Just say “No”

Ha! I can’t believe I’m writing about this, but I think it’s important for those who are beginning a new chapter in their professional journey: a first tenure-track job, a new post-doc, a first/second year grad student. Learning to say “No” is a difficult lesson to learn, in part because we think it conveys too much finality about your involvement, and also because really, some of those opportunities sound very interesting. Unfortunately, oftentimes we are at the cusp of receiving some very bad news when we’ve realized we said “Yes” one too many times.

When I joined our faculty, the provost and president welcomed us with a free breakfast and a serious message: we value the teacher-scholar model at this institution. Research and teaching get priority here. Message received. However, it was 7 a.m. So, within one year of joining the faculty in my department, I had committed myself to two departmental committees, one university committee, two independent study courses, and advising one masters student. Yes. Yes. Ridiculous. I know. But I didn’t realize that as I was saying “Yes” to all these things, I was also saying “No” to other more important things. In that first year, I was also teaching three new-for-me courses with nearly 200 students in total, each semester. In that first year, I was also a mom for the very first time in a new marriage in a new town of a new state. I know. I had you at “two departmental committees” — this was way too much for any one person to handle, but did I change in year two? You betcha I didn’t. I added a two hour commute and took on advising undergraduate students…

As you can imagine, my first and second year reviews from the chair and tenured faculty were horrendous, but it fell on deaf ears. Afterall, I was doing so much for the department and the university — doesn’t that count for something? The answer: Not so much. At the start of my third year, my chair sat me down and we had The Talk. I needed to focus on research. My teaching could use some improving. Research and teaching should be my priority and nothing more. I realized then what I should have known all along: I said “Yes” to low-priorities when I should have been saying “No.” After The Talk and a box of chocolates to calm my nerves, I cleared my calendar and started all over again. After months of saying “No” and focusing on the high-priorities, my back-burner research projects turned into articles, the thesis projects of my masters students helped keep my research program alive while I worked fastidiously on an award for an undergradaute research program targeting Pacific Islanders. Whatever time I had left, I spent in crafting my lectures. Every so often, I felt left out of the activities I used to do, but I told myself that later I’ll have time to do them. I learned to say “No” in a most respectful way and since then, I have learned to be more discerning about the commitments I make.

If your chair, advisor, mentor, colleague, fellow student or friend requests your participation in something apart from what is highly valued in that particular chapter of your professional life, you should *take a moment* before you respond. Give yourself enough time to weigh the benefits and effects on your priorities before you commit that precious amount of time. Learn to say, “That sounds very interesting — can I get back to you in a couple of days?” This move not only gives you a chance to analyze the situation, but it also shows that you are thoughtful about the things you do. Remind yourself, when you’re feeling like you are letting go of an opportunity, that it is okay to *wait until you can confidently say that you are contributing successfully to what is highly valued.* There will always be plenty of “other things” to do and you will have plenty of opportunities to say “Yes,” but only if you learn in the beginning to focus on the things that matter most and just say “No, not right now” to all the rest.

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The Fundamental Principle of Productivity: What they DON’T teach you in graduate school

A long time ago … I was an enthusiastic graduate student in mathematics. I had finally figured out that mathematics was what I would be doing with myself. I would continue to learn more mathematics and I would finally be doing mathematics without any other distractions (or so I thought …) And the best part was that eventually, I figured, I’d be getting paid doing this thing that I enjoyed so much.

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Posted in General, Going to graduate school, Graduate School, postdocs, Tenure | Tagged , | 1 Comment

What can I expect during my first year of a Ph.D. program?

I wanted to write directly to those students who are about to start graduate school in the fall and to those who are in their first year of graduate work. The transition to graduate school involves so many changes at once, that it can become overwhelming at times. We usually move to a new part of the country; we have to make new friends; we have to realize what study habits are inadequate and what to do about it; we have to identify academic background areas that we need to reinforce; and we have to find a rhythm.

I decided not to preach about this. Instead, I asked 4 first-year graduate students who were absolutely successful undergraduates and are now in their second semester of Ph.D. programs. I asked them 5 questions and their answers are enormously revealing. Some answers have been edited for length. Continue reading

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The Importance of a Diverse Mentoring Network

Everyone reading this blog understands the importance of a mentor. And most of us probably know a good mentor when we have one. However, how many of you have given much thought into constructing a diverse network of mentors? Each of us mentors based on our own experience, whether it happened to us or we know someone to whom it happened. The many good mentors try to place themselves in your shoes in order to give you the best advice for you. But in the end, it’s all just advice that you can take or leave.

