I knew at a pretty early stage in my life — my freshman year of college, to be exact — that I wanted to become a research mathematician. I have degrees from fancy research universities and had visiting positions at fancy research facilities. I worked up the ladder from Assistant to Associate to Full Professor of Mathematics; mentored postdoctoral fellows and graduate students alike; and received NSF grants to conduct research with undergraduates. And the one thing I’ve learned throughout it all: I hate working at research universities, and its time for a career change.
A Researcher’s Life for Me
I never really taught any classes until I started a tenure-track position in the Midwest. I had done five years of various postdocs in order to establish my research program, but those five years were spent almost entirely doing research. Whenever I did teach, I taught advanced graduate-level courses (like algebraic number theory and class field theory). The handful of undergraduate courses were basically graduate-level courses (for example, I taught abstract algebra from Dummit and Foote). I even told myself that I didn’t like teaching and that doing research was life.
Working With Students Outside the Classroom
Even though I wasn’t teaching many undergraduate courses, I was spending a lot of time working with undergraduates. I was conducting research with highly motivated students as well as mentoring underrepresented minority students who were having a hard time adjusting to life at a Predominantly White Institution (PWI). I found working with these students refreshing and affirming: I myself was once such a highly motivated undergraduate who wanted to work with faculty, and I am an underrepresented minority who is still trying to adjust to life at a PWI. I could relate with the students, and I could also find inspiration in their success.
When I accepted my first tenure-track position I was a little hesitant about finally taking on the role of “professor”. I had to formally worry about creating a syllabus, juggling multiple teaching assistants, acting as a course coordinator, and trying not to screw up too badly. My classes were still pretty advanced — linear algebra and differential equations — but I was teaching undergraduate-level courses. I found it wasn’t that bad. And that I was actually pretty good at it. And that I even enjoyed it.
But are Research I’s Right for Me?
I eventually moved up the ladder at my Midwest Research I University. I was granted tenure in 2010, graduated my first graduate students in 2014 and 2015, and had advised two postdoctoral scholars over the years. I even made Full just earlier this year (as evidenced by my promotion letter here).
But after 10 years in this role, I began to realize some issues which I found disturbing. I began to wonder: “Is being at a Research I University really for me?”
Issue #1: We view having to teach as punishment
In my last year working for my current university, I have had several opportunities to use course buyouts so that my teaching load would be reduced. I told a few colleagues that I turned down these buyouts (i.e. using money from a grant to pay salary instead of teaching classes) because I wanted to experience student interaction as much as I could in my last year. These colleagues first gave me a wry look, and then caught themselves before they asked “well why would you do something like that?” I could see the realization in their eyes of this contradiction. We work as professors at institutions where we are paid to interact with students, but we revel in the idea of having course reductions so that we can teach less.
I would be naive if I didn’t recognize the drudgeries of teaching — grading, writing lecture notes, grading, holding endless office hours, grading, dealing with whiny students who just want a few more points, and grading. But there is power in exposing another human of a concept that builds on humankind’s collective knowledge — generations of people have built on other generations’ collective knowledge, and the hope is that the generations after us will continue in this fashion. We may get bored teaching calculus but we should take pride in the fact that fifteen generations ago calculus didn’t even exist!
Issue #2: There is Rampant Social Isolation
Unfortunately mathematics, like much of higher education, encourages isolation. It is true that mathematicians collaborate more than ever (here is an old SIAM survey analyzing the trend) but most of our training in graduate school involved many hours alone, writing a dissertation or solving a difficult problem. And usually to get a tenure-track position at a Research I we have to hop from one postdoctoral position to another, making it very difficult to establish friendships or any other roots. This means by the time we reach our mid 30’s many of us are used to spending many years alone — or at best isolated with a spouse and budding family.
Imagine now a department full of perhaps 100 faculty who have gone through similar experiences — and then trying to convince them to be social with each other. As the old joke goes: The difference between an introvert and extrovert mathematician is: An introvert mathematician looks at his shoes while talking to you. An extrovert mathematician looks at your shoes.
