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The Grueling Application Process To Land A Job At The NSA — The Largest Employer Of Mathematicians In The USA

Walter Hickey

Flickr via sloth_rider

The NSA is making news recently following the leaking of classified information from the agency's intelligence operations. 

The agency particularly interesting because it maintains a stable of mathematicians to solve any problems that come up in the course of sleuthing.

In fact, the whole point of the NSA originally was mathematical cryptography following the re-organization of the cryptanalysis divisions of the army and navy after World War Two. 

While the exact number of mathematicians the NSA employs is classified, the agency acknowledges that they're the nation's leading employer of mathematicians. 

From an NSA job listing explaining the demands of the position: 

As an NSA Mathematician, you may find yourself designing and analyzing complex algorithms, or expressing difficult cryptographic problems in mathematical terms, and then applying both your art and science to find a solution ... or demonstrating that a solution cannot be found, given certain computational limitations and reasonable time limits.

The agency is a heavy recruiter from math departments around the country, so we do have some details from applicants and employees about hwo the process goes.

The NSA has maintained a long relationship with the math community, and a 2006 article in Math Horizons by NSA mathematician Michelle Wagner laid out the on-the-record details of the laborious application process:

  • Applicants should submit their application six to nine months in advance of their potential start date.
  • They must be U.S. citizens who are able to obtain a security clearance and can pass random drug tests
  • The first hurdle is a phone screening and a long form background. 
  • Provided you've made it this far, the Mathematics Hiring Authority will interview you at the NSA.
  • Next, you've got security and mathematics screening. From the article:

In preparation for being put  through the paces of security day, I sometimes recommend that  applicants watch the movie Meet the Parents. You know, the one where Ben Stiller gets polygraphed by his soon-to-be father-in-law Robert DeNiro. (Enough said.) 

  • Next you've got to take a Mathematics proficiency test
  • You must pass through a set of crucial interviews with NSA mathematicians
  • You have an opportunity to give a talk on a topic of your choosing, essentially mandatory for people with Ph. D.s 

So, that's what it takes to get a math gig at the NSA.

In fairness, the amenities are legendary — flexible work schedule, casual dress all the time, great government benefits and awesome salaries — provided you can get through the nutty screening.

Some reports of the process include one applicant claiming the NSA said they would " have to stop dating my Czech boyfriend and that I’d need to submit information about all my roommates for the past 10 years, which was uber creepy."

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