letters do I really need? Let’s specialize now to the case of postdoc applications, although some of this also applies to tenure track letters. This definitely a case where “more” is usually not “better.” Counting the teaching letter separately, a first approximation would be as follows:
Four shalt thou not count, neither count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out.
Here’s the problem with having (say) six letters. Most of the time, as a graduate student, there are not going to be six people who know your thesis work really well. Maybe you feel your application looks a little fancier because Professor Fancy McBoatface agreed to write for you, even though you just had that one conversation at a conference. But then the first letter people will click on will be from Professor McBoatface, which will say something like “I chatted with X at a conference once, it seems like they are doing something interesting, although I don’t know the work very well.” Basically, too many letters will dilute the message. Of course, it does look good if you can get a strong letter from a well known expert who is not at your university, but that is much more likely to happen if you have had some genuine sustained mathematical interaction with that person, rather than some fleeting interaction. (I had letters out of graduate school from Kevin Buzzard, with whom I was writing a paper, and René Schoof, who visited Berkeley for a semester and with whom my interaction was directly related to part of my thesis.) There are circumstances in which there is someone (say your advisor) who has to write for you, but for some reason you suspect that their letter may not be as strong as you would like; that’s one justifiable reason to hedge with an extra letter. But in the end, the people who are going to write the strongest letters for you are probably going to be the people who know your work the best.