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    I'd like to rant about how poor the MO community is in giving career and teaching advice.

    What brought about this rant today is the question on thinking about REU projects for the job market. Currently, the two most upvoted answers are both by mathematicians who have probably never applied for a teaching college position (except maybe the very top liberal arts colleges) in their whole life. They are indeed both fine and useful answers (even if they don't directly address the question), and indeed I do know that both mathematicians know more about these matters than their CVs might indicate, but having them as the most upvoted answers seems to me to be a lack of judgment if not worse by the community.

    In general, despite the best efforts of some people around who do know more (and indeed far more than I do), it seems that the MO community might understand what goes on at Wisconsin or Oregon or even Oklahoma State, but it has no clue about what goes on at Valparaiso or Saginaw Valley State or Endicott. This is understandable; most people here don't know much about what happens at those places. However, there is a general tendency to give advice as if such places simply do not exist, never mentioning that the advice is strictly limited to the better universities. At best this failure to note our ignorance strikes me as quite misleading, and at worst, it strikes me as contemptuous, giving the air that when we teach or give advice we only should worry about the best students and the research universities, leaving the weaker students and the more teaching oriented schools with their own distinctive missions to fend for themselves.

    In our research, given the nature of pure mathematics, we can only address ourselves to other people in the research community. When we teach or advise, formally or informally, however, we have a responsibility to everyone in the room, not just the current and future research mathematicians.
    • CommentAuthorYemon Choi
    • CommentTimeSep 12th 2011

    Perhaps I am missing the point, especially since I am half-asleep as I write, but your 1st and 2nd paras seem to be making two slightly different claims/complaints. The 1st is about the quality of advice given; the 2nd is about the big number of upvotes, and hence perhaps about the "collective poor judgment" evinced by "the MO community".

    I would guess that the likes of JSE can only give advice on that which they have encountered, and not on what they have not encountered. So is your complaint about the absence of balancing advice, or more relevant advice; or about The Fools Who Vote Things Up That Shouldn't Be Voted Up So Much Dammit, or ... ?


    It's a fine rant.

    Let me add the observation that not only do some of us have little idea what goes on at Valparaiso or Saginaw Valley State, some of us also have little idea what goes on at Wisconsin or Oregon, and some of us don't even know what REU means. That's because some of us haven't spent much time in the US. I'm sure the US is the best-represented country on MO, so that even discussions steeped in American educational terminology attract plenty of participants. The rest of us have probably picked up quite a lot about the American system - e.g. I think I know that REU is some kind of undergraduate summer project, I think that the R in R1 stands for "research", and I guess the "1" is somehow good. But sometimes entire discussions happen without it being acknowledged that not everyone on this international forum works in the US, which is ever so slightly wearying, and also doesn't cast the participants in the best light.

    • CommentAuthorvoloch
    • CommentTimeSep 12th 2011
    Maybe MO is not the appropriate forum for these US-specific career questions and thus, they should be discouraged. The American Mathematical Society (Tom, I was about to write AMS :-)) runs a graduate student blog on its website. That should be the right venue for these kind of questions.
    • CommentAuthorDavid White
    • CommentTimeSep 12th 2011 edited
    As the OP, I figured I should come on here and defend the question. But actually, it doesn't look like the question is really being attacked. @voloch: these types of questions have come up plenty of times before on MO. I don't have an account on the AMS blog, and I don't know anyone in that community. Conversely, I know MO and I know whose opinions to value here. Additionally, this seems like a question which established mathematicians are better suited to answer than grad students, e.g. those who have been on hiring committees, run REUs, applied to many jobs, etc. I already asked other grad students about this, and none could answer. So that's why I posted here rather than on the AMS blog.

    @Tom Leinster and the International Crowd: I edited the question to make it clearer and define my terms. Your advice is also welcome, especially if my assumptions about undergraduate research in other countries is wrong.

    @Alexander Woo: I appreciate your rant, having gone to Bowdoin for undergrad and now Wesleyan for grad school. I wish these places were more visible to the community at large, but there's not much I can do about it. I also appreciate your answer to the question. My experience with these advice questions is that mostly people give pretty decent advice and a given MO users votes up every answer. This means whoever posted first (or is famous) gets voted high whether or not their answer is really better than the others. However, as time goes on this tends to even out. For instance, at this moment you have 5 votes and the top has 7. I'll bet at least 3 of your 5 votes also voted for the others, which means it'll take longer for your answer to rise in the ranks. However, I fully expect your answer will continue to gain on the others and overtake them, because it's a really good answer. So my response is mostly: give it time. As for JSE, I value his answer as well because I may be applying for post-docs at a Wisconsin or an Oregon or even an Oklahoma State. If my research sky-rockets then I may even be applying for more permanent jobs there.

    EDIT: No one yet has linked to the question:
    • CommentAuthorquid
    • CommentTimeSep 12th 2011

    I am surprised this career advice question causes discussion, as IMO it is one of the best I have seen in a long time on MO (despite it could still be more explicit on some details) as it seems well-balanced between spefic and general.

