# an engineering Ph.D. teaching math in college

I have a friend who has been teaching college-level math (e.g., all levels of calculus) for about 4 years, although all of his education, including his Ph.D., was in engineering. Now he is considering applying for tenure track jobs at teaching schools [edit: in the USA] and he is bemoaning the fact that nearly all the ads he sees include "Ph.D. in mathematics", rather than "Ph.D. in mathematics or related area" as a qualification. This raised a question which I don't have the experience to answer for him: are these ads, for tenure-track positions at schools that focus more on teaching, generally so serious about the Ph.D. in math that they would dismiss an application from someone with a Ph.D. in engineering instead of math? [Edit: What I have in mind here about there being a problem are legal obligations that the hiring committee would have to stick exactly to the letter, not the general spirit, of the ad. This is not LawyerOverflow, so examples of lawsuits over job ad wording are not necessary.]

While there are other aspects of his application which are more important for a teaching job (he gets fantastic teaching evaluations and also quickly learns how to use new educational technology), the only thing I'm wondering about on this friend's behalf is the Ph.D.-not-in-math issue and whether it's a deal breaker. [Edit: If someone knows explicit examples where it was not an issue, that would be interesting to hear about, although you can keep information about the school and the hire anonymized.]

(Of course you may ask how he got his first job teaching math and why he can't do the same thing he did then. His first teaching job was short-term, not tenure track, and his hiring had some idiosyncratic features that are unlikely to repeat themselves for the next teaching job.)

-
Ask some of the employers at the tenure track schools. They are likely to give the best answers to the question. Further, you or he should be able to ask them such a question without penalty. Gerhard "Ask Me About System Design" Paseman, 2010.09.08 – Gerhard Paseman Sep 8 '10 at 22:19
I think the question is kind of vague. "teaching schools" and "schools that focus more on teaching" could mean anything from a 2 year community college to an elite liberal arts 4 year school. These days many places that have a math major will want someone who can mentor undergraduate research. Most public institutions will be legally bound by the advertisement. Particularly since the friend seems to be male, the affirmative action office will raise the question of why women in the pool with math PhDs were overlooked. Finally, lots of unemployed math PhDs have fantastic teaching evals. – Stopple Sep 8 '10 at 23:03
@sleepless: I understand you are describing things as they are, not necessarily as they should be, but: for my part, I would much rather hire someone with a PhD in engineering and proven success teaching math at the college level than someone with a master's degree in math and no PhD in anything. I wonder if getting this extra master's degree would even be very helpful. – Pete L. Clark Sep 9 '10 at 3:31
@sleepless : That isn't my experience. At all the institutions I've spent time at (Chicago, MIT, and Rice), most of the research-active faculty teach undergraduates on a regular basis. – Andy Putman Sep 9 '10 at 14:56
Sleepless, from my experience at the University of Minnesota and University of Oklahoma, your comment may be true about courses below calculus level: they are taught by graduate students, adjuncts, lecturers and visiting faculty. However, I've heard that at other schools (LSU) regular faculty also teach them. Conversely, all courses Calculus level and above were taught by PhDs, although at many other schools grad students/lecturers do teach small sections of Calculus. Very few math professors don't teach undergraduates at all (for example, because they hold endowed research professorships). – Victor Protsak Sep 9 '10 at 20:44

## 6 Answers

I can comment from personal experience that my wife lost her job teaching Physics at a private 4-year (for the undergraduate degree), not-for-profit, accreditted long-standing (ancient) university in the USA (yay, Boston) with good reputation, despite her excellent teaching reviews from her undergraduate students. They did not renew her contract in the fall just before the Accreditation Review committee was due to visit the University.

Details: she had a terminal Master of Science in Physics, followed by ten years in the defense industry, followed by a Ph.D. in a different field. She taught as an adjunct for a few years before being offered a real position, but was let go because the perception that a Masters level in the field being taught would be seen as a negative by the accrediting board, even with a Ph.D. in a "neighboring" hard science field. She tried to argue for her position to no avail, as they said that they could not risk losing their accreditation. She did not want to take a step back down to teaching as an Adjunct Professor at the same institution again, so they parted ways.

