The Secret Lives of Mathematicians: Conversations with Students

This keeps happening to me:

Student: When did you decide to become a calculus teacher?
Me: I didn’t, and I’m not.
Student: …

And then I laugh reassuringly and explain that they are at a research university and that their professors are people who decided they wanted to do research. Many of us do also enjoy and care about teaching, but the way the system works we are basically discouraged from caring too much about teaching. I tell them that the idea is that those doing cutting-edge research in a field are inherently valuable as mentors, role models, and educators simply because we might have the ideas, perseverance, and dedication to make it in academia. Of course, this is a highly flawed philosophy. (Some of this was discussed in Edray’s post which you should read if you haven’t already.)

My teaching/existing style includes a perhaps unusual amount of casual, informal, honest conversation. Without these conversations, many marginalized students would never come across various bits of information that turn out to be essential to making informed educational/career choices. At my school right now mathematics seems to be something of an unpopular major. I wonder how many potential mathematicians we lose just because they don’t even know what we do.

But like, I don’t wanna teach math

Last year I spent some time trying to understand why zero percent of my calculus students were math majors. At my school, students are supposed to declare a major of sorts right away, so it wasn’t just that these were new, unsure students. These were students who were happy enough with math to have made it to calc 3, but basically scrunched up their noses at the idea of actually majoring in math.

Almost my entire class when I suggested they major in math.

When asked, they basically all said something about jobs. If I had to sum up the mentality it would be “I just want to know I’ll have a job that’s not teaching math.”

I remember being similarly ignorant about what one would do with a mathematics degree. I entered college thinking I would major in math, because that was my best (i.e. easiest) subject. I wasn’t so concerned with employment (back in 1998 I thought getting a degree was basically enough and I would deal with the details later), nor were my friends as far as I could tell. At the first sign that math wasn’t easy, I dropped it (shout out to Carol Dweck), and only picked it up again when I realized I would have to figure out a job and my humanities degree was not making things any easier.

I remember having no understanding of the difference between graduate students, postdocs, and full professors. They were all my teachers, and teachers were people who had forsaken their own experiences in order to raise/train the next generation. Not for me!! When I decided to get a graduate degree in math, it was really just because I couldn’t afford to stay an extra year to finish the major as an undergrad. I had a(n embarrassing-to-me-now) job in mind. It was only in researching graduate programs in math that I discovered, Hey! There is such a thing as mathematical research! My professors have secret lives creating new knowledge! How come nobody told me??

If we told you, you’d have to become one of us.

Personally, I was really excited by the idea of doing research. (I still am, though much of the sheen has been rubbed off by negative experiences of Mathing While Black and Female.) And I wonder if I could have actually benefited from going to a research university, if I had understood that’s where I was. Or what if anyone had realized that I was taking Calc 3 and Linear Algebra out of high school and that I might mistakenly take my “low” grade as indicative of something more than just being new to college. They might have pointed out that math is vast and disliking one type of math is totally valid (though actually I didn’t dislike Linear Algebra, I just messed up at life).

Anything else?

Somehow most of my students are still not impressed at the prospect of doing research (why not??), but there are other jobs as well! Of course, I don’t really know what they are either, and at any rate, my memory of being a student is that a list of jobs is way too abstract and meaningless. People need narratives. They need knowledge to be in the air. They need to have met people with relatable stories. Are we providing them with these stories?

One thing I do tell them, somewhat reluctantly, is that we live in a society that has a messed up relationship with math and math education. I fight against the Genuis Myth, but the fact is that anyone associated with math gets an automatic boost in the eyes of others. “Oh, you were a math major? Wow, you must be so smart! I hated math.” Numbers are unavoidable in life, absolutely every industry has jobs for people who are not afraid of numbers. I tell them having a math major makes you special in a non-specialized way. It tells potential employers that you have magical powers and that your skills are flexible (unlike engineers, say, who learn how to solve specific problems in specific ways).

Honestly, I don’t know that I’ve convinced anyone. I think I get a few people to come to the dark side just because students are impressionable and believe it or not, I’m a super fun person in real life. At any rate, I think we as mathematicians need to work on our PR. We interact with students every day and yet all they know from us is algorithms, that we don’t like when they say one divided by zero equals infinity, and that they are probably nothing like us.

