What can I do this summer to be ready to start a PhD program in the fall?

Congratulations to those students who have been accepted to a PhD program in the mathematical sciences starting in the fall! You are about to start an unforgettable part of your life. What you will soon realize is that the first year of graduate school is a time of important transitions in the way you study, the way you think about mathematics, the way you think about yourself and the way you think of your professors. Below I offer some suggestions of what you can do this summer in order to be better prepared for the transition to grad school. Continue reading

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Summer Cleaning: (Digital) Organization Basics for Mathematicians

At the beginning of last summer I wrote about a neat trick to make your summer a productive one. And I heard from some of you who took me up on this suggestion; it seems that this actually works for many people! So, this year, for those who are willing to experiment with new ideas, I have another summer recommendation: Let us clean!

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Good Practices for a Marketable Future in the Mathematical Sciences

A few weeks ago, I attended an IMA workshop on careers in mathematics and talked to graduate students and postdocs about this topic. The conversation focused on what actions to take as a graduate student that can be helpful in various jobs in the mathematical sciences. I summarize my thoughts here. Continue reading

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The intersection of motherhood and graduate school: the good, the bad, and the cute babies

The conversation of balancing work and life is not new to the mathematics community. Moreover, the question of how to balance raising a family while (fill in the blank with any step in an academic’s career path) has received much press in recent years, albeit disheartening. The story shared in this article is meant to offer another perspective, one of empowerment, support and ultimately, awareness of what one truly needs to be successful both as an academic and as a parent. Below, Dr. Amanda Ruiz, mother to Carolina and a junior faculty at the University of San Diego, shares her story of becoming a mother while in graduate school and the lessons she learned along the way. This is by no means a complete list of “do’s and don’ts.” Instead, this story serves only to begin the conversation of one’s own needs as one begins the balancing act that is parenthood and academia. We hope Dr. Ruiz’s experience will inspire, inform and empower your own journey, or the journey of the academics you mentor, through parenthood.

Amanda and Carolina graduating with a PhD in Mathematics from Binghamton University

Amanda and Carolina graduating with a PhD in Mathematics from Binghamton University.

Starting a family in grad school

In my first year of grad school, I was 2,700 miles away from my family and boyfriend in California—and, it was a hard adjustment. As I savored the company of my family during that first winter break, I discovered I was pregnant. Maybe it was the excitement of my huge Mexican family getting ready for our Christmas Eve celebration, but I knew right away I wanted to raise my daughter close to the ones I love.

I had serious doubts about finishing graduate school in upstate New York. I couldn’t imagine raising a child so far from the support of my family, especially on a graduate student budget. And to be honest, I wasn’t even happy in Binghamton without the extra stress of being a mom. I spent the winter break looking for jobs that only required a Masters degree. Going to job interviews, I felt like I had “maternity leave” written on my face (even though I wasn’t showing yet). I applied to transfer to some graduate schools closer to home. I needed some options.

Ask for what you need and talk to supportive people

I started telling the most important people in my life right away. My mom and boyfriend (now, husband) reacted in the common manner, delightfully terrified. Since I was in grad school, some of the most important people in my life included my Masters advisor (who had remained a mentor and collaborator), my PhD advisor, and the chair of my department. When I imagined telling them, I felt shame, similar to that I would have felt if I was pregnant and still a teenager in high school. But I wasn’t a teenager, I wasn’t in high school, I was a woman in her thirties, years past the median age that US women give birth to their first child.

So, I mustered the courage and told the people who held the power to help me reach my goals, or, strike them down. While I expected disapproving grunts, I got a lot more “Congratulations,” “Of course you can still finish graduate school,” “I will support you no matter what you decide to do,” and “What do you need to be able to pull this off?” I was amazed by the support system I had in my life, one that became apparent once I overcame my fears and simply asked for help. I brainstormed with my mentors and my PhD advisor what I needed: the flexibility to schedule my non-teaching semester so that it coincided with my due date and permission to take independent study courses from a distance during that semester. The second item would allow me to have my baby in California, near my family. My advisor and I met with the chair, proposed a solution that would work, and received assurance of continued support through the early years of parenting. This was a scary conversation, remember, I still had residual feelings of shame, and I was worried they would think I was asking for special treatment. But I knew my professional goals were not disjoint from my personal needs. In order to be successful, we all need to find a way to balance our health, family, and professional life.

