1. What mathematical activities? What level of rigor?
The math job application process is described in more pragmatic detail in many places, for example here or here. This post will focus on the interior experience of applying. You must write a research statement, which is a sort of demonstration of ability with rigorous logic. You must write a teaching statement, which is less rigorous and more personal. There is a lot of non-rigorous soul-searching, about what job would be best, what the future might hold, is mathematics really worth doing?
In a way, you apply your mathematical problem-solving skills to the problem of getting a job. This requires researching different mathematical lifestyles, asking yourself good questions, methodically clarifying your wants and abilities, and articulating these in the application materials. It’s a sort of math problem, but with your life.
2. What relevant interactions with other mathematicians?
As a grad student, it’s not clear what life is like as a postdoc, or a professor, or someone working in industry. So there’s lots of question-asking. Getting career advice is also fun. Maybe editing and proof-reading help.
3. How does it feel, what is the mood?
For me there were lots of ups and downs. It’s necessary to balance an artificial, constructed hubris with humility and longing. I could work myself up into a high mood of idealism, dreaming about the future, being excited for change. I could also exhaust myself with low moods of fear, competition, existential crisis, and administrative fatigue. It’s important to be passionate and indifferent at the same time.
4. What state of mind? stable vs. chaotic? focused vs. dispersed?
In fact, my mind was focused on the applications, a determined focus to make the best applications possible. There was not much clarity about my desires and hopes for the future, more of a two-month tunnel vision centered on application paperwork. I figured I could apply first, and then think about what I wanted; I don’t know if this was the best strategy. Gradually, this determination and focus left my mind confused and drained.
5. What type of self-reflection during the experience, and did it help?
It was extremely helpful to recognize that I would have to balance artificial, constructed hubris with my more genuine and self-reflective longing and confusion. Holding this contradiction in my awareness, I could present myself as passionate, confident, and all around really awesome, and could get excited for a range of possible futures, while also recognizing how humbled and confused I also felt. In a sense, I could self-reflect on the self-reflection that the job application process was stirring up, and give it a space to unfold. Gradually, on its own schedule, some clarity did emerge about what I wanted for my future.
6. An everyday metaphor for the experience?
Everyone (hopefully) knows what it’s like to apply for a job. However, applying for an academic math job is a little unique. I applied to over a hundred positions, and received rejections that explained they had over 600 applicants for a single opening. So chances there were worse than flipping a coin and getting 9 heads in a row.
Furthermore, the job cycle is almost a full year. So applying for an academic math job is like writing someone else’s application for a job that starts a year later. Who will you be and what will you have actually accomplished by the time that job starts? That’s who you must present in the application.
7. An example of a good day and a bad day?
On a good day the application material looks good and well-written. On a bad day, it feels like I’m spending hours applying for jobs I don’t want.
8. What did you do when you were stuck?
It was always nice to return to doing actual math, research or teaching, rather than just writing about it. I found it really helpful to discuss plans, and vent, with friends and family who knew me well.
9. When and why did it end?
No matter how exhausting and nerve-wracking the application process is, at least it has specific deadlines. You know it will end at some point, hopefully with an accepted job offer.