Fortunately, many Liberal Arts Colleges have much smaller departments, and it is expected that it’s members will be somewhat social with each other. It shouldn’t be a surprise that most of my mathematical friends are faculty at Liberal Arts Colleges (here’s looking at you Dagan Karp, Dave Kung, Adriana Salerno, Francis Su, and Talithia Williams).
Issue #3: I’m Really Tired of Being the Only One
I am an African American male. I have been the only one in most of the universities I’m been to — the only student or faculty in the mathematics department. In fact for a while at my current Research I University, I was only one of two African American faculty in the entire College of Science — which houses seven departments for 300 faculty and staff serving nearly 3,000 students.
Allow me to put this into perspective. African Americans make up roughly 12% of the general population. This means on average one out of every eight people you pass on the street will be African American. In my College of Science, that average drops to one out of every 100 faculty you meet on our campus. To say that I feel isolated is an understatement.
I have been willing to work with my university on bringing more underrepresented minority faculty to visit campus to give talks (especially through my speaker series in 2011, 2012, and 2013) and bringing more underrepresented minority students to conduct research (especially through my REU). But it gets very tiring. Very Tiring. Especially when you’re still trying to work with your own postdocs, graduate students, and research projects.
Are Research I’s Right for You?
Most of us receive our advanced degree in mathematics from large Research I Universities. But how do you know if pursuing a career at a Research I University is right for you? Here are some questions to ask yourself.
Question #1: Do you like spending time with undergraduate students outside the classroom?
If you work at a Research I, you can have a perfectly successful career working on your own research and collaborating with other faculty in your department — and only have minimal interaction with undergraduate students. If you work at a Liberal Arts College, you will probably spend many hours interacting with undergraduates about mathematics as well as other issues not related to mathematics. However, if you work as a Research I University you will have the opportunity to interact with graduate students in the same way, something which you won’t have the opportunity to do at a Liberal Arts College.
Question #2: How important is it that you like your colleagues?
Larger departments have a tendency to be less social; they even have fewer departmental meetings since so much work is relegated to committees. Smaller departments interact a lot more because the share of work must be equally distributed amongst a handful of people. If you work at a Research I, you will most likely be in a department which is so large that you won’t know most of the people you work with. If you work at a Liberal Arts College, you will most likely be in a department which is so intimate that you’ll know too much about the people you work with.
Question #3: Are issues with regard to Diversity and Inclusion Important to you?
Most colleges and universities promote their faculty based on activity in three areas: Research, Teaching and Service. Research I Universities heavily weigh Research activity (almost to the exclusion of the other two) whereas Liberal Arts Colleges heavily weigh Teaching and Service. If you do care about issues which do not fall into Research or Teaching — such as serving as the advisor for a student chapter for the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM) — your place of employment may not reward this type of Service when it comes time to promotion.
My Solution to these Issues
After nearly 20 years working at various Research I Universities and Research Institutions, I’ve come to the conclusion that the culture of working at these is just not for me. Now, I still love to do mathematics research, but I’m much more than someone who just does research in isolation all day. I enjoy working with graduate students and undergraduate students alike. I like to mentor younger faculty on finding a path to meet their career goals. And I like to socialize with underrepresented minorities. I’ve found that the best solution for me to address the three issues I’ve outlined above is to switch to work at a Liberal Arts College.
- Teaching isn’t a punishment: Pomona has only 1,600 undergraduates, but more than 400 of them are mathematics majors. This means students are excited about mathematics — and this is a culture I want to be a part of as well.
- No more social isolation: The current president of the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM), Ami Radunskaya, is on the faculty. I am the current president of the National Association of Mathematicians (NAM). Coincidence that we’ll be in the same department? I think not.
- I won’t be the only one: Pomona has a very diverse student body. To quote about the Class of 2019: “For the first time, students of color make up the majority of the class at 51.4 percent. Of these students, 13.8 percent are Asian, 11.6 percent Black/African American, 18.3 percent Hispanic, 7.4 percent multiracial and less than 1 percent Native American.” It comes as no surprise that Pomona’s new president is an African American woman, Gabi Starr. I have found her comments on the recent events in Charlottesville to be more comforting than those of my current president.
Of course, all of this is a big experiment. I haven’t started working at Pomona College yet. But this is a new challenge I’m willing to meet, and a new chapter in my career I’m willing to embrace!