    Personally, I am not from the US or North America (and never been there except for short visits), so I share Tom Leinster's point of view that it would be nice if some 'obvious' things would be spelled out. However, it somehow seems to me this might even be good for everybody as it seems (possibly in error) that different people answering are talking about a bit different things (cf. below)

    Regarding voloch's remark, my opinion is yes and no. Yes, in the sense that one can be of the opinion that career-advice question should never be on MO. No, in the sense, what if not US-specific ones (I doubt there are many meaningful and globally applicable career-advice questions)?

    Now for the unclear (to me) point: I was under the impression that a REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) is something quite specific (to convey what I mean, a well-known one is run by Joe Gallian) and thus the question does not include all forms of research (or research-like) activity invlolving undergraduates.

    And, some of the answers seem to focus on this specific form, since this seems to be ask. So, that to me the summary so far seems to be: the specifc REUs might not be that relevant, but keep in mind other research activities involving undergraduates. But perhaps I got this wrong. In any case, I'd be curious to get a clarification (though it is an idle curiosity).

    p.s. This is written pre-David White's edit and comment; I'll update in case it seems needed.

    • CommentAuthorquid
    • CommentTimeSep 12th 2011

    Hi David,

    just a couple of remarks.

    1. The opinion on career-advice questions is quite mixed. (As I said, personally I consider yours a really good one.) Yes, they are around on MO, but various people believe they actually should not be (see also this blog post of Ben Webster ).

    2. Regarding the voting. In my opinion CW invites the type of voting you describe as slightly problematic. And, as said, I think such a question thus should not be CW.

    3. Believing to be somewhat informed on PostDocs in Europe (or let us say continental west-central Europe, think France, Germany, but not UK) I think your idea that willingness to supervise undergraduate research activities won't be relevant for this is correct. On the one hand, the idea of undergraduate research is not wide spread (and some people even consider this as a 'bad idea'). On the other hand, typically one will not expect much (or any) student-related activity of whatever form from a PostDoc. Depending on the precise circumstance it could happen that you become involved in something along these lines; but then this should develop naturally and not be a criterion for the recrutement. This assumes we are speaking about an actual PostDoc and not a temporary (teaching) position; but even in that case the teaching then would rather be standard teaching (and rather this is not the type of position to which one hires a candidate from abroad, but one that will be familiar with the given system). [The 'not UK' means that I am not familiar with the UK-system and in some aspects I perceive it as sufficiently different to not generalize to it; yet this should not mean that it is different in this aspect, actually I rather doubt it, only that I do not know.]

    1) I didn't mean to rant only about the votes on the answers to this question, though it was the votes on answers to this question that was the proximate cause of the rant.

    2) When I posted, my answer was new and so of course it didn't have many votes. I was more complaining on behalf of Bill Cook's answer. There is a question whose main focus is on applying to jobs at small teaching-oriented schools. Do you trust the answer from someone at the University of Wisconsin, the University of Minnesota, the University of Idaho, or Appalachian State University? Well, duh! (Okay - people not in the US wouldn't know, but I would also expect them not to vote because they know they don't know.)

    3) There is a broader-than-MO rant in here somewhere but I'll save it for another time.
    • CommentAuthorquid
    • CommentTimeSep 12th 2011

    Alexander Woo, in my opinion the voting on soft questions in particular but voting more generally seems sufficiently unreflected that I would not draw too many conclusions from it; I mean, a picture of a cat just received something like 50 upvotes.


    Alexander Woo wrote:

    There is a broader-than-MO rant in here somewhere but I'll save it for another time.

    Preferably also for somewhere other than meta.MO...

    PS: Everybody take a walk outside and enjoy some fresh air before this degenerates further...


    Everybody take a walk outside and enjoy some fresh air before this degenerates further...

    Not everybody, please! If you're in Scotland (as I am), it may be better to stay indoors.


    +1 Tom. Perhaps for US-specific career related questions we can have a US tag. For European-specific and Europe flag. This would help future people looking for advice: just search for [career] and [US]/[Europe] (or even [Australia] :-). Not everyone may be looking for help on a specific topic (like e.g. the REU).

    • CommentAuthorquid
    • CommentTimeSep 12th 2011

    What I would appreciate is if people were just aware that someone with a somewhat different background might read the system-specific question and be actually interested in them. So inclusion of some short explanation here and there or at least avoiding acronyms and alike (if feasible).

    To give an example: I believe to have a reasonably good idea what a Liberal Arts College is; yet it took me a while to figure out what LAC was supposed to mean in JSE's answer. Or also the R1, is this top 20, top 50, ... , everything with a PhD programme.

    And, as an aside, one Europe tag would be way too broad; the academic systems of, say, France, Germany, UK do not have that much in common.



    And, as an aside, one Europe tag would be way too broad; the academic systems of, say, France, Germany, UK do not have that much in common.

    good point. Being from the other side of the world, I think it would be good to include this metadata in career-type questions. If I were to try and get into a northern-hemisphere system, I would appreciate all the help I could get. There aren't (many) handy local experts to walk us antipodeans through such intricacies.

    • CommentAuthorKConrad
    • CommentTimeSep 12th 2011
    To follow up on quid's latest comment, I'm from the US and I didn't recognize the abbreviation LAC at first. I had never seen it before.