Narrowing Down a Career Path

Photo courtesy of MichaelGaida via Pixabay

I’ve just finished my fourth semester in the University of Tennessee’s Mathematics Ph.D. program! That means I’m nearly at the halfway point of the program, and I am getting ever closer to the oral exam. All that being said, this seemed like a good time to reflect on how I’ve developed an answer to the question, “what do I want to do after I graduate?” Moreover, I want to evaluate if I have been spending my time and energy on suitable activities to reach this goal.

At this point I’ve finished my preliminary exams and selected a research topic and pair of advisors to guide me through it; I’ve completed 10 math courses so far in grad school and have been lecturing in the department half-time to earn my stipend. At least in my program, the teaching, courses, and thesis research together form the bulk of a student’s responsibilities and working hours. Beyond that, students may get involved in other things within the department or beyond. There are several student organizations that are chapters of larger mathematical societies, each of them run by graduate students in our department. For instance, I served as the press secretary for our SIAM chapter this year. On top of that, I have three other research projects ongoing besides my “main project.” These are a mixture of collaborations with other graduate students and mentorship efforts to help undergraduate students develop their own projects.

Even when I started my journey as a graduate student I expressed doubts about whether I’d prefer a career in academia or industry, or some combination thereof. My strategy was just to get involved in as many things as possible that seemed interesting, that I anticipated would develop my career in different ways. However, just a few weeks ago a unique opportunity came to my door, and the thought process that decision-making triggered was surprisingly insightful.

Like I said before, I am teaching in the math department to earn my stipend, but there is a range of courses I can choose to teach in any given semester. During the Fall 2019 semester, I served as a lecturer for the department’s entry-level college algebra course. This is a course normally reserved for new graduate students to teach since it requires less lecturing; instead, it is an example of a flipped classroom (I wrote about my experience teaching in a flipped classroom here). Now, the course coordinator for college algebra had devised a new plan to integrate the course more deeply into the missions of the department’s teaching mentorship program, and I was being invited to participate.

In this new role, I would be co-teaching larger sections of college algebra with new graduate students and serving as an “assistant mentor” for them, in addition to the usual duties of preparation for lecture, grading, and proctoring exams. While this would be valuable leadership experience, I had to weigh this opportunity against the possibility of teaching the Mathematical Reasoning course for a second year, which I loved doing in the 2020–2021 school year. Based on the range of responsibilities required for the new role, I was pretty confident that it would be more work in any given week, but sometimes that’s worth it for a new experience?

I took it upon myself to reflect on the decision carefully. For one thing, I regarded it as an honor to be invited to this new program, and I had initially left college algebra hoping that one day I’d be able to come back and interact with those students and the curriculum again. So it was almost as if the position had been made for me. On the flip side, the presentation of this opportunity challenged me to think about why I had chosen the activities I had to fill up my time. What was it that I enjoyed in each of these activities? And, did this new opportunity fit that mold?

In other words I was trying to categorize my activities a different way: not by the type of work (research, volunteering, lecturing, etc.), but by the main attribute that made the activity fulfilling to me. I came up with a list of three main categories that I had been indulging in:

  1. Intellectual discovery: the act of adding new content to a body of knowledge, with a great sense of ownership for it

What does this list mean for me moving forward? It means that I’d like for my future career to involve these three elements in some capacity. There are two advantages I see to this rationale. One, I am not pigeonholing myself into one particular career path (something my advisors have warned against at this stage in the doctoral program). Two, it helps me prioritize my time on activities that will help me develop at least two, if not all three of these areas at once. Hence it seemed not out of the question to become an assistant mentor for the college algebra course.

However I wasn’t entirely satisfied, and so I went to my research advisors to get their opinions. They both seemed relatively neutral on whether I take on the new teaching opportunity, but had some advice to share nonetheless. One of my advisors said that after completing his Ph.D., he took a faculty role at a liberal arts college, and found the teaching load to be too high for his taste, because he wanted to spend more time on research. From there he boldly pivoted to a postdoctoral position that put a greater emphasis on research, and eventually, he became a faculty member at the University of Tennessee. My other advisor was not a teaching assistant while a Ph.D. student, so I imagine he had more time to focus on research, and developed a love for it that way. I’m sure I’ll hear more such stories as I move forward.

Why did they tell me these things? Their bottom line was that getting research experience should be the highest priority, and that I can shape my career around that for later. For example, if it’s near the end of my doctoral program and I am confident that I want to be a faculty member at a liberal arts college, then I can skew how I spend my time accordingly later. That would consist on spending more time teaching, developing curriculum materials, and possibly doing experimental research in math education.

To know that for sure, I need the best idea possible whether I want research to be my focus longer-term. To do that, I’m making it my main focus shorter term. I ended up declining the opportunity to help with the college algebra course. While I think that decision was relatively inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, the thought process that got me there was incredibly valuable.

Math PhD Student University of Tennessee | Academic Sales Engineer | Writer, Educator, Researcher

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