My suggestion: pretend like you’re the President of the U.S. and at the same time pretend that you were just granted five minutes to speak with the person with whom you would like to speak most to in this world (or equivalently to a lawyer who charges $1000 per hour but who is giving you 5 free minutes). The latter may seem strange but you must also realize that any good mentor likely has many other things to juggle and, while they are doing this to help you, it is important that you are aware of their time and grateful for it.

Why the President? He (and hopefully soon, she) surrounds himself with advisors from different aspects of life. His trusted advisors are not all lawyers, nor are they all economists, nor are they all friends to whom he owes favors. When a crucial decision is being made, he usually will get opinions from different viewpoints and will weigh them before deciding.

How does this apply to you? Whatever big decisions you need to make, it is important to hear different perspectives. This doesn’t necessarily mean to ask your math major friend, you high school friend who is now working in a fast food restaurant, and your favorite professor whether you should go to graduate school. Instead this might mean ask your professor, someone with a graduate math degree working outside of academia, and a down-to-earth graduate student that same question. Hopefully you see that of the first three, only one of them likely knows what you would be getting yourself into but that is only one perspective. In contrast, in the last three, all can give you concrete feedback and from likely different perspectives.

You can likely speak with a professor or graduate student during office hours and be sure to be grateful for their time afterward, but how about the non-academic post-graduate? At conferences such as SACNAS, SIAM, and others, one can find more and more Ph.D. mathematicians that are employed outside of academia. Some may work in government labs but others may work in another industry. Approach these people! Introduce yourself and tell them that you are at a place in your life (such as an undergraduate contemplating graduate school but not sure of the area, a graduate student contemplating academia versus industry, or a professor contemplating a new line of research) where you would like to know if they could give you a 2 minute answer about what they liked about their career path to date and what they would change if they could. And after the 2-minute answer be as gracious as possible and ask if they have a business card so that you may contact them if you have any additional brief questions. This helps build up a diverse network.

So remember…pretend you’re the President and seek advice from calculated sources that will give you potentially different angles from which to view your decision. Even choosing two or three of each type of advisor (professors not all necessarily in math, etc.) is wise as it gives additional perspectives – just be sure that you are also openly grateful for their time so that you may come back again for this or other matters. With all the advice you receive, just remember that only you know what is best for you but choosing trusted mentors may help you realize more about you than you knew before. In the end, we are the one that must deal with the consequences of whatever good or bad decision that we make.

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Appalled by Quals? Five steps to Passing your Qualifying Exams!

Studying for and passing qualifying exams is undoubtedly one of the most difficult aspects of graduate school. The difference between getting a masters or PhD can rest on your ability to solve a select group of mathematical problems. Having gone through the process … twice… I have some advice I’d like to share with you!

1. Start early. – It’s never too early to start studying for your quals and I suggest beginning your very first year! (If you’re further along, no worries. Just keep reading!) By setting aside an hour a week to review the material as you go along, you will be ahead of the game when time comes to take the test!

2. Get copies of the old exams. – Most departments or more advanced graduate students will be happy to provide you with qualifying exams from previous years. You should make sure that you can solve every problem from beginning to end!

3. Create a solutions set of old exams. – One mistake I made was that I would look at old exam problems and write out a skeletal solution without filling in the details, because I thought I could solve the problem. But when I took my qualifying exams, I would lose credit on all those “details” that I didn’t write out. I suggest that you create a detailed solution for each problem that you work and show a few of them to your professor to verify that you would receive full credit.

4. Talk to your professors. – This is especially true if you have to take an oral exam like I did. By speaking to my professors individually, I gained insight into the type of question they would likely ask me. The conversation usually started like this: “Dr. Scott, I’m studying for my qualifying exams and I was wondering if you would give me some practice oral questions?” No one ever turned me down and I heard many of these same questions during my actual oral exam!

5. Relax. – Often easier said than done, relaxation can mean the difference between passing and not passing your exams. Your brain function and overall mental health improves when your body is in a relaxed state. So take a walk or go for a swim in the days leading up to your exam. And remember that no matter what happens, you’re still amazing!

