Doing what we think is the minimum necessary is more difficult that being fully committed

A couple of years ago, I committed to giving a series of lectures (a sort of mini-course) on measure theory at the Universidad de El Salvador. Not a big deal except for two challenges. (1) Teaching at a primarily undergraduate institution, we don’t have a course on measure theory, so I haven’t ever taught a formal course in the subject. (2) I had to give these lectures in Spanish; my Spanish is fluent, but communicating mathematics, especially a challenging topic like measure theory, in Spanish is definitely much more difficult than carrying on an everyday conversation.

About a month before the lectures were to begin, I began thinking about what I would prepare to make sure that I survived the experience. I basically began thinking about what would be the minimum amount of work required so that the lectures would not be a complete disaster. I thought about lecturing straight out of a book without writing lecture notes. I thought about providing problem sets in English so that I wouldn’t have to be challenged writing exercises in Spanish. I focused on making sure that I would not do any extra work and still not embarrass myself. Anyway, the endeavor was stressful and very psychologically challenging.

After a few days of approaching the preparation in this way, I changed my complete approach: I decided that I was going to do all the work and preparation necessary so as to deliver the absolute best set of lectures of my entire life.

As soon as I made that attitude shift, the stress went away and everything seemed to become easy. I was no longer hampered by the mindset that I was not going to do an iota more work than what was necessary to “get away” with something mediocre. I was no longer upset about writing and rewriting lecture notes and exercises in Spanish or working on something for a few hours which in the end I decided not to use. I no longer considered the endeavor a time sink. I was only interested in doing my absolute best. This was refreshingly liberating and so much easier than trying to do something half-ass. I worked on the lectures very hard for the next few weeks and during the time that I was delivering them, but doing so felt so easy. The task was no longer complicated.

Experiencing the refreshing and liberating feelings that came about because of going full-steam into a project/endeavor was a valuable lesson that I was not expecting. I reflected on this and remembered that there have been other times in my life when I have been very busy and tired, but also very happy because I was pouring my heart and soul into something. I also remembered some unhappy times when I was just trying to do the minimum to get through something.

In retrospect, what happened is not all that surprising given my experience as an educator. Indeed, I have had students (as I am sure many of us have) who spend hours and hours figuring out how to get away with doing the minimum on an assignment or studying the absolute minimum to get a “C” in a class or finding solutions to exercises on the Internet. They usually end up wasting a lot of psychological and emotional energy trying to “game the system” and not doing very well whether it be on an assignment or a class. Whereas the students that are diligent and aim high for an “A” in every class, usually end up being the ones that have the best attitude and seem more content.

Another (albeit somewhat tangential example) is what some folks do with parking tickets. It’s happened to most of us, that p.o.’ed feeling when we come back to our car and see that envelope on the windshield. We are so upset with the citation that we say to ourselves, “I am not going to pay this until the very last day possible. The city is not getting my money any earlier than necessary.” We then put the ticket on a counter or desk in our house and get upset and stressed for 3-4 weeks every time we look at it. I’ve learned to simply PAY THE DARN TICKET as soon as I get home. That way, I am upset for a few minutes, mail in the fine, and then I am done with it. I don’t have to look at the upsetting envelope for 3-4 weeks. Think about it, the city doesn’t care when it gets your money. In other words, going “all in” in the simple task of paying a parking fine, ends up reducing stress and making me more content.

In summary, since my experience preparing those measure theory lectures, whenever I commit to doing something, whether it be something minor or something truly important, I try to approach it with the attitude that I am going to give it my absolute best. It really is emotionally and psychologically easier that approaching the endeavor with the “what is the absolute minimum that I can do to survive this.”

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SACNAS: a transformative experience

Hello everyone!

My name is Adela Yang. I am a first-generation Asian-American undergraduate student pursuing Mathematics and Computer Science. I recently attended the SACNAS conference and it opened so many doors for me that were not available to my parents.

The SACNAS meals, venue, talks, workshops, sessions and events all came together to form a transformative experience. At this conference, I met some people who will be my life-long mentors. The speakers and presenters served as great inspirations for my future and they also serve as resources that I can reach out to. The exhibitors provided me with the knowledge to arm myself with on my quest for graduate school. Continue reading

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My name is Joseph Chavoya. I am a Mexican-American Senior pursuing a degree in Pure Mathematics. As a first-generation under-represented student in Mathematics, I understand the difficulties associated with not only pursuing a degree in the Natural Sciences and Mathematics (NSM); furthermore, I understand the difficulties in actually thriving in NSM. Though my first SACNAS experience occurred a bit late in my academic career, I found the experience very beneficial.

