Thursday, May 17, 2012

The job hunt

Looking for a job with a specialized degree like mathematics can be tough.  There really are not as many jobs in the U.S. as it may seem.  I can always remember hearing "we need more people studying math and science."  Because of this, there seems to be this perception that there are a million jobs out there with no one to fill them.  I'm sure if my degree were in statistics, financial probability, or optimization, I could easily find a job in some corporate or engineering-related field.  But for someone like me, the situation is quite different.

I am what they call a "pure" mathematician.  This is in comparison to an "applied" mathematician.  An applied mathematician studies math to solve problems related to the real world, things like ocean currents, satellite communications, etc.  A pure mathematician works on solving problems that are of interest to the field of mathematics.  The discoveries of a pure mathematician may apply to some of these real world situations, but studying those applications is left to other people.  An organization like Google, Microsoft, IBM, or the NSA may want to hire a pure mathematician; they have identified mathematical problems they want solved, and then they will use their engineers to worry about actually applying the results.  Companies like Lockheed-Martin or NASA probably would only want an applied mathematician, maybe even someone with an engineering or physics background.

The three types of jobs that would be available:

1: Government- This would be if I were to either work researching for an organization like the NSA or funded as a researcher by some government program.

2: Industry- This would be a job from some private company, doing research.

3: Academic- This would be a job as a professor or researcher at a University.
Of course, finding a job in these areas is also restricted by the kind of math I do.

Getting a math job for the government is difficult in the U.S.  There are only a few agencies that would hire a pure mathematician; these would either be the National Science Foundation, or one of the agencies related to defense such as the NSA.  The NSF primarily offers highly competitive research grants.  To apply for these, I would come up with some sort of project to propose, write up the details, explain why they should throw a bunch of money at it, and convince them that I am awesome enough to get this project done.  The NSA, on the other hand, specializes in highly paid positions requiring security clearance and a strict "I could tell you but I'd have to kill you" policy.

What this means for me is that, if I were to stay in the country, I would be pursuing an academic job.  This is where it becomes most apparent that we are not really suffering from a lack of mathematicians: each academic job opening gets somewhere near 300 applicants.  This generates a cycle where PhD graduates feel like they have to apply for around 200 positions, hoping the numbers work out in their favor to get a job.  I'll explain more in another post about actually applying for these jobs, and the different kinds of academic jobs.  In a nutshell, a lot of these positions aren't really jobs I would want for a variety of reasons and I see it as a waste of time to apply for a job I wouldn't take.

This is a "to be continued" sort of post.  Next time I'll explain the application process, why some of these jobs would be terrible for me, and why the grass is probably greener overseas.

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