How math departments hire faculty
I just got back from a stimulating trip to Stony Brook to give the math colloquium there. I had a great time thanks to my gracious host Jason Starr (this guy, not this guy), and besides giving my talk (which I will give again in San Diego at the joint meetings next month) I enjoyed two conversations about the field of math which I think could be turned into data science projects. Maybe Ph.D. theses or something.
First, a system for deciding whether a paper on the arXiv is “good.” I will post about that on another day because it’s actually pretty involved and possible important.
Second is the way people hire in math departments. This conversation will generalize to other departments, some more than others.
So first of all, I want to think about how the hiring process actually works. There are people who look at folders of applicants, say for tenure-track jobs. Since math is a pretty disjointed field, a majority of the folders will only be understood well enough for evaluation purposes by a few people in the department.
So in other words, the department naturally splits into clusters more or less along field lines: there are the number theorists and then there are the algebraic geometers and then there are the low-dimensional topologists, say.
Each group of people reads the folders from the field or fields that they have enough expertise in to understand. Then from among those they choose some they want to go to bat for. It becomes a political battle, where each group tries to convince the other groups that their candidates are more qualified. But of course it’s really hard to know who’s telling the honest truth. There are probably lots of biases in play too, so people could be overstating their cases unconsciously.
Some potential problems with this system:
- if you are applying to a department where nobody is in your field, nobody will read your folder, and nobody will go to bat for you, even if you are really great. An exaggeration but kinda true.
- in order to be convincing that “your guy is the best applicant,” people use things like who the advisor is or which grad school this person went to more than the underlying mathematical content.
- if your department grows over time, this tends to mean that you get bigger clusters rather than more clusters. So if you never had a number theorist, you tend to never get one, even if you get more positions. This is a problem for grad students who want to become number theorists, but that probably isn’t enough to affect the politics of hiring.
So here’s my data science plan: test the above hypotheses. I said them because I think they are probably true, but it would be not be impossible to create the dataset to test them thoroughly and measure the effects.
The easiest and most direct one to test is the third: cluster departments by subject by linking the people with their published or arXiv’ed papers. Watch the department change over time and see how the clusters change and grow versus how it might happen randomly. Easy peasy lemon squeazy if you have lots of data. Start collecting it now!
The first two are harder but could be related to the project of ranking papers. In other words, you have to define “is really great” to do this. It won’t mean you can say with confidence that X should have gotten a job at University Y, but it would mean you could say that if X’s subject isn’t represented in University Y’s clusters, then X’s chances of getting a job there, all other things being equal, is diminished by Z% on average. Something like that.
There are of course good things about the clustering. For example, it’s not that much fun to be the only person representing a field in your department. I’m not actually passing judgment on this fact, and I’m also not suggesting a way to avoid it (if it should be avoided).