The presentations/talks in areas of NSM were inspiring (especially those done by people in my field), the exhibitor session was irreplaceable in that it allowed me to introduce myself to a variety of Graduate school representatives, and the poster-presentation experience was exhilarating (it felt really good to know that someone other than my mentor and I actually felt my work was interesting). Despite these events, I felt that I did not get the full benefit out of the SACNAS experience (note that this does not reflect on SACNAS). As a Senior who has already begun research into graduate school, applied for GRE’s, and completed REU’s, I felt that my biggest benefit came from the networking opportunities available throughout the conference, as well as the opportunity to present research. Sitting through these talks, however, I found myself thinking about the process I had to go through in order to actually arrive where I am now, and how much I could have benefited from SACNAS had I had the opportunity to attend one (or even two) year(s) prior. Looking at the SACNAS experience from this point of view, it has been one of the most inspiring, beneficial, and (in addition to the educational opportunities) fun experiences I have had in my undergraduate career. Given the chance, I would love to go again. In addition, I advise any student (especially those that are underrepresented in NSM) to attend SACNAS at the very first opportunity they get and take full advantage of the opportunities available.

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Mathematics at SACNAS 2014

SACNAS is an amazing organization and its annual National Conference changed my life. Until Herbert Medina and Ivelisse Rubio introduced me to SACNAS, I had no idea that one could simultaneously pursue an academic career in mathematics while working towards civil rights centrally in one’s career.

The name itself, SACNAS, is an anachronism. Just as AT&T is no longer the American Telephone and Telegraph Corporation, SACNAS is no longer just an acronym for the Society for Advancement of Chicano and Native Americans in Science, as the majority of SACNISTA’s don’t necessarily self identify as Chicano or Native American. SACNAS now is the largest organization working to broaden participation in STEM, working against gender inequity and underrepresentation in all fields of science.

The SACNAS national conference is regularly the largest gathering of minority scientists in the US, with thousands of attendees, yet it somehow fosters community, and feels like family. Mentorship is key at SACNAS, and is an integral part of the national conference. SACNAS does mentorship more successfully than any other professional organization of which I am aware. It’s lateral, and peer to peer, and infuses all aspects of the organization. There are a tremendous number of opportunities at the national conference, and to best take advantage of them, it helps to plan in advance. Here is a preview to mathematics at SACNAS 2014.

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Welcome to (Graduate) School

The Chronicle of Higher Education just published a great note with tips and advice for folks entering graduate school. (Thanks to Jamylle Carter for sharing!) The tips apply equally well to undergraduate students, and are great for us all to keep in mind as we start a new school year.

Written by David Shorter, the article encourages students to:

  1. prepare an exit strategy;
  2. remember that every act is professional;
  3. seek teachers, mentors and advisors (who may be distinct);
  4. prioritize your “actual” work;
  5. recall the importance and function of letters of recommendation;
  6. be mindful of, and work deliberately to improve, your writing; and
  7. remember to have fun!

You can read the full article and leave comments for the author here.

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How do you find your passion?

On July 14th I had the opportunity to talk with a group of 300 students in Sacramento State’s Migrant Student Leadership Institute and, at the end of my presentation, a young lady asked a very important question: “how do I find my passion? I like everything I do in school but I would like to have that passion that you talked about so that when things get very difficult I will be able to overcome them and succeed.” I was taken by surprise, for I try to inspire students by talking about my passion and encouraging them to pursue their passion and dreams and have for many years now, but I have never given them an outline or road map of how they can find their passion.

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Math Talk: Preparing Your Conference Presentation

If you are a typical reader of this blog, then you recently wrapped up your finals week and then dutifully made a summer plan. And then came the summer. Your plan may have involved working on a manuscript, preparing for a qualifying exam or a new course coming up in the fall, drafting a grant proposal, learning a new language (human or machine), eating kale in four different forms, and perhaps some fun times under the sun. Some, like me, also made plans to travel to conferences and give talks. Gearing up to get ready for my first conference of the summer, I thought about some of the best and the worst math talks I have witnessed. And I said to myself: “Self, you have surely seen the worst!” But why? Why do so many mathematicians give truly disastrous talks? Maybe we should talk about talks a bit.

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Switch up your research routine!

If you’ve ever worked out, you know that your body can get comfortable doing a particular exercise and then no longer feel challenged. In order for you to continue to transform your physique and train other muscles, you have to change up your workout. The same holds true for your research routine! We can get comfortable going to our office and sitting in front of our computers for eight hours and find that we become less and less productive. Below are five tips that I use when my research routine is in a stuck in rut.