Look for motivation and support from role models

In the meantime, I started to take notice of the other women throughout my grad school experience that had children while in grad school and survived! Anastasia Chavez, currently a graduate student at UC Berkeley, had two children while we were earning our Masters degrees together at San Francisco State University. She was able to take a flexible course load that allowed her to complete course work prior to her October due date which counted towards her fall credit, as well as take incompletes to be finished up in the spring. Anastasia utilized the subsidized on-campus childcare, which gave her the freedom to visit and nurse her daughter during class breaks. The department was accommodating when Anastasia needed to bring a child with her to class or to a study session. And her advisor was very flexible with locations for their meetings, often meeting at a café or playground so that her daughters could comfortably join her.

Seeing other women succeed made a big difference to me. I was already scared about being a mom, but being a mom 2700 miles away from my family and friends was terrifying. These role models gave me the confidence I needed to move forward with my own plan of earning my Ph.D. and starting a family.

Consider potential challenges, work to find solutions that work for you

When my daughter was 4 months old, we moved back to Binghamton and financial reality set in. I was a broke graduate student, and I was suddenly supporting a family of three while my husband stayed home with our daughter and cat (which, to her dismay, suddenly ceased being the center of my world). The average cost of raising a child from birth to college is a staggering $250,000. And I could barely afford an apartment in a mixed use building (downstairs was the local illegal drug business, upstairs my small two-bedroom). I made the decision to take out student loans. In retrospect, I wish I had been more careful about the loans I took. Paying them back is a significant expense on a junior faculty salary. But we definitely needed something to help us get by since we did not have savings.

Reevaluate your personal and professional goals often

When it was time to apply for jobs, I had new criteria for evaluating my personal and professional goals. I really wanted to get back to California, closer to my family. I was also tired of moving and wanted to settle down with a tenure-track job. I centered my job search on tenure-track positions, but I also kept myself open to postdoc and temporary positions. The perfect postdoc (at Harvey Mudd College) was offered to me, and accepting it, even though it meant having to move a few more times, was a great decision. The next year I received a tenure-track offer at the University of San Diego. We made one final move, and now, my family and I are very happy building our life in San Diego. I take time every day to marvel in the miracle that I created: my daughter. She is my greatest accomplishment, greater than earning a PhD in math, and even greater than landing a tenure-track job.

Who are we?

Ayla and Asha

Asha and Ayla camping in Northern California

Anastasia Chavez is a mother of two beautiful and inspiring daughters, Ayla (8 years) and Asha (6 years) and completing her PhD at UC Berkeley. Giving birth in the first semester of her Masters program, Anastasia has been balancing family and academia ever since. Well, honestly, so have her children and husband. When she isn’t doing math, you can find Anastasia at the local frozen yogurt shop with her girls, taking a walk with her husband and their rambunctious pup Big Boy, or being talked into another elaborate crafts project for the ultimate sleepover birthday party EVER.

Sebastian's tea party

Sebastian’s tea party

Elizabeth Gross is an Assistant Professor at San Jose State University. She had her son, Sebastian, between the first and second year of her PhD program. She is grateful for the support that she received from her advisor and peers (and of course husband!). She also commends the culture at the University of Illinois, Chicago–she was never stigmatized for having a child, and in fact, she had a lot of great women role models there. She earned a NSF Postdoctoral Fellowship and spent a year at North Carolina State University before beginning her tenure-track position at SJSU in the San Francisco bay area. Sebastian enjoys being in California, but he wonders when it’s going to snow.

Akira

Akira while visiting UC Berkeley for USTARS 2014

Pamela Harris is the mother of Akira, a very bubbly and energetic 9-year old girl. When Pam began graduate school (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) Akira was only 4-months old. Not only this, but her husband was a US Marine and he was stationed away during the entirety of her graduate school time. What helped her get through it all? UW-Milwaukee supported her through a 5-year GAANN fellowship, which provided support for childcare expenses, summer funding, a reduced teaching load, all proof that they were invested in her success in the graduate program. Pam is currently a Davies Research Fellow at the United States Military Academy and will join the faculty of Williams College in Fall of 2016.

Amanda Ruiz, who has told her story above, also wants you to know that the amazing community of women in mathematics who have different strategies for balancing their work and their personal/family life has given her the energy and courage to keep pushing forward to achieve her goals as an academic.

Tell us your story. What concerns do you have about building a family while progressing towards your academic goals?

