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We have a tag career and a tag advice. We don't have a flood of questions under these tags, but for several reasons I think it would also be appropriate for us to have a bit more guidance on meta about when exactly it's appropriate to ask questions which would fall under such tags:

  1. Career and advice questions are not about mathematics per se, which certainly puts such questions outside the central aim of MO's scope.

  2. Giving really good career advice requires knowing more about someone's situation than is typically appropriate to post publicly on the internet. So by entertaining such questions, we risk giving misleading answers. There's even a real possibility of harm in doing so.

  3. Relatedly, good career advice has limited generalizability beyond the situation of the individual questioner.

  4. There is perhaps a place for giving "general advice" or "rules of thumb", as one might give to a mathematician in any private setting. But the public nature of MO and the absence of various contextual information about a questioner's situation which is normally taken for granted in other similar "advice-giving" situations I think means that one should at least approach giving advice on MO a bit differently than one might be accustomed to. It is worth spelling out what some of these differences are.

  5. Besides reminding advice-seekers to talk to people they know and not just strangers on the internet, it's possible that there are other places on the internet more suitable for various kinds of advice questions than here. It may be worth compiling a list of such places.

Here is a general Meta SE question on where in the network certain "career advice"-type questions are acceptable.

So my Questions are:

  1. Are "career advice" questions ever suitable for MO?

  2. If so, under what circumstances?

  3. Conversely, under what circumstances are "career advice" questions not suitable for MO?

  4. If a "career advice" question is suitable for MO and one decides to answer it, what special considerations should one keep in mind in doing so?

As a final note, I think perhaps the status quo is that such questions are likely to be closed, but before closure they are not unlikely to attract comments or even answers which do provide the requested advice, and so the question may serve its intended purpose anyway.

  1. Is the status quo as I described it a workable way to approach these matters?

P.S. Feel free to edit the tags on this question; I must admit I am not terribly familiar with the meta tags.

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    $\begingroup$ I'll add that the inspiration for this question came from this question. $\endgroup$
    – Tim Campion Mod
    Apr 19 at 17:26
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    $\begingroup$ Some thoughts: (1) The biggest feature determining what types of career advice questions on MO are acceptable is quantity - there shouldn't be so many of these questions that it starts to push out the more directly mathematical content of this site, but having a few is fine. The quantity now seems fine to me. (2) The best questions for MO are those where the expertise that is needed to answer is really that of research mathematicians - in particular, questions which touch on the nature of some area of mathematics and not just the structure of academia. $\endgroup$
    – Will Sawin
    Apr 19 at 19:31
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    $\begingroup$ An example of a question which is maybe problematic in other ways, but is a great example of a case where MO's unique community is helpful: mathoverflow.net/questions/289259 An example of a good career advice question, in part because some of the knowledge needed to give an (IMO) good answer is in research-level number theory: mathoverflow.net/questions/354542 $\endgroup$
    – Will Sawin
    Apr 19 at 19:36
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    $\begingroup$ @WillSawin Thanks for the examples! I like this perspective. In fact, I think I'm coming around to the idea that there are a great many sorts of questions which we wouldn't want to be overrun by here, but which can work quite well in limited volume. There's no need to artificially constrain the sorts of benefits our collective expertise can provide to folks. $\endgroup$
    – Tim Campion Mod
    Apr 19 at 21:31
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I think career advice questions can be valuable. You make valid points about pitfalls, but I think a good way to address them would be to have some guidelines for people answering these questions:

  • Base answers on your direct experiences, or experiences of people you know well (such as your students)
  • Use comments to ask for information that would be relevant (for instance, sometimes different countries have very different career issues)
  • Don't be judgmental about the questioner's lack of experience, previous choices, etc.

I do think this site provides a unique type of audience that would be hard to find elsewhere, and a way to ask a much larger set of people than is possible in many face-to-face contexts. Learning about different career trajectories is interesting and helpful. And the more that answers can describe direct experiences rather than abstract generalizations or judgments, the easier it will be for people to figure out what applies to them.

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    $\begingroup$ Great advice! If I may add one thing, I'd suggest that whenever one gives advice to a stranger on the internet, and particularly here on MO, it's best to explicitly remind the advisee that you don't know them or their personal details. Part of one's advice should be to also seek out advice from people they know personally, who will be more familiar with the details of their situation. $\endgroup$
    – Tim Campion Mod
    Apr 19 at 21:33
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    $\begingroup$ That's a good point! $\endgroup$ Apr 20 at 0:16
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I think it’s very helpful to compare with academia.stackexchange, where career advice questions are a much larger part of the site’s scope.

  • There are plenty of examples there showing that that career advice questions/answers can be very useful indeed, when done well. However, the “limited generalisability” concerns Tim Campion raises here are certainly important, and academia.se has an excellent reference meta thread on the topic: Academia varies more than you think it does.

  • When is a career-advice question well-suited here, instead of (or as well as) at academia.se? Presumably: when it’s (at least somewhat) specific to mathematics and research-related — e.g. this, this, this. Pragmatically, this site reaches a larger audience of experienced research mathematicians than academia.se. On the other hand, this puts a question reasonably within our scope of “research-level mathematics” — it may not be about the content of math research, but it is about the practice of it.

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    $\begingroup$ Surprised to see a downvote on this- it seems like a very reasonable answer to me. $\endgroup$ Apr 25 at 17:25

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