1. Take your research to a coffee shop!
There’s usually free internet and who doesn’t love a cup of coffee to get the mental juices flowing. Just a change of scenery can give you new perspective on your research.

2. Visit your family!
Believe it or not, I’m often more productive when I go visit my family. Since I know I want to spend time with them, I make sure to focus on getting work done so that I can enjoy quality family time. I’ll often go to the local library for a few hours and get much more done than working at my office, and the time spent with family can help put graduate school and professional life in focus.

3. Form a virtual research group!
A friend of mine meets virtually with her research group every Thursday. They live in different locations and have very different research topics, but for the two hours they set aside, they hold each other accountable to focusing only on research productivity. They set aside 10 minutes at the beginning and end to just talk, and the rest of the time is reserved for individual work – a virtual research study session!

4. Step away from the computer!
The computer is full of distractions that are a click away. Even when you plan on reading that electronic journal article, it’s all too easy to click on Facebook and update your status with a photo of what you had for lunch. I often print out a few articles that I want to read and head to a quite place for a few hours. This gives me time to focus and write my own comments in the margins and really digest the material without distractions.

5. Begin with the end in mind!
I remember during my second year of graduate school, I got the TeX template for the Ph.D. dissertation and began to write the background section. Just seeing the dissertation begin to come together (even though much of it got deleted) helped me focus on being productive. When I would meet with my thesis advisor, I’d take her the sections that I had been working on for feedback. Although they would often come back dripping with red ink, I remember her once saying, “Wow, you’re really focused on getting this Ph.D.!” Beginning with the end goal in perspective is a catalyst that can motivate you to succeed.

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Starting and maintaining research collaborations

A successful research career involves a mix of individual and collaborative projects. Areas of mathematics that people used to consider separate are becoming increasingly interconnected and those connections often lead to interesting new approaches to mathematical problems. This is true not only within applied mathematics.  While the connections between different mathematical areas are interesting to develop, they also demand expertise in a larger set of domains, which can be slow or impossible to achieve individually. It is often more efficient to develop collaborations with researchers that have complementary expertise and can contribute to the project through fresh points of view.

In this post I share some thoughts about starting collaborations and developing them in a way that successfully advances mathematics and is of mutual benefit to the collaborators.  This may be directed at junior faculty and postdocs but it is also important for graduate students.

Research collaborations are like relationships: they take time and effort to develop and are based on trust and respect. Continue reading

Posted in General, Industrial Mathematics, postdocs, Tenure | 5 Comments

The First Year: Filter The Noise

Throughout my life I’ve always anticipated transitions with apprehension. I distinctly remember entering ninth grade nervous about the social climate, worried about the idea of taking final exams, and scared overall about the academic challenges ahead. These emotions were not unique to this experience. Whether it was starting college, beginning graduate school, or entering my postdoc, I’ve always had a difficult time managing my emotions and esteem when starting new endeavors.

This year I faced yet another transition: beginning my first year as a tenure-track assistant professor. I still remember receiving my job offer and being elated for weeks; I landed my dream job. Then the apprehension of transition came back, and I became overwhelmed. Could I really do this? How would I handle this new situation that everyone reports as a daunting one? As I did in the past, I asked many people I knew who started tenure-track jobs for advice.

As you would expect, the advice is what one typically hears. Expect long hours and late nights. Expect struggles in teaching. You will be overwhelmed. You will be tired. Fear tenure. And that’s okay…… But it’s not. It’s not okay.

Here I was, extremely excited to be entering my dream job after years of working toward it, and I was flooded by overwhelming negative messages about the stresses ahead. Instead of focusing on these, I decided to celebrate. This was the time for me to feel on top of the world. I was in the unique position to start my dream job and begin a lifetime of work that I was intrisincially motivated to do. I wanted my experience to be fueled by excitement, not fear!

So what did I do? I filtered the noise. I focused my energy on advice that was positive, advice that encouraged me. I was fortunate enough to land in a department where the majority of advice from my senior colleagues was just that; and it worked wonders. That tone of advice was instrumental in making my first year of tenure-track a much smoother transition than any other academic one.

Don’t get me wrong, there were certainly challenges along the way, and it was a lot of work, but by filtering the noise I was able to keep my emotions in check the entire year despite what came at me. So if you’re about to start college, gearing up for graduate school, starting a postdoc or any other job, remember to filter the noise and keep it positive!

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