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Compartmentalizing your life

These last five weeks I have been traveling every week while trying to juggle my teaching, research, and family responsibilities. Thankfully I have successfully fulfilled all my teaching and service responsibilities! Even if this meant almost no sleep, I was able to devote 2-3 hours of fun activities to my kids every weekend (in addition to my regular parental responsibilities) and one date night with my husband. Hey, I even got to stop by and drop off a gift at my friend’s baby shower and go shopping for dresses with my 4-year old daughter to an upcoming baby shower this weekend where we are required to dress alike. From the outside, it may seem like I have an incredibly balanced life even when 3-4 days per week have been spent away in meetings, giving talks, and meeting individuals all day. But the balance is far from ideal. Why? Unfortunately, I have neglected two things that are also very important to my life – my personal needs and my research. In every travel engagement I literally had a full schedule each day, starting early in the morning and ending very late and with no breaks. Thus every time I got back I had a pile of work waiting for me. I had the best intentions of taking care of my research and myself but unfortunately I could not get more than a couple of hours of research and a couple of brief text messages with my best friend during these five weeks. While these might seem like some consolation, they are puny and shameful efforts, in both cases.

Ironically, as I mentored various individuals, in particular women in STEM from graduate students to senior faculty members during my travels, I realized that most of these women and I are all guilty of the same charge. In the midst of my hectic life, I forgot to apply to myself some key advice that I am giving them. I usually try to follow my own advice but when I get extremely busy with travel I forget everything and only focus on two things – my teaching and preparing what is needed for these meetings and talks.

My advice to many women in academia is to make sure that you compartmentalize your life, including a compartment for your personal (individual) needs as well as research, and spend your time in accord with these compartments. For example, if it has been pre-determined by your goals, objectives and responsibilities, that from 8:00-9:00 am you teach Calculus and from 10:10 am-12:00 noon you do research every Tuesday and Thursday, this is what you should do on these two days and time slots. Only in a big emergency should you break away from doing these tasks but you should get back to them, as soon as possible. Do not make excuses for not living in accord to certain compartments or ignoring them. Adopting the idea of my colleague and friend Ricardo Cortez, you must “respect” these compartments.

I must follow my own advice and most important, “respect [my] research time” as advised by Ricardo, and respect my personal time. As Ricardo pointed out in his e-mentoring blog some time ago, if you have to teach you don’t cancel your class unless it is a very big emergency. If you have an appointment with yourself to do research or spend some quality and essential time doing something for yourself, then you should also not cancel these appointments either. I must respect my research and my personal time, always! How can I give my best, if I am neglecting the number one person responsible for keeping things running and getting them done in my life? I cannot! I must take care of me as well as everything that makes my life happy (including fulfilling my responsibilities). I must compartmentalize the personal aspects of my life too, just like I have done with my work and profession, according to the value and importance they play in my life and in my long-term goals. If I want to fulfill my professional goals, I cannot ignore my research compartment. If I want to optimize my productivity each day, I must make sure I am rested and not running myself down by going into overdrive mode in certain aspects of my life while ignoring others. I must reorganize the proportion of time I spend in the various aspects of my life.

I am revamping the compartments of my life to include my personal “me time”. I am starting by clarifying my goals, determining what I need to do to get there, and setting realistic parameters for myself. The latter is extremely important, if I am to truly stick to my plan. Setting parameters will require a careful inventory of my life and re-prioritizing. I will prioritize according to what I need to do in order to be successful in both my personal and professional life. I will not compromise things at the top of my priority list for other things. I will make sure that what I am doing and how much effort I am spending in service, teaching, and research are aligned with my institution’s expectations. I will be more selective on my service and travel commitments and not allow myself to feel guilty for not accepting invitations from friends (in the profession) or organizations with very good causes if I am already oversubscribed with service engagements or if there is a risk of me neglecting my priorities (during these invitation engagements). From now on, I will make sure that any invitation to speak or travel includes plenty of time for me to address my top priorities. Even though it is great to meet, mentor, and interact with many individuals for an entire day, I will not accept a full schedule from 8am -10+pm with no time, (say, at least 4 hours) to spend on research and on my personal needs. This block of time will not be negotiable.