What do you tell your students?

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7 Responses to The Secret Lives of Mathematicians: Conversations with Students

  1. Amanda says:

    I tell my students about my own path…that I didn’t take math past my first year of undergrad, then didn’t come back to it until after I graduated with a degree in “Social Change and Social Control.” It helps some to realize that there is not just one way to get there, and quite frankly I’m glad I didn’t study math intensely at age 18-21, I needed other things, like to learn about life and justice and my role in this world. I am also glad I didn’t study math at UC Berkeley, where I did my undergraduate degree, because that level of competitiveness, would have turned me off of it for sure.

    On the other hand, all my mentors (shout out to my amazing mentors) were professors. And a big part of the reason I am in academia is because I didn’t feel like I had skills or access or knowledge of jobs outside of academia (or teaching in general). So how can I mentor my students otherwise? I still don’t really understand everything else that is out there. Are there jobs where math majors actually do math? Or are they jobs that like to hire mathematicians because of adjacent skills? Are there particular skills they need to be hirable? Are programming skills essential or negotiable?

    I have a proposal to solve that part of the problem. I think there should be a summer “internship” program for faculty to work at these companies that want to hire our math students. They pay us a professional salary, and we in turn can train and mentor our students with a better understanding of how mathematicians work outside of academia. If this was a thing, I’d be eager to sign up.

    Thanks for this post Piper, and for restarting this conversation.

  2. Heather L. Finotti says:

    I used to have these conversation with students all the time. I’d start the semester introducing myself and giving a brief synopsis of what I did research-wise. I’m in applied math, though, which makes that whole thing much easier in general and much easier for them to see immediate value in. I actually had several students over the years that I talked to about considering adding a math major, because they were clearly talented. They were generally STEM majors already, since I was teaching only mid to upper level undergrads, and already had to take lots of math. I often talked to them about the doors having more math training would open for them, even within their own fields, and that doing any thing truly new in engineering and often other sciences usually requires a fluency in math that they would gain in the mean time. Math is the language of science, and trying to learn/do science well without being fluent in the requisite math is like trying to read/create a masterpiece in Spanish without knowing Spanish. All the students I spoke to ended up at minimum minoring in math, many double-majored, and some completely switched over to math.

    Two that only minored got the bug any way, and after doing a few years after school “making too much money” in the corporate world as engineers, decided to go grad school in an applied math program (a top one at that). One is now a research mathematician, while the other is doing a doctoral program in computational mechanics after already having worked at Sandia for a few years after the masters in applied math.

    I never sugar coated the profession or the road to researcher status by any means, but I never discounted it’s perks either. Anyway, for me just being honest and open, talking one on one with students that show promise and/or enthusiasm, and always taking those small opportunities in the classroom that show up to widen their perspective on what’s possible went a long way. Much farther than I ever anticipated, really.

    One other relevant experience I had grew out of teaching real analysis as a grad course in our MEd program for in service teachers. The teachers in my class would always be chatting before class, and during our 15 minutes break in the middle (it was a 3 hour class). They’d often come back to their frustration with the kids about always saying things like “why are we learning this?”, ” we won’t ever use this in real life, right?”, “this is useless”, etc. I asked them once, what was their response, and they all basically said all they had to offer was that they needed it to graduate high school, and if they wanted to do a STEM career they needed it to achieve that goal. They themselves, even with their math degrees in hand, had never really understood what math more “abstract” math could be good for (beyond arithmetic), or how it shows up in addressing real world problems. So, they basically had no way to stand before their students and speak from any meaningful place to their questions.

    I had the opportunity to teach these same students a topic course the following semester, and I got to choose the topic. I asked them if they’d like a class that would give them more perspective on why math is relevant and useful, and they gave a resounding yes. I couched the class as an applied math topics class in which we’d use their recent analysis knowledge to explore applications to biological/ecological sciences for the administration, but my higher goal was really just to expose them to a bunch of ways math is being used to help solve real problems. I invited a speaker each week to share with the class what their research was, presented as a general audience type talk, so they could get a glimpse of the enormous breadth of applications out there . They also had to do their own group research project at the end of the class. It was a ton of fun, and they all seemed to get a whole lot out of it. The evaluations at the end contained more “thank you for this course” than any other class I’ve taught.