Posted in Graduate School | 2 Comments

The Ubiquity of Pi Day: It’s Not Just for Math Geeks

More and more every year, popular culture seems to be fascinated with Pi Day: the one day of the year where the infamous irrational number \( \pi = 3.14 \) is celebrated to eponymous accuracy, that is, on March 14. (In Europe the day in question is 14/03, but I’m assuming that a weblog for the American Mathematical Society will be mostly read by a North American audience.)

But why celebrate Pi Day? And how can we as educators use this as a learning moment in the classroom? I’d like to present ways you can discuss \( \pi \) in Religious Studies, Sociology, Computer Science, Mathematics, and Political Science. (Most of the post below comes from my web page here.)

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Awesome Summer Outreach Program!

Last summer I had the great pleasure of visiting the Summer Program in Mathematical Problem Solving (SPMPS), a 3-week residential math enrichment program for rising 8th graders from schools in which at least 75% of the students qualify for free lunch.  I ABSOLUTELY LOVED this program, and strongly believe it should serve as a model for many outreach initiatives across the country.  This program is a big deal: it was even featured in the New York Times.  Why do I love SPMPS so much?  Here are just a few reasons:

  1. SPMPS provides enrichment opportunities to outstanding, mathematically gifted, and mathematically motivated students who are robbed of pursuing their passions because of lack of resources, lack of finances, or lack of community support.  I faced this issue both as an elementary and a high school student, and it wasn’t until a teacher recognized my interests that I was able to attend a similar program.  Without it, I would not be where I am today.
  2. For many attendees of the program, the 3-week experience is their first time entrenched in an academic environment on a university campus.  Moreover, they meet college students, college graduates, and faculty members from different universities throughout the program.  This exposes the students to the possibilities that are out there.
  3. One aspect I love about SPMPS above all is the program’s continued investment in the students outside of the camp program.  Tutoring programs and New York High School entrance exam prep is provided by the program executive body.

I can’t emphasize enough how transformative an experience this program is for the students, and how much I wished such a program existed where I grew up when I was a rising 8th grader.  Teaching at SPMPS was a great joy, and I highly recommend it as an outreach initiative to get involved in!

The program is currently looking for Instructors and Residential Counselors for the 2014 summer program.  For more information on how to become involved this summer, see “Jobs At SPMPS”

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I just found out that January is National Mentoring Month!


The idea of mentorship is central here (the eMentoring Network!), so this is a good excuse to remind myself: I think all of us can act as mentors (and mentees). Undergraduates can act as peer-to-peer mentors, helping out classmates. Joining a local math club is also a good way for us to support each other. Graduate students can also help out in math clubs, and can reach out to mentor undergraduates. A nice word from a grad student can go a long way for an undergraduate. For folks that already have PhD’s, the opportunities for mentorship are limitless.

Two organizations that standout for fostering mentorship are SACNAS and the National Alliance. At SACNAS, one can join (or start!) a local chapter, or become involved in the national organization. And the National Alliance is always looking for new mentors. You could also start or joint a mentorship program at your home institution (there’s a cool and exciting program at my home institution).

Happy new year!!

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Getting started designing/directing undergraduate research: upcoming panel at the JMM

I remember very clearly my first few days as one of the newest members of the faculty in my department. My colleagues were very welcoming, but I was really impressed with the warmth of the students’ reception. Many visited my office just to chat, get to know me and to share some of the cool topics they were studying: the ubiquitous nature of the Fibonacci sequence, the life and mathematics of celebrated women mathematicians, how mathematics changed the game of baseball, and so on. Then, one day, a bubbly undergraduate stopped by, eager to talk about his topic on the history of magic squares. As he rambled on, a deluge of ideas flooded my mind. A year earlier, I had attended a research conference/workshop on solving polynomial systems of equations and I was captivated by a talk on magic squares given by a graduate student at the cusp of finishing her doctoral studies. A light went off immediately: this was my chance to really engage this student. And so, I asked, “How would you like learning even more about these magic squares and perhaps contributing something new about them?” Continue reading

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Dealing with Illness and Loss Early in One’s Mathematical Career

Hello again folks! It’s nice to be writing again. I’ve been on a partial medical leave of absence since last June. This isn’t the first time that I’ve had to deal with longterm illness. And I have many friends, as I’m sure you do, that have had to deal with personal loss and tragedy early in their careers — by which I mean pre-tenure.

Since we early-career mathematicians must be concerned about current and future career instability, illness and loss take on extra dimensions of complexity. In this post, I reflect on my own experiences and the lessons I’ve learned from those around me.

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Posted in General, Tenure | 2 Comments