It may be very difficult for your friend to get hired with a Ph.D. in an "outside" field. It may not be just; but that is what happened. They continue to use adjuncts to teach $>70$% of their class-load for undergraduates.

Of course, I must add that you should always apply for a job for which you think you are qualified.

-
@Pete Clark, Franklin & Marshall abuses the title of "Visiting Assistant Professor" by using it as a standing position with a one-to-two year limit, but it's not really a "visiting" position taking the place of an actual tenured professor temporarily on leave or sabbatical. That's how they get around using the title "Adjunct" for their temporary non-tenure track teaching hires. – sleepless in beantown Sep 9 '10 at 4:37
sleepless: what anomaly? Last year at Harvard Dick Gross and Dennis Gaitsory taught first-year calculus, this semester at MIT Paul Seidel is teaching freshman calc. and Mike Artin is teaching undergraduate algebra, and at Berkeley tenured faculty are the primary instructors in all the single-variable calculus courses. – KConrad Sep 9 '10 at 5:04
@KConrad/sleepless There is a gentle gradient, in that some schools have prominent math professors teaching upper-level undergraduate courses. (This is true at Duke, at the very least.) Most schools will shove off the calculus sequence for engineers and the like to assistants though. – dvitek Sep 9 '10 at 16:32
Some of my senior colleagues like to teach calculus and do so on a regular basis, others do not. We always ask our tenure-track assistant professors to teach calculus a few times as it looks good on their promotion files. We cannot possibly cover all our classes with our tenure-track/tenured faculty so we hire lots of adjuncts and some of them have PhDs in other disciplines and a few don't have a PhD. These adjuncts naturally mostly teach introductory courses. We also have three people in our permanent faculty whose PhD is in Physics. The plural of anecdote is not data, but UT is a big place. – Felipe Voloch Sep 9 '10 at 18:28
I have reviewed what I've typed so far in this question's threads and I really do not see where I have "betrayed" or (knowing my own mind and mental state) applied any emotional judgment whatsoever. What you see in it as an emotional judgment might simply be "projection" from the reader's side, of a non-mathematical kind. I have no dog in this fight, to use a metaphor that won't travel well out of the south-eastern the United States. It is simply a fact that different schools use their faculty and pseudo-faculty teachers in different ways. – sleepless in beantown Sep 9 '10 at 21:51

In the US (I don't know if this is where you're interested), a school hiring your friend would have a bunch of added accreditation headaches if they have a non-math PhD teaching math courses. These are by no means impossible to surmount (the US system is probably more flexible than others for that), but the school would have the burden of proof; they would need to explain why this person is qualified to teach math classes, while no justification would be needed for a math PhD. Of course, having a PhD in math does not make you an expert in all areas of math, and an engineer might have interesting things to bring to the table, especially in a time of renewed interest in multidisciplinary programs, so there is a certain flaw in this double-standard system.

As I said, these complications do not rule out a position; in practice, I have no idea if this would be considered a big deal by most schools. Smaller schools are likely to be both more flexible, but also more bothered by accreditation issues, so it might be a wash.

[PS - The best strategy for your friend is to be upfront about it, both in the cover letter and also by contacting the schools directly to find out if it's a deal-breaker or not. I suspect the answer will vary from school to school.]

-
Oh, and by the way: public institutions are likely to have much more red tape, and might be much more inflexible about the discipline requirement. – Thierry Zell Sep 8 '10 at 23:57
He is interested in USA schools, where he currently is and wants to remain. I revised the question to clarify that. – KConrad Sep 9 '10 at 0:47

Having been in a similar situation, I feel qualified to add in my \$0.02. My BS and MA degrees are in Math, but my PhD is in Industrial Engineering. The easiest thing you can do is simply write the search committee and ask if a PhD in a related field is acceptable.

There are multiple advantages to this approach. The most obvious is that they will save you time putting together a packet if the answer is no. Additionally, you get a chance to put a bug in their ear, so that your application will not be coming out of the blue. Finally, you will be able to trump up the advantages of having a degree in a closely related field. In my case, many of the schools I applied to had large teacher ed programs, and I was able to tout my rather large stockpile of practical applications of just about any mathematical topic.

That said, it still can be a tough sell. Over the course of two years, I had four on-campus interviews (one was a visiting position) without an offer. And I was coming in having successfully written a large NSF grant, a pair of journal articles in review, and glowing teaching evaluations.