If we women are to be successful in academia and happy, regardless of the stage in our life, we must require from ourselves and everyone else to respect our research and personal time. This should never be negotiable. To avoid the pitfall of neglecting important things in our life we must compartmentalize our life and live in accord with these compartments. Our efforts and time spent in these efforts should reflect our proprieties and what is expected to advance in our careers and personal lives. In order to have full control of our lives we need to make sure that we prioritize according to what is important and essential in our development and growth. I encourage all of you to reorganize your life, if necessary, just as I am about to do.

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Young Mathematicians and the Challenges of Writing

One of the biggest challenges for many young mathematicians is creating work they feel worthy of sharing with the world. This feeling transcends well beyond the mathematical community and is quite prevalent in many fields. How does one deal with this, and what are the true challenges that one faces?

One of my favorite pieces on this subject is by the well-known host of NPR’s “This American Life”, Ira Glass. You can find his thoughts here:

But I want to paraphrase and focus on some key points that he mentions:

You have good taste, but feel like you create work that doesn’t taste so good: So many of us at the early stages of our careers feel like our contributions are relatively minor. However, we are missing the bigger picture. This is our time to learn how to contribute novel mathematics to the community. Our impressions of our results are myopic, and we need to reflect upon the fact that our contributions are meaningful despite the fact that we are new to crafting our technique. Moreover, through continually sharing our mathematical discoveries, we become much more skilled at developing our own mathematical strengths, and consequently strengthen our contributions.

Just do it! Writing can only be done by writing. It is commonplace for young mathematicians to discover interesting mathematics they want to share with the world, but feeling “stuck” when looking at a .tex file that has a title, a list of authors, and a few definitions. Like a famous company we all know promotes, “Just Do It!”. A quote of Jodi Picoult (fiction writer) that one of my collaborators shared with me is perfect for this:

“You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”

Writing is a daily habit. It is surprising how much a little bit of regular writing can add up. In my first semester as an Assistant Professor, I wrote .pdf files for each lecture of a Discrete Mathematics class I taught. Each lecture only amounted to 1-2 pages of notes. What I was shocked to see was the culmination of this work at the end of the semester. What seemed to be relatively minimal regular writing ended up amassing 50-60 pages of notes. It felt like I had a draft of a small book without really thinking about it! Regular writing has surprising consequences.

Remember why we write! I close with what I feel is the most important point of all. Why do we write? It is our way of sharing our thoughts with a community, that is imprinted for all time. We have strong voices with interesting things to say. It is extremely important for the mathematical community to hear our voices, read our thoughts, and view our perspectives. It is through our writing that we share our world with everyone else.

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“Hello Hector…,” “Hello Ricardo…,” “Hello Fernando…,”

I ran into a colleague from another department the other day. Someone whom I’ve known for years. Someone whom I consider a friend. She greeted me, “Hey Hector, how are you doing…”

It’s not the first time that this has happened, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. Now it’s true that, because I am clearly a Latino, I probably look a lot more like a “Hector” than a “Herbert,” but nevertheless you figure that they would get my name right after my 23 years on the faculty here at Loyola Marymount University (LMU).

The incident reminded me of the many other times that I’ve been called “Ricardo” or “Fernando” by other colleagues. This is probably because there are a couple of other male, Latino faculty at LMU who are in age close to me. They are in totally different departments (one in Psychology and the other in Political Science) and don’t look at all like me. (Well, or maybe they do since all us Latinos look alike…;-) Anyway, I thought these incidents might be interesting to write about since they are likely to have happened to fellow ethnic minority mathematicians, and are likely to continue to happen to future faculty from underrepresented groups.

The truth is that if you are from an underrepresented group in academia (and probably other professions), you are likely to be confused in name or in person by others who are not used to seeing folks like you around. I am certain that there is no ill will nor maliciousness nor prejudice coming from my colleagues, but it can be somewhat annoying to have to say, “I’m Herbert not Fernando.”

But the moral for this BLOG is that I try to not let these incidents nor perhaps other similar ones get to me. They are part of the story of being one of the few ethnic-minority faculty on campus. There simply will be situations that are annoying but not worth my energy to fight or get upset over. If I did, I’d have a lot less energy for the battles that are important and that are worth my time and effort to advocate for diversity.

So, my message to those young mathematicians out there who are of backgrounds that are not so common in the profession, be aware that there is a chance that you’ll be mistaken for others “like you” (or perhaps not so much like you). Your response to these incidents is something very personal. My one bit of advice is that if you do decide to respond by “calling someone out” on something, try not to let it upset you. There are many important battles to fight on the diversity front, and sometimes being upset will help in those fights, but being upset requires a lot of energy. That is, try to use your “upsetness” wisely!