    These days I feel torn about encouraging too many people into math degrees alone. It really can open up some amazing paths, but if you aren’t great at selling what that degree has developed in you, or don’t live in an area where that’s already understood, some students have said it can be harder to find companies that understand that you can be an asset with only a BA or BS. The job market is tough and not everyone wants to move away from family and friends to find work that they find meaningful. We absolutely need better PR. Similarly encouraging folks to do a doctorate in math is something I feel really mixed about. You’ve really got to love the field to want to make the road to a research faculty position worth it. And even then, with the market is the way it is, I try to make really clear to people the risks of having that aim.

  3. C. Diaz Eaton says:

    Really interesting. And this isn’t the only solution to recruiting or the reason why students don’t. Anecdotes and personal experience are great. So let me share my almost analogous, but completely opposite storyline.

    I love teaching math. I did not declare a math major because I did not want to research math for math’s sake. I really wanted to research biology for biology’s sake. I missed learning math and it turns out, when I started taking more, I was very good at it (relatively speaking). Along the way, I also realized that people were always looking for unpaid biology interns and they we’re aplenty, but they always paid the math tutors well and needed more. So I switched to math to get paid for what I love to teach. And I pursued a PhD when I realized I could study biology with math tools.

    Perhaps there are two themes in common that do emerge: 1) Students don’t know what they can do with a math degree – both in jobs and in potential use and 2) we should leverage the job market appetite for students with quantitative skills to get people to switch, minor, double major in math. I love it when students pair their own passions with math! We get such amazing and unique graduates.

  4. Barbara says:

    Both with students and with occasional meetings with schoolkids I say early and often that mathematics open many doors, by listing what my institution’s former PhD students ended up doing.

    About the “genius myth”: since we’re a soccer country, I say that only very few mathematicians are like Messi*, but to make the sport go on you still need teams to play in and teams to play against, coaches and supporters, down to third division players and kids who play in the park.

    *I would naturally say PelĂ©, but I’m no longer sure my students know who he is.

  5. David Pierce says:

    Thanks for raising the question of what our students know. As it happens, the students of my colleagues and me in Istanbul are already mathematics “majors,” since one enters a department in Turkey from the start, not just a university. Most of our students are women. Many of them may expect to be high school teachers or to work in industries like banking. Some want to be university “teachers,” without perhaps knowing the research side of the job. They may learn something about this from talking to us (we seem to be pretty accessible) or by attending (or just knowing about) the department’s weekly general seminar. Our students may learn something of the life of the mind also from hanging out with us and other mathematicians at the Nesin Mathematics Village, a wonderful place where I have given courses since 2008: it was written about in the Notices of the AMS, Volume 62, Number 6 (June/July 2015).

  6. Bobby Grizzard says:

    I have met a lot of people who majored in math and went on to graduate school in a different subject. I think their ability to do this has a little to do with admissions people buying into the genius myth, and a little to do with the fact that the skills developed in conquering upper level college math problems are valuable for solving problems in other disciplines. Examples of disciplines I’ve met math majors who went on to study in grad school:
    -Psychology (a psych prof. I had in college)
    -Medicine (the doctor who delivered my son told me she was a math major — no joke!)
    -Political science (a friend from college — he wanted to do very stats-heavy stuff in poli-sci)
    -Computer science (LOTS of people)
    Plus, I know a lot of former math majors who have great jobs at software companies. I think a lot of these people don’t *directly* use things they learned in college in their jobs, except for maybe some coding, but I think they are happy with what they majored in.

    I tell students in classes like Calc 3 who I think might be interested in math this, and I tell them that, if they think they even MIGHT want to major in math, they should just keep taking math courses and keep the option open. After all, you don’t get a good idea of what it’s like to be a math major (especially about pure math) from courses like Calc 3 and diffEQ.

  7. Rosalie Belanger-Rioux says:

    Dear all,
    thanks Piper for your post, it’s essential for us to be thinking about these things. I wanted to inform readers of 2 great opportunities:
    – PIC math offers summer training for faculty who want to have more connections with industry and who might like to send their students to internships or to have them work on industry projects, etc
    – the BIG math network has lots of resources and blog posts (informational or narratives-based) for both faculty and students interested in Business, Industry and Government.
    I hope this helps!

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