Never applied for a job

John Conway explained in an interview that he’s never applied for an academic job.

I am rather proud of the fact that, in some sense, I never applied for an academic position in my life. What happened: I was walking down King’s Parade, the main street in Cambridge, after I received my Ph.D. The chairman of the mathematics department said, “Oh, Conway, what have you done about applying for jobs? And I said, “Nothing.” “I thought that might be the answer,” he said, “Well, we have a position in our department, and I think you should apply.” And I said, “How do I apply?” And he said, “You write a letter to me.” And I said, “What should I put in that letter?” Then he lost his patience, pulled out of his pocket a letter — which had been written on one side — turned it over, and scribbled “Dear Professor Cassels” — that was his name — “I wish to apply for dot-dot-dot.” He handed it to me, and I signed it. It would have been nice if I’d gotten the job. I didn’t that year, but I got the same job the next year with the same letter.

13 thoughts on “Never applied for a job

  1. It is a matter of context. Back in the sixties and seventies, lots of college graduates never had to apply for a job. They were often literally recruited while on campus, or they merely had to fill out a form.

    So lots of educated people in their sixties have no idea what it is to compete for an entry level position.

    There were serious shortages of people with PhDs in the 60s and 70s… and even as early as the 80s… Schools had to offer attractive packages to recruit even just a warm body with a PhD.

  2. If you never apply for a job (and fail), you don’t know how far you might have gone! :)

  3. @Daniel : do you feel that the situation has changed on the side of the phds, or is it that diminishing return in academia, in that there are less low hanging fruits in random places ?

    I somehow believe that talent is still scarce and valuable, in some areas at least, and that we get fooled by the inflation of titles. i’d love to find more accurate sources to confirm or infirm that

  4. Nice.

    John Conway saying “I never applied for an academic position in my life” is a pun waiting to happen…

  5. Another significant factor is that the “old boys network” was much more predominant decades ago. These days, nobody gets a job just by having their advisor place one phone call, but back then, it was commonplace. If you tried doing that today, you would get nailed for violating anti-discrimination laws.

  6. Also, we have to remember that this is John Conway, a person who has independently made himself well-known throughout the statistical and data science communities. Would he have had the same experience if he was more obscure? I doubt it.

  7. Here is an anecdote to illustrate Daniel’s point.

    My father finished his PhD in the late 1960s. He received some cold-letter offers for open professorships as there were more openings than graduates. In the late 1990s when I was finishing my degree we had a faculty opening in the department. There were (no kidding) about 1000 applicants.


  8. I might have been one of those 1000 applicants, except I was applying more in the mid ’90s. Same job market.

    There were lots of Russian mathematicians coming to the US at the time. One university first turned me down, then invited me for an interview saying that they had re-evaluated their candidates, placing more emphasis on English fluency. I don’t begrudge universities for scooping cheap talent. But I thought it was amusing that at least one school decided that perhaps their professors should be able to speak the language of their students.

  9. Academia can be interesting that way. I worked with two different professors as an undergrad in physics and both were pretty open to offer a range of projects rather than expect you to know/understand the subfield enough to be able to come with an area yourself.

    As a 3rd year physics student I asked around (actually the first prof I asked) for a summer RA job. Ended up the prof asked me what I wanted to do. Ie. “do you have a job for me”, “yes what job would you like?” Anyways a fantastic learning opportunity and a great guy to work with.

    Turned out, and I wasn’t aware of this at the time but the guy is pretty world reknowned in his niche corner of condensed matter physics to the point where he within a couple years had moved on to Princton and then full professionship at Stanford. Kind of lucked out there looks good on a resume that I have primary author on a couple publications with him as a co-author. Another way he was a nice guy: he didn’t care or try to take all the credit it was pretty much: you were the one working on this 8hrs a day while I popped in a couple hours a week. Help me get the data together and I’ll write it up and submit it with you as primary. Sweet :)

  10. I’ve turned down TA offers. Ouch! Silly me.

    I don’t do more than send a resume. If they want more, they don’t want me. My wife insisted that I apply at a school district for an internet slot, but you had to be a certified teacher. That app was 3 inches thick. No, did not happen. Just as well.

    But, those TA slots came with latter-day regrets give my current crawl through a work desert.

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