-
Having googled you, it might be worth mentioning that your search appears to have been eventually successful =) – Andy Putman Sep 10 '10 at 21:03

I guess it probably depends on the hiring procedures at each University. I can only speak to ours.

We give minimum and desired qualifications in our job ad. These have to be approved by HR and the Human Rights Compliance Officer at the university. We then screen all applications according to these criteria. If a candidate does not meet our minimum qualifications then it would be really tough to convince HR and the HRCO that we are doing our duty as an equal opportunity employer to bring them in for an interview. The desired qualifications allow for more interpretation on the part of the search committee, but even for this, there is a ridiculous amount of documentation and auditing that goes on to make sure that we are "fair".

My main point is that I think that the openness on the part of the department to non-math PhDs would have to be at the ad-writing stage. By all means, your friend should call and ask the department, if they are open to a PhD in a related field. Just don't be surprised if they have already tied their own hands.

-
Just saw your comment, Keith. I guess you already knew all of these things. I do think that a phone call beats an email for getting in touch with potential employers. Anyway, good luck to your friend! – Johnson-Leung Sep 8 '10 at 23:17
I'll move part of my comment up to the question area so it's more visible. – KConrad Sep 8 '10 at 23:28

Accreditation is most likely not the reason for job postings of this sort. The Higher Learning Commission and most State Bodies (such as Ohio Board of Regents) give universities and colleges a great deal of latitude regarding whom they hire and tenure. It's only the professional programs involving licenses that will usually nitpick about education background: Teacher Education, Counseling Education, Athletic Training, School Psychology, etc. etc.

From personal experience in hiring faculty members, I would say that the most likely reason why these job postings are specifying Ph.D.'s in Mathematics is that in those situations they would have a fairly good idea of what course of study the given candidate would have taken. A Mathematics Department usually wants someone who can teach a variety of courses from the rudimentary to the specialized, and a Ph.D. in Mathematics would guarantee that the candidate personally experienced this range as a student.

Furthermore, a Mathematics Department usually wants someone with a specific mathematical research agenda, optimally one that complements their assigned teaching well. (Actually, the interface of Teaching and Research for Faculty Positions will of course differ greatly from school to school) The easiest way to guarantee this is to hire someone with the most obvious educational background.

That all said, I would encourage your colleague to apply for any position that they think they would be a good fit for, whether the posting specifies a math degree or not. The worst that can happen is that they hire someone else.

-

First, a generality: in order to apply for jobs successfully, it is important to place oneself in the school's place and (try to) see things their way.

As it applies to this specific question: when schools are trying to hire on a tenure-track line, they are investing in someone for way more than just teaching, even at a teaching-heavy school. Only adjuncts are expected to simply teach, permanent faculty are relied on to shoulder some of the other tasks that make the institution go round. Specific tasks vary wildly according to the school, of course. They include, but are not limited to,

1. research;
2. scholarship (a more general version of 1);
3. administration;
4. community relations;
5. program development;
6. scientific collaboration with existing programs/projects;
7. ...

[I feel like there were more items when I was composing this answer in my head. By all means please edit this answer if you can think of something I overlooked.]

Possibly counter-intuitive: the smaller the institution, the more likely that several of those things will be highly emphasized (even though the average teaching load will be higher!).

This brings me to my main comment: what measure the success rate of an application is not if the applicant is qualified (if they're not, it's an automatic fail anyway, and there will be many qualified applicants remaining, especially these days).

The real question is: is the applicant a good fit? meaning that will they fit the needs of the institution for the non-teaching part of the job.

This is where it gets tricky: some places have a very good idea of what they need and are very upfront about it (e.g.: we need a statistician: others need not apply), in which case it's up to the applicant to prove that they fill the need. Even if your profile is not a perfect match, you have at least something to work with to make your case.

The places that do not have a specific role in mind for their hire are trickier to work with. You may think that starting from a blank slate is easier, but in my experience, it makes it very difficult to articulate one's case.

I hope this helps. I did not plan this post very thoroughly, so I want to reiterate that edits will be welcome.

-

## protected by François G. Dorais♦Feb 1 '15 at 20:34

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?