Finding my niche, by Allison Henrich

When I interviewed for my tenure-track job at Seattle University, I admitted to the chair of the department during my on-campus interview that I was really much more interested in teaching than in research—I would do what research was required for the job, but it wasn’t my real passion. She said to me, looking around to see if anyone else was in the hallway we were walking down, “Don’t let the dean hear you say that!”

Sometime during my preparation for this on-campus interview, I looked at all of SU’s math faculty webpages. Some faculty had research records that were completely terrifying to me. “Are those the publication standards they expect of tenure-track faculty??” Fortunately, some were less terrifying. One faculty member in particular had a research track record that looked like something I might be able to match. This faculty member happened to be an acquaintance of mine, so I contacted them—off-the-record—to ask about research expectations for tenure. They reassured me that the expectations were at a level I could achieve. So, when offered the job, I took it with a bit less hesitation that I could actually be successful in it.

Up until that point—in my first tenure-track job, my first year out of grad school—I had been fairly successful at publishing. The problem was that I felt like the heavy lifting in my research projects had been done by my advisor or collaborators. I felt dumb most of the time in research discussions, and I didn’t feel confident that I could contribute in a meaningful way to research. My advisor and collaborators could easily have done our work without me. I expected that once everyone figured out that I was a pretty worthless collaborator, they’d drop me, and I’d make no progress at all on research.

That all changed when I started mentoring undergraduate students in research. The summer before I began my job at Seattle U, I was given a chance to lead a research group in the SMALL REU at Williams College. I worked with four very bright, hard-working students, but throughout our process of doing joint research, I felt that I was an important contributor to the project. I got to choose the problems we worked on, which came from ideas that I was excited about, not what I “should” be working on. I got to feel like the expert on many of the tools we needed to solve our problems. I was able to answer questions and offer ideas for how to get unstuck when my students hit a roadblock. Making such meaningful contributions completely turned my relationship with research around. For once, research was actually fun! During the last week of the REU, my team submitted two papers for publication, both of which were accepted by well-respected journals.

From then on, I decided to focus on finding problems I found interesting, collaborators that were fun to work with (including many more undergraduates), and supportive research communities to be a part of. I now know to look for mathematicians who get along with each other—people who enjoy sharing a meal together and talking about things that may be totally unrelated to math. I have found people who don’t see a difference between doing math and playing; people who are doing exciting things not only in their research, but also supporting their students and contributing to an inclusive environment in the math community; people with whom I can share successes in order to celebrate, not to impress; and people with whom I am comfortable admitting my failures. There have been hiccups along the way. I have worked on research problems that I didn’t enjoy, where doing math didn’t ever feel like playing and where I wasn’t sure my contributions were meaningful. I have gone to conferences where I felt worthless—conferences where people were doing highly technical mathematics and working very hard to impress each other. The important thing is that I figured out that I don’t have to go to those conferences. Those research questions don’t have to be my research questions. My scholarly agenda can be driven by my mathematical interests and people who I love to be around.

Now, I am 12 years out of grad school. I have co-authored 17 math research papers, four pedagogical papers, two books, several articles, and I’ve co-edited two more books. I earned tenure, and I became full professor as soon as I was able. I wish I could have told that scared young faculty member that everything would be alright. I would have saved her so much anxiety!

Allison Henrich, Editor, is a Professor of Mathematics at Seattle University, where she has been a member of the faculty since 2009. She earned her PhD from Dartmouth College and bachelor’s degrees in both math and philosophy from the University of Washington. Allison is passionate about teaching, and she is active in research in knot theory and recreational math as well as the scholarship of teaching and learning. One of the most rewarding activities she engages in as a professor is working with undergraduate researchers. Through knot theory research, Allison mentors students—many of whom are unsure about their career goals—to help them learn what may and may not excite them about a career involving mathematical research. In general, she gets the most enjoyment out of supporting students to do their best work as they learn about the beauty of mathematics. Allison recognizes that she would not be where she is today without the inspiration and encouragement of several of her own undergraduate professors.

 

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