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5 Things Everyone Forgets To Ask For When Negotiating The Ideal Faculty / Postdoc Position

Landing a tenure track job or postdoc is a long process and by then end of it, we’re ready to accept any offer that comes our way, even if it requires our first born child in the fine print. But, with an offer in hand (or over the phone or by email), you are in the greatest position to negotiate your potential future with your institution of choice. Here are five common items that most of us forget to negotiate.

  1. Parental Leave – Many colleges and universities still don’t have adequate parental leave policies, but that doesn’t mean you can’t ask for a leave policy specific to your needs. In doing so, you may be able to change the policy for those coming behind you. Some possibilities include:
  • An entire semester off at 75% salary
  • A one course reduction at 100% salary
  • The first 6 weeks off at 100% salary (this is especially beneficial when your child is due near the summer or winter break.)

You may want to include each of these as potential options to choose from, given the circumstances. Even if your institution is not able to accommodate the request, this will give you an opportunity to have a conversation with your Dean or Department Chair about the climate at the institution and ways to improve it.

  1. Sufficient Startup funds – Most of us neglect to ask for sufficient start-up funds since we don’t have labs to maintain. But hindsight is 20/20. Here are some things I wish I had considered getting funding for.
    • Professional fees / Lifetime memberships – Join the AMS, MAA, SACNAS, NAM, AWM, SIAM, ASA, and any other professional organization you are interested in. Ask for funding to cover multiple years (or a lifetime membership).
    • Summer research salary – Ask for 2/9ths of your salary (for each summer) for you to do summer research during the first three years. This will give you time to apply for grants to support your work in subsequent summers.
    • Conference travel – I would estimate $3000 per year for the first three or four years. This allows you to stay connected to your research by attending and presenting at national meetings.
    • Funding to support student summer research – Ask for funds to support up to three students for summer research for the first three years.
    • Full time post-bac researcher – For those of you with tenure track offers, ask for funding to support a post-bac researcher for up to three years. You can usually find a math major (either at your institution or somewhere else) who wants to take a year off in between undergraduate and graduate school / full time employment. This student could easily spend 20 – 30 hours per week focused on your research area and they are much cheaper than a postdoc.
  2. Initial Reduced course load – Ask for a lighter teaching load for the first two years. Perhaps a one course reduction each year. This will give you the time needed to prep for new courses and adjust to the learning needs of students at your new institution.
  3. Delay or Accelerate the tenure clock – If you are coming from a postdoc into a tenure track position, ask for the OPTION to go up for tenure early. It’s better to have this option up front in case you want to use it than to realize in year four that you could successfully go up for tenure but need to wait another two years. At some institutions, you can elect to go up for promotion separately from tenure. If you are starting the job around the time of a significant family event (birth, adoption, death), ask for a tenure clock delay.
  4. Temporary position for your significant other – Many institutions are not able to accommodate a tenure track offer for your spouse or partner (although you should be sure to push for it!). If that’s the case, consider asking for a three year Visiting Assistant Professor position. (Note that this looks better on one’s resume than Adjunct Professor). Three years will give you both enough time to settle down and seek out other nearby options while having steady salaries. If after two years nothing comes up, consider seriously going on the job market TOGETHER in year three. Your department may be able to leverage the possibility of your leaving with the Dean to make your spouse a more permanent offer.

In addition to the five areas listed above, you should also negotiate your salary, your computing needs (a new computer every 4 years), software needs (Matlab, Minitab, etc.), and teaching resources (clickers, create videos for flipped classrooms, etc.) Be sure to get everything in writing and keep a copy handy in case your institution transitions to a new Department chair or Dean. Lastly, once you have successfully negotiated your position, make sure you share what you did with those coming behind you!

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Cultural Obstructions in Mathematics

Cultural obstructions to careers in mathematics are myriad and significant. The myth of meritocracy is long debunked in social theory and education research, however its legacy persists. This post goes out to those mathematicians who feel pressured out of mathematics because of the culture of mathematics. You are not alone.

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Your Upcoming Job Interview

Many of you are in the middle of the job search process and are going to have interviews pretty soon, so I wanted to offer some thoughts on how to prepare. I am hoping that other readers can add their own tips. I will discuss separately what to do before the interview, during the visit, and afterward. Continue reading

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