This post is Part 1 of a series of posts on my own twists and turns searching for academic jobs in mathematics. This post is about my first round on the job hunt, during my last year in grad school, and it is, as many other such accounts, a roller-coaster of proud accomplishments and soul-crushing rejection letters.
Defend the Thesis and Apply for Jobs, with a Twist
If you ask any math PhD about their first round of applying for academic jobs, they will almost surely answer with an emotional roller-coaster ride of a story. As I mentioned in a previous post (How to Apply for Academic Jobs in Math), the unfortunate reality of finding a job is that the job hunt is stressful, a very long, drawn-out process, with uncertain results, and very hard to go through, for you and your loved ones around you.
Perhaps, a bit peculiar to my own case is that in addition to the stress of the job search and finishing my thesis, I added a wedding on top of everything else: I got married on a Saturday, and defended my thesis two days later, on a Monday. As the reader may have guessed, I was really close to a nervous breakdown by the end of it all.
Why would anyone in their right mind combine a wedding and a thesis defense, you ask? Well, my family lives in Spain, and they very much wanted to be part of both events. However, traveling twice within a year was out of the question (travel cost, limited vacation days), so we decided that it would be best to celebrate the wedding and defend the thesis within days of each other, in order to maximize family attendance to both events.
As ill-conceived as that plan might sound, in the Fall of my last year in grad school when the plans were crafted, I was young, single, and naive, and I was very excited about the prospect of obtaining my PhD, getting married, getting my first job, and having my entire family and closest friends visit for a couple of weeks in the Spring to celebrate everything in one epic party. What could go wrong?
Anyone who has planned a wedding or applied for jobs or prepared a thesis defense can tell you all the things that would go wrong. If only those people had put together an intervention to tell me what a stupid idea was to try to coordinate these life-changing events at the same time…
All I will say here about organizing a (fairly large) wedding in Boston, in the span of less than seven months, is that it is a challenge I do not wish on my worst enemies. To everyone’s surprise, including my own, I cared way too much about every single wedding detail, so much so that I became the “groomzilla” no one talks about in wedding movies. But this blog is no place to rehash my angry fights with the florist, so let us move on.
Let us instead back track to the Fall, when I started working on the graduating and job application process.
When I first applied for jobs (early 2000’s), one would go department website by department website, and find out if they were hiring. If so, the applicant would send a manila envelope by snail mail, with their printed-out materials, including a customized cover letter. Thankfully, the Boston University math department’s staff (thanks, Angela!) consolidated my materials into envelopes, so I just had to supply a set of labels with the addresses of the departments that would receive my package.
I just checked my records, and I had applied to at least 60 jobs from October to February. I never heard from any of them except for the occasional formal rejection letter, and a very few personalized rejection messages. I was crushed.
I was perfectly aware of my own potential, and I knew well that many prestigious postdocs were a reach, at best, for someone with my credentials. But I had applied to many, many places (including UConn!), and I couldn’t even conceive that I would not hear positively from a single institution. I was devastated. My advisor encouraged me to persevere and continue looking for jobs, and keep applying. So I did. My advisor also told me that, if I did not get a job by May, then I could extend my graduate studies by a year (even if I defended my thesis, we would delay the submission of the dissertation by a year). It was comforting to know that I had such a safety net to fall back on, but it would be a bitter pill to swallow, since my family was coming over to see me defend my thesis in April.
The weeks leading to the wedding and the defense were extraordinarily hectic, and truly a series of unfortunate events. My family and friends, most of which had never been to the USA, arrived a week before the wedding. Thankfully, I prepared and practiced my thesis defense before their arrival, because once they landed, I had no time to myself. Moreover, everything that could go wrong, went wrong. One of my friends was detained for a day by immigration officers at the airport as soon as she landed because her name matched a terrorist’s name (a very common name). Another friend lost his passport and wallet. Unusual torrential rains alternated with the usual cold wet April Boston weather. Half of the Spanish guests were to stay at a house by the ocean, and the day I drove them all in a van to the house, I forgot to bring the key to the house. No big deal, except that our van got stuck in the mud (did I mention torrential rains?) and we all got drenched in dirt from head to toe until we managed to get the van out of the mud pit. The same cursed van, late on the eve of the wedding, got a flat tire. The day of the wedding, half of the wedding party (including my parents) got lost on their way back from a hair appointment and barely made it on time to the ceremony. Argghhh!
If I was a superstitious man, I would have thought that the signs warning me against this wedding were unmistakable. However, once we all miraculously made it to the church, just in time, the tide turned in our favor, and there were no more unfortunate events. The wedding was in fact wonderful and we all had an insane amount of fun during the banquet.
Two days later, I defended my thesis. A large contingent of family members and friends attended the actual thesis defense. As far as I know, my defense was the first one at BU to feature an introduction in Spanish for the sake of the audience, with the permission of my thesis committee. The presentation went according to plan, and I satisfactory answered all the questions that the committee members had for me. Afterwards, we celebrated at a nearby bar, with pool tables, drinks, friends, family, grad school buddies, committee members. Ah, the memories.
I defended successfully in early April, but I had no job prospects. None.
By late April, I had given up, and I had resigned myself to staying an extra year in grad school and start applying all over again the following Fall. My wife and I went on a mini honeymoon for a few days (the real honeymoon would be later in June) and when we came back, I had a message from someone at Colby College (Waterville, ME) waiting for me. Apparently, they tried to contact me the very first day I was away on our trip, and they were about to move on to the next candidate when I returned from our mini-vacation and got back to them. The job was a one-year visiting position (potentially renewable for two years), and I was invited for an on-campus job interview.
With the help of my advisor, I prepared for my job interview, where I had to give a talk to the Colby undergrads (of course, about elliptic curves). Also, during the interview, they asked me about my teaching and tutoring experience, because part of the job would be running their “Calculus Afterhours” program (Calculus help sessions). Thankfully, my experience as a mentor in the PROMYS for Teachers program was exactly what they wanted to hear.
Shortly after my return back home, I got a phone call from Tom Berger, the Colby math chair at the time, with the good news. They wanted to offer me the job.
Was this the right job for me? Certainly, it was not the job I had in mind when I started my search. Thus far I had only been associated to fairly large universities: Universidad Autonoma de Madrid (about 30,000 students), Imperial College London (about 17,000), and Boston University (about 32,000). Colby, on the other hand, enrolls about 1,800 students. Since I did not have any experience with small liberal arts colleges, I did not know what to expect. However, my advisor thought it was a good professional move, for two reasons. One, Colby is one of the best liberal arts colleges in the country, so the teaching experience at Colby would be a great addition to my resume. And two, Fernando Gouvêa works at Colby, so I would have a number theorist (and historian!) in the office next to mine.
I took the job, and even though this was my one and only one job offer, I am so glad it came through when it did. I had a great time at Colby, socially and professionally. It was in fact an eye-opening experience about the beauty of small liberal arts colleges. And even though I was only there for a year, I believe my time at Colby was highly influential in the way I teach, in the way I interact with students, and in the rest of my career, in no small part thanks to Fernando, and Tom.
The job market works in mysterious ways.