Missing Math Experts

A survey of the job market for doctorates in mathematics education shows demand outstrips supply -- even after the recession.

March 13, 2013

Amid a national push to improve math and science education, a new study shows college and universities report they can't fill faculty positions that focus on math education.

The number of unfilled positions has been halved since the study's authors last explored the topic in 2006, but institutions surveyed during the 2011-12 academic year still reported they were unable to fill about one-quarter of their job openings. The study will appear in the April 2013 edition of the American Mathematical Society publication Notices.

“[W]hile there is not the excess of jobs for doctorates in mathematics in institutions of higher education that there has been in the past, there are still jobs for doctorates in mathematics education that were unfilled,” the survey reads.

Robert Reys, one of the co-authors of the study, said he was surprised the job market hasn’t fared worse. Reys has followed developments in the job market for doctorates in math education for more than a decade, and said this year’s survey was timed to measure how the field has changed after the recession led state legislatures across the country to trim their higher education budgets.

Beyond the evidence suggesting institutions are still actively searching for instructors in math education, Reys, who is professor emeritus of math education at the University of Missouri at Columbia, said the actual number of unfilled positions is likely to be higher still. The survey only looked at hiring announcements that were published on a national scale, and did not take into account regional and junior colleges.

“I think it’s an underestimate,” Reys said. “There are a lot of jobs that may be going unfilled, and we just weren’t able to capture them in the methodology that was used.”

Reys, along with co-authors Barbara Reys and Anne Estapa, identified 82 institutions between Sept. 2011 and April 2012 that listed 94 available tenure-track positions -- 90 percent of them at the assistant professor level. The positions were about evenly split between openings in math and education departments, with a handful of joint appointments.

The study suggests faculty mobility between institutions has buffered the field against some of the repercussions of the recession. Of the 73 hires made during the academic year, 36 involved experienced faculty members.

While more than half of openings in math departments offered salaries in the $50,000 to $60,000 range, salaries offered in education departments were mainly split between the $50,000 to $60,000 and $60,000 to $70,000 ranges. Reys credited the gap not just to the different types of institutions hiring new professors in math education, but also to the fact that institutions have begun to value prior teaching experience.

Reported Salaries for New Hires in Math Education, 2011-12 Academic Year

Salary Range Education Department / College Mathematics Department Joint Appointment
$40,000-50,000 2 9 0
$50,001-60,000 20 25 3
$60,001-70,000 23 6 1
$70-001-80,000 4 5 1
Above $80,000 2 0 0

“Most of the people in math education have done teaching in K-12 schools prior to working on their doctorate,” Reys said. “Departments are sensitive to having classes that are taught by people who have been involved in teaching.”

Education departments were more successful in their hunt for professors, filling 82 percent of their positions compared to 72 percent for math departments. The size and focus of the institution also proved important factors affecting hiring success; baccalaureate colleges, larger master’s programs and research universities were less successful than smaller master’s programs and doctoral universities.

Available Positions and New Hires in Math Education, 2011-12 Academic Year

Carnegie Classification Total No. of Positions Percent of Successful Searches
Bac/Diverse: Baccalaureate
College -- diverse fields
1 0
Bac/A&S: Baccalaureate
Colleges -- Arts & Sciences
2 50 %
Master's S: Master's Colleges and Universities (smaller programs) 2 100 %
Master's M: Master's Colleges and Universities (medium programs) 1 0
Master's L: Master's Colleges and Universities (larger programs) 27 78 %
DRU: Doctoral/Research Universities 5 100 %
RU/H: Research Universities (high research activity) 26 65 %
RU/VH: Research Universities (very high research activity) 22 95 %
Other 8  
Total 94 77 %

Reys partly attributed the unsuccessful searches to the fact that about half of the graduates from doctoral programs in math education never join the job market, instead returning to institutions they were on leave from or -- in the case of international students -- to their countries of origin. Over the past 15 years, Reys said only about 50 fresh doctorate recipients have joined the job market per year.

“I think that contributes to the shortage,” Reys said. “We just need to be able to recruit. The job opportunities are there.”

But Reys also said that some institutions, mindful of ongoing budget crunches, may have set artificially high standards for their applicants to meet -- that they are holding out for a dream applicant who may not exist in a narrow field of candidates.

“I know that some institutions weren’t able to get the person that they wanted, so they would ... hold off and wait until next year,” Reys said.

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