This is an attempt to give a rough outline of the timeline of the last year of a PhD in mathematics, especially with the eye on applying for US postdocs through MathJobs. I will say a few words about European postdocs as well.
This is the type of information I wish I had available before I started the process, so I’m hoping it may be of help to some people. I take full responsibility for all inaccuracies; but if you do find that this information is incorrect or incomplete, let me know in the comments below!
Preparing your material.
Of course the correct time to start preparing your material depends on a lot of factors, including the timing of your first application deadline. I personally think it can’t hurt to start thinking about letter writers and get started on your research and teaching statements at the beginning of the summer, but I also know people who only really get started after the summer. At the very least, talk to your advisor early to make a plan for the hiring season (some advisors will provide more guidance than others).
An important thing to keep in mind is that everything takes time. You want to give your letter writers at least one months notice, if not two. But when you ask them, it’s good to have at least some draft of your research statement ready (although it might be ok to supply the final version a bit later, especially if you ask your references early). Some faculty only need one week to write a letter; others will take a bit more time with it (e.g. if they have a lot of commitments, or because they are more careful or meticulous with everything they do). Allow for extra time if you want a letter in the summer, as the professor you’re asking might be travelling or out of office.
If you’re going for the very early UK deadlines (see Deadlines below), this means that you should probably get started on your research statement by early July the latest, and preferably contact letter writers by that time, if not earlier.
A word on MathJobs.
Most US applications are facilitated by the MathJobs. This website run by the AMS contains a list of all academic jobs in mathematics (from postdoc to full-time faculty, at both research universities and more teaching-oriented colleges) of most US universities and institutes, as well as a few in other countries. You can also apply to a few non-academic jobs through MathJobs.
If you’re interested in positions outside the US, be aware that the procedures and requirements are often very different, which can be difficult to navigate. Few European postdoc positions are advertised on MathJobs, and the ones that are will probably receive significantly more applications than the ones that aren’t.
You can make an account when you start preparing your material, but not all jobs will be advertised yet by the beginning of September. Therefore, it’s also ok to wait until your first deadline gets a bit closer. It’s probably smart to have an account at least about a month before your first deadline, so that you have ample time to familiarise yourself with the website’s functionality, as well as to leave your references some time to upload their letters once you requested this.
You only have to submit most of your material once (e.g. one research statement, one teaching statement, one CV, one publication list, etc), with the exception of the cover letters that should be made individually for each application. Similarly, your references will only need to upload a letter once, and you can then choose which ones you want to include with each application.
Once your files are in the system, applying to a university is just a few clicks plus the preparation of a cover letter. If you’ve done a few, eventually this will take no more than 15-20 minutes for most universities (unless you want to prepare special materials for some places). In particular, once your material is ready and your references have uploaded their letters, you can apply to all universities you’re interested in.
You should apply to universities as early as possible, and not wait for the deadline to get close. This way, they can start reviewing your file, and be prepared when the official process starts. You can always update your material later; all positions you applied for will then see the new version only.
There are a lot of different choices you can make when you’re applying, and for most people not everything below will be relevant. Here are some key deadlines:
- Late August: deadlines for some Junior Research Fellow positions in the UK (especially Oxbridge colleges and some universities in London). These are positions for 3-4 years, often with no mandatory teaching requirement (you get paid for additional teaching). This is the earliest deadline that I’m aware of.
- Mid October: NSF deadline. This only applies to US students, but the NSF’s schedule dictates the overall timeline and some other aspects of the application process (see Offers below).
- September-early November: first university deadlines. There will be a few universities with early deadlines; e.g. Stony Brook used to be a bit earlier than the others. Specific deadlines for some of these universities can vary greatly from year to year, so I can’t make more precise statements.
- Mid November-early December: most top university deadlines. The vast majority of strong US universities, as well as a lot of other universities, have application deadlines between 15 November and 1 December. More universities follow gradually, but it seems to taper off after January 1.
- There will be more deadlines until as late as May, possibly even later. Many European institutes have later deadlines than their North-American counterparts, although it seems to become more common for European institutions to try to compete with American institutions for the top candidates.
There are also some special fellowships that you can only be nominated for. The most famous one is obviously the Clay Fellowship, but there are many others, like the Miller Fellowship. Some people ask their advisor to nominate them; it is not clear to me whether this is socially accepted, nor whether this is what the system was designed for. I did not do this myself, but it definitely happens. If you want to go down this route, you should familiarise yourself with the relevant deadlines.
The information below is largely based on the following answer on StackExchange. I strongly encourage you to read that post as well, because it contains more specific advice on what to do if certain scenarios do or do not happen.
Everything is coordinated by the AMS common deadline (late January) that is agreed by most US universities. This in turn is linked to the NSF announcement date: usually universities will not force you to accept an offer before a week or so after the NSF’s are announced.
- Late December-early January: first offers. It seems to be the case that only the top 10 or so US universities (if even that) give out offers before January 7.
- Mid January: a lot of universities will give their first offers in this period, and few top people will be making choices. The NSF’s are typically announced mid-late January as well, and everything is based on this.
- Late January: first decisions. Most first-round offers will be accepted or turned down now. This means that there will be a lot of activity, because universities want to try to get their top candidate before they accept an offer somewhere else. If you didn’t have an offer before, your chances are now increasing dramatically, because top applicants will be turning down offers if they have multiple.
- Early February-mid April: a lot more offers. There are still a lot of offers given out after the AMS common deadline. A big difference, however, is that these later offers typically give you less time to reply (sometimes only a few days). You might be able to stretch this a bit if you have other offers pending, but everything is moving quite fast now.
- 15 April: everything finalised. Just like with PhD applications, most universities will finalise their postdoc hiring by tax day (but usually much earlier).
There are often possibilities of deferring one offer for at most one year (although the NSF does not have this option), but once you accept an offer it’s considered bad form to back out again. Thus, even if you get a better offer three days after you accepted (e.g. because of a deadline), you should still go to the place whose offer you accepted. (There might be options to defer the other offer and quit your first position after a year; I don’t know what the acceptable practises for this are.)
Please note that the following should not be considered legal advise, and you should consult your current or future institution, or an immigration lawyer, with any visa questions.
If you are not a US national, there are a few options for postdoc visas (depending on the hosting institution). Most people will apply to one of the following:
- F-1 OPT (Optional Practical Training): if you have been an F-1 student in the US during your PhD, you may apply for Optional Practical Training for your postdoc. This is for 12 months plus a 24 month STEM extension, but you have to deduct any time you held a pre-completion OPT.
- J-1 Exchange visitor: this is the typical visa you would get if you did not have an F-1 prior to starting your postdoc. You could also apply for this if you did have an F-1, for instance if you want to bring a spouse or dependent on a J-2.
- H-1B specialty occupation: these are harder to get, and most universities will not offer these for postdocs. These are for three years (extendable to six), after which you have to apply for a Green Card if you want to stay.
If you are planning to stay in the US on your F-1 post-completion OPT, you should be aware of the rather complicated timeline. The following four statements turn out to be difficult to combine:
- You cannot apply for post-completion OPT more than 90 days before the end of your programme.
- It takes at least 3-4 months to process your application.
- After applying for OPT, you cannot enter the US unless you have your Employment Authorisation Document (EAD) in hand. It is strongly recommended you stay in the US until it arrives.
- The US Citizenship and Immigration Services do not send EADs to foreign addresses.
It is probably best to have a visa strategy ready by late February, so that you are ready to start the process by early March (assuming your programme ends late May or early June).
There are a lot of people applying around the same time, so the waiting time will increase dramatically if you wait even a few weeks. You